Showing posts with label prison. Show all posts
Showing posts with label prison. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Brute Force (1947)

“Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead!” - Gallager (Charles Bickford) in Brute Force.

Posted by Steve-O

Prison films were most popular in the 1930s when dozens of movies about men serving hard time were churned out. The films were an allegory for the bigger problems in society. Depression era movie goers liked seeing prisoners in Invisible Stripes or Hell's Highway have victories -even small ones- against authority. The men, usually serving time because of mitigating circumstances, were surrounded by violent men and tried to survive despite oppressive living conditions.

In the 1940s director Jules Dassin and writer Richard Brooks succeed in making a different kind of prison film. Brute Force, unlike Dassin's next film The Naked City, is filled with an unrelenting sense of despair. Instead of the prisoners being surrounded by violent criminals a prison guard is the villain. In fact, all the prisoners in cell R17 have back stories (told in overtly romantic flashbacks) that show these guys at least in their own minds are all just victims of circumstance. Dassin later regretted not having any truly violent men populate the prison and I agree. There should be at least one person in the prison that deserves to be there. However, I liked seeing the camaraderie between convicts even when they team up to kill a stoolie or plan a prison break.

The one evil in the film is Hume Cronyn (of all people!) playing the sadistic Captain Munsey. Wearing a tight Nazi-like uniform, prison guard Munsey is power hungry and abuses the men under him either with a rubber hose or just by mental torture. The warden of the prison is weak and Munsey's control is never called into question until he finally takes over the prison.

Although Burt Lancaster is the star of the movie, the film is really about all the prisoners in cell R17 and the men that help them try to escape. The film is filled with familiar faces: Jeff Corey (Fourteen Hours, Sirocco), John Hoyt (The Come On), Charles Bickford (Fallen Angel, Whirlpool), Sam Levene (The Killers), Whit Bissell (Raw Deal, He Walked By Night), and even Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin) are prisoners. Working with but not necessarily for Captain Munsey are Art Smith (In a Lonely Place) as the drunk prison doctor and Jay C. Flippen (They Live By Night) as a kind guard.

During long hours in their cell, the R17 prisoners gaze at a pinup girl that reminds them each of a past love. They all take turns telling their tales of woman they've known outside of jail. The stories aren't all that convincing but they are entertaining - especially John Hoyt's wild night with femme fatale Flossy (Anne Colby). The flashbacks seem more like a way for Universal to have some of their leading women in the film. Playing the girlfriends and wives are a number of noir dames: Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce), Ella Raines (Phantom Lady), and Yvonne De Carlo (Criss Cross) all make appearances.

What really drives the men to try to break from their captors is Captain Munsey. Munsey becomes so powerful he even manages to strong arm the warden. All the men's activities are taken away, parole hearings are suspended and no visitors are allowed. Finally the men have enough and Lancaster comes up with a plan based on a war-time attack explained by fellow prisoner Soldier (Howard Duff) with chess pieces. The plan is to take out the guard tower and open the gate by attacking it from two sides. They know that many will die during the break in the yard because the one machine gun in the tower will be aimed at only one of the two revolting groups. They take the chance knowing that either one of the attacks will get through while the guards are focusing on the other.

Lancaster convinces a small group of inmates that the break (only dreamed of by others) would happen 1215 the next day during their work in a sewer drain. The men object. They have no money and no plans for what to do once they do get outside the walls. Everyone knows the plans will ultimately fail but eventually they all agree to do it.

Just as Lancaster predicts, one of the men leaks information to Munsey who anticipates the break. Even so, the attack of the tower goes ahead. The break turns out to be an incredibly violent and fiery attempt (lensed by famed cinematographer William Daniels). Most of the small group are shot dead including Lancaster. He does, however, manage to kill Munsey. Unfortunately, when Lancaster gets to the switch to open the gates of the prison, he sees that Charles Bickford - in a desperate attempt to crash the gate with a truck - has actually pinned the giant gates shut. Lancaster dies at the switch frustrated that he ultimately failed.

This was Dassin's first film noir (if you don't count the light comic noir Two Smart People). In just a few years, he would go on to make The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, and his best films Night and the City and later, in 1955, Du rififi chez les hommes.

Prison films have always been popular and they still are. Brute Force managed to stand out as an original work which is a hard thing to do considering the limited amount of things you can do in a prison movie. Brute Force shows men behind bars suffering an overwhelming sense of despair which eventually builds to a violent crescendo that's still shocking today.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Cell 2455, Death Row (1955)

Posted by HJ

This film isn't really a noir, although the subject matter is noirish enough. I had recorded it off TCM a week or two ago and just got around to watching it this afternoon.

Caryl Chessman, upon whose autobiography this film is based, was a juvenile delinquent and a career criminal, some of whose crimes involved violence and some of which merited capital punishment. He was finally sentenced to death on California's interpretation of the "Little Lindbergh law," which concerned harm done to people being kidnapped. (He removed one of his rape victims from the location where he "kidnapped" her, so by subsequently raping her in fact caused bodily harm to his kidnap victim.)

This movie has all the usual boiler plate about being fiction and not representing any actual person, but with a great big "wink! wink!." The bad guy in this flick is named Whit Whittier (played with a perpetual sneer by actor William Campbell), and he comes across as a truly loathsome human being.

