Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle was based on W.R. Burnett’s novel of the same name and released by MGM in 1950.

Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison and he’s planning a big caper. It’s a fool-proof plan to knock over a jewellery story and steal a million dollars in jewels.

He needs someone to put up fifty grand for operating expenses. Using bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) as an intermediary he approaches crooked lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern).

Meanwhile small-time stick-up man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) needs $2300 badly to pay a gambling debt. His pal Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) can advance him a grand and persuades Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) to find the rest of the money.

Gus, Louis and Dix are recruited to help carry out the robbery.

We have indications very early on that this heist is likely to run into trouble. There are warning signs, in fact we’re pretty sure that a major double-cross is going to go down.

That’s bad enough, but bad luck takes a hand as well. You can plan a robbery in intricate detail but you just can’t predict the trivial little things that are are likely to go wrong, and that’s how guys end up in the penitentiary.

Our sense that things are going to go badly wrong turns out to be correct. It’s then a question of whether there’s still a chance of getting clear before the cops close in.

The police are a slightly sinister presence in this movie. Our sympathies are with the criminals. They’re crooks but they’re not evil. They all have at least one major weakness (women, liquor, gambling or in the case of Louis a desire for money to provide for his wife and son). But these crooks all have redeeming qualities as well. They’re a lot more sympathetic than the cops. And a lot more likeable.

Dix resembles Roy Earle from High Sierra, another W.R. Burnett story. Both have a yearning to return to the past, to their rural boyhoods, and the past is wildly romanticised in their minds. There’s a lot decency in Dix. He can’t bring himself to treat Doll badly. Doll is a hooker and she’s crazy about Dix. He thinks she’s a nuisance but cruelty is just not in his nature.

Sterling Hayden’s reputation as a film noir icon rests mainly on this movie. There’s no question that very few actors ever looked more like film noir icons than Hayden. He gives a typically understated but effective performance.

Louis Calhern as Emmerich, Sam Jaffe as Riedenschneider and James Whitmore as Gus are all very good. This is a movie that focuses more on the characters, and the interactions between the characters, than on plot (although the plot is actually very solid).

Don’t get too excited by the prominence given to Marilyn Monroe on the re-release posters. Hers is strictly a bit part, although it has to be said that she’s fun as Emmerich’s ditzy mistress Angela.

John Huston and Ben Maddow co-wrote the screenplay. They retain much of Burnett’s original dialogue, which is fine since Burnett’s dialogue is terrific. This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of the novel. The heist is made slightly more elaborate in order to make it more cinematic but there are no significant changes at all to the story. The ending is unchanged, although it’s also handled in a more cinematic way (which actually improves it).

This is film noir but there’s no femme fatale. Doll is perhaps a sad character but she’s goodhearted and devoted Dix. Angela isn’t really a femme fatale. Her attraction to Emmerich is clearly based entirely on his money but she’s pretty open about it and she’s sweet and good-natured.

The Asphalt Jungle is top-notch entertainment.

I’ve also reviewed W.R. Burnett’s novel, on Vintage Pop Fictions.

Friday, June 2, 2023

The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis, 1960)

The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis, 1960) was the second of the West German Edgar Wallace krimis made by Rialto.

Not as outrageous as the later krimis but it's stylish, well-crafted, well-paced and wildly and deliriously entertaining.

My full review can be found at Cult Movie Reviews.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Hindenburg (1975)

The 1970s was the decade of the disaster movie so it was probably inevitable that sooner or later someone would make a movie about the Hindenburg disaster. Robert Wise got the job and The Hindenburg came out in 1975.

It posed a few challenges. Movies like Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure dealt with disasters that unfold over a long time period. A lot of the running time of those movies was taken up by the disasters. The Hindenburg disaster took minutes. So how do you fill a two-hour running time? The obvious answer was to turn it into a suspense movie by introducing the idea of a possible plot to blow up the giant airship. Most of the movie can then be occupied by efforts to uncover and foil the plot.

The second problem was the same one that faces anyone making a movie about the Titanic. The audience knows how the story is going to end, they know that disaster cannot be averted. The Hindenburg solves that problem by focusing not on the disaster itself but on the why and the how. The central character is German Air Force intelligence officer Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) who has been given the job of security officer. His job is the make sure that the Hindenburg’s voyage is completed safely.

The third problem is that the story will have to be told mostly from the German viewpoint. Therefore the movie goes to elaborate lengths to convince us that Colonel Ritter is a Good German who hates the Nazis. The movie covers itself even more thoroughly by persuading us that the Zeppelin company who built the Hindenburg is also run by Good Germans who hate the Nazis.

