Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Reward (1965)

“If you are looking for the latest news, Señor, you're out of luck. News reaches us like light from the stars - it takes a long time.” -- Gilbert Roland as Captain Carbajal in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward.

I’m not going to deny that Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward is an odd film in many respects; it’s often classified as a Western, which it isn’t, despite the fact that most of the film was shot in Death Valley, and the film has a definite Western edge to it, with much of the dialogue spoken in Spanish with no translation. Produced as a West German/French/ English co-production, the film seems to exist in no man’s land, a zone in which no nationality is dominant. Indeed, English is very much a second language here, and the equally eccentric casting of the film drives this home even further.

Top lining the film is Max von Sydow as Scott Swenson, a down-on-his-luck crop duster whose plane isn’t even his own; as the film opens, Swenson is making one last flight for some much needed cash, but his plane crash lands after hitting an exposed pipeline, taking out a water tower and utterly destroying the aircraft. Crawling from the wreckage as the plane explodes behind him, Swenson coolly surveys the damage, and then walks to a local cantina, where he uses his last few dollars to buy some drinks. All of this is shown with almost no dialogue, and Bourguignon’s smooth CinemaScope framing makes the desert seem arid, endless, and infernal, a living Hell for all who inhabit it.

The only music in the film comes from a beat up jukebox in the cantina that still plays 78 rpm records, blasting mariachi tunes without a volume control (Swenson tries to get the owner to turn the machine down, but it seems that the control knob is broken; it thus has only one sound level, full volume), and there’s a kind of timelessness to the film - a lot has happened, but no one really seems to care. Swenson seems to realize that his situation is hopeless, but doesn’t do much about it, until he exits the bar and accidentally sees falsely accused child murderer Frank Bryant (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., interestingly cast against type) and his girlfriend Sylvia (Yvette Mimieux) drive by in a convertible, on the run from the law. Again, this meeting seems almost existentially arranged; Bourguignon frames von Sydow in a tight close-up, with empty space on either side, as he recognizes Bryant, but there’s no back story to it; Swenson later tells corrupt police official Captain Carbajal (Gilbert Roland) that he and Bryant “met once,” but that’s about it.

As Swenson watches Bryant and Sylvia drive off, he’s summarily picked up by the equally corrupt Sgt. Lopez (actor/director Emilio Fernández, four years before his role as the brutal tinhorn dictator General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) and dragged off to jail, where he meets Captain Carbajal for the first time. Lopez and his cohorts in the jail speak only Spanish, and again, none of this is translated for the audience, so it comes as something of a relief when Carbajal strides into the room and addresses Swenson in English. But the news isn’t good; somebody has to pay for the water tower that Swenson destroyed when he crash landed, and since Swenson has no money, and no insurance on his plane, Carbajal decides to hold him until Swenson can somehow come up with the cash. But while waiting for Carbajal to question him, Swenson has idly filed through some old newspapers in the jail’s main office, and found a fairly recent issue with Bryant’s face on the front page, offering $50,000 for his capture, dead or alive. Swenson quickly makes a deal with Carbajal to split the reward for Bryant’s capture, and the two men, along with Lopez and his sidekicks, take off in a beat-up pickup truck in pursuit.

All of this is staged with an air of fatalistic ennui, shot through with a sense of miraculous coincidence; there’s no real reason Swenson crashed here, there’s no real reason he had to run into Bryant, there’s no real reason that Carbajal decides to hold him (after all, the plane crash was an accident, for which the pipeline company is responsible, if anyone is), and absolutely no reason why Swenson so fortuitously stumbles across an old newspaper advertising the $50,000 reward for Bryant’s capture. It all just happens, in a very matter-of-fact, undramatic fashion, as if Bourguignon has willfully decided to strip away any sense of suspense, or even narrative logic, to create a psychic wilderness in which people and events collide without logic or meaning.

On their trip to apprehend the unjustly-accused Bryant - and tellingly, the details of Bryant’s supposed crime are never really spelled out - one of Lopez’s underlings casually throws an empty beer bottle in front of the pickup, which smashes to bits in the road, and immediately causes a flat tire. Carbajal is justifiably annoyed by this, and orders Lopez and his sidekicks to change the tire, which takes an eternity, but again, all of this random waiting and waiting seems part of the world in which all of these trapped characters inhabit - there’s nowhere to run, no escape, no way to get out of the Hell in which they're all trapped.