His parents were good folk who tried to raise him properly, but the injuries suffered by his mother in an automobile accident (making her a paraplegic) while he was a kid probably contributed to his anti-social behavior throughout his later childhood and entire adulthood.

Both the character and the real Chessman were quite intelligent, and both studied law extensively while incarcerated in order to postpone the death sentence imposed by the court on his final conviction. He was supposedly a "dead man walking" 8 times before his actual execution. This, by the way, finally took place in May of 1960, 12 years after his death sentence was imposed.

The movie was filmed in 1955, and ends with another stay of execution which resulted from his skillful use of technicalities of law. Chessman was the darling of the anti-Capital Punishment movement in the 1950s.

As I said in the beginning of this review, this is not a noir in style, but certainly in subject matter. I guess you could sneak it in the back door of the noir classification in that it's sort of a Police Procedural type of movie told from the criminal point of view.

If you'd like a fascinating little excursion away from noir to a parallel universe of crime, IMO this movie is well worth the 75 or 80 minutes it lasts.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Black Tuesday (1954)

Black Tuesday was released in 1954 and it showed that Edward G. Robinson - years from playing tough gangsters in "Little Caeser" and even "Key Largo" - could still play a mobster in film and keep his performance fresh and interesting.

The film begins immediately in a prison. Director Hugo Fregonese (Man in the Attic and One Way Street) shows a number of silent prisoners pacing back and forth in their cells. A man breaks the silence and starts singing about death row - the "Black Tuesday Blues" - while keeping rhythm by beating the top of a wooden stool. Finally one of the prisoners has enough and yells for him to shut up. The opening credits flash on the screen over dramatic music and so begins a surprisingly good but mostly forgotten prison escape film starring Robinson, a very young Peter Graves, and Jean Parker.

With the help of a blackmailed prison guard, Robinson escapes on the eve of his own execution with a number of hostages, his fellow death-row inmates (especially Graves who has lots of cash stashed from his crime), and a cub reporter. These scenes showing the complicated prison break are probably the best part of the film.

Once the prisoners get to their hideout the film plays like a filmed stage play (not unlike The Desperate Hours or The Petrified Forest). The film remains suspenseful thanks to a very good supporting cast and Robinson knocking it out of the park playing a truly soulless bad guy. Once the cops surround the convicts safe house the film only gets more tension filled. There's an unlikely romance and some unneeded subplots but that doesn't stop the film from being a lost treasure that every noir fan should try to dig up.

The film was written by Sydney Boehm who also penned The High Wall, Rogue Cop, Second Chance and most memorably the cop revenge thriller The Big Heat. Boehm doesn't break any new ground with this one. It's your standard prison-escape drama like many others including Canon City. However, from the complicated escape until the bloody end the film moves nicely. The film was lensed by Stanley Cortez who shows some nice use of shadow and light especially during the prison scenes. Cortez has dozens of movies to his credit and more than a few are excellent noir including Secret Beyond the Door..., The Underworld Story, and Night of the Hunter which came out in theaters a year after this one. Another studio work horse penned the music: Paul Dunlap does a his usual workman like job on the film's soundtrack. Looking at his IMDB page I see he could put out half a dozen film scores a year. Director Fregonese probably deserves the most credit turning what could be a by-the-numbers crime film into an extremely taut thriller.

Most reading probably haven't seen this one. That may be taken care of soon. In 2005 VCI Entertainment announced that they planned to release Black Tuesday on DVD as part of their Kit Parker lost noir series. I contacted VCI and they told me that they still plan on releasing the film but they are currently still sorting out the rights to release the DVD.

See it anyway you can. It's a great forgotten noir with one of the best performances of Edward G. Robinson's long successful career slipping easily back into a bad guy role.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kiss of Death (1947)

Posted by Mappin & Webb Ltd.

Dir. Henry Hathaway

As our film begins a narrator informs us over the opening shots of a bustling Manhattan that, “Christmas eve in New York a happy time for some people; the lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings… for the lucky ones. Others aren’t so lucky.” Here we are introduced to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) a former jail-bird, trying to fly the straight and narrow. After a year of his prison record impeding his efforts to get a legit job, we see Nick and a few cohorts enter a jeweler’s office and rob them because, “this is how Nick goes Christmas shopping for his kids.” Nick gets caught at the end of this tense scene where he is seconds away from eluding the police who have been tipped off to the burglary. As he is about to escape their grasp, into the streets of New York, when a cop shoots him in the leg, dropping him to the ground and ensuring his Christmas will be spent at the graybar hotel. The narrator informs us that this event mirrors the fate of Nick’s father who died twenty years earlier with a policeman’s bullet in his back. He was escaping from a robbery he just committed when young Nick witnessed his father’s death and sadly enough it was one of his earliest memories. When the violins die down Nick is looking at plenty jail time but he has a way out.

Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) is a family man who tells Nick that if he sings about the failed heist, he can get out of serving time in the big cage. But Bianco is no canary and refuses to talk even when D’Angelo tries to push his guilt buttons about his two young daughters growing up without their dad. The Assistant D.A. believes that Nick is a good guy at heart and tries to give him a way to avoid incarceration. We see Nick’s wheels turn at the prospect and persuasion put forth by D’Angelo, but Nick is old school and decides to do his time with his mouth shut.

