Showing posts with label Richard Kiley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Kiley. Show all posts

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Posted by Steve-O

Phil Karlson was never more than a B-movie director and he was proud of it. While working for Monogram Pictures the young director was paid $250 a week working on their film assembly line. In 1946, he churned out eight movies! Back then, movie companies like Monogram owned the movie theaters their films played in. This monopoly setup (later broken up) pretty much guaranteed that any B-movie -whether it was a western or crime film- Monogram churned out would turn a profit.

Monogram was known for releasing cheap predictable movies (like the later Charlie Chan and Shadow movie series) that cost the company next to nothing to produce. Karlson, who began his film career working part time while going to law school fell in love with movie making. He worked his way up the ranks doing every movie job going from prop man to, after serving in World War II, film director. Eventually Karlson was put under contract by Monogram Pictures.

In the late 1940s, the chiefs at Monogram, wanting to make their brand appear more artistic to film goers and newspaper critics, began putting out bigger budget films under their new name Allied Artists. Karlson (who made AA's first “important” picture, Black Gold) was asked to begin making better (more expensive) movies. The Karlson-directed AA crime films released in the 1950s where far from being big-budget A films, but they were a long way from the 4 or 5 day movie shoots with no budget cheapies Karlson cut his teeth with. One of Karlson's best was one released in 1955, The Phenix City Story. True, Karlson churned out five movies that year for Allied Artists and Columbia Pictures, but this one stood out for its gritty realism due to the film being shot in the Alabama town during the same time the actual trial for the real-life killing was taking place.

The highly fictionalized story was based on fact. In 1954, in a series of events that no doubt reminded Karlson of his youth in Al Capone-era Chicago, became famous when reporters dubbed the Alabama town “Sin City.” Drugs were sold openly, prostitutes solicited johns on the street corners, and sleazy clubs offered gambling. Not seen by the citizens and army men from Fort Benning that visited the town for pleasure were other even more sleazy rackets including a safe-cracking school and a black-market baby ring. It wasn't until the state's attorney general elect - who campaigned with the promise that he would clean up the city --was murdered in 1954 did the citizens demand action against the criminal element. After the killing, the national guard was sent in and the major crime bosses fled. This was exactly the type of story that B-thriller semidocumentaries were made from. And it was -- the very next year.


Karlson and his film crew arrived in Alabama set out to make The Phenix City Story during a media circus. The small city was swarmed by newspaper men and television reporters following the murder trial and writing feature stories about the men and women who grew up in “Sin City.” Apparently quite the story teller, Karlson at the time credited himself with digging up information that helped convict the killers during filming.

The film was released in 1955. Under the direction of a lesser director the film would have probably been totally forgotten today. Karlson's insistence on shooting the film on the city's notorious fourteenth street gave the film a dark city feel other Karlson films were known for (like 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential). The director even had actor John McIntire wear the suit Albert Patterson (the real-life local attorney that was helping lead the effort to clean up the city) was killed in. Writers Crane Wilbur and Dan Mainwaring add a lot of fiction to the true story. Karlson, Wilber and Mainwaring set out to capture the sleaziness of the city by adding a number of violent characters doing unspeakable acts including the dumping of a dead child from a car that has to been seen to be believed.

There's no real star of the film. Top-billed Richard Kiley (Pickup on South Street) plays the son of the famous local lawyer who returns to his home town after a stint in the service and quickly makes enemies with the crime syndicate. His performance is fine but McIntire as his father, the evil mobster played by Edward Andrews (who slinks around town asking of everyone is OK when the citizenry knows that he's the mob boss) and John Larch as the cretinous Clem Wilson stand out with strong performances.

Some of the supporting players are good in it too. Kathryn Grant plays one of the locals who hates all the gambling and crime in the city but ends up working for them anyway because the pay is good. Later she plays a key role in the story. James Edwards plays Zeke. He plays the only prominent African American in the film - which is a bit ridiculous. Zeke and his family go through hell in the story and Edwards (a familiar face for noir fans: He was the parking attendant Timothy Carey deals with in The Killing -- a scene that's pretty hard to forget) does a great job playing a nice guy in the wrong place and time.

