Sunday, July 27, 2014

Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish was possibly the most controversial crime movie of the 1970s, even more so than Dirty Harry. Death Wish made Charles Bronson a major star and it spawned no less than four sequels.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) works for a large development corporation based in New York. He is described by a friend as “a bleeding heart liberal” and he does not dispute the accuracy of the tag. His beliefs are about to collide with reality as his wife and daughter are attacked by street thugs who force their way into the Kersey apartment. His wife Joanna (Hope Lange) is killed, his daughter Carol is brutally raped. Carol never recovers psychologically from the attack.

It soon becomes obvious that there’s little chance of the criminals being brought to justice. 

Kersey’s company decides it would be a good idea if he got out of New York for a while so he is sent to Tucson to check out a development there that they’re thinking about financing. Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) is a slightly eccentric real estate developer. He and Kersey strike up a surprising friendship while working out the details of the proposed development. Jainchill is a gun enthusiast and he invites Kersey to the local gun club. Kersey makes the admission that he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, reinforcing his bleeding heart liberal credentials. He then surprises his new buddy by proving to be a crack shot with a pistol. When it’s time to return to New York Ames presents Kersey with a parting gift - a pearl-handled .32 calibre revolver.

Since Kersey is now understandably a little nervous about walking the streets of New York he takes the revolver with him. And when he is confronted with an armed mugger he uses the gun.

It’s not quite clear whether Kersey had simply decided he felt like going for a walk, or whether he was secretly hoping to encounter a mugger. This point is left deliberately vague, presumably because Kersey himself probably could not have answered that question. What is certain is that his next nocturnal expedition into New York’s mean streets  was a deliberate hunting expedition. Paul Kersey has declared open season on muggers.

As Kersey starts thinning out the mugger population the police and city officials are in something of a quandary. They don’t want a vigilante wandering the streets, but they don’t want to arrest the vigilante - they know he is becoming a popular hero and if arrested would become a martyr and that’s the last thing they want.

While the police have been entirely unsuccessful in catching the murderers of Paul Kersey’s wife they have had somewhat greater success in hunting down the vigilante. They’re fairly sure they know who their man is, but what is less certain is what they’re going to do about it.

When judging this movie it is important to put it into its historical context. In 1974 crime in the US really did seem to be out of control and ordinary people really did have serious doubts as to the ability and willingness of the police and the courts to protect them from violent crime. This situation had arisen over a fairly short period of time, not much more than a decade, and it seemed to be accelerating. New York in 1974 was a much more violent place than it is today.

The movie is certainly sympathetic to Kersey’s vigilante activities but it’s not as simplistic as some of the more hysterical reviews would lead you to believe. Kersey certainly has ample justification for feeling anger and frustration. There are quite a few references to westerns in the movie and the revenge western was a well-established and relatively respectable sub-genre. If Death Wish had been set in 1874 it would have raised few eyebrows. It might well have received a good deal of critical praise. A western hero who has seen his family killed by outlaws and who then dedicates himself to ridding the world of such outlaws would be seen as a fairly commonplace western hero.

The western comparison can be taken a stage further. All of Paul Kersey’s killings are in fact committed in self defence. His victims are always armed and they always initiate the violence. He is as scrupulous in this regard as the hero of any classic Hollywood western. Although it is never actually mentioned it can be assumed that that is part of the reason the police don’t want to arrest him - they would have great difficulty in securing a conviction against him. It’s true that he deliberately puts himself in situations where he is likely to encounter muggers but he cannot be accused of setting the muggers up. In each case he is (apparently) quietly minding his own business when he is confronted by attackers brandishing weapons with obvious criminal intent. 

Predictably critics mostly hated this movie and the public mostly loved it. It was a major box office hit, thus further enraging critics. After this release of this film it is difficult to find a critic saying a single positive word about director Michael Winner. In fact Winner was very good at directing violent action movies such as the excellent The Mechanic (also with Bronson as star). It is perfectly legitimate to dislike violent action movies but it has to be admitted that Winner did them very well. And he does a fine job with Death Wish. This is a movie in which the violence for the most part feels more graphic than it actually is, due to Winner’s very effective directing.

