Thursday, September 28, 2023

Kongo (1932)

One of the more lurid pre-code movie genres was the lust in the jungle movie, and the sleaziest and most over-the-top of these movies was Kongo, made (surprisingly) by MGM in 1932. It was directed by William J. Cowen and was a remake of the 1928 Tod Browning-directed Lon Chaney vehicle West of Zanzibar.

Flint (Walter Huston) uses stage magic tricks to convince the local tribes that he possesses immensely strong ju-ju. They regard him as a god, quite literally. He has created an 80 mile wide personal empire and controls the ivory trade in this zone.

The local tribe burns its dead on funeral pyres. When a man dies his wife (or if he doesn’t have a wife his daughter will do) is burned alive with him. Which will later become a vital plot point.

Flint is confined to a wheelchair and he has spent years planning his revenge on the man who stole his wife and smashed his spine leaving him a cripple. Flint’s personal retinue comprises the sleazy Hogan, an alcoholic cook and a cheerful Portuguese prostitute named Tula (Lupe Velez).

And two years earlier there was another addition to Flint’s human menagerie, Ann Whitehall (Virginia Bruce). Flint lured the innocent girl from a convent and put her in a brothel in Zanzibar until her spirit was broken. Now she’s ill and despairing. This was Flint’s revenge on Ann’s father.

Then a doctor named Kingsland (Conrad Nagel) turns up. Kingsland falls for Ann. He hopes to cure her after which they will escape together.

Flint’s plans for his final revenge are coming to fruition and then comes the major plot twist that changes everything.

The more I see of Walter Huston the more I’m convinced that he was the greatest of all male pre-code stars. He plays Flint as a force of nature and as a man whose obsession with revenge has turned him into an insane tyrant. In this movie he gives a totally crazed performance which is exactly what is required. Flint is a madman and he’s capable of extraordinary cruelty but he’s fascinating and horrifying at the same time.

Huston had played the role on stage before the Lon Chaney movie was made so his performance really is the original.

Virginia Bruce as Ann veers between hysteria and despair and her performance works too.

Lupe Velez is great fun.

Conrad Nagel gives a terrible performance which, perversely, works. This is the kind of movie in which conventional good acting would be ludicrously out of place. In fact none of the performances could be described as good acting in any conventional sense.

Does this movie contain any characteristic pre-code content? Well for starters there’s alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, white slavery, sadomasochism and human sacrifice. That should be enough to be going on with.

While it’s set in Africa don’t expect any expansive shots of herds of antelope or lions or anything like. It was shot on a sound stage on just a couple of sets and it’s incredibly claustrophobic.

Kongo
is a totally mad depraved movie but it’s inspired madness and pre-code movies don’t come any more outrageous than this one. Nothing about the movie is good in a conventional sense but it works anyway. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD release looks fine. Everything looks grimy and sweaty and scuzzy which is as it should be.

If you just can’t get enough of pre-code jungle sleaze I also highly recommend White Woman (1933).

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Big Sleep (1978)

I’ve always thought it was a shame that Robert Mitchum didn’t get to play Philip Marlowe back in the late 1940s/early 1950s. He did however get to play Marlowe in two movies in the 1970s, offering us a fascinating glimpse of what Marlowe might have become much later in life. The two 70s movies were Farewell, My Lovely in 1975 and The Big Sleep in 1978. It’s The Big Sleep with which we are concerned at the moment.

The odd thing is that most reviewers are puzzled firstly over why director Michael Winner would have dared to remake such a beloved classic and secondly why he chose to set his remake in 1970s London. I would have thought it was perfectly obvious that the decision to choose 1970s London was an entirely sensible attempt to distance this movie from the 1946 Howard Hawks version.

I have no problems with the updated setting. The danger of trying to make a neo-noir set in the 1940s is that you will end up with a movie that has that slightly phoney period movie look, and will also end up looking too pretty and too picturesque. Polanski got away with it with Chinatown in 1974 and I think Dick Richards got away with it in the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely but other 1970s remakes of movies from the 30s and 40s that try to reproduce the period settings do look overly pretty.

