Monday, January 27, 2020

Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959)

Kino Lorber have released a three-movie set of crime potboilers featuring legendary blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren. So far I’ve only watched Guns, Girls and Gangsters but already I’m a confirmed Mamie van Doren fan.

Chuck Wheeler (Gerald Mohr) has just been released from San Quentin and he has big plans - to rob an armoured car carrying the take from Las Vegas casinos to LA. The haul should be at least two million dollars (an astronomical amount of money in 1959). The only thing is, he needs Joe Darren (Grant Richards) because Darren is the one guy who knows how to launder the money. To get to Darren he intends to use his old cellmate Mike Bennett’s wife Vi Victor (Mamie van Doren). Vi is a canary working at one of Darren’s night clubs and Daren’s been making time with her. As well as the two million Chuck intends to get Vi as well. Considering that her husband Mike (Lee van Cleff) is insanely jealous and psychotically violent and is being released in three months’ crime any man thinking of putting the moves on Vi seriously needs his head examined. But of course the whole point of the movie is that any man who sets eyes on Vi is not exactly going to be thinking sensible thoughts.

Chuck’s plan is a good one but Chuck is thinking more about Vi than anything else. His judgment is not as sound as it might be (I must say I can’t blame him).

The plan might have worked except that Mike has found out that his wife has been sleeping around while he was inside so he busts out and proceeds to create havoc for everybody, leaving an ever-lengthening trail of corpses behind him. Vi makes every man crazy but crazy doesn’t even begin to describe what she does to Mike.

The movie relies a lot on voiceover narration which is usually a bad idea but there’s a lot of plot to be packed into the 70-minute running time so it’s perhaps excusable. And it’s important to get the background to the crime sketched in as quickly as possible so we can get to what’s really important - Mamie van Doren. That’s what the audience for this film wants to see, and there has to be time to let her do a couple of musical numbers so we can see just how sexy she is. And she’s plenty sexy.

Vi is hardboiled and not very moral but she’s also rather sentimental. There’s a sweet kid underneath the bad girl exterior. Life hasn’t offered her much and she’s had to take what she can get, which she’s done without hesitation, but while she’s unscrupulous she’s not in the least evil. Miss van Doren does a pretty reasonable job here. She makes Vi believable and she makes her interesting.

As a singer and dancer she wouldn’t set the world on fire (although she’s OK) if it wasn’t for that body, but she has that body and she’s read the instruction manual that came with it. Her night club performances are what you’d expect in the old Vegas of the late 50s. This was the Vegas of the Rat Pack and the movie captures the atmosphere of money and seedy glamour.

Cult movie fans will naturally be waiting to see Lee van Cleef make his entrance. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s bad and mad and dangerous and he’s totally out of control. He’s a killing machine. Gerald Mohr is pretty good too as Chuck. Chuck is a bit like Vi. His problem is that he’s not quite as bad as he thinks he is.

The heist scenes are done fairly well. This was a pretty low budget film but while it might lack sophistication director Edward L. Cahn keeps things moving along at a cracking pace. It’s also moderately violent by 1959 standards. Of course there’s no gore or anything remotely approaching it but there are a couple of killings that are chilling in their cold-bloodedness. This is a movie that tries to be hardboiled and mostly it succeeds.

The anamorphic transfer is very good. There are no extras. The movie is in black-and-white and looks all the better for it.

This is a B-movie and it makes no apologies for this. It glories in it. It’s a celebration of tackiness and trash culture. It wants to be lurid, and it is.

This would be an entertaining little B-movie even without Mamie van Doren. With her it’s loads of fun. And she sure does fill a dress very nicely.

Guns, Girls and Gangsters is highly recommended.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Robbery (1967)

Robbery is a 1967 British crime thriller directed by Peter Yates and based on the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Steve McQueen saw this film and was so impressed, especially by the car chase, he hired Yates to direct his next film. That film would be Bullitt.