Mention must be made of jazz maestro Herbie Hancock’s superb (and surprisingly varied) score.

As for Bronson, this movie certainly stereotyped him but it brought him genuine US stardom after a very long wait (he already had an enthusiastic following in Europe). Bronson says very little in this movie. That of course is part of the Bronson persona but it works well in this film. If Paul Kersey was a man who could articulate his feelings he quite likely would not have become a vigilante. Although it’s worth pointing out that being good at articulating your feelings doesn’t help very much when you’re confronted by a knife-wielding hoodlum, a situation in which Paul Kersey might well argue that a loaded gun is rather more useful.

Death Wish is a troubling and confronting movie but at the time it was made violent crime was a troubling and confronting reality. It was one of a number of movies made about that time, movies like Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange, that tackled the issue in an uncomfortably direct manner. Death Wish might at times be exploitative but the same can be said about A Clockwork Orange

Does this movie really portray Paul Kersey as a hero, or is he a victim? Would he have been better off putting his personal tragedy behind him and moving on with life? Or is Kersey correct in believing that this would have amounted to running away? How would we have felt about the heroes of westerns like High Noon and Shane if the heroes had chosen flight rather than confronting evil? 

Death Wish is a product of its era in more ways than one. It’s not the sort of movie that could get made today. A remake is supposedly in the works but I think one can be forgiven for doubting whether it will be able to address the relevant issues as uncompromisingly as Michel Winner’s 1974 movie.

Death Wish is not exactly pleasant viewing but it’s one of those movies that you have to be able to say that you’ve seen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Red Light (1949)

For a noir fan there’s nothing more exciting than coming across a little-known and not particularly well-regarded crime movie and discovering that it’s a bona fide neglected film noir gem. Such a movie is Red Light.

Produced and directed by Roy Del Ruth for his own production company and distributed by United Artists this 1949 production stars George Raft, Virginia Mayo and Raymond Burr. It’s not only a genuine noir, it’s a very unconventional one.

Raft plays successful businessman Johnny Torno. Torno runs a large trucking company. You’re probably expecting me to say that his trucking company is a front for his gangland activities, or that he’s involved in corruption of some kind. But that isn’t the case. Johnny Torno is a perfectly legitimate businessman and he’s a thoroughly decent guy. Since he’s being played by George Raft it goes without saying that he’s a tough guy, but he’s tough in a completely honest and straightforward way.

Torno is a devout Catholic and he’s active in his local church. He’s just donated a very expensive stained glass window to his parish church. Torno raised his kid brother Jess himself and Jess became a chaplain in the army. He was a prisoner-of-war and he’s just retained to the US after his release. The two brothers are very close, although given the fact that Johnny is a good deal older it’s in some ways as much a father-son relationship as a brotherly relationship.

Jess’s return to the US was well publicised and one of the people watching the newsreel footage of the re-union between the two brothers is Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr). Nick isn’t watching the newsreel at a movie house - he’s watching it in prison. Nick had been a book-keeper employed by Johnny Torno, until he was convicted of embezzlement and got himself a four-year stretch in San Quentin. Nick was guilty as charged and Johnny had already given him one chance to repay the money he stole. Nick was not framed, he stole the money and he has no-one but himself to blame. But Nick doesn’t see it that way. He’s the sort of guy who always blames others for his troubles and for four years he’s been brooding and planning to get revenge on Torno. A chance remark by another prisoner gives him an idea - the most effective way to hurt Johnny Torno would be through his brother.

Jess Torno is murdered, but Nick Cherney is not a suspect. He’s now out of prison, but the murder took place before his release. It doesn’t occur to anyone that Nick may have used someone else to do the actual killing. The only clue to the murder is provided by Jess’s dying words, indicating that he has written the name of his killer in the Bible that Johnny gave him several years earlier. Johnny is the only one who knows this, and he has no intention of telling the cops. Johnny Torno intends to do the avenging of his brother himself.

