Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Walk a Tightrope (1964)

Walk a Tightrope is a low budget 1964 British murder mystery with a nicely twisted premise which seems like it’s going to be rather intriguing. The good news is that it delivers on its promise.

Having a bad day at work is something that happens to everyone. Even hired killers like Carl Lutcher (Dan Duryea). Lutcher is having a really bad day. It was such a simple job but now it’s blown up in his face. It’s not just that things did not go quite as expected - things took an absolutely bewildering turn.

Lutcher is not the only one who is bewildered. It seems that everyone involved is confused and disturbed. Including the victim’s widow. Everyone is adamant about what happened but no-one’s story agrees with anyone else’s and no-one’s story makes sense.

The nice thing is that it’s not only the characters who are unsure of what is really happening. The audience is baffled as well. Baffled, but in a good way. We really don’t know which story to believe. A murder has been committed. We don’t know why. We know who did the killing but was someone else behind it?

As soon as we start to think that one of the people involved is telling a pretty plausible story something happens to plunge us into doubt again.

We also see the seeds of suspicion starting to plant themselves in the minds of various characters, and there’s a growing sense of paranoia.

When the major plot twists do kick in they’re deliciously nasty.

These were the days when producers of low-budget British movies liked to use imported has-been American stars whose careers were sufficiently on the downward slope that they would work for peanuts. Surprisingly it’s something that more often than not worked very well, since those superannuated Hollywood stars were often very fine actors. In this case we have Dan Duryea whose career was severely in the doldrums. Duryea was however a great actor and at a time when he was grateful for any work this was an excellent part that suited him down to the ground. He makes the most of it. Duryea was always marvellous at playing mean nasty manipulative characters who were also slightly pathetic. By the time he made this one the years were visibly starting to catch up with him and that adds a certain poignancy to his performance. Carl Lutcher is contemptible but he’s such a sorry loser we almost feel sorry for him.

Patricia Owens as the widow of the murder victim has a very demanding rôle. She has to make Ellen Shepherd sympathetic but we have to be not quite sure of her. Owens carries this off with considerable confidence. The supporting players are very solid as they usually were in even cheap British movies in those days. Trevor Reid manages to make Inspector MacMitchell a slight variation on the usual run of movie Scotland Yard policemen - he’s like a slightly dotty but likeable old uncle.

Richard Leech does a good job as the best friend who’s as ambiguous as all the other characters. Special mention should be made of Shirley Cameron’s touching performance as Lutcher’s devoted girlfriend Maisie.

Frank Nesbitt directed and did so quite competently. It’s one of only three features he directed but one of those three was another murder mystery with Dan Duryea Do You Know This Voice? which I’m now more than a little anxious to see, especially since Neil McCallum scripted both films.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is lovely. The movie was shot in black-and-white and it looks terrific.

Walk a Tightrope is a well above average murder mystery with a cleverly constructed plot and fine performances. Highly recommended and if you’re a Dan Duryea fan it’s obviously a must-see.

Monday, April 15, 2019

He Walked by Night (1948)

He Walked by Night is a bit of an odd one. This 1948 B-movie is usually considered a film noir. That’s probably because the cinematography was by John Alton, the greatest of all noir cinematographers. So it looks very film noir indeed.

Structurally it’s a straightforward police procedural, with a touch of that semi-documentary feel that was briefly fashionable in the late 40s.

There’s nothing startling about any of this, but it’s the killer himself who adds the oddness. He’s not a noir protagonist. He’s a bit of a mystery. He’s a guy who has never come to the attention of the police before and then one day he guns down a police officer. He’d attracted the officer’s attention by seeming to take too much interest in a TV and radio store. Before he dies the cop remarks that the guy seemed like such a harmless clean-cut pleasant-looking young guy. We never really learn anything about him.

The police officer dies. And suddenly this mystery killer is at the centre of a massive manhunt. The killing of a civilian is a routine matter but cops don’t like it when fellow cops get killed.

Almost nothing is known about the mystery suspect, except that he’s an electronics whizz.

Roy Martin (the killer) really does come across most of the time as a quiet and unassuming, and perhaps slightly shy, young man. There is however a definite obsessive side to him. And he’s a loner. Not just a regular kind of loner but an extreme loner.

And he seems to be up to something. He has some kind of agenda. Although the first killing took place as the result of an abortive burglary he is clearly not just a common burglar.

This movie gave Richard Basehart his first meaty rôle and he makes the most of it. It’s a tough rôle because Roy Martin is the kind of guy who keeps everything inside. He doesn’t reveal his plans, or his motivations, or his feelings, to anybody.