Robbery was produced by Stanley Baker who is also the star. In 1967 Baker was one of the most significant figures in the British film industry. He was a huge star in Britain and after Zulu in 1964 he was a pretty big star internationally. Baker wanted to be more than just a star and he was already establishing himself as a major force behind the scenes. Baker was the first major British film star to be unequivocally and unapologetically working class and as such he not only helped to change the whole character of he industry in Britain, he also paved the way for a new wave of working class stars like Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Robbery starts in the middle of what is obviously a heist but we don’t really know what’s going on. It’s a meticulously planned and timed operation, the sort of robbery that could only have been planned by someone who believes in obsessive attention to detail. It culminates in a car chase but it’s not until the heist is over that we discover it was a diamond robbery. But this movie is not about that diamond robbery. The diamond job was  merely a way of raising capital for a much bigger much more ambitious job. In fact the biggest robbery ever carried out in Britain up to that time.

The diamond robbery went without a hitch. Well, almost. There was one tiny mistake which lands one of the gang in prison. Not so much a mistake, more a case of one of those little things that goes wrong that cannot possibly be anticipated. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The mastermind behind the robberies is Paul Clifton (Stanley Baker). He plans his crimes like military operations. Every single detail is planned and rehearsed and then rehearsed again.

This is very much one of those heist movies in which the emphasis is on the buildup and then on the detailed unfolding of a complex plan. That’s not to say that it’s lacking in action, but the action is always balanced by slower scenes in which the tension builds remorselessly. Clifton’s robberies are so well planned that nothing can go wrong but of course we know that something will go wrong, we just don’t know what it is that is going to bring disaster, and we don’t know how bad the disaster will be since Clifton is the sort of guy who believes in having a contingency plan for everything. He doesn’t have a driver for every vehicle, he has two.

This movie also represents something of a major departure for heist movies in its emphasis on realism. The criminals behave like real criminals. The cops behave like real cops. The police investigation is obsessively realistic police procedural stuff. The cop leading the investigation, Detective Inspector George Langdon, might not be a man of brilliant insights but he overlooks nothing.

Even the car chase is grittily realistic. We really believe we’re watching a real police pursuit through real streets. It’s exciting but unglamorous - the excitement comes from the sense of realism.

The focus is on the nuts and bolts of both crime and police work. The characters are cogs in a machine, with no real personality. We have no idea what motivates Paul Clifton. He’s a criminal because that’s what he does for a living. He wouldn’t know how to do anything else. Inspector Langdon is a cop because he wouldn’t know how to do anything else. The one exception is Clifton’s wife Kate (Joanna Pettet), torn between her obviously genuine love for Clifton and her weariness of life as the wife of a career criminal. She is tired of waiting for him to get out of prison, tired of being a wife cut off from love (and very obviously tired of years without sex).

Yates was a fairly inexperienced director but the similarities in tone and approach between this film and Bullitt are so strong that he was clearly already starting to find his style. Having Douglas Slocombe, one of the greatest of all British cinematographers, on board would certainly have helped. Robbery has an overwhelming grinding sense of emptiness and futility. These are criminals who know they’ll eventually be caught, if not for this crime then for the next one. Their lives are interludes between prison terms. Escaping from the cycle is something that just doesn’t occur to them.

This is clearly a movie that had serious money spent on it, not surprising given Stanley Baker’s box office clout at the time.

The DVD from Kino Lorber offers a very nice anamorphic transfer. The main extra is an audio commentary that is unfortunately very disappointing, focussing mainly on trivial details that we could easily look up for ourselves.

It’s interesting to compare this movie with the excellent 1969 British TV series The Gold Robbers, also dealing with an intricately planned heist that slowly unravels due to the accumulation of small unanticipated factors that didn’t seem to be mistakes at the time but turn out to be fatal errors.

Robbery is gripping stuff. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Girls in Prison (1956)

When a movie has a title like Girls in Prison you could be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be one of those hair-raisingly sleazy women-in-prison (WiP) movies of the 70s and early 80s. But this particular movie was made in 1956 so you know you’re not going to get graphic torture and lots of bare female flesh. So what exactly are you going to get?

There were relatively respectable mainstream movies dealing with women in prison, movies like Caged (made by Warner Brothers in 1950). Of course there’s no getting away from the fact that the subject matter is going to have at least a slightly lurid tinge but these movies at least tried to deal with the subject without too much sensationalism.

Girls in Prison seems to be a bit of a hybrid. It’s a low-budget B-movie which is not quite an exploitation movie but it veers pretty close to the line.