The only problem is, he discovers that there’s no message written in the Bible. It takes him a while, but eventually he figures out he’s looking for the wrong Bible. Jess was killed in a hotel room and the Bible he was referring to is the Gideon Bible to be found in every hotel room. But this Bible has now vanished. Before he can find the killer Johnny will have to find that Bible.

Johnny finds an unexpected ally in the person of Carla North (Virginia Mayo). With her help he sets about the frustrating task of tracking down the missing Bible. Meanwhile both Nick Cherney and the man who did the killing for him are aware that Johnny is on their trail and they are determined to retrieve the Bible before Johnny can find it. The hunt eventually ends in a very unexpected way.

At this point I should point out that the Bible is not a mere plot device. Red Light belongs to a very small sub-genre - the religious film noir. It’s a small sub-genre but it does include a handful of terrific movies, the most notable being the two great Catholic noirs, the superb 1947 British noir Brighton Rock and Fritz Lang’s equally good 1937 film You Only Live Once. Like these movies Red Light is concerned with faith, forgiveness and redemption. If you’re not religious don’t be put off by this - Red Light is still very much a film noir and it has a great deal to offer noir fans. And it has no shortage of action and violence either.

Not everyone like George Raft. Personally I think he’s an under-appreciated actor. He’s certainly ideally cast as Johnny Torno. Johnny is a guy who is just a bit too tightly wrapped. He’s a good man but under stress he tends to become a bit of a pressure cooker and you worry that at any moment he’s going to explode. Raft handles the part rather deftly.

Virginia Mayo is solid but Carla is a fairly marginal character and she doesn’t get a great deal to do.  

Raymond Burr at this stage of his career was one of the great screen villains and he delivers a trademark bravura performance here. He’s vicious and menacing, but he’s also slimy and cowardly. Nick is a wonderfully repulsive character and Burr is in top form. Equally good is Harry Morgan, in one of the nastiest roles of his career. There’s an abundance of deliciously hardboiled dialogue in this movie and Burr and Morgan get more than their fair share of it, and they make the most of it.

Roy Del Ruth wasn’t really noted for this type of movie but he handles things very expertly. A very large proportion of the action takes place at night and Bert Glennon delivers plenty of glorious noir cinematography. This movie is visually very noir indeed. The ending is absolutely top-notch as well as being a very clever way of wrapping things up in a way that satisfies the demands of the story.

Given that it’s a movie that is trying to combine hardboiled crime revenge themes with a religious theme it’s not surprising that occasionally it seems like it’s about to stumble. What is surprising is that it doesn’t lose its footing. Even the surreal scene with the blind soldier can’t derail this movie.

This movie has been released in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD range. It’s totally barebones but it’s an excellent transfer.

Red Light is film noir gold. Very highly recommended. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Threat (1949)

The Threat could have been just another solidly competent B noir but Charles McGraw’s performance makes it something else again, a minor noir classic.

McGraw is ‘Red’ Kluger, a convicted murderer who has just broken out of Folsom Prison. Kluger had vowed that he would escape and take vengeance on the two men he considered to be responsible for his conviction - the District Attorney Barker MacDonald (Frank Conroy) and Detective Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea). Within hours of breaking out he has already made good on part of his threat, kidnapping the DA from his office in broad daylight. What the police don’t know is that he has also snatched Ray Williams. For good measure he’s also snatched his ex-girlfriend Carol (Virginia Grey), whom he suspects of double-crossing him.

Kluger and his accomplices, a couple of not-too-bright but fairly loyal hoods named Nick and Lefty, set off for the desert where they are to rendezvous with Kluger’s erstwhile partner Tony. Tony is holed up in Mexico but the plan is for him to fly in and pick up Kluger and his hoods. Kluger has come up with an ingenious plan to reach the desert rendezvous without being spotted by the cops. He has stolen Ray Williams’ police car and has hidden the car, with Ray and the DA inside it, inside a removalists’ van. The plan works pretty well although Kluger has to gun down an overly curious sheriff’s deputy they encounter at a gas station.