Carbajal has been keeping Lopez in the dark about the reward, and with good reason; fat, lazy, and utterly ruthless, Lopez is as greedy as he is indolent. The group finds Bryant’s abandoned convertible, and switching to horses, continues the chase, while Carbajal begins to crumble from the lingering effects of malaria, “ the reward for service in this region,” as he tells Swenson. Eventually, the group catches up with Bryant, who has gone off “on a road that leads nowhere,” as Carbajal puts it, and captures him without resistance. Bryant pleads innocence, but then Lopez accidentally discovers that there’s a price of $50,000 on Bryant’s head, and immediately demands a share of the reward.

At this point, Joaquin (noir veteran Henry Silva), one of Lopez’s sidekicks, who has been more or less hanging around at the edges of the frame and not really involved in the main narrative, steps forward to stop Lopez, but Lopez summarily murders both Bryant and Joaquin, and then Luis (Nino Castelnuovo), another of Lopez’s sidekicks, is killed trying to stop the group’s horses from stampeding. The group continues on, with Lopez tunelessly and unceasingly strumming his omnipresent guitar, while at the same time trying to make time with Sylvia, all to no avail. In time, Swenson eventually makes his move, and tries to stop Lopez from taking Bryant’s dead body in for the “dead or alive” reward on the back of a horse. But the horse runs off, leading Lopez on a fruitless pursuit through the desert, from which he never returns. Carbajal has now become delirious from the effects of malaria, while Scott and Sylvia leave him, and try to make their way back to civilization.

The utter hostility of the climate in which The Reward is shot becomes a major character as the film unreels; since much of the dialogue is in Spanish, for English speaking viewers, a good deal of what transpires remains a mystery. The motivation of one and all is greed, pure and simple, but the innocence and/or guilt of Bryant is never clearly established, nor are the details of his supposed crime, or even his background. Zimbalist does his best with the role, clearly uncomfortable as a heavy (after all, this is the man who spent much of his career on television as a major cast member of 77 Sunset Strip and later, The FBI, as a bastion of law and order), while Mimieux is less a character than a situation; the damsel in distress. Gilbert Roland is properly one-dimensional and professional as Captain Carbajal, but in the end, it is Emilio Fernández who gets the most screen time, and who eats up the screen with a performance every bit as rapacious as the character he plays. Lopez is a juicy role, and Fernández ultimately dominates the film, as the power balance shifts in his favor, until the final scenes.

What sets The Reward apart from other films of its kind - like Anthony Mann’s superb noir western Winchester ’73, for one example - is not only the resolutely international cast, with von Sydow grimly convincing as the drifter who knows that life often promises much and delivers nothing, but also Bourguignon’s leisurely direction, in which the sun, and during one drenching interlude, the rain, play an elemental role in the drama. There’s a compelling sense of endlessness to the film; endless searching, endless scheming, endless hardship, as conditions deteriorate for all the characters as the film unreels. Indeed, the only hopeful thing that one can take away from the film is Scott Swenson and Sylvia’s probable - just probable -- survival; but survival for what? An overwhelming sense of directionless, aimless existententialism is ultimately the defining characteristic of The Reward, in which the law, vigilante justice, and greed all are on ritualistic display.

Not available on DVD, and shown only occasionally on Fox Movie Channel in a horrific pan and scan version that utterly destroys the superbly composed setups devised by Bourguignon, The Reward is yet another of those lost films that cross generic boundaries to create a terrain of their own, only to be abandoned by commercial interests as being something indefinable, and therefore impossible to merchandise. The Reward is truly a one of a kind film, which clearly deserves a DVD release in its proper aspect ratio, something, however, that will never happen. This, of course, is one of the lessons of the film; you can hope for something, but the likelihood of that coming true - well, that’s another prospect altogether.

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video, and the author of numerous books, including Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia.

Monday, May 21, 2012

For You I Die (1947)

Georgia: ‘Maybe you’ve got something. (He’s) almost like having a wild animal for a pet’.
Hope: ‘You make me sick’.