The movie’s pedigree may provide some hints as to the intentions behind it. Producer Alex Gordon made lots of movies for American International Pictures. Director Edward L. Cahn and writer Lou Rusoff had much the same sort of background. Executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff was the man behind countless very cheesy although often very entertaining very low-budget flicks. This all suggests that this movie is not going to be an actual exploitation movie but it is going to be very much drive-in fodder. The film’s tagline - What happens to girls without men? - certainly has nicely lurid overtones.

Ann Carson (Joan Taylor) has earned herself a nice long stretch in the women’s penitentiary for her involvement in a bank robbery. Naturally she claims that she had no idea those men she was with actually intended to rob the bank. The court didn’t buy her story and the prison governor doesn’t either. But Rev Fulton (Richard Denning), the youngish very handsome do-gooder prison chaplain, swallows it hook, line and sinker. He just can’t believe that such a sweet innocent young girl (she’s supposed to be just twenty although Joan Taylor was twenty-seven and looks it) could have been mixed up in anything illegal.

While this is very definitely a women-in-prison movie and almost all the action takes place in the prison or in the fields where the women are put to work it’s also a crime thriller. A lot of money was stolen in that bank robbery. Everybody believes that Ann has the proceeds of the robbery stashed somewhere. And everybody wants it. Rather cleverly the movie keeps things a bit ambiguous. We figure out right from the start that the story Ann told in court was probably not strictly true in every detail but we’re still not sure of the precise nature of her involvement in the robbery. It is possible that she was an innocent dupe, or perhaps mostly innocent, or perhaps manipulated. Or she might even be totally guilty. It’s not just that her story is not absolutely convincing. Her behaviour is just a little odd.

Some of those who want that money are prepared to take drastic steps to get it. Ann shares a cell with Jennie, the tough-as-nails queen bee among the prisoners, and Melanee, a southern belle who’s probably never been within five hundred miles of the South. Jennie and Melanee are not exactly pals but they’re willing to work together to find a way to separate Ann from the money. There’s also a hoodlum on the outside who thinks he can get the money through Ann’s dear old dad (who is actually a conniving old ex-con). Given the pressure Ann is under you’d think she’d be delighted that Rev Fulton is trying to get an appeal ring on her behalf but she seems strangely hostile to the idea. Which doesn’t bother Fulton - he’s found someone to save and he’s going to save her whether she likes it or not.

It all leads up to a fairly outrageous climax.

There is a certain theme that plays a major rôle in every women-in-prison movie made from the late 60s onwards. There’s going to be at least one female prisoner who is perhaps just a little too fond of other girls, if if you catch my drift. This theme is introduced in Girls in Prison very early on. Poor Ann finds herself being fondled and she’s not too happy about it. She doesn’t really like Melanee (Helen Gilbert) at all, and she certainly doesn’t like her in that way.

Joan Taylor’s performance as Ann is quite effective. She makes her just ever so slightly hardboiled but vulnerable as well and mostly she makes her ambiguous which is why the film requires. Adele Jergens is terrific as the totally amoral Jennie, as is Helen Gilbert as the frustrated lesbian Melanee. Phyllis Coates adds a disturbing touch as Ann’s other cellmate Dorothy, a completely insane murderess who thinks that every new prisoner is Lois, the woman she blames for the murders of her husband and son (of course Dorothy actually killed them in an insane rage after her husband ran off with this Lois woman).

The weak link is the reverend. He’s way too good to be true and he’s irritating. It’s a credit to Richard Denning’s natural charm that he doesn’t come across as so irritating that he spoils the movie.

Girls in Prison ticks most of the women-in-prison boxes. There’s lesbianism, there’s a catfight, Ann gets a beating. Of course this being 1956 it’s all very much toned down and very tame compared to later WiP films. The one thing missing is the sadistic prison warder. All members of the prison staff are paragons of virtue and overflowing with kindness. On the other hand the women prisoners are an appalling bunch so we can still understand why Ann isn’t having a good time. As a crime thriller this movie isn’t too bad.