Up to this point the movie has been constant action. Once the desert hideout is reached the tone changes abruptly, to nail-biting tension as Kluger and his pals wait for Tony’s arrival. They wait and they wait. Tony doesn’t show. Kluger keeps his cool but Nick and Lefty are getting decidedly jumpy. Carol is becoming frantic, fearing that Kluger will decide she really did double-cross him. She knows that Kluger is a man who doesn’t think twice about killing. The kidnapped DA and detective are getting kind of nervous too, anticipating that Tony’s arrival in the plane will be the end of the line for them. They just have to hope that before that happens Kluger will make a mistake.

The police meanwhile are not having much success in their search for the escaped killer and they still don’t know that Kluger has Detective Williams. Kluger has forced Ray to radio in to headquarters, telling his superior Inspector Murphy (Robert Shayne) that he’s busily involved in some routine enquiries. Ray cleverly words his message in such a way as to let Murphy know that something is wrong, but unfortunately his ruse is too clever and Murphy fails to spot the clue.

The film focuses most of its attention on Kluger and his gang and their captives, rather than on the police hunt. Most of what we know about the man-hunt comes from the messages picked up on Kluger’s police band radio. 

Director Felix E. Feist helmed quite a few extremely fine noirs, including Tomorrow Is Another Day, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and This Woman Is Dangerous (with Joan Crawford as a lady gangster). Feist made mostly B-movies but had the knack of turning out well-crafted movies on limited budgets so his movies tend to be a cut above the average B-feature. The Threat shows him at his best. It’s superbly paced, the tension is relentless and Feist throws in some clever and effective visual flourishes (including an excellent very high-angle shot in the desert cabin).

Dick Irving Hyland’s screenplay is fairly routine and the dialogue doesn’t exactly sparkle. It does however give Feist just enough to work with.

Michael O’Shea is adequate as Detective Williams. Anthony Caruso and Frank Richards as Nick and Lefty are perfect small-time hoodlums. Virginia Grey has some strong scenes which she handles deftly, playing Carol as a woman getting closer and closer to hysteria. But this movie belongs to Charles McGraw. Kluger is the character who dominates the movie and he’s one of the great memorable noir villains. Kluger is the archetypal cold-blooded killer. He displays little emotion. He kills without hesitation and without giving the matter a second thought. It’s a wonderfully chilling performance. McGraw is like a cobra mesmerising its victims.

The Warner Archive MOD DVD is absolutely barebones, with not even a trailer, but it’s an extremely good transfer.

The Threat is a great little B noir offering 66 minutes of high tension. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Son of Fury (1942)

Son of Fury is included in the Tyrone Power Collection boxed set but is rather less of a standard swashbuckler than the other featured movies. 

Directed by John Cromwell and released in 1942, Son of Fury certainly has the right setup for a swashbuckler. The setting is England in the 18th century. Power plays a character, Benjamin Blake, who has been cheated of his inheritance by his wicked uncle Sir Arthur Blake. To add insult to injury the wicked uncle, played with relish by George Sanders, has taken young Benjamin on as a bonded servant and the boy soon comes to realise this this is little better than slavery. Benjamin grows to manhood and it’s obvious that sooner or later things are going to get complicated and nasty, especially given that he has fallen in love with Sir Arthur’s daughter Isabel (Frances Farmer). Sir Arthur accuses Benjamin of attempted assault, a hanging offence if you’re a bonded servant. Benjamin comes to the very sensible conclusion that it would be advisable to get out of England for a while.

Benjamin flees England in a merchant ship. He is persuaded by another member of the crew, Caleb Green (John Carradine), to jump ship with him in the South Seas. Caleb has reason to believe that a certain island possesses an extraordinarily rich pearl fishery. The two of them can easily make their fortune there. The only problem is that the island is well off the regular trade routes and is only visited by European shipping at very irregular intervals. They might become rich men in theory but they might also end up spending the rest of their lives on the island. 

After a while being stranded on a South Sea island doesn’t seem quite so bad. Benjamin has settled down with a beautiful native girl (played by Gene Tierney) and life is good. 