Convict Johnny Coulter (Paul Langton), nearing the end of a prison sentence, is forced to take part in a prison break organized by gangster and thug Matt Gruber (Don Harvey).

Coulter is told to hide out in a backwoods holiday camp. There he’s to make contact with Gruber’s woman, an ex-chorus girl Hope Novak (Cathy Downs) and let her know that Gruber will be along to fetch her as soon as things cool down.

Coulter locates the camp, makes the meet, and keeps his head down. However Novak is not at all the hard-bitten hoofer that he’d been expecting. And it turns out she no longer wants anything to do with Gruber.

Hope also believes she sees good in Coulter, a guy who’s taken every kind of beating there is and is now on the ropes. For his part he starts to see her as someone he might trust. It starts to look like there may be Hope for Coulter.

Meantime Gruber is out there and nothing‘s changed for him - which is going to present a serious problem for everyone else down the line.

For You I Die sounds like and is a film noir with some basically sound bones. However after a promising start the picture’s black magic gives way to wayward conjuring remindful of the foolishness in His Kind of Woman. The film wobbles wildly as the script/ director hands it off to a group of theatrical inanities who hang around the motor camp’s café in some unexplainable attempt at comic relief.

Among the misfits: Alex Shaw (Misha Auer), a manic Russian artist and spiritualist; Smitty, an alcoholic hash-slinger who’s sweet on Hope; Mac and Jerry, cartoon cops who live at the lunch counter and repeatedly challenge Coulter, ‘You know, you sure do look familiar’ or ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere’ (the joke is that Coulter’s wanted poster is knocking around in their black-and-white).

Thankfully after a time For You I Die’s central plot and characters are allowed to re-exert themselves and the movie again plainly threatens.

Johnny Coulter is straight out of the film noir workbook - though Paul Langton a journeyman character player at first doesn’t quite take as featured lead. However eventually he comes into focus bringing together something of Dennis O’Keefe’s unaffected brashness and Richard Basehart’s sinister calculation.

Maggie Dillion (Marian Kerby), the resort owner, is a toughened Ma Joad with a bible in one hand and deep-fryer in the other. She’s a sentimental character but she’s okay, our Maggie.

Georgia (Jane Weeks) is a blonde tramp in the tradition of all great blonde film noir tramps. She slinks around the cafe and comes on to every guy who walks in the door including Coulter. She might be listed on the menu as ‘Apple Strumpet’. But Georgia’s no fool and proves to be more dangerous than Coulter suspects.

However, it’s Hope Novak, Gruber’s once-girlfriend really who takes charge of the movie. Novak is a girl who’s had a life but wants another. She has no illusions about where she’s been and is resolute about never going back. Intially Hope seems a bit too much of a goody two-shoes for someone who’s had such a hard start. It’s also a stretch to think that she’d hook up with another felon. But the under-rated Downs is able to convince us that Hope knows what she’s about and what she’s doing.

Director John Reinhardt (The Guilty, Open Secret, Chicago Calling) and Cinematography William Clothier (Confidence Girl, Track of the Cat, Gangbusters) do a reasonable job of things given the fractured script. The film, an abject poverty row cheapie, has a contained and theatrical construction but some of the framing and lighting of the stage-like sets are evocative, sometimes haunting.

But overall For You I Die is a bit of a disappointment. It’s obvious the film could have been rendered a more compelling drama, even a fierce and memorable noir.

Unfortunately, the commercial DVD release on May 15 this year by Alpha Entertainment didn’t prove to be all that much cause for excitement.


Written by Gary Deane ‘Night Editor’

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Last Seduction (1994)

“I am a total f##king bitch,”
Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino), laughing while having sex on-top, in the saddle position.

A seemingly ordinary neo noir excels because of the central character - a femme fatale who is brought to forceful life by the acting of Linda Fiorentino under the subtle direction of John Dahl.

At first glance, the film seems common. The story appears familiar. A femme fatale manipulates men to get her way. Fans of film noir and crime drama have witnessed the plotline countless times. Yet, the main character differs from the femme fatale of cinema past. Unlike some of the dislikable characters who haunted classic film noir, Bridget performs as a likeable femme fatale. She’s a paradox.