Girls in Prison is not just a B-movie it’s on the cheap end of the B-movie spectrum but it’s fairly entertaining in a mildly disreputable and slightly trashy way. Recommended.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Twenty Plus Two (1961)

Twenty Plus Two (AKA It Started in Tokyo) is a 1961 American private eye movie. It’s more in the straightforward mystery rather than the hard-boiled mould but there are some definite hints of film noir.

David Janssen stars. He was already a fairy well-known star on television thanks to the Richard Diamond Private Detective series. In Twenty Plus Two he’s Tom Alder, a private detective of a very specialised type. He finds people. That doesn't mean he takes ordinary missing persons cases. He finds missing heirs. If someone dies leaving a large estate and there are no known heirs he goes looking for heirs who may have been overlooked. Distant forgotten relatives. He then gets a percentage of the estate. It’s a good arrangement. These people have no idea that they are in line for inheritances from relatives of whose existence they may only have been dimly aware so they’re more than happy to pay him a generous percentage. He’s happy because he makes a very comfortable living indeed for doing a job for which he was a peculiar talent - for him it’s easy work.

Alder would not normally have any interest in the murder of Julia Joliet, a middle-aged woman who makes a living running a fan club for Hollywood star Leroy Dane, but some newspaper clippings relating to the Delaney case were found in Miss Joliet’s apartment. Twelve years earlier sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Doris Delaney disappeared. Her parents were very wealthy and influential people and the case attracted a lot of attention, and it remained a fascinating unsolved mystery. The Delaneys spent a fortune on private detectives to find their vanished daughter. If neither the police nor an army of private eyes could find Doris Delaney you might think that one man picking up such a cold trail twelve years later would have no chance. But Tom Alder is very very good at finding people. And he may have found a link that no-one else had spotted.

Alder is also finding that the past is hard to escape. He has run into Linda again. Linda Foster (Jeanne Crain) was his first love. Ten years ago she dumped him. It hurt. It hurt a lot. He had learnt to handle it but now she’s back and she wants him back and he has a feeling that he may be once again heading for a whole world of hurt.

There are numerous plot strands that don’t seem to be connected but of course they are connected and they’re resolved pretty well. While the plot is not really all that dazzling there are some very interesting and unusual elements to this film. The hero is most emphatically not an action hero. He doesn’t carry a gun (he’s not really a PI as such) and he doesn’t get into any fistfights. More unusually he doesn’t get beaten up. He doesn’t even threaten anyone. There’s only one scene with a gun and he’s not the one holding it. In fact he doesn’t do a single heroic thing. It’s not that he’s a wimp. He’s just not a tough guy hero. He’s an investigator and what he does is investigate.

Also unusual is the fact that he doesn’t go around interviewing witnesses and trying to pump people for information. He uses other people (real private detectives and contacts he has in useful places) to gather information. His talent is for putting the pieces of the jigsaw together, not for collecting the pieces. He just happens to be very good at putting those pieces together. He sees connections that others don’t see (such as a very minor but very significant difference between two photographs of the same person). Mostly Alder makes phone calls, patiently utilising his courses to assemble his clues (and the audience gets the same clues that Alder gets).

This is 1961, very much a transitional period in American movies. The Production Code was crumbling. This film deals much more openly with sexual subject matter than would have been the case even a couple of years earlier but it does so without ever getting sleazy or exploitative. It’s sex that drives the plot but sex is never used for titillation. There’s a flashback sequence in Tokyo in 1951 in which the young Alder meets a woman named Lilly in a bar. She’s obviously a whore but again the situation is handled subtly and without sensationalism.

Frank Gruber wrote and produced the film from his own novel. Joseph M. Newman directed, and quite effectively in a very low-key manner.

Janssen plays Alder with a certain quiet charm with perhaps just a touch of neuroticism lurking beneath the surface. It’s a fine performance. Jeanne Crain seems destined to be the femme fatale and she does it well. But then there’s Nicki (Dina Merrill) and she might turn out to be the femme fatale. And there’s also Lilly and she could qualify as well. One of the many interesting things about this movie is that the story arcs of the characters don’t develop as you expect they’re going to. Agnes Moorehead is in splendid form as the proud and rather shrewd mother of the long-lost schoolgirl.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer.

Overall Twenty Plus Two is a low-key slightly offbeat slightly nourish mystery and it’s really quite appealing. I highly recommend this one.