Richard Levinson and William Link provided the story. These were the men responsible for the superb 1970s Ellery Queen TV series, and Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. They should have been capable of coming up with a decent plot, and in fact the core plot is reasonably good.

The Hindenburg is about to take off on a flight from Frankfurt to New York. An anonymous letter is received, claiming that the zeppelin is going to be blown up. For prestige reasons the flight can’t be cancelled but elaborate precautions are taken. The airship is searched thoroughly and as well as Ritter there is a Gestapo man assigned to help his investigations during the flight.

With a saboteur loose on board there was the potential for mystery, suspense and action but the potential isn’t realised. The identity of the saboteur is revealed too early and is in fact blindingly obvious right from the start - nobody else has a motive.

This makes the other passengers rather uninteresting since we know they’re not involved in the conspiracy. They’re just there to play out subplots to pad out the running time. And at 125 minutes this movie is much much too long. These other characters are also very poorly developed. There’s a pianist who is only there so he can sing an anti-Hitler song in a musical interlude with is embarrassing, heavy-handed and out-of-place. It belongs in a Mel Brooks movie. Some of the other characters serve even less purpose.

The one character who should have been interesting is the German countess played by Anne Bancroft. She and Ritter have a history. There should have been some romantic tension between them, but it doesn’t happen. It’s a pity. Bancroft is very good (probably the best thing in the movie) but the script doesn’t give her enough to work with. We really need Ritter and the Countess to care about each other, to give the movie at least some emotional content.

There are some good character actors here (including Gig Young and Burgess Meredith) but the only one who impresses is Charles Durning as the captain of the Hindenburg, largely because he’s the only character with a slight amount of depth.

Roy Thinnes is OK as the movie’s token Nazi, Gestapo agent Martin Vogel, but the character is just a standard movie Nazi.

Wise makes the odd decision to switch to black-and-white once disaster strikes. This was so he could intercut actual newsreel footage with new footage. It’s jarring and it totally destroys the suspension of disbelief. The viewer loses interest because the movie no longer seems real. The disaster, rather than being the climax of the movie, becomes a sort of epilogue.

The special effects are mostly good. It’s a handsome-looking movie. The zeppelin model looks great. The shots of the Zeppelin’s interior are effective and atmospheric.

Nothing could have saved the Hindenburg but the movie could have been saved. The script just needed a lot more work. The minor characters needed to be fleshed out just a little. The major characters needed to be more fully developed. And a bit of action here and there wouldn’t have hurt - surely the hunt for a saboteur could have generated at least one action sequence. A bit more urgency was needed. The basic plot idea was however perfectly sound.

The Hindenburg really is strictly for disaster movie completists.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Island of Doomed Men (1940)

Island of Doomed Men is a 1940 Columbia B-feature notable mainly for its star, Peter Lorre.

Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcox) has just started work as an undercover agent for the U.S. government. He is now Agent 64 and his first assignment is to work with Agent 46 on what is proving to be a difficult case. Agent 46 just has time to tell Sheldon that their target is a man named Stephen Danel (we will soon find out that Danel is played by Peter Lorre) and and that Danel is working some mysterious new racket. Having imparted this scanty information Agent 46 is shot dead through a window by an unknown gunman.

Sheldon is caught by the police leaving the scene and is arrested, charged with the murder and convicted. He is sent to prison. His first case has ended in disaster and the government doesn’t lift a finger to help him out.

There is someone who is willing to help Mark Sheldon. Stephen Danel is a noted philanthropist. He helps a lot of convicts. He arranges parole for them. They are released into his custody. They are then taken to his private island. There they will be offered good honest work in pleasant conditions, free from any temptation to return to crime.

At least that’s what the Parole Board thinks. In reality Danel’s private island is a slave island. The parolees are kept in appalling conditions and worked until they die. Discipline is brutal, enforced by Captain Cort (Charles Middleton, yes the Emperor Ming himself from the Flash Gordon serials).

Danel’s wife Lorraine (Rochelle Hudson) is more or less a prisoner as well, albeit a prisoner kept in luxury. She married Danel because she wanted security and a comfortable life, and she has had three years in which to regret her decision.

Lorraine only met Sheldon briefly when he arrived on the island but she’s become rather obsessed by him. Maybe it’s love at first sight, or maybe she just thinks Sheldon can help her to escape.

Sheldon still takes his government agent job seriously. He still has plans to bring Danel to justice but he can’t do that as a prisoner. He has concluded that the only way to escape is by fomenting a rebellion amongst the slave parolees.