The Femme Fatale

An Anti Heroine. In the film’s opening, Bridget Gregory directs and scolds salesmen in a boiler-room telemarketing office in New York City. She knows how to sell, close deals, and manage men.

After work, she races to her apartment to meet her husband, who brings home a large amount of cash. Bridget loves money -lots of it. She fondles it, smells it, and licks it.

The Primary Chumps

Chump # 1. Clay Gregory (Bill Pullman) is Bridget’s husband. He’s a bright fellow. A doctor preparing for residency, he illegally sells prescription drugs to drug dealers to please his wife’s lust for money. Stressed after netting $700,000 in a harrowing drug deal, he slaps Bridget, igniting a chain reaction.

Chump #2. Mike Swale (Peter Berg) serves as the patsy. He hails from small town. Not content with marrying a ‘cowgirl’ and having ‘cow babies’ in upstate small town, he yearns for excitement in his relationships. In small town, Mike meets Bridget. He’s an easy mark because his libido does most of his thinking.

Her Motive

Bridget craves all of the illegal drug money free and clear. Not willing to answer to anybody, she hungers for total liberation that she believes wealth brings and will do anything to get it. Her only interest is her own, and so greed is good.

Also, a darkish disorder dwells deep within Bridget. She seems to scorn men. She uses men to her advantage, catching them, conquering them, and bending them to her will. She values money, power, and independence over relationships. She enjoys humiliating men, deriding them as ‘eunuchs,’ ‘Neanderthals,’ ‘maggots,’ and ‘sex objects.’ A trace of revenge lurks in Bridget’s behavior towards men.

Bridget operates on her terms and her terms only - she controls the game and the men.

An Ancient Character Recast

Bridget emerges as a modern reincarnation of the lethal woman.

Since the beginning of time, the femme fatale has anchored deep in our individual and collective mind. Religion, art, literature, film, and mainstream media have portrayed the femme fatale in a code of sinister representations: harlots, misfits, molls, she-wolves, sirens, spiders, spies, vampires, vixens, witches, and other forms. The images conjure deception, destruction, and death, exposing weakness, lust, and greed under the veneer of society’s acceptable face.

During the classic film noir era, the femme fatale character flourished. The deadly women of classic noir were generally disliked, detested, and sometimes hated by patriarchal society. Their creators - James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, et al. - echoed prevailing sentiment. Powerful, seducing women operating outside the confines of the household threatened the rigid order of dominating men and domesticated women. Frequently, classic film noir reinforced misogyny amongst the zealous fringes of the moral majority. As lightening rods, femme fatales induced moral anger, fury, and wrath.

In Bridget, John Dahl evokes some of the enduring cultural images of the femme fatale and also presents modern, distinguishing characteristics. Let’s look at some of the signs, and their meanings, that the director uses to sculpt the characteristics of his dangerous woman.

The Traditional Signs of a Cinematic Femme Fatale

Black Skirt, Black Stockings, Black Cape. In the presence of her prey, Bridget wears primarily black clothing. Chic and sexy, her clothes could be worn at a funeral, a witches’ brew, or a vampire outing. A familiar code, her clothes signal darkness, hinting of her ability to trap and drain life.

Animal Instincts. Bridget’s behaviors display the characteristics of a wild animal. When Bridget first meets Mike Swale in small town’s bar, she sticks her hand in his crotch, then pulls out her hand, and smells it. She sniffs the odors of her target’s genitals, analyzing sexual condition and social pecking order. She selects her sexual target. She’s the alpha wolf.

Psychopathic Gestures. In an act of utter disrespect towards the sacred values of mainstream Americana, Bridget puts out her cigarette in Grandma’s home-made apple pie. Bridget’s assault on Grandma’s wholesome goodness underscores the diametric difference of the independent femme fatale from the dependent family woman. Bridget is not Mrs. Susie Homemaker. Clever, calculating, and cold-hearted, Bridget’s attitude lacks affection, simpatico, and warmth. She does not say please. She does not say thank you. Her manners are reptilian.

Magical Powers. Bridget’s seductive power conquers. In ancient times, she could have seduced Rome for Egypt. Her ability to write backwards suggests evil. In medieval times, she would have burned at the stake.