Three years into doing his bit in the joint, Nick finds out that his wife has killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven because of financial worries and her drinking too much. Upon hearing the news Nick wants to get out and take care of his kids who have landed in an orphanage. In prison he gets a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray) a young woman who used to take care of his daughters and quit and moved away before Nick’s wife treated her melon like a bundt cake. Nettie and Nick have a connection and he asks her to keep tabs on his daughters.

Beside himself with guilt and concern for his daughters, Nick decides to cut a deal with D’Angelo and give up his crew. Unfortunately this is where Nick must cross paths again with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Tommy and Nick had met before when Nick was being sentenced and they wound up in the same cell for little while. Tommy expressed to Nick his surprise at being behind bars noting, “Imagine me in here. Big man like me gettin’ picked up just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.” With that statement we understand Tommy’s idea of a moving violation differs drastically from yours and mine. Tommy Udo proves it later when he has to silence a potential informer and ends up lashing the stoolie’s mother to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and proceeds to push her tumbling down a flight of stairs. Cementing his dark disposition Udo gives his legendary creepy cackle at the sight of his maternal manhandling.

Under the guidance of D’Angelo, Nick purposely bumps into and pretends to be pals with Udo to get some dirt on him for the Assistant D.A. The plan works and the D.A.’s office is taking Tommy to trial for murder, Nick testifies against him and everything seems rosy. Nick and Nettie have gotten married, he has a regular job and a new identity. His daughters are finally out of the orphanage, living with the newlyweds and happily improving their roller-skating skills on a daily basis. The picture can’t get any more perfect until the frame they try to hang on Tommy Udo doesn’t take and his slick shyster manages to get Tommy acquitted of the charges he faced. Now Nick has the psychopath Tommy Udo gunning for him and his family. While he wants to help Nick, the assistant D.A. can only wait for Tommy to violate his parole in order to get him off the streets. That may be too little too late for Nick, Nettie and the girls with a lunatic like Udo looking for payback. Nick sends Nettie and the girls packing to the country and decides to take care of Tommy Udo himself. At this point the cat and mouse game between Nick and Tommy plays out with both parolees having to tread carefully under the watchful eye of D’Angelo.

This movie is entertaining overall but not much else in terms of the film as a whole. I don’t feel like director Henry Hathaway covered any unique ground or brought anything original to the table with this picture. He had already incorporated filming in actual locations and quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777.” The movie looks fine and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, Udo’s wheelchair pushing scene and the ending that nicely bolster the tension. The script is solid but lacks some flair or panache leaving it seeming a little flat in places. While there are some great lines, I honestly expected more from writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer who between them have written such gems as “Notorious” “Spellbound” “His Girl Friday” “Mutiny on the Bounty” “The Thing from Another World” and “Oceans Eleven” just to name a few (Even more impressive is Hecht’s uncredited contributions to many scripts over several decades. Check out his imdb page and be in awe). All that being said, the performances of Mature and Widmark are the elements that make this movie stand out from the pack.

Victor Mature is truly effective in his role as Nick Bianco as he can balance a believable hood with a genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten up from his crooked ways. It could have been played very sappy (especially in the scenes with the saccharine sweet little girls) but Mature nicely acts out the role and not the dramatic story. The result is a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character. His wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary too. Perfect casting and acting combined for the crucial role of our protagonist Nick.

If I had to choose one reason to recommend watching this film it’s definitely the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. His performance is outstanding, as he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force-feeds them to you. Udo is a perfect storm of menace, sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, you find yourself just waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance Widmark’s Udo may have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. The two portrayals, however, balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Killer Is Loose (1956)

Posted by Curt on 6/11/2006, 9:58 pm

When I first saw this movie a few years ago, I mainly enjoyed it because of Wendell Corey's excellent performance. He never coasted for one minute in his character, and just played his role straight ahead to the hilt. In this picture he portrays Leon Poole, a clerk at a bank. The day of an attempted robbery at his bank, his old army sarge shows up to see him. Well, Leon attempts to stop the bank thieves and gets knocked in the head for it. After this happens his sergerant states he'll never make fun of him again, like he did when he commanded him in his unit. But that was just an act that Leon put on for everyone, because as it turned out, the policeman on the case, Joseph Cotten, found out that poor ole Leon was the inside man on the robbery. Once this happens, there's a big shoot-out at the place where Leon Poole lives with his wife, and his wife gets accidently killed in the ensuing gun battle with her husband. Then Leon goes to trial for robbery, assault and attempted murder and is given 30 years in prison. As he is walking out of the courtroom, he glares at Cotten and his wife, played by Rhonda Fleming. He tells them both that's he gonna fix their wagon for good, and you just know he means it. Cotten blows it off because he's heard this song and dance before, but his wife is truly bothered by this. Then Leon Poole heads to prison where he gets his act together and walks the straight and narrow and after that he gets put on an honor farm. After he's been there for awhile, he is able to escape by murdering a guard with a blade that he broke off from a hoe. Then with the stolen truck that he uses to make his escape with, he heads to a nearby farm and kills a farmer and takes his clothes and his pickup truck, and drives to the city.

Leon has only one goal in mind and that's to take care of Cotten's wife in return for the death of his own wife. Before doing this however, he first must make a side trip to his old sergerant"s place to take care of some unfinished business. While he's waiting for the sarge to return home, he has the sarge's wife scared half to death with all his wild talk.