The newsreel like ending and scroll that tells how the city is now squeaky clean (which is wasn't in 1955 even after all the drama) doesn't take away from the film maker's message. The film successfully shows that part of 1950s American society is sometimes totally corrupt and that corruption ultimately consumes powerless individuals. The message is unlike Warner Bros. gangster films of the 30s with their good citizen reformist message.

A few more tidbits about the film:

The film sometimes is seen with a very long newsreel-like introduction entitled “Report from Phenix City, Alabama” in which a reporter interviews locals about the city's clean up. Thankfully, the copy of the film I have has it edited out. I did find it on YouTube:

The prologue doesn't fit in with the rest of the film and I wonder if it was added to the film by someone other than director Karlson as an after thought or even to pad the length of the film.

There's lot of Karlson films worth seeking out (even though only Kansas City Confidential is easily available) Film noir fans today get a thrill out of the newspaper noir Scandal Sheet (1952), Tight Spot (1955), 5 Against the House (1955), and the three John Payne thrillers: 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and the color Maltese Falcon ripoff Hell's Island. Phenix City Story is also similar in theme to Karlson's greatest box-office success Walking Tall - a guilty pleasure of mine.

After the release of Phenix City Story Karlson was hired by Desilu studios to direct The Scarface Mob - the movie that would be the start of The Untouchables TV series. Desilu chief Desi Arnaz saw The Phenix City Story and wanted Karlson to make his new show The Untouchables look like that. Although Karlson felt that directing for television was a step down, he finally agreed and ended up creating the dark gritty look The Untouchables was known for.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Posted by Tim (Mappin & Webb Ltd.)

Skip McCoy is a sleazy, thieving, smart-ass. He has a gift for the grift and he’s not hesitant to use it on easy and innocent prey. If he has a middle name it may be “recidivism” as he’s been pinched by the police on many occasions for picking pockets and done jail time in three separate stints. Because of his three strikes, one more conviction for Skip and he’s going to the slammer for life. Candy on the other hand is a B-girl who has been “knocked around a lot” and seems to think its status quo for a girl like her. A svelte, good looking dame whose white dress she wares in the film looks so tight, she may need turpentine at the end of the night to peel it off. Candy gets these taut threads namely from guys with dough who want to see her in them. One could speculate that she most likely does more than simply bat her eyelashes at these same mooks to keep the duds they put her in. Lastly Moe Williams is a sub-contractor stool pigeon to the cops plain and simple. She resents the stoolie label however, stating that she “was brought up to report any injustice to the police authority.” Despite this rationalization, when the price was right she dropped a dime on Skip’s modus operandi and whereabouts to the cops when they were looking for his neck to hang a collar on. It may not seem too strange for a professional canary to sing about a lowly pickpocket, but unusual when one considers Moe has known Skip since he was a kid and genuinely professes to love him. While this triumvirate of two-bit hoods and hustlers may sound like the kind of scene you’d want to avoid at all costs, it’s these same characters you can’t afford to miss in director Sam Fuller’s masterpiece “Pickup on South Street.”

The film opens on a NYC subway car where Candy (Jean Peters) is carrying an envelope given to her by ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). As a last favor to him she is to deliver the envelope to a man at a rendezvous point and she’ll be done with Joey once and for all. Candy is unaware that the contents inside the envelope (we later learn) are strips of microfilm consisting of classified U.S. government secrets that the Russians are dying to get their pinko paws around. Joey is working for the commies and looking for a big pay day with the delivery of the film. Candy is his unknowing buffer and potential fall-gal in case the deal goes sour. The U.S. government is aware of the breach and G-Men have been following Joey and the people he associates with for six months hoping to land the big players above him. We observe J. Edgar’s agents tailing and keeping a close eye on Candy in the subway car. Unexpectedly, while the car is in motion, they witness a man position himself next to Candy in the crowded car and adroitly pluck the wallet from her purse right under her oblivious nose. Before they can react the thief is off the train at the next stop with Candy’s wallet containing the envelope and microfilm. One of the G-Men continues to tail Candy while the other visits NYC police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) to try and find out who this “cannon” is that lifted the microfilm. To expedite the process of finding out whom the pickpocket’s identity, Captain Tiger calls in one of his informants; a little old lady named Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter). Moe looks like she’s as altruistic as Florence Nightingale, but in reality the only pulse Moe has her finger on is the seedy underbelly of the NYC grifter element. This inside knowledge, coupled with the cops hitting a dead end, allows her to drop a dime on the hoods to earn a dollar. She expertly identifies the pickpocket as Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) by the G-men’s eyewitness description of his uniquely individual thieving technique. Both the G-Men and Captain Tiger’s police force know he has the microfilm and they haul in Skip attempting to pry it out of him. Skip won’t cop to possessing it, as one more conviction, added to his three, will ensure they throw away the key on him. From here on out Candy tries to use Moe to get the microfilm back from Skip. Moe tries to milk Candy’s desperation to find Skip for her own financial gain. Skip discovers the microfilm and tries to grift Candy for a big payday from Joey and the commies. I’m just scratching the surface as the story has more wonderfully crazy angles and turns than an Escher drawing. Fortunately the tale never gets convoluted in its complexity and it continues to build toward a gripping third act that stands up to any noir history.