Cunning Intelligence. Her schemes leap several steps ahead of her prey. She sets up men for their self destruction. Working by wit, Bridget lures and traps, changing personas to fit the situation, adapting like a chameleon. Sweet and nasty, Bridget bakes chocolate chip cookies for one of her victims and then sticks nails under the tires of his car. Caring and crafty, she convinces a man to unzip his pants so she can ram him through a windshield. Methodical and mean, she investigates her patsy’s past, sniffing for weakness and fear. She outsmarts her quarry - dysfunctional men.

Predatory Copulation. Bridget does not just hump and dump - she ensnares. She feeds her men sex to leash them. Sexual climax comes at the expense of manipulation, subjugation, and ruin. Bridget’s calculating use of her sexuality rivals the power of Dirty Harry’s Magnum .44, and is just as symbolic if not more so. She’s armed and dangerous.

The Modern Signs of a Cinematic Femme Fatale

Bridget distinguishes from cinematic femme fatales of classic film noir and even neo noir.

The Main Character. Bridget is the central character of the story, not just a prop in a svelte dress foiling the male protagonist. We see her world from her view, from close to medium range. All eyes focus on her. She is the anti heroine who fully drives the story, enchanting and entertaining us with mischief.

A Liberated Feminist. Set aside her criminal behavior and bad manners for a moment and she illustrates the modern feminist - powerful, independent, and in-charge. Bridget lives by her own code, wielding her power in pursuit of freedom and sovereignty.

Wit and Humor. Bridget possesses a sharp sense of dark humor. At ease with herself, she enjoys her dry wit and deadpan style. Her satirical wit makes her stand apart from Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Cora Smith (Lana Turner), Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), and other humorless femme fatale heavies.

Eroticism. At turning points in the plot, the film’s simulated sex scenes accent the character of Bridget and drive the story forward with apt style. The scenes are erotic but not pornographic. The eroticism highlights Bridget’s power over men. Bridget could be the witty sister of Matty Walker of Body Heat (Kasdan -1981). The two films serve as examples of erotic noir - a branch of neo noir. The simulated sex in erotic noir differentiates from the suggested sex in classic film noir.

How She Seduces Viewers

Bridget is a paradox. Despite her bad behavior and attitude, we want to like her. Her likability separates her from many femme fatales. Although Bridget descends from the gene pool of femme fatales of the classic noir era, she’s not detestable like Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity (Wilder- 1944).

Why like Bridget?

She not only seduces, but amuses. She entertains tragically comic. Our pleasure of the chumps’ misfortune allows us to enjoy the majority of Bridget’s clever escapades. We laugh with her. We applaud several but not all of her conquests. Most of the time, we cheer her on.

Her brazen ability to operate outside the social norms of the silent majority mesmerizes. Her audacity marvels. Her smarts impress. She enjoys ‘bending the rules’ and ‘playing with people’s brains.’ As the storyline evolves, she unleashes the unexpected. A naughty prankster, she’s also a nasty troublemaker, a vicarious fantasy.

Dahl’s lens is the keyhole through which we eye Bridget. The director reveals the juicy life of a wild woman from a big city running amok in a small town. Bridget as an aggressive outsider contrasts with the naive locals. The sharp contrast focuses attention, keeping us on edge.

As film noir fans, we feed on scandal, lust, greed, seduction, betrayal, and ruin of our beloved, wayward characters. Film noir is our National Enquirer. Bridget beckons us with tantalizing headlines, front-page news, and sensational pictures.

Despite her strength of cunning and sexuality, Bridget’s weakness of absolute greed looms. Her greed is a familiar trait of film noir characters. Her defect raises the dramatic question - does she self destruct like so many film noir characters.

An Award Winning Character

Dahl constructs Bridget as an award winning character, but with a minor flaw. Dahl omits a back story about Bridget. We don’t know why she scorns the male species. In Luis Buñuel’s film Belle de jour (1967), which stars Catherine Deneuve as an upper-class woman who secretly spends her afternoons working as a prostitute (while her husband works as a surgeon), the director suggests the woman’s behavior was caused by her being molested as a child. Buñuel presents a brief, effective flashback. In Bridget’s case, Dahl leaves us wondering about the causes of her antisocial state.