Winner makes no attempt whatsoever to reproduce the classic film noir look. He concentrates on trying instead to capture the film noir mood and the film noir thematic obsessions.

The movie follows Raymond Chandler’s novel reasonably closely. The novel has a notoriously convoluted and almost incomprehensible plot. Voiceover narration and flashbacks are used in a desperate attempt to make the plot understandable but it still defies comprehension.

Philip Marlowe, an ageing American private eye based in London, is hired by the frail elderly General Sternwood to deal with a blackmail threat. On his visit to the general’s house he meets the old man’s two daughters and decides, correctly, that they’re going to be trouble. The elder sister, Charlotte (Sarah Miles), is obviously scheming and dishonest and hiding lots of things. The younger daughter, Camilla (Candy Clark), practically tears Marlowe’s trousers off. As the movie progresses we find out that her first reaction upon meeting any man is to get him into bed immediately.

Camilla has been posing for nudie pictures for a sleazy bookseller. Marlowe finds her zonked out of her brain on drugs in a room with a dead man. She has no idea where she is.

Marlowe was not hired to find Charlotte’s missing husband Rusty but Marlowe is sure that that is what the general really wants him to do. Rusty supposedly ran off with the wife of gambling club owner Eddie Mars (Oliver Reed).

There are lots of murders. There are lots of suspects. Pretty much any of the characters could have committed any of the murders, for motives that remain obscure.

This version naturally has a degree of 1970s sleaze and relatively graphic violence.

Mitchum is as charismatic as ever. He was getting older but the 1970s proved to be an incredibly fruitful decade for him. In fact it’s difficult to think of any Hollywood actor who gave more great performances in the 70s than Mitchum.

The supporting cast is extraordinary. Oliver Reed, John Mills, Richard Boone (as a totally psychotic killer), Richard Todd, Harry James, Edward Fox, Joan Collins. All give interesting performances. Oliver Reed underplays which makes Eddie Mars seem even more sinister and dangerous. Joan Collins is delightfully sexy and wicked. James Stewart on the other hand is much too folksy. Richard Boone is just nuts and makes a character who is supposed to be frightening merely ridiculous.

The problem is the two actresses playing the key roles as the general’s daughter. Sarah Miles is ludicrously miscast and out of place and, fatally, there is zero sexual tension generated between Marlowe and Charlotte. Candy Clark’s performance as Camilla can only be described as bizarre. It’s just so wrong and so inappropriate that it’s morbidly fascinating.

There are a lot of things wrong with this movie but there are a lot of things that are right as well. It’s sufficiently entertaining and interesting that there’s no need even to try to understand what’s going on. It should be a disaster but in its own way it’s rather fun. It’s also amusing that the behaviour of the general’s daughters, which would have been scandalous enough to make blackmail plausible in the 1940s, would scarcely have raised eyebrows in the 70s. OK, Camilla poses for nudie pics and she’s frantically promiscuous and does drugs. In other words her behaviour is perfectly normal for the 70s. It all ends up making the movie a crazy 1940s/1970s mashup. I think it’s worth a look.

Shout! Factory have released both the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely and the 1978 The Big Sleep on a single Blu-Ray and both films look wonderful.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Farewell, My Lovely is a 1975 neo-noir directed by Dick Richards based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. This movie gave 57-year-old Robert Mitchum his first opportunity to play Philip Marlowe.

Marlowe is feeling old and tired. He’s just completed a case, finding a runaway teenage girl, and it didn’t make him feel good.

At the same time Marlowe has had another case go sour. Lindsay Marriott was supposed to pay $15,000 to some thieves in exchange for the return of a very valuable jade necklace which was stolen from a lady friend. Marriott is a little nervous. He just wants someone to hold his hand while he pays over the money. It’s a simple job but it ends with Marriott dead. Marlowe feels he owes it to Marriott to find his killer.