While the screenplay (written by Fuller from a story by Dwight Taylor) is rich in dialogue, narrative, and story, the cast elevates it to a plateau of excellence that few movies in film noir reach. Widmark is outstanding as the anti-hero and gives arguably his best performance from an impressive ‘cannon’ of work. Jean Peters gives a solid performance as the manipulated moll Candy. While she may not have the otherworldly chops of Widmark or Ritter, she sells the part well enough to keep up with her co-stars. Without a doubt though, Thelma Ritter is soul of this film. Her ability to convey the vulnerability, charm, and guile of a complex character like Moe is a feat I can picture no other actress accomplishing the way she did in “Pickup.” It’s a brilliant performance that belongs in the pantheon of film. Seriously.

Visually there is plenty to appreciate and enjoy with “Pickup on South Street” but Fuller’s use of the close-up is the visual element that resonates deepest with me. He judiciously uses the tight facial frame sparingly, but maximizes its effectiveness when he does. Each main character gets a notable close-up during points in the film where a significant aspect of their character is revealed and we get a better understanding of the people occupying Fuller’s world. During Thelma Ritter’s introductory scene in Captain Tiger’s office, the camera is kept at bay until Tiger asks Moe about the status of her “kitty” (her savings which is simply a big wad of cash). Moe has been saving up scratch from her legitimate business front of selling men’s neck-ties on the street and also her informant money so she can buy herself a top of the line funeral and all the trimmings. She tells Tiger that she’s almost has enough for the headstone and the exclusive plot on Long Island where you have to be screened before they “let you in there.” Tiger warns her that she better be careful about carrying around such a large wad of cash, especially with the ne’er-do-wells she associates with otherwise she’ll end up in Potter’s Field. Tiger’s words act as a vacuum to the feisty and energetic flame in Moe’s eyes. Her face drains only to be refilled quickly with a grave look of concern that comes over her as the camera gets to an intimate distance with her face. She confides to the police Captain, “Look Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter’s field… It’d just about kill me.” There are several moments in the film like this where such a small aspect reveals so much about the different character’s desires, fears and motivations.

As if the fantastic story isn’t enough, “Pickup” has many complex and fascinating themes permeating the film. One I discovered on a recent viewing is the interesting dichotomy between reliance on the male dominated world in which Moe and Candy operate to survive and their struggle with maintaining independence and autonomy. Moe needs men to buy her neck-ties and Captain Tiger to help feed her kitty. Candy needs men to earn a living by being the “eye” type of her namesake. The viewer gleans that Candy floats from the arm of one guy to the next but it’s not something she’s particularly proud of. When his tail is on the line and he needs a lead as to who lifted the microfilm from her purse, Joey asks Candy, “You’ve knocked around a lot. You know people who know people.” Candy’s face tenses up and Fuller gives the audience another telling close-up as she snarls, “You gonna throw that in my face again?” Due to the nature of their professions Moe and Candy can’t afford to get too close to anybody, yet simultaneously they have a pragmatic need for connecting with people. But beneath these same necessary connections of survival stirs an emotional longing to unite with others on a human level. Unexpectedly and briefly, Candy and Moe seem to find this commonality with each other via Skip acting as an inadvertent catalyst. It’s an interesting dynamic and brief exploration of such between these two women, especially for the patriarchal and straight-laced era in which the film was made.