Robert Wilcox is a somewhat colourless hero. Rochelle Hudson as Lorraine is unfortunately dull and lifeless. Charles Middleton on the other hand is excellent as the cynical sadistic captain Cort.

Peter Lorre is of course the reason to watch this movie. He’s in fine form as the sinister diabolical criminal mastermind Danel. Lorre is smart enough not to overdo things. He knows he can make Danel much more terrifying by making him a man who is always rigidly under control, a man confident of his absolute power. Lorre is aiming for subtle menace and he achieves it.

What makes Lorre’s performance more effectively creepy is that he knows Lorraine hates him, he knows he can only keep her by making her more or less a prisoner, but he doesn’t care. She belongs to him and he intends to retain possession of her. This aspect of the movie, the suggestion that Danel wants submission rather than love, adds just a slight hint of kinkiness.

The plot has some decent twists but you really don’t want to think too much about this plot. Is it really credible that a government agency would recruit an agent and then let him be convicted of a crime and rot in prison? I’d have thought that treating your agents this way would led to serious morale problems. It’s also questionable whether there was ever enough evidence for a successful murder prosecution. And does the Parole Board really do nothing to check up on parolees? But there’s nothing more boring than an excessive concern about plot coherence.

This was 1940, with the Production Code at its strictest, so the sadism of Danel and Cort is severely muted which robs the movie of some of the impact it should have had.

Island of Doomed Men isn’t great but it’s a fun B-movie and Peter Lorre’s performance is sufficient reason to see it. Recommended.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Detour (1945)

According to legend Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour was made for peanuts (some claim the budget was as low as $30,000) and shot in around six days. In reality it had an average sort of budget for a Poverty Row feature (just under $120,000) and was shot in fourteen days. Be that as it may Detour remains of the greatest noirs of them all. And one of the finest American movies of the 40s.

Detour ticks just about every noir box there is. We get voiceover narration (from the protagonist, Al), flashbacks, a femme fatale, night shot, shadows, fog, seediness, paranoia and despair.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is hitchhiking to LA. Al plays piano in a small club (more of a dive really) in New York. It’s not much of a career for a man who once had ambitions but Sue makes it bearable. Sue sings in the club. Al and Sue are going to get married. Al is crazy about Sue. Then Sue decides to head for Hollywood in the hope of finding stardom.

Al sticks it out on his own for a while but he can’t stand it. He has to go to LA to be with Sue. He has no money so he has to hitchhike. He knows about the annoyances and hazards of hitchhiking but he has no choice.

He will soon discover some hazards of hitchhiking that he didn’t know about. It all begins when he gets a lucky break. He gets picked up in Arizona by a guy named Haskell. Haskell is going all the way to LA and he’d be glad of the company.

Being picked up by Haskell turns out to have been not so lucky after all.

And then he meets Vera (Ann Savage) and she gets him out of one jam and into a much bigger one. There’s nothing he can do about it. She holds the whip hand.

Vera isn’t the kind of femme fatale who manipulates a man with soft words and caresses. Vera is like a rattlesnake. Fate has given her power over Al and she intends to use it. It’s one of the most over-the-top performances in film history. It’s breathtaking in its excessiveness.

Which brings us to Al. With its very tight 66-minute running time this movie can’t waste any time. It has to let us know certain things quickly and economically. The first thing we notice is Al’s self-pity and we know from the flashbacks that this is a core part of his personality. He felt sorry for himself long before life started to give him a hard time. He is bitter and resentful.

The key to Detour is of course the question of whether Al is an unreliable narrator. The entire story is told from his point of view. We have some slight cause to wonder how truthful he’s being, but we have much stronger cause to wonder whether we’re basically being told the truth, but a very distorted version of the truth. We wonder how clearly Al sees the world. We certainly have doubts about how clearly he sees himself. We might even have tiny niggling doubts about his sanity.

But we don’t really know because Ulmer has no intention of making things easy for us. It’s possible that Al really is an unlucky guy who just can’t catch a break, but we’re certainly meant to regard his self-justifications with scepticism.

In 1944 Martin Goldsmith wrote a screenplay for Detour based on his own novel. It was very very different from the film that Ulmer eventually made, with lots of additional characters and two viewpoint characters. Lew Landers was given the director’s job. At a very late stage Landers was reassigned to another project and Ulmer took over as director. The final shooting script still bore very little resemblance to the completed film. It seems that at the last moment Ulmer decided the movie would be much more interesting with a single relentlessly subjective viewpoint. Anything outside Al’s direct experience was simply jettisoned from the script. Ulmer’s last-minute decision was undoubtedly correct.