The other standout performance is Jack Webb as the LAPD forensics expert Lee Whitey. Making He Walked by Night got Webb rather obsessed by routine police procedures and their dramatic potential and it wasn’t long after this movie was shot that he pitched the idea of a radio series called Dragnet to NBC. Dragnet of course then went on to become one of the biggest hit series in TV history. You can already see traces of Joe Friday in Webb’s performance in He Walked by Night. It’s worth noting that the opening titles of the movie inform us that this is a true story but the names have been changed to protect the innocent, which of course became the famous tagline for Dragnet.

While Alfred L. Werker (a competent journeyman director) gets the screen credit there was a belief in some quarters that Anthony Mann may have had a hand in directing He Walked by Night.

The real star is of course cinematographer John Alton. Alton wrote a book on photography called Painting with Light and that’s exactly what he does. He was the Rembrandt of film photography.

The superb extended climactic scenes of the movie gives Alton the chance to pull off a truly stunning tour-de-force of noir visual magic.

Also interesting is the detailed description of a very early police attempt at building an Identikit photo of a suspect.

We never really learn anything about the killer. That’s why this is not a film noir. It’s too abstract. In fact it’s like a big game hunt, with the police playing the parts of the hunters hunting down a rogue lion that’s turned man-eater. They don’t know anything about the guy, they just know he killed a cop so they’re going to kill him because that’s the way it works. It could also be seen as a kind of war movie - you don’t need to know about the personal motivations or feelings of the enemy soldier, you just know that either you kill him or he kills you. Except that in this case it’s one man facing hundreds of cops.

What’s clever is that although we do feel sorry for Roy in the same way we’d feel sorry for a hunted animal the movie doesn’t try to paint him as an innocent or misunderstood victim. He is a cold-blooded killer. There are no heroes and no victims. The cops win because there are lots of them up against one man. So the result of the fight is pre-ordained. No-one beats odds like that.

I don’t think there’s any other crime movie of the period that takes such an extremely  abstract view of crime. In fact I’m not sure if there’s any crime movie ever that is quite so abstract. Which does make this movie very interesting and unusual.

An oddity, but highly recommended both for that reason and for its visual brilliance.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Man Detained (1961)

Man Detained is another of those British Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace B-pictures of which I’m so very fond. This one was made in 1961.

It opens with a rather curious robbery. A safe-cracker cleans out the safe in the offices of the Maple Photographic Studio. When Mr Maple’s secretary arrives at work the following morning she calls the police immediately. After all there was a very large amount of cash in the safe. The curious thing is that Mr Maple vehemently denies that there was any money in the safe. He also insists that his secretary should not make any mention of the existence of  the money to the police.

And after the robbery Mr Maple starts behaving even more nervously than usual. Much more nervously.

The safe-cracker is slightly puzzled as well. He’s just lifted ten thousand quid from a safe and there hasn’t been a word about it in the newspapers.

When murder follows soon afterwards the police are puzzled but it’s obvious that the murder is connected with that mysterious money.

In fact the young safe-cracker who thought he’d had an extraordinary stroke of good fortune with his unexpected haul has stumbled into a very large-scale and very serious criminal undertaking.

The police can see the outline of what could be a very big and important case but they have no evidence. They may have to resort to unconventional methods to get the evidence, and may have to call on unconventional allies.

Bernard Archard plays Inspector Verity and he’s one of those character actors who could always be relied up for these sorts of rôles. Inspector Verity is efficient and honest. Clifford Earl plays Detective Sergeant Wentworth, relatively inexperienced but keen and competent.

Greek-born Paul Stassino specialised in smooth deadly ethnic heavies combining charm with menace and that’s the formula he gives us here.

In this movie we have two sympathetic police officers who seem to know what they’re doing. We have a clever and ruthless villain but he is perhaps not quite as clever as he thinks he is. Arrogance and over-confidence are often the weaknesses of criminal masterminds.

Over-confidence can afflict policemen as well. Their plan to trap the villain might well work but it is rather risky. In the end it all comes down to luck.

There are two women who play important parts. There’s Maple’s wife Stella (Ann Sears), treacherous and possibly with the makings of a femme fatale. And there’s Maple’s secretary Kay Simpson (Elvi Hale), smart and loyal but possibly in over her head.

Robert Tronson directed a couple of these Edgar Wallace crime thrillers and then went on to have a very successful career as a television director. It’s hard to fault the job he does here, given that this is a cheap B-movie.

The action finale is quite satisfactory (and enjoyably chaotic) although it has to be said that the standard of marksmanship among British criminals is absolutely deplorable.

This movie is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 2 boxed set. It receives an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Man Detained might not reach any great cinematic heights but it’s well-constructed and very well-acted and it provides just under an hours’ worth of reasonably enjoyable viewing. The quality of these Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies is variable but even the lesser examples such as this are worth a look. Recommended.