There are so many little touches to “Pickup on South Street” that help make it one of the finest film noirs I’ve ever seen. I love the way a streetwise character named Lightning Louie uses chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant to pocket cash on the table. I adore Moe as she’s working angles as an informer and simultaneously trying to sell her ties or as she calls them “a complete line of personality neck-ware.” I never tire of the scene where Moe deduces that Skip is the microfilm thief by the individual method in which he lifts Candy’s wallet because Moe knows each pickpocket’s methods are as distinct and unique as a fingerprint. I crack up over the way Skip keeps his beer cold in his unconventional hideout and offers a cop one by nearly hurling the bottle at him from across the room. I love it when Candy realizes her wallet has been lifted while she’s inside the lobby of a building and somewhere outside the sound of an alarm goes off. I love the existential acceptance shown by Skip when he realizes that Moe told Candy where he was hiding out and he embraces her being a stool-pigeon by quipping “Moe’s alright, she’s gotta eat.” These are just a few samples of many, many details and nuances in “Pickup” that make up an aggregate of mesmerizing and near flawless filmmaking. One viewing of “Pickup on South Street” is not enough to fully appreciate its genius, but one viewing will certainly whet the thirst of any true film-lover enough to continue going back and drink from this refreshing well, again and again.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Sniper (1952)

posted by darkdave

It wasn't uncommon for the filmmakers behind mid-century noirs to fuse the then trendy themes of psychoanalysis and assorted related social problems to their hard-boiled storylines. Noirs as disparate as 'Crossfire', 'The Dark Mirror', and 'He Walked by Night' delved, to varying depths, into the tortured souls of their lead characters, and gave them a showcase in the form of an 80 minute matinee.

One such film - Edward Dmytryk's engrossing and refreshingly balanced 'The Sniper' (1952) focuses on an alienated young San Franciscan Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a dry-cleaning driver with a deep-seated resentment towards women. Though the origins of his psychosis remain somewhat murky, we're lead to believe that he's the product of an abusive mother - and as a result his relationships with all women are fraught with dysfunction.

Living a solitary existence in a furnished room, Eddie flirts with the idea of using his high-powered rifle to anonymously murder a happy young woman from his high window - but he fights the urge and hampers his ability by badly burning his trigger hand. While getting it treated, a gentle hospital worker suspects self-infliction, and coaxes some info. from him regarding his psych.-patient past. Seems that Eddie has done time for battery, and feels the urge flaring up again - but when the worker turns his attention to other patients, and Eddie's psych. doctor proves unreachable, his cries for help go unanswered - and the fire re-ignites.

Shortly thereafter, Eddie targets an attractive work customer (Marie Windsor), an entertainer who expressed mild interest but ultimately passes him over. Leaving work late one night she is caught between his crosshairs and is 'punished' - her body smashing through a glass display case in one of noir's more disturbing murder scenes.

Enter Lt. Kafka(!) (Adolphe Menjou), and Sgt. Ferris (Gerald Mohr). Assigned to the case and determined to crack it, the two begin their hunt for a suspect just as a second woman falls victim to Eddie's sharp-shooting skills - the unsuspecting target a barfly who humiliated him. During a jarringly tacky line-up scene replete with would-be comedy-relief suspects, we meet Dr. Kent (an earnest Richard Kiley) who though at odds with his cop counterparts proves he has Eddie's number when he later suggests to the city's blustering officials that proper treatment for captured sex offenders - not jail time -would've prevented this and other 'Eddies'.

More insensitive and indifferent people unwittingly stoke Eddie's coals, and more women are gunned down. Following a chilling sequence at a carnival where an increasingly hostile Eddie frightens onlookers with his hand/eye coordination, Kafka and crew close-in by finding a piece of his hand-bandage at a crime scene and confirming his i.d. with the hospital. Atop a roof and seconds away from taking another life, Eddie shoots a would-be witness before high-tailing it home where the police surround him, break in, and find him sitting quietly - a tear of relief streaming down his cheek.

Dmytryk, no stranger to noir, sets a dry and non-sensational tone that elevates his work out of the 'b' movie ranks. But, this is Franz's film. His beautifully rendered portrayal of a fringe-dwelling tortured soul is a 50's noir highlight. His average looks and strong acting abilities combine to create a character not unlike a 50's 'Taxi Driver'. Psychologically alienated, he's a storm in a bottle - ill-equipped to live within societal boundaries.