This is the point where the movie runs off the rails for quite a while. While Benjamin is on the island the plot comes to a complete standstill. The movie gives us every single South Sea island cliché and things threaten to become terminally boring. John Carradine’s surprisingly sunny performance and Gene Tierney’s beauty are unfortunately not enough to keep things interesting.

Mercifully a Dutch merchantman finally arrives to free Benjamin from his self-imposed exile (and to free the viewer from increasing boredom). Once Benjamin is back in London the movie is back on the rails and, even more welcome, George Sanders is back in the picture. Benjamin is now a rich man, rich enough to employ the services of a certain Bartolomew Pratt (Dudley Digges). Pratt is a barrister and a Member of Parliament and most importantly he is a man whose speciality is using his very considerable influence to serve the interests of those who can afford his fees. If anyone can prove that Benjamin is the rightful heir to the baronetcy and the Blake family estate it is surely Bartolomew Pratt.

There are still a few plot twists left in this movie before the ending. The ending is somewhat over-the-top and I had a few issues with it although it certainly ties up some loose ends.

This movie’s strength is not in its somewhat corny plot but in the performances, especially the two key performances by Tyrone Power and George Sanders. Power is in his element. Power’s particular gift as an actor was his ability to play swashbuckling heroes who were rather more complex and rather more vulnerable than most. Power was a very different swashbuckler from the outrageous self-confident Errol Flynn. Power’s heroes were more fallible and more likely to be assailed by doubts. What keeps our interest is seeing how the hero will resolve his conflicts, which in the case of a Power hero is not necessarily by athletic prowess and fighting skill. Benjamin Blake is the type of hero Power played very well.

George Sanders of course is best remembered for playing cads and bounders. Sir Arthur Blake is more than a mere bounder. He is a vicious, selfish, sadistic, opportunistic bully on the grand scale. Sanders is in magnificent form. The conflict between Benjamin and Sir Arthur is the heart of the movie and this conflict is explosive and memorable. Sir Arthur is a noted amateur boxer and the first time we see him in this movie he is mercilessly pummeling some poor member of the local peasantry. We will later see him dishing out the same treatment to young Benjamin, after which he takes a whip to the boy. Benjamin is left with physical scars but the psychological scars are far worse and we can be sure that if ever Benjamin gets the chance to repay this debt he will do so with interest. Power and Sanders really are superb in their scenes together. This is the most intensely physical performance I can recall seeing from Sanders.

The supporting cast is impressive as well, with Frances Farmer being slightly disturbing as the ambiguous Isabel - we always feel that Isabel will somehow prove to be trouble and we’re not mistaken. John Carradine I’ve already mentioned - this may be the most cheerful performance he ever gave. Dudley Digges makes the most of his brief but vital scenes. Elsa Lanchester is a kind-hearted barmaid who does Benjamin a good turn. Roddy McDowall plays Benjamin as a boy.

The transfer on this movie is excellent and the DVD includes a brief featurette on Powers’ career. This is one of the five movies in the Tyrone Power Collection, a boxed set that I recommend very highly.

Son of Fury is an uneven movie and is by no means a conventional swashbuckler. Despite losing its way for rather too long in the South Seas it’s worth seeing for the extraordinary performances by Powers and Sanders which are enough to earn it highly recommended status.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Killers (1964)

Don Siegel’s The Killers was ostensibly a remake of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir classic of the same title. Both were based, very very loosely, on a 1927 Ernest Hemingway short story. Siegel’s movie in fact was originally released as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, much to Siegel’s disgust. He considered the title dishonest because the movie’s connection with Hemingway’s story is extremely tenuous. The Hemingway story is extremely short, dealing with two contract killers who are puzzled by their victim’s apparent willing acquiescence in his own death. While it’s an important theme in both movies, it’s the one element in the story that is retained. Both movies then add a detailed backstory which has no connection with Hemingway’s tale.

Siegel’s film was made in 1963 and was originally intended as a television movie. In fact it was one of the first modern made-for-TV movies. Ironically NBC decided it was too violent and Universal released it theatrically instead, in 1964.