Linda Fiorentino won prestigious awards and nominations for her efforts in The Last Seduction, as did John Dahl. Applaud John Dahl for selecting Linda for the role of Bridget. Above all applaud Linda. Her ability to play Bridget with sensual ease and subtle humor delivers a distinctive character. Linda’s performance cements the unabashed Bridget in our minds. Also give credit to screenwriter Steve Barancik whose script and dialogue allowed Linda to breathe life into the character. And appreciate Joseph Vitarelli for the jazzy music that highlights Bridget’s improvisational wit and satirical tone. All four artists created Bridget as a likeable femme fatale.

“I can be very nice when I try.”

Written by Hard-Boiled Rick

Monday, May 07, 2012

Hot Cars (1956)

Her: ‘Do you always sell every car you demonstrate?’ 
Him: ‘No, but I don’t always get taken for a ride either’

It’s a good bet that any movie made in 1956 called Hot Cars would be another ‘sinsational’ teens-gone-wild pic along the lines of Dragstrip Girl, Teenage Thunder, Hot Rod Gang, Speed Crazy, Hot Rod Girl, Young and Dangerous or Joy Ride.

But you won’t find any messed-up teenagers, street rods, candy-apple customs in this one, just deluxe production sleds and foreign sports jobs that are ‘hot’ because they’ve been stolen - something Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) suddenly gets wise to after a few days on the job as a sales jockey for a string of Los Angeles used car lots.

Though Dunn realizes that owner Arthur Markel (Ralph Clanton) is running a big-league chop-shop (Markel likes to call it ‘a refrigeration plant where hot cars are brought to cool down’), Dunn has nowhere else to go.

Fired from his last car sales job for being too straight-up with the customers, Dunn now has a financial gun to his head. His infant son Davy desperately needs an operation which could save the child’s life, surgery for which Markel says he’s prepared to pay if Dunn will play.

But Markel already knows that he will. The crooked car dealer was hip to Dunn’s situation before hiring him and earlier had used a blonde knockout named Karen Winter (Joi Lansing) to bait the hook. Winter arranges for Dunn to take her out on a phoney test drive to get the wheels rolling.

By the time Dunn figures out he’s been duped it’s too late and he goes along with being just another of Markel’s flunkeys. What he doesn’t know is that he’s about to be fitted up as a one-size-fits-all patsy.

Hot Cars a trim little programmer was a release of Bel-Air Productions, a joint venture of 20th Century Fox producer/ director Howard W. Koch, and independent producer Aubrey Schenck. For a time in the ‘50’s the company turned out a trunkful of low-budget, quick-buck features including several titles familiar to fans of B noirs: Big House U.S.A. (1955), Crime Against Joe (1956), Three Bad Sisters (1956), The Girl in Black Stockings (1957), and Hell Bound (1957).

However, other than an abbreviated entry on IMDb, Hot Cars appears to have gone unreferenced and unseen until last year when MGM put it out on DVD as part of a Limited Edition series. Good choice. This is a B entry that deserved to be found, given the full frame-off restoration and put back on the road.

Hot Cars runs fast and smooth on a nicely-tuned script by screenwriter Don Martin whose film and television credits extended four decades. Martin scripted several of the original ‘Falcon’ releases and from 1947 to 1958 contributed to a creditable list of efficient B thrillers, among them: Lighthouse (1947), The Hatbox Mystery (1947), Search for Danger (1949), Destination Murder (1950), Shakedown (1950), Double Jeopardy (1955), Confession (1955), The Man is Armed (1956) and The Violent Road (1958). His pulp novel Shed No Tears was filmed in 1948. Long regarded as a ‘lost noir’, the movie surfaced recently as an Alpha Entertainment DVD.

Despite the poverty-row limitations, Martin could be counted on to deliver some smart plotting and snappy dialog. Hot Cars has plenty of both and much of the pleasure to be had from this movie lies therein.

On the other hand, neither director Don McDougall nor cinematographer William Margulies bothered working up much that’s visually arresting in the film apart from a couple of striking night-time scenes. But by 1956, television had come to dictate an unequivocally flatter style in movies and both McDougall and Margulies to that time mostly had worked in television. In fact, Hot Cars was to be McDougall’s only feature credit as director.