Now Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran) wants Marlowe to find Velma for him. Malloy, a huge guy, has just spent seven years in prison for a bank robbery. Velma is his girlfriend but he hasn’t heard from her for six years. Marlowe is sceptical of his chances but Moose insists and there’s no reasoning with him.

Finding Velma isn’t easy, but Marlowe doesn’t give up easily.

What puzzles Marlowe, and it puzzles him more and more, is why so many people are looking for Moose Malloy. Moose just isn’t very important. He’s just a big dumb ex-con who wants to find his girl. But it seems like a lot of people want to find Moose, and it also seems that a lot of people want Moose dead.

As far as the Marriott case is concerned, it leads Marlowe to Judge Grayle, and to Judge Grayle’s wife. She was the one who asked Marriott to get her necklace back. Judge Grayle is very old. His wife Helen (Charlotte Rampling) is very young and very beautiful. And judging by the passionate way she kisses Marlowe, probably not very faithful.

Marlowe keeps running into dead ends and people keep getting killed. All those corpses cause Marlowe problems with the cops, since Marlowe seems to be mixed up in whatever is causing all those murders.

The cops are crooked but Lieutenant Nulty (John Ireland) isn’t such a bad guy and he’s willing to cut Marlowe some slack. Detective Billy Rolfe (Harry Dean Stanton) on the other hand is both crooked and vicious.

People keep shooting at Marlowe and he keeps getting beaten up and he gets kidnapped, drugged and brutalised by sadistic madam Frances Amthor. Her whorehouse has some connection with the case. Velma was in showbusiness but she was a prostitute as well and she had been one of Amthor’s girls. Big-time gambling operator Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe) also wants Moose, which doesn’t make sense.

There’s one obvious link that Marlowe should spot, but doesn’t.

Mitchum’s performance as an ageing world-weary Marlowe is both impressive and interesting. Charlotte Rampling makes a superb femme fatale. Marlowe doesn’t know what Helen Grayle is up to but he’s getting involved with her which maybe isn’t too smart.

The supporting players are uniformly excellent. Watch out for Sylvester Stallone in a very small role as a hood.

This movie gets the look just right. Chinatown might be slightly the better movie but Farewell, My Lovely has the edge when it comes to the visuals. This is a neo-noir that has all the classic film noir atmosphere and feel you could possibly wish for. Incidentally John A. Alonzo did the cinematography for both Chinatown and Farewell, My Lovely.

Farewell, My Lovely boasts one of Chandler’s best plots. It’s intricate but it all comes together nicely and that’s true of this movie adaptation as well. But of course with Chandler atmosphere and character matter a lot more than plot.

What makes this a great movie is that neither screenwriter David Zelag Goodman nor director Dick Richards have any interest in deconstructing the genre or playing clever games with it or being ironic. The aim was clearly to make a movie with an authentic Chandlerian feel and an authentic 1940s film noir feel.

Shout! Factory have released both this movie and the 1978 The Big Sleep on a single Blu-Ray and both films look wonderful. Farewell, My Lovely looks simply stunning.

Farewell, My Lovely can stand comparison with any of the great film noir/private eye movies of the 40s without any difficulty. The violence is slightly more graphic and there’s some nudity but overall it’s a movie that successfully transports the viewer into the world of Raymond Chandler. It also features Mitchum giving one of his best-ever performances. This is a truly great neo-noir and it’s very highly recommended.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Kill Me Tomorrow (1957)

In the early to mid 1950s Terence Fisher directed a huge number of cheap B-movies, mostly crime movies and many of them for a company called Hammer Films. Kill Me Tomorrow (which was not a Hammer production) was to be the last such movie Fisher directed. In the very same month that this movie was released Fisher would hit the big time with The Curse of Frankenstein.

Fisher in fact had quite a flair for making these cheap crime features.