When the sergerant finally does get home he blasts him with his gun, causing the milk bottle to splatter all over the kitchen along with the sergerant himself. What a mess. After this happens, the sergerant's wife faints dead away and Poole grabs her raincoat and puts it on. By now, Poole is a total nutcase and he heads for Cotten's home. The police are hot on his trail, and they have it figured out that Poole will be going after either Cotten or his wife. There are cops hidden all around Cotten's home as Leon Poole stalks Cotten's wife as she walks up to their house. When Leon decides to make a move on her, the cops blow away poor old Poole right there on the front lawn.

When I saw this movie the first time, the two key scenes that really stuck in my mind were the creepy stalking scene where Wendell Corey is dressed up like a woman following Rhonda Fleming along the rain slicked sidewalks at night. The other disturbing scene is when Leon Poole shoots down his former sergerant while he clutches a milk bottle, and then the bottle shatters all over the place and pots and pans go flying off the wall. That was very scary. This film was directed by Budd Boetticher, who had done many western movies with Randolph Scott, but very few film noirs that I know of.

A terrific movie from beginning to end in my imho. I also enjoyed the totally flat 50's photography. Highly recommended for all those noir fans who have yet to see it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Dark Passage (1947)


Don Malcolm

Dark Passage, the orphan child of the Bogart-Bacall film quartet, is one I’ve seen umpteen times over the years. It remains a personal favorite despite the fact that I should know better. What follows below is one part justification, two parts appreciation.

When I say “orphan child,”, it’s because Dark Passage is routinely slammed as being far-fetched, gimmicky, and downright clunky. Even the producers of the companion documentary that accompanied the film’s recent release on DVD could only muster up lukewarm praise—a “good” film, not a great one.

So why does it have so much resonance for this viewer? Is it just a personality quirk, or is there something else?

The film begins with a prison escape by falsely convicted wife-murderer Vincent Parry (played by Humphrey Bogart). Hiding in a garbage barrel leaving San Quentin on a prison truck, he executes a tricky, dangerous rolloff while still inside. From the point that he emerges from the barrel, we see everything from Parry’s eyes—director Delmer Daves has to hide Bogart’s face from our view for awhile, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute.

Right off, viewers are brought into an area of controversy. The “first-person camera” did not wear well with audiences in 1947; the most prominent attempt to employ the technique, in Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel Lady In The Lake, was too static in its execution and suffered from the inconsistent performances of actors trained to avoid looking into the camera. Daves surmounts most of these problems by creating movement in as many of the first-person scenes as possible, and by interpolating third-person scenes whenever he can hide Parry from view.

Parry’s first attempt to get into San Francisco from the Marin countryside goes awry when the driver he's hitching a ride from hears a bulletin about the escape. Parry slugs him, knocks him out, drags him into the bushes and changes clothes with him; he’s just about ready to leave when a car stops and a young woman confronts him. She is Irene Jansen (played by Lauren Bacall), and she has a backstory with Parry’s case: as the narrative unfolds, we find out that she a) had a father who died in prison after being falsely convicted for the murder of his wife, and b) had attended Parry’s trial and had become friendly with the star witness against Parry.

Irene convinces Parry to hide in her car and they successfully get past the roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge. They wind up at Irene’s place in North Beach, where she buys him a new wardrobe, and the star witness (the meddlesome Madge Rapf, played by Agnes Moorehead) rattles Parry by knocking at Irene’s door while Parry is there alone. He decides to try to escape from the city that evening, but not before it becomes clear that he and Irene have some kind of romantic spark. (He is interested in an apparent boyfriend, named Bob, who calls shortly after they arrive at Irene’s place.)

Irene, who is well-fixed, supplies Parry with some badly-needed cash ($1000). But the cab driver (played by Tom D’Andrea) recognizes him. Parry contemplates jumping out of the taxi, or popping the cabbie in the back of the head; but this isn’t necessary, because the cabbie is a) sympathetic and b) knows a plastic surgeon who will take only $200 to give Parry a new face. (Yes, a face that looks just like Bogart!)

And this is just the beginning of the surreal plot twists that propel Dark Passage forward. While the cabbie lines up an appointment with the surgeon, Parry visits his only close friend George Fellsinger (played by Rory Mallinson), who agrees to let him stay with him once the surgery is performed. He also supplies more of the backstory leading up to the murder of Parry’s wife (“Remember when you spent your last dollar to give her that fire opal ring?” he reminds Parry, who grimly remembers she threw it in his face because the opal “had flaws in it”), and baldly states that Madge framed Parry for her death by lying on the witness stand.

The scene in the surgeon’s office brings the first-person camera technique to an close, but director Daves saved his best actor for last: veteran stage actor/director Houseley Stevenson, who at age 70 would embark on a short-lived career as a noir character icon, is nothing short of brilliant as the renegade doctor, seamlessly careening from existential philosophy (“There’s no such thing as courage; there’s only fear”) to black humor (“If a man like me didn’t like someone, he could surely fix him for life; he could make him look like a bulldog—or a monkey!”). As he gives Parry an anesthetic, we move into a ninety-second dream sequence, where Parry oscillates between sinister and reassuring images: though it’s derivative of a similar sequence from Murder, My Sweet, it’s still effective, and fun.