However as mundane as a lot of the set-ups and framing are, they don’t impact much on Hot Cars high-performance. The movie rockets along like a monkey on a zip line, propelled by a hipster jazz track by bandleader Les Baxter. The film’s worth-the-price-of-admission climax is explosive and is a serious treat for fans of back-in-the-day amusement park settings.

Much of the Hot Cars was shot on location offering interesting, sometimes tantalizing views of mid-century Los Angeles - from Santa Monica’s scenic Ocean Avenue and beach fronts to Culver City’s signature commercial strips (special thanks is given by the film-makers to Big John’s and O’Tooles Used Cars!).

And who wouldn’t kill to be sitting at the bar at the fabulous Jack’s at the Beach restaurant and lounge where Joi Lansing first begins stroking John Bromfield to see if he’s up for the ride.

Lansing, another very good reason to get hold of a copy of Hot Cars was ‘on the scene’ in Hollywood from the day the bus pulled in. She was a teenage model then moved into films and TV. Well-known as a party girl, she had affairs with many of the usual suspects including George Raft, Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra and was still good for four marriages along the way.

On the other hand, Lansing had her head screwed on straight as far it went as pursuing some kind of a career - though she wasn’t that much of an actress and likely was never encouraged to be one given her famously alluring pout and stunning purpose-built figure. Her movie appearances were limited mostly to bit parts (including Touch of Evil). She did better on television, landing smaller supporting roles plus regular stints on The Bob Cummings Show, Klondike, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

However, Hot Cars offers Lansing a memorable movie outing. She’s sexy and real and delicious to watch, especially when she goes go to work on straight-arrow Dunn:

Him: ‘I told you already, I’m married’. 
Her: ‘I have a terrible memory’.

Hot Cars also provides a better than usual part for John Bromfield, himself a ready-made leading man who never really found solid footing in movieland. Though tall dark and athletic, he joined a deep bench that already held Hollywood hunks like Rory Calhoun, Ray Danton, Brad Dexter, Steve Cochrane, Richard Egan, William Campbell, Jeffrey Hunter, Vince Edwards and many, many others.

Bromfield had started out encouragingly enough in tryout roles for Paramount in Sorry, Wrong, Number and Rope of Sand. However, as a featured actor he soon had to settle for an assortment of undercard westerns, horror titles and second-rate crime programmers such as The Big Bluff, Crime Against Joe, and the exhilaratingly trashy Three Bad Sisters (of which the late Bill McVicar wrote,
‘script, acting and production boast no redeeming qualities whatsoever, except excess and sheer effrontery. In regard to those qualities, Three Bad Sisters offers an embarrassment of riches’).

In 1956, Bromfield managed to land a minor television cop series, Sherriff of Cochise (retitled U.S. Marshall after two seasons). But at the end of four years, the show was cancelled and John Bromfield walked away from Hollywood to become a commercial fisherman and big-time outdoors show organizer.

Bromfield was a capable actor just not a deeply interesting one, evincing no particular charisma, sexual intensity or dark places. He was what he was: a handsome and rugged straight-shooter and that’s generally how he was cast. Bromfield’s both well-suited for the role of Nick Dunn and very good in it.

Also on set are a number of favored character actors including Dabs Greer as a coyly guileless police detective who knows what the scam is and who attempts to offer Dunn a way out; also, Robert Osterloh as ‘Big John’ Hayman as the boss who who fires Dunn. The versatile Osterloh apeears in many iconic noirs e.g. 711 Ocean Drive, Gun Crazy, Criss Cross, White Heat, The Prowler. Although his part in Hot Cars is a smaller one, Osterloh as usual makes everything out of it.

Hot Cars presents more as a conventional crime thriller than classic film noir. It doesn’t bother itself much with moody atmospherics and visual stylisms. Karen Winter arrives as a femme fatale but fails to damage or destroy. Nick Dunn is neither a doomed protagonist nor chump. He’s not a victim of his own device. While he is a man in a trap, he’s able to find his own way to an escape.

That said, Hot Cars still feels like noir. The basic constructions are there, needing only to be framed slightly differently - as they perhaps would have been a decade or so earlier. But In that way the movie is not so different from others now regarded as ‘late-period’ noirs.

But beyond all that Hot Cars is just one cool ride that’s definitely worth taking out for a drive.


Written by Gary Deane ‘Night Editor’

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