Tom Neal is superb as the shifty self-pitying Al. Neal has the distinction of being one the few film noir stars to be charged with murder in real life (he shot his wife).

Ann Savage gives one of the wildest most extraordinary performances in film history. She’s positively terrifying. Of course you have to remember that we’re seeing Vera through Al’s eyes so we may be getting a totally distorted view of her. But Savage’s job as an actress was to show us Vera through Al’s eyes and that’s what she does.

The Criterion DVD (which is the edition I own) includes some extras. By far the most interesting is found in the liner note - a detailed description of the film’s production history and the many many changes the screenplay went through.

Detour is one of the three or four finest American noirs ever made. A superb movie. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Red-Headed Woman, directed by Jack Conway and released by MGM in 1932, is perhaps the most cheerfully amoral of all pre-code movies. In fact it might even be described as cheerfully immoral. It’s huge amounts of fun either way.

It’s one of Jean Harlow’s three greatest movies (the others being Red Dust and Bombshell).

Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a girl on the make. She was born on the wrong side of the tracks but she intends to get herself over onto the right side of the tracks and stay there. She has set her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre Jr (Chester Morris). He’s an up-and coming executive but more importantly his family has pots of money. And respectability. Marrying Bill would be a smart movie for Lil. There are however two minor problems. Bill is already married, and he loves his wife. Lil believes that these are very minor obstacles.

What Lil’s seduction technique lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer fanatical determination. She is simply not going to give up.

Lil achieves her objective but then finds she has some major new problems to deal with. She has made an advantageous marriage but respectable society in Renwood will not have anything to do with her. She is snubbed, in a particularly callous and cruel way. Lil is genuinely hurt and humiliated.

But you can’t keep a bad girl down. No matter how severe the setback Lil will always pick herself up and try again. Or, more usually, she will try a different strategy. She has a pretty clever strategy in mind to deal with this situation and she has prepared the groundwork already.

Lil will have plenty of further ups and downs but she will never admit defeat.

The very pre-code ending is everything one could hope for.

Harlow is in sparkling form. Lil is unscrupulous and dishonest and manipulative but one can’t help admiring her unquenchable spirit. She is also vulgar, trashy and obvious but that’s the secret to her success. Girls who are pretty, sexy and trashy are irresistible to men. And Lil oozes sex. Lil could have been a monster but Harlow manages to get the audience on Lil’s side. She’s just such a cute adorable bad girl.

Harlow of course looks gorgeous. She looks gorgeous in a cheap glitzy trashy sort of way but Harlow could always pull that off with style.

Chester Morris is pretty good as well. Where Lil is concerned Bill is torn between repulsion and attraction and Morris conveys this effectively.

Una Merkel almost steals the picture as Lil’s best friend, the delightfully ditzy Sally. Una Merkel is always fun in pre-code movies.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the screenplay but Irving Thalberg hated it. It lacked the wit and playfulness that Thalberg wanted, so he hired Anita Loos to do a complete rewrite. Loos was the right woman for the job. This is the sort of thing she did supremely well and she produced a sparkling and very playfully naughty script which delighted Thalberg.

It’s that playfulness that incensed the moral watchdogs. It’s bad enough that the movie deals with adultery but to deal with that subject flippantly and with cheerful approval was just too much. This is wickedness played for laughs. 

Even worse, when her men lose patience with her and slap her she enjoys it.

Lil has her share of temporary defeats but at no time does it ever occur to her that she is doing anything morally wrong. When things get tough for her that just means that she needs to readjust her strategy. She has never considered the option of becoming a good girl. She intends to be a rich girl. She was born without any of the advantages that would allow her to be a rich good girl, so she’ll be a rich bad girl. She never has any regrets and she never apologises for being what she is.

And the movie never apologies for being what it is. If you’re thinking that maybe somewhere along the line some hint of moral disapproval, or some hint that sin has to be paid for, will sneak its way into this picture then you’re going to be disappointed. As far as this movie is concerned sin pays.

Red-Headed Woman is one of the great pre-code movies. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Raw Deal (1948)

Raw Deal is the most admired of Anthony Mann’s 1940s films noirs, and with good reason.

Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) is doing time in the state penitentiary and he’s not enjoying it. He took the rap for Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) and Rick owes him a major favour. Now Joe’s girlfriend Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) brings him the good news. Rick is going to pay his debt. Joe is going to be busted out of prison that night.

Joe has had another female visitor. Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) has taken an interest in his case. She thinks there may be a way for to him get parole in a couple of years. She doesn’t understand that Joe isn’t prepared to wait. He wants out now.