When Parry awakes, he’s all bandaged up, and after getting instructions for how to deal with his recovery period, he goes back to Fellsinger’s apartment—only to find that his friend has been murdered. With no other place left to go, he returns to Irene’s apartment, collapsing in front of her building. Just before passing out, however, he has noticed that the same car that first picked him up in Marin is parked near Irene’s place. As will become clear a bit later on, this is no coincidence.

Irene starts to take care of Parry, but there’s still another hurdle. When the papers get wind of Fellsinger’s murder, it prompts Madge to make a second call at Irene’s door. Apparently panicked by these events, Madge tries to invite herself to stay with Irene. At this point, Bob arrives (Irene had invited him in order to keep his dependent possessiveness under wraps), and it turns out that Bob (played by Bruce Bennett) and Madge are acrimonious ex-fiancés. They battle it out while Parry waits upstairs, and we learn that Madge is trying to figure out what man was in Irene’s apartment the previous day. Irene, thinking quickly, tells them that it was Parry—which stops both of them in their tracks. (As she tells Parry a bit later on, in one of the film’s best lines: “You tell the truth, and nobody believes you.”) Bob, thinking that Irene has really found another man (but not Parry!!) with whom to be romantically involved, gallantly steps aside; Madge is forced to retreat and await further developments.

All seems to be working out for Parry now; he has time to recover from the surgery, and he has the attentive, soulful Irene to take care of him. But, as a cutaway shot reveals, there is still the punk that he slugged initially (played by Clifton Young), who has his jalopy parked outside, keeping an eye on things.

Five days pass in a single dissolve; the bandages are removed and, wonder of wonders, Parry looks just like Bogart. And the attraction between Parry and Irene has continued to grow; she wants to know where he is going, and when he tries to sidestep the question she tells him that the reason he won’t tell her isn’t because he’s afraid she’ll tell the cops, but that he’s afraid she’ll follow him. This is certainly the most heartfelt and most artfully paced of all Bogart-Bacall love scenes; when Bacall asks if she was crazy to have picked him up on the road, Bogart hesitates an instant, then kisses her for the first time, pulls back, pauses, and says: “Yes.”

Parry doesn’t want to drag her into life on the lam, however, so he leaves her behind, planning an early-morning escape under a new name that Irene has conjured up for him. However, he’s not out of danger even with a new face; he is accosted at a diner by a cop who overhears him asking the short-order cook for race results at Bay Meadows, when the racing season has been over for a month.

He’s able to give the cop the slip, but his next move—taking a hotel room to bide time—only results in bringing back his first post-escape obstacle to his door: the punk, Baker, who tailed him from Irene’s and has extortion on his mind. Parry is escorted by gunpoint to Baker’s jalopy; they’re going back to Irene’s to force her to pay off.

Parry, forced to drive, stalls for time, all the while drawing information out of Baker, a small-time crook trying to step up in class. He finds an opening, grabs the gun away, and gets Baker to admit that he saw another car following Parry’s cab on the night he went to the surgeon—a car he knows belongs to the person who killed his wife and killed his friend Fellsinger. Baker makes a last-ditch play for the gun and, after a struggle, winds up dead at the base of a cliff. Parry now knows that he has to pay a call on the murderer, his once-and-always nemesis.


It has been Madge all along, but Parry has no way of proving it. He pretends to court her, but he can’t keep from revealing his true identity, and he promises to hound her until he confesses. But Madge has one last surreal, deadly twist ready for him: in order to make sure he can never prove his innocence, she hurls herself through her eighth-story window, falling to her death below.

Stunned, Parry manages to escape without detection (the shots of him climbing down the apartment fire escape are somehow claustrophobic and vertiginous all at once), and heads for the bus station to begin his escape to South America. He realizes, however, that life would be lonely without Irene; he calls her to let her know where he's going. The final scene reunites Parry and Irene in a little seaside cantina in Peru, where they can spend the rest of their days laying low and living well with Irene’s dough. The dark, forboding orchestrations in Franz Waxman’s score transmute into a fanfare of major-key hope and reconciliation, and the distant tropical lights twinkle as we leave the lovers to a well-deserved respite from this overly complicated plot.

Still with me? Yes, it’s a laborious plot—the original novel, by the great noir eccentric David Goodis, is even more dense and involuted—and the coincidences are even more outrageous. But, as Barry Gifford points out in his entry on this film in his wonderful book Devil Thumbs a Ride (now titled Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir)“...movies aren’t meant to be real; the reality is in the feelings produced by the viewing.”

What’s also clear from a comparison of Goodis’ novel (perhaps his most optimistic) and the screenplay (which condenses and removes character relationships, backstory, and several more plot complications) is that director/screenwriter Daves created a lot of cinematic problems for himself that might have been avoided had the film not been a Bogart-Bacall vehicle.

For example, with Bogart as the star, there was no way to show another actor as Parry and then bring him into the film halfway through. A “B”-movie version could have done that; but audiences then and now would not countenance such a device with Bogart in the lead role. Thus the first-person camera was needed.

Repeated viewings of the film show how artful the actors are at handling their play-to-the-camera roles. Bacall rises to the challenge of this role, and is noticeably more effective in this portion of the film than later on, when she is pushed into a more traditionally romantic role. (In the novel, Goodis never permits Irene to get so sentimental; he finds several other ways to convey the fact that Parry and Irene are soulmates.)