The movie opens with two hitmen arriving at a school for the blind. Their target is one of the teachers, Johnny North (John Cassavetes). When they find him he offers no resistance whatsoever. This greatly upsets Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin), one of the hitmen. It becomes something of an obsession with him. He has to find out why a man would willingly choose death. In the course of obsessing over this problem Charlie recalls a rumour that Johnny North had been mixed up in a million dollar mail van heist. The money disappeared without trace after the robbery. Charlie is prone to philosophical musings on the nature of his job but he also has a keen interest in more pragmatic matters, such as the possible whereabouts of that missing million dollars.

Charlie and his partner Lee (Clu Gulager) start digging around in Johnny North’s past and we now get Johnny’s story in the form of three lengthy flashbacks that occupy most of the movie’s running time.

Johnny had been a racing car driver, and a good one. That was before he met Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) and before his crash. These two disasters were inter-related. Sheila, as Johnny found out too late, was the girlfriend of wealthy gangster Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan).

The crash leaves Johnny with slight eye problems, but these are enough to have him banned from competitive driving. He pretty much hits the skids. Then Sheila makes him an offer he can’t refuse, although he would refuse it if he had any sense. All he has to do is the driving in a mail van robbery planned by Jack Browning. Browning is willing to use Johnny’s driving talents but their common interest in Sheila leads to a good deal of tension and sets the stage for the double-cross that you know has to come eventually. 

Charlie Strom will get the answer to his question but in this movie finding the answers is not necessarily a good thing.

The Killers was made on a very tight budget and most of the movie’s problems (and it has some serious problems) stem from this. There’s an excessive use of stock footage, the sets are limited and not always impressive and there’s a huge reliance on process shots. Most of the process shots are done reasonably well but some are quite poor. There’s one brief sequence where Johnny takes Sheila go-karting. It’s a sequence that really should have ended up on the cutting room floor - the process shots in that sequence are embarrassingly clumsy.

While the action of the movie takes place in various locations all the locations look the same because they’re all shot on the Universal backlot or on a sound stage. The lighting most of the time is the overly bright and overly flat lighting one associates with television.

The other major problem is that John Cassavetes is hopelessly miscast, and he’s also clearly not interested in anything but his pay cheque. It’s a hopelessly unconvincing performance. To me Cassavetes always comes across as a stage actor who hasn’t really adapted to film. He’s over-intense when he needs to be subtle and his acting is often irritatingly mannered. Mostly though he’s just hopelessly miscast.

Angie Dickinson on the other hand is quite solid in the femme fatale role. She’s certainly a 
very convincing gangster’s moll. Dickinson had the ability to be both brassy and classy at the same time. At times she seems like she’s too good for Johnny and at other times she seems like she’s too bad for him.

Ronald Reagan is the pick of the actors in this film. Jack Browning is a new style of 1960s gangster. He approaches crime strictly as a business. It’s about cash flow. He’s smooth but he’s tough. When he’s introduced to us he could be a successful lawyer or an accountant or a government official. It comes as a surprise that he’s a mobster. Reagan makes Browning menacing in a bland pin-striped suit sort of way. It’s a nicely judged performance and Browning is one of only two characters in this movie who really engage our interest.

The other character that we’re interested in is Charlie Strom. Lee Marvin is in tough guy mode, but he’s (mostly) a controlled sort of tough guy. He’s vicious but it’s a calculated viciousness. It’s almost as if he’s vicious because he’s a hitman so he’s supposed to be vicious. Marvin manages to make Charlie’s philosophical ponderings seem convincing rather than a gimmick. It’s easy to see that this movie and this performance had a considerable influence on Tarantino. Clu Gulager as Lee is amusing and occasionally disturbing but he’s a more obvious psychopath than Charlie.

The Region 4 offers a very good transfer. The movie was shot in the Academy ratio for its intended television transmission. The DVD includes an odd commentary track by a film historian named Paul Harris. I’m still not sure whether this guy liked the movie or hated it.