What is Ann’s interest in Joe? Is she just a do-gooder or does she have a crush on him? We suspect the latter might be the case. Ann herself is probably not really being honest with herself about her motivations at this stage.

Throughout the movie we get a voiceover narration from Pat, a very film noir touch.

The prison break goes well at first but then little things start to go wrong. Joe and Pat need a place to hide out. They pick Ann’s apartment. Joe decides they should take Ann along - the cops will not be looking for a man accompanied by two women.

Pat is a jealous woman and she doesn’t like Ann one little bit. She also doesn’t trust her. Ann keeps trying to persuade Joe to give himself up.

The audience knows more than Joe. We know that the odds are stacked against him in ways he nows nothing about. There’s going to be a double-cross.

The fugitive trio manage to stay one step ahead of the law but they never seem able to get clear entirely. We don’t get to know a single cop by name. The police are just a sinister presence in the background, which is also very film noirish. Our sympathies are entirely with the fugitives.

There’s a powerful sense of impending doom. The odds really are heavily stacked against Joe and his two female companions (one willing and one unwilling).

There’s plenty of suspense which Mann handles with considerable skill.

Joe is a fairly classic noir hero. He’s a criminal and makes no apologies for that but he shows frequent flashes of decency. We feel that he is probably doomed but doesn’t really deserve to be doomed. Joe isn’t stupid but he has a streak of noir fatalism. Dennis O’Keefe really is excellent in this rôle. He doesn’t try to make Joe an idealised hero but he manages to make him sympathetic.

There’s no textbook femme fatale. Ann is emotionally and morally ambiguous and she makes things very complicated and she has the potential to get Joe into a lot of trouble but she’s not a consciously scheming femme fatale. She may however do a bit of unconscious scheming. It’s obvious that she is sexually and emotionally attracted to Joe even if she tries not to admit it to herself, and it’s obvious that even if she doesn’t set out to be Pat’s rival that is what she becomes in practice. Ann is a complex fascinating female character who can’t be slotted neatly into either the good girl or bad girl category. Marsha Hunt’s performance is subtle and effective.

Pat is the loyal girlfriend who knows she’s a fool for falling for a guy like Joe. For my money she is a bit overshadowed by Marsha Hunt (who has the advantage of the more interesting rôle) but I can’t fault Claire Trevor’s performance.

Raymond Burr is of course fun as the slippery Rick.

This is a film noir but it’s also a couple-on-the-run movie, an ever-popular genre, Hitchcock had already made a couple of these movies and in the same year that Raw Deal came out They Live By Night would also appear.

Raw Deal is one of those movies that challenges any assumption we might have about the auteur theory. Anthony Mann directed the movie and it’s very much an Anthony Mann movie. But it doesn’t have quite the flavour of most Anthony Mann movies. John Alton, the greatest of all noir cinematographers, was the director of photography. This movie has John Alton’s fingerprints all over it. It looks every inch like a John Alton movie.

Raw Deal
is also very much film noir. Some attempts have been made to describe the classic westerns Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart in the 50s as noir westerns. I don’t buy it. They’re serious grown-up westerns and they have some dark moments (especially Winchester ’73) but they’re not film noir. They belong wholeheartedly to the western genre.

Anthony Mann did make several noir films in the 40s. Thematically movies like the under-appreciated The Great Flamarion are very noir. But they don’t have that classic noir look that Raw Deal has. The only other Anthony Mann movie that really looks noir is the excellent T-Men, and John Alton did the cinematography for that one as well.

So is Raw Deal an Anthony Mann movie or a John Alton movie? The answer of course is that it’s both. Raw Deal is what you get when you have two very talented men collaborating.

You could also ask whether the noirness of Anthony Mann’s other 40s movies reflects Mann’s own vision or whether it reflects what was happening in Hollywood at the time. Darker themes and gloomier outcomes were fashionable and the Production Code had relaxed just enough to allow such movies to be made. Film noir was part of the zeitgeist of the 40s. As a young director trying to find his feet Mann would have been influenced by that zeitgeist. Mann’s 1950s westerns reflected the zeitgeist of the 50s. That’s not to say that directors like Mann did not have their own vision, it’s just to say that the individual visions of directors and the collective spirit of the film industry at a particular time interact on each other. Mann was always in touch with the zeitgeist of the time. His final movie in 1968 was a very very 1960s movie, a cynical morally ambiguous spy movie (the excellent A Dandy in Aspic).

Raw Deal ticks most of the noir boxes and there are very few movies that can match it when it comes to noir visual style. It’s also a gripping and entertaining movie. Very highly recommended.