The character actors here—Stevenson, D’Andrea, and Mallinson—are the ones who really shine. It’s easy to overlook how much is going on in Mallinson’s one scene—how much narrative information he is supplying, for example. While Stevenson and D’Andrea are more flamboyant, adding comic relief to the grim proceedings, Mallinson has to play it straight: the subtle shadings, inflections, and shifts in emphasis that he negotiates during his five minutes become more impressive with each viewing.

And then there’s Young, a former Little Rascal (he was “Bonedust”), who deftly handles his quick turnabouts from cocky weasel to sniveling coward. Watching Warner Brothers’ films from the 40s on TCM provides other welcome glimpses of Young, but this is the place where he gets the most chance to show his stuff. Sadly, he died only four years after the filming of Dark Passage, suffocating in a house fire.

The main problem with Daves’ adaptation is that it cannot provide enough screen time for Agnes Moorehead’s Madge. In the novel, Parry’s plastic surgery “dream” features Madge, portraying her as a flamboyant, fearless trapeze artist; there are flashbacks to Parry’s dying wife, and additional details about the trial. All of these avenues for providing more on-screen backstory for Madge were left unexplored, and it is only due to Moorehead’s prodigious talent for histrionics that this very significant narrative problem is held at bay.

Daves does a fine job with Madge’s key scene, however, condensing Goodis’ prose into a solid set-piece for Moorehead. Her vocal inflections and her mounting mania are well-paced and become more startling with repeated viewings—even when you know she is going to wind up going out that window.

Goodis provides us with a haunting buildup to that moment in the novel, even managing to bring back the trapeze image:

She took a long breath and he could hear the dragging in her throat. She said. “They’ll always be looking for you. She wants you very badly. And that’s why she’d be willing to run away with you and keep on running away and always scared, always running away. And it would ruin everything for her because she’d be with you and that’s all she wants. And you know that and that’s why you won’t take her. That’s why she doesn’t have you now and she’ll never have you and nobody will ever have you. And that’s the way I wanted it. And that’s the way it is. And it will always be that way.”

She laughed at him and he saw the gold inlays. He saw the bright orange going back and away from him, going too fast. She was running backward, throwing herself backward as he went after her, but she was too fast and then he saw the gold inlays glittering and the bright orange flaring as the arms went wide, as the gold inlays flashed as she hit the window and the window gave way and the cracked glass went spraying and she went through.

He was at the window. He leaned through the broken window and he saw her going down, the bright orange acrobat falling off the trapeze. And it was as if she was taking him with her as she went down, the bright orange rolling and tossing and going down and hitting the pavement five stories below.

Gifford argues that this scene is Moorehead’s best film performance; while it’s hard to view it as better than her performance as Aunt Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons, there is no one who makes more out of her limited screen time. When she goes out that window, it is electrifying—even after you’ve seen it for the umpteenth time.

So that’s why, in the end, I find the arguments about this film’s clunkiness, its gimmickry, and its outrageous, almost shameless coincidences to be nitpicky grumblings. Not, it’s not “perfect,” but its flaws are fiery and forceful, and ultimately the film is more engaging because of them, not in spite of them. And, finally, there’s San Francisco—the noir city, contrary to claims made by those who would champion New York or L.A.—which was successfully put over in that role for the first time with this film. And done so with indelible, hypnotic effect. There’s nothing more comforting than a nightmare with a happy ending, and Dark Passage is just that.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Le Trou (1960)

This week's Noir of the Week is Le Trou (1960) directed by Jacques Becker. The film was called The Night Watch when released in the US in 1960.

The 2 ½ hour prison escape film, like Rififi, utilizes long, unbroken, often dialogue-free shots to dramatize the simple story of a group of prisoners attempting an ambitious escape from prison. Le Trou is shot in black and white and is totally without soundtrack music until the very end.

The film begins with one of the escapees, now outside the Santé Prison walls introducing the story. The film then flashes back to the Paris prison in 1947.

We’re then introduced to a young man Claude Gaspard. He’s put into a very small cell with four other inmates. There he meets the charming, always smiling Volsselin, nicknamed Monseigneur. Also in the cell are fellow inmates Roland Darbant, the man who introduced the film, Geo Cassid, and Manu Borelli.

The men work in their cell assembling cardboard boxes. Gaspard finds out that the men in his cell all eat well from care packages from the outside and all are close friends. What he doesn’t realize is that the men are working on escaping. While picking up a care package filled with bread, butter, saugage, smoked fish and rice pudding, the men discuss whether the should tell the new guy about their prison escape plans. They eventually take Gaspard into their confidence and being the long task of breaking the floor.

Slowly, in real time, the men chip away at the concrete floor that leads to a sewer tunnel.

The film lacks most prison film clichés. There are no sadistic prison guards, and all the prisoners seem like regular guys. Director Becker, who died shortly after the film was completed, used unprofessional actors including Jean Keraudy who was an actual participant in the escape attempt in 1947.

Given the film takes place in only three days, the sense of overwhelming tenacity shown by the prisoners is an astounding piece of filmmaking. The film has a number of memorable scenes, including the noisy breaking of the concrete floor with one of the bed legs -in real time- while another prisoner looks out the peep hole using a spy glass made from a tooth brush and a broken piece of mirror. Watching the scene draws you in an even makes you feel like a participant in the hacking, sawing and picking.