Despite the serious budgetary constraints and the poor central performance by Cassavetes The Killers is an interesting movie from the point of view of film history. In content it’s very much film noir while in style it looks forward to neo-noirs like Point Blank. Given the fact that it’s a remake of a 1940s film noir classic it can almost be described as being itself more neo-noir than noir, with a characteristic neo-noir self-awareness. Even with its problems I still recommend this one.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)

The Charlie Chan films had proved themselves to be consistent money-spinners for 20th Century-Fox through the 1930s. When Warner Oland died after making sixteen Chan movies the studio cast Sidney Toler to replace him. The first of the Toler Chan movies, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, is a rather uncertain effort. The second Toler outing, Charlie Chan in Reno, is a much more confident production. Toler seems much more comfortable in the role and Norman Foster, a very reliable B-movie director, keeps a film grip on things.

Reno was known at the time as the divorce capital of America. Divorce was a very major industry in Reno. The six weeks’ residency requirement to obtain a divorce made the industry profitable for hotel owners as well as lawyers. In fact just about everyone in Reno, directly or indirectly, made money out of the divorce industry. This makes Reno the perfect setting for a murder mystery with ample opportunities for jealousy to provide the necessary motive. People not only went to Reno to get divorced; they also got remarried there. This provides yet more possible motives for murder, angles which are exploited fairly well by the screenplay by Frances Hyland, Robert E. Kent and Albert Ray.

Mary Whitman (Pauline Moore) is one of the thousands of women who journey to Reno to get divorced. At the Hotel Sierra she has a rather unfortunate encounter with Jeanne Bently. Mrs Bently is about to marry the man Mary Whitman is divorcing and as you might expect their meeting is not exactly amicable. This is particularly unfortunate as later that night Mrs Bently is found murdered, with Mrs Whitman standing over the body. Mrs Whitman is arrested although the police case against her is extremely weak.

Both Mrs Whitman and her husband are from Honululu and they count Detective-Lieutenant Charlie Chan as a close friend. Even though they were about to be divorced Curtis Whitman (Kane Richmond) is convinced of Mary’s innocence. Charlie Chan has his doubts as to whether any man can ever predict what a woman might or might not do but he is willing to fly to Reno to see what he can do.

The plot is quite convoluted with a couple of sub-plots that serve mostly to muddy the waters even further. Charlie Chan is however equal to the challenge. He has Number Two Son (Victor Sen Young) to assist him, although whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage is open to debate. 

The perennial curse of B-movies of this period is the irritating and unnecessary comic relief elements the studio insisted on including. This movie is afflicted with no less than three characters providing comic relief - Number Two Son already mentioned, a gruff hay-seed sheriff and a loquacious taxi-driver. They’re none of them especially funny but they’re not quite awful enough to wreck the movie.

Ricardo Cortez is the standout among the supporting players, as a smooth society doctor type who may have quite a few things to hide. The other members of the supporting cast are adequate enough.

What makes a Charlie Chan movie worth watching is Charlie Chan. Sidney Toler is a rather different Chan compared to Warner Oland - he lacks Oland’s warmth but he adds a much sharper edge to the character. Toler is actually much closer to the character originally created by Earl Derr Biggers. I like Toler’s performance as Chan and for me he’s more than enough reason to watch and enjoy this movie.

The Reno setting is well utilised, with its blending of glamour, sin and despair. There’s also an amusing side episode in a nearby ghost town. 

This movie is one of four in Fox’s Charlie Chan Volume 4 boxed set. The transfer is extremely good. The extras are a bit of a mixed bunch although the mini-documentary on Reno in the 30s is quite interesting.

This movie sees Sidney Toler settling in nicely as Chan. He would eventually play the role in no less than twenty-two films, eleven for Fox and eleven for Monogram (when Fox stopped making the Chan movies Toler bought the rights to the character himself and persuaded Monogram to continue the series). Charlie Chan in Reno is a good solid B-mystery and is highly recommended to fans of such movies.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty Harry was one of the more controversial Hollywood movies of the 1970s, and four decades later it can still provoke very heated responses. What made it controversial was not so much the subject matter, or even the stance taken by the movie, but the fact that the movie was clearly intended to be deliberately provocative.