I won’t give away the ending or any of the interesting plot twists, but let’s just say there’s a heart-breaking double cross involved in a very un-Hollywood finish. Young Gaspard has to bear the brunt of an ironic plot-twist at the end. The film is a great prison escape film not to be mistaken for the French New Wave happening at the same time.


Monday, November 14, 2005

Caged (1950)

Posted by BmacV

First Encounter: Sometime in the early 1970s, living in Toronto and working, that week, the graveyard shift in the old M&D (music and drama) section of the Globe & Mail. Put the bulldog to bed about 12:35 a.m. With good connections, home by about one, just in time for the local station’s nightly late movie (and its library was enviable). Poured a Teacher’s and soda and flicked on the 13" black-and-white. Feet up on the sofa. Then, one unforgettable night, Caged!; think my drink may have even gone flat. Riveted from the very first line: “Pile out, you tramps - It’s the end of the line.”

During the inexorable course of this seven-cigarette (the highest accolade) cinematic banquet, gorgon after gorgon unleashed line after insolently insinuating line. Only one other movie, and from the same year, caught in almost identical circumstances at pretty much the same time of my life, resonated so astoundingly: Sunset Blvd. They’re still my two favorite movies, but, backed into a Sophie’s Choice, I’ll stick with Caged. Both have gotten better over the years - but then there’s nothing quite like the first time, is there?

The Background: John Cromwell made some swell movies (Ann Vickers, Of Human Bondage, The Enchanted Cottage, The Goddess, maybe even Night Song), but his work in the noir cycle always struck me as tepid: Dead Reckoning, The Racket, The Company She Keeps. Caged blazes at a higher order of magnitude, owing in large part to the high order of talent committed to it.

Producer Jerry Wald - no stranger to gorgons, as these credits will show - already had Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Possessed, Dark Passage, Key Largo and The Damned Don’t Cry behind him (and can thus be forgiven Flamingo Road). Virginia Kellogg (who wrote the story), fresh from T-Men and White Heat, together with Bernard Schoenfeld (Phantom Lady, The Dark Corner), penned the unsentimental, epigrammatic script. Carl Guthrie (Her Kind of Man, Cry Wolf, Flaxy Martin, Backfire) lighted and shot the film; the bars on the cell block and over the high windows suspend the dingy, dank prison in a reticulation of shadows, chillier and more ominous than William Daniels’ in the more brutal Brute Force. Max Steiner (no introduction necessary) composed the score. Last but far from least, the cast....But they’re better off woven into their story.

The Story: That “Pile out, you tramps” gets snarled by the driver of a jitney bringing a load of “new fish” to a women’s correctional facility somewhere in a nameless city in an anonymous state where there’s plenty of snow (for no good reason I want to think Indiana). In this load there’s a scared 19-year-old, Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), whose husband was killed during a $40 robbery; she was in the car, and so was charged as accomplice. A shrewd intake nurse cottons on to the fact that Allen’s “expecting company;” she’s slapped into quarantine, where Jane Darwell sits watch. Soon enough she’s assigned the number 93850 and to her ward, which Brobdingnagian matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson) runs like a private racket (“Sit in this chair. It’s kinda...roomy,” and “Maybe you’ve got a habit that’s hard to break. Cigarettes...or something?”). When it turns out that neither Allen nor her family is likely to prove a cash cow, Harper abandons her pregnant charge to scrubbing the floors - with lye.

To unfurl much more of the plot would be, well, unchivalrous. Let it suffice to list the rest of the principal players. There’s the butch “booster,” or head of a shoplifting ring, Kitty Stark - the marvelous Betty Garde (who sang Aunt Eller in the Broadway premiere of Oklahoma!): “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think about guys at all. You just get out of the habit.”

Long Queen Bee of Cell Block C, Stark is soon to be dethroned by an old rival, haughty “vice queen” Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick, scoring a personal best), who’s taking a light slap on the wrist rather than sing before grand jury. Allen (“She’s a cute trick”) becomes the objective correlative of the Stark/Powell power struggle, the distant apex of an isosceles triangle.

Others doing time include dim-bulb Emma (Ellen Corby, who receives unaccountably high billing), “common pross” Smoochie (Jan “I’ve got news for you” Sterling) and, almost stealing the movie as ancient lifer Millie, Gertrude Hoffman (“One more like you would be just so much velvet”). Upstairs, as reformist warden Ruth Benton, Agnes Moorehead does as well as expected as the film’s social conscience, but the role’s just not so freighted and coded as the others’ (she would have, however, fared quite well among the harpies). Alas, there must have been scenes with Esther Howard that were cut from the final print; she’s glimpsed but twice, one of a crowd in the prison yard.

Along the way, Cromwell modulates this grim stretch in stir with vignettes ranging from the Gothic (a cadaverous, tubercular inmate in quarantine, bidding Allen “Welcome to Lysol Lane;” Stark’s emerging “stirbugs” from solitary, a mass of tics and shorted synapses - “Quit shakin’ the tambourine,” she snaps to an apologetic Powell), to the poignant (the soughing whistle of a passing train leads the inmates to fall silent, turning to the window that reveals nothing but a cold shard of sky). In another set-piece at Christmastime, the women sing “Bird in a Cage” like combat-bound conscripts on a troop train, wondering if they’ll ever again know the meager comforts of home; one of them breaks into a lovely, impromptu dance solo to harmonica obbligato. The script stays alert to the unnatural isolation of life “behind the iron,” its diurnal regimentation and nocturnal terrors. There’s the inchoate yearning of the women to return to the world they were wrested from - and to the realities of babies abandoned to an impersonal bureaucracy, of families drifting apart, of loneliness (emotional and physical), despair and even suicide.

Of course, looming over all this is an inexpungible sense of dread, chiefly in the person of Emerson’s matron Harper, with her wheedling schoolgirl’s voice in a linebacker’s body. She’s the malevolent engine of the plot (and received an Academy Award nomination for the role, as did Parker). But Parker’s Allen is the protagonist, journeying from a terrified young widow to a savvy hard case. When she’s finally released, it’s to a hotsy-totsy jazz riff as she steps into a waiting sedan and accepts a light (plus a hand on her knee) from one of her new male friends from freeside. When asked what to do with her file, Benton, watching from her office window, replies “Keep it active.”

There was a time when Caged rolled around with some regularity on local and even cable stations, a time which seems to be no more. Never released commercially on either VHS or DVD, it may be the best movie ever that keeps sinking deeper into obscurity. (And it’s little short of scandalous that Caged used to turn up on lists - obviously compiled by the callow - of the worst movies ever made. True, the dames-behind-bars movie quickly ran to a sexploitation sub-genre - you could sense this coming even in 1955's Women’s Prison - but Caged, for all its frankness, never so sullies itself; if anything, it can be seen as proto-feminist). More than just about any post-Code movie up to 1950, Caged pushed the envelope. It’s an altogether astonishing piece of work.

Kindly omit flowers.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Under the Gun (1950)

Posted by Ken Z

Bert Galvin (Richard Conte) takes what he wants. The opening scene of "Under the Gun" (Universal, 1950) shows us Galvin stretched out in the back of a long, black Cadillac convertible being piloted by his two torpedoes. "Don't tell me we have to go see that dame again tonight?" one of them asks.
That dame is nightclub singer Ruth Williams (a dark-haired Audrey Totter), who treats us to a fine rendition of Billie Holiday's "I Cried For You" (not sure if Totter is really singing).

Galvin has had his eye on Ruth, and convinces her to join him on a roadtrip back to NYC, where Galvin wants to make her a star. Ruth is wary, but Galvin closes the deal by telling her: "I like your looks. I like the way you sing. You don't have to worry about any passes from me - if I make one - it'll be on the level." We begin to learn that Galvin is a smooth talker - and quite manipulative.

Driving through the Deep South, they stop at a resort that Galvin frequents. Problem is, he killed someone there and the younger brother has kept quiet about it. But now he is bent on revenge. Galvin is tipped off though, and coolly guns down the would be assassin.

He's tried for murder, and it all comes down to Ruth's testimony. She cracks on the stand under grilling from the DA: "It was murder - a cold blooded murder!"

Galving is sentenced to 20 years hard labor at a deep-south prison work camp. There's no parole, ever. The tough local sheriff understands just how dangerous Galvin is. Played by John McIntire with intelligence and grace, he tells Galvin: "It's not often we get a notorious New Yorker down here."
Galvin replies: "You won't keep me here for 20 years."

Galvin hatches an escape plan. He stuffs a wad of bills into the pocket of the "shooter," the guard with the high powered rifle who supervises the road crews. Just as Galvin's about to jump off a bridge to a waiting escape boat below, a southern-drawl-talking Sam Jaffe (playing Sam Gower) warns him: "Don't do it - you've just bought yourself a funeral - the shooter gets a pardon for shooting you dead."

And therein lies the irony and terror of "Under the Gun." A convict can volunteer to become the sole armed guard (the shooter), and can win his freedom by killing an escaping fellow convict.

The way for Galvin is now clear. He "befriends" an older convict and confides he's hidden 30 thousand in a hollowed bedpost in a New Orleans hotel. That convict is killed in a misguided escape, and that "shooter" is soon to become a free man. Glavin fills the empty "shooter" slot, and the movie kicks into high gear.

Galvin pays to dig up info on Gower, who just a few months prior, had literally saved his life.
He learns that Gower's family is in a bad way - his wife is sick, and his kids are hungry.
He offers Gower a deal: his wife will receive $25,000, and once this is confirmed to Gower, the clock starts ticking, and Gower has 30 days to try and escape. If Galvin should gun him down, Galvin will be freed. Should Gower somehow outsmart Galvin, HE will be free and Galvin will continue to serve out his term.

This is just a fantastic plot twist, and the director Ted Tazzlaff, plays it to the hilt. I won't divulge the ending, but IMO it became a little too Hollywood-by-the-numbers.

The most Noir element of "Under the Gun" for me is Richard Conte's character. Smart and sophisticated, without a lick of feeling, Conte is wickedly cool. The Galvin character actually is pretty similar to Conte's Don Barzini in "Godfather I"

Audrey Totter doesn't really have a chance to steal this film. She's very good with the limited screen time she has. But this is Conte's film. He's in nearly every scene. It's not the typical ensemble prison drama. Sam Jaffe really shines here too. I'm so used to his "Asphalt Jungle" character, -I kept waiting for him to speak with a soft German accent.

"Under the Gun" is available from Dark Marc. The quality of the DVD is marginal at best. The images are pretty degraded, and it's hard to pick up the nuances of the lighting and cinematography. Still, it is a powerful and disturbing film, and one that stuck with me long after the lights came back up. A gloriously dark ride.