I hardly think it’s necessary to spend too much time on a plot synopsis. This is a movie that is well and truly, for better or worse, part of our cultural fabric. But for those who may somehow have contrived to miss this movie, here goes. Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Homicide Squad is no stranger to unpleasant cases but he is about to face a case that will take him to the edge. A serial killer who calls himself Scorpio, has demanded $100,000 or he will kill a random victim every day. There are no obvious leads and all the police can do is to increase surveillance - the killer favours shooting his victims from the rooftops of tall buildings so the police are trying to cover as many rooftops as they can and are putting considerable reliance on helicopter patrols.

These routine precautions are very nearly successful, but this killer seems to have uncanny luck in being able to slip away from neatly impossible situations. After almost being killed by the police Scorpio decides to up the ante. He kidnaps a 14-year-old girl and doubles his demand for money. Callahan gets the very unpleasant, and very dangerous, job of acting as the bagman when the City decides to pay over the money. Callahan and his partner are almost killed, Callahan is viciously beaten, but Harry gets his man. Or at least he thinks he’s got his man, until the DA informs him that he infringed the suspect’s civil rights and that Scorpio will walk free. Harry knows that this is not the end of the case, that guys like Scorpio go on killing because they enjoy it, and that sooner or later he will get his chance to nail the killer. The question is, will more innocent lives be lost because the DA allowed Scorpio to walk free?

Dirty Harry was greeted by howls of outrage from liberals in general and from liberal film critics in particular. What really fueled the outrage was that the movie was a very deliberate and calculated assault on certain cherished liberal beliefs. Harry Callahan does not see criminals as victims and if he has to choose between the rights of a suspect and the rights of a victim he has no hesitation in ignoring the rights of the suspect. He is quite unapologetic about it, and the movie is equally unapologetic about it. It’s important to note however that the movie doesn’t suggest that the rights of suspects should be ignored; it merely suggests that it’s a delicate balance and that the balance may have shifted too far. The movie also points out the unpalatable truth that the rights of suspects and the rights of victims of crime are in some cases absolutely irreconcilable. Whether you agree or disagree with the movie’s stance there’s no doubt that it’s an effective statement of that stance.

What gives the issue particular bite is the fact that the bad guy, Scorpio, is very much aware that the legal system is stacked in his favour. He knows how to play the system and he does so ruthlessly. He uses this to taunt the police.

It is of course possible to disagree with the movie’s stance, just as it’s possible to agree with it. Unfortunately some critics at the time took their opposition to the movie to rather silly extremes. When people (as Pauline Kael did) start throwing the word fascist around it’s always a bad sign. 

I usually try to avoid becoming bogged down in overtly political interpretations of movies but in the case of Dirty Harry there’s really no way of dodging the issue. 

There’s also a sense in which Dirty Harry can be read as film noir. The Scorpio case will plunge Harry Callahan into a nightmare world in which he scarcely knows which way to turn. He is both physically and psychologically beaten to a pulp. He tries his best but he always seems to be too late to save anyone. Whether his descent into the noir nightmare world is the result of his own character flaws is something that can be debated. Maybe he could have handled some situations more effectively, but the fact is that any police officer faced with a case such as this one would come up against the same problem, a criminal who knows how to use the system. Harry becomes increasingly obsessed and perhaps his sanity is even threatened. Harry has never questioned his own moral code but now it seems that knowing what’s right isn’t enough. By the end of the movie he’s an embittered man, his faith in the system hopelessly shaken.

This is an exceptionally well-crafted and stylish movie. Don Siegel was a great action director and he is in top form. The first half hour of the movie takes place mostly in bright California sunshine but then it all starts to get very dark, with lots of night shooting with absolutely minimal lighting. 

This is the movie that made Clint Eastwood a true cultural icon. The role had been offered to various other actors, including Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum. Frank Sinatra was actually signed to do it at one stage but had to back out. 

Mention must be made of Andy Robinson as the psycho killer - it remains one of the most disturbing performances of its type.

Dirty Harry has lost little of its edge. It can still push people’s buttons and it’s still a stylish and effective crime thriller. And it’s one of those movies you just have to have seen. Highly recommended.