Pat O’Brien plays Bart Crosbie, a hardbitten crime reporter for the Clarion newspaper. Crosbie had been an ace reporter but a year earlier his wife had died. She was killed in a car accident and Bart Crosbie was driving. His response to the tragedy was to crawl inside a bottle and wallow in self-pity.

He’s become irresponsible and unreliable and he’s constantly on the verge of being sacked by his editor, Brook (Ronald Adam). Most people have written Crosbie off, but his old friend Steve Ryan (Robert Brown) and Brook’s niece Jill (Lois Maxwell) still retain some belief in him.

And now his son, the only thing he has left in the world, is desperately ill and may die. Crosbie needs a thousand pounds for an operation to save the boy and of course he doesn’t have the money. Then fate steps in. There is a murder. The murder is linked to a big story the Clarion is about to break, a story on a smuggling racket. That murder might provide a way for Crosbie to get that money although it’s a desperate chance. It could mean taking the rap for a murder he didn’t commit.

The police now have a prime suspect and a confession.

Steve Ryan has a hunch that the whole murder case doesn’t add up but that’s all it is, a hunch. Jill Brook has her doubts as well. The police are perplexed.

Crosbie gets into an awkward situation with the man behind that murder and with the police. His problem with the police is convincing them that he’s a murderer when he isn’t.

Jill Brook tries to help. Jill is a sensible girl but because Crosbie hasn’t told her everything she’s likely to make things more difficult and more confused.

50s pop sensation Tommy Steele pops up briefly to sing a rock’n’roll song, this being presumably an attempt to attract the youth market. He just happens to be the featured act at a coffee bar run by the chief bad guy.

The plot is rather predictable but the movie is well-paced.

Pat O’Brien is fine although he was pushing sixty at the time and is just a little lacking in energy, and he gets some action scenes which stretch credibility a mite.

Lois Maxwell makes a likeable feisty girl reporter.

You might think 58-year-old Pat O’Brien and 29-year-old Lois Maxwell make an unlikely romantic pairing but it works better than you might expect. Their mutual attraction comes across as quite believable.

This movie is included in the VCI four-movie DVD set called British Cinema: Drama volume 3 although the transfer bears the Renown Pictures logo.

Kill Me Tomorrow suffers from a predictable script but it’s well-made and Fisher was always a very competent director even when (as here) he was obviously working on a very very low budget. It’s not a great movie but it’s moderately entertaining and worth a look if you love British B-movies.

If you want to see some really great Terence Fisher crime B-movies check out Stolen Face and Man Bait (both Hammer movies).

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

State’s Attorney (1932)

State’s Attorney (also released as Cardigan’s Last Case) is a 1932 RKO melodrama directed by George Archainbaud.

Tom Cardigan (John Barrymore) is a hotshot defence attorney who does a lot of work for gangster Vanny Powers (William 'Stage' Boyd). Cardigan manages to get a streetwalker named June Perry (Helen Twelvetrees) acquitted on a soliciting charge. They fall for each other and she gives up prostitution and moves in with him.

Then Cardigan is offered a job in the District Attorney’s office, a job guaranteed to be a fast-track to becoming first D.A. and then Governor. He becomes a national figure after securing a woman’s conviction in a sensational murder trial.

Cardigan is through with gangsters. He’s now on the side of the law.

Marrying the current governor’s daughter Lillian Ulrich (Jill Esmond) seems like a smart career move. Lillian is a very strange girl. She gets very excited by the idea of hangings, especially if it’s a woman who is going to be hanged. If Cardigan could stay sober for five minutes he’d realise that he doesn’t really enjoy being a prosecutor and he doesn’t really like Lillian at all.

In fact he was a much nicer guy when he was a defence lawyer. Ambition and being on the side of the law has made him even more cynical. And a lot more unhappy. Maybe he’ll get to be governor but the price might not be worth it.

Things come to a head when Vanny Powers is charged with murder. The State’s key witness turns out to be June Perry. June was just an innocent bystander but she has very good reason to be reluctant to testify. If Cardigan wants a conviction he’s going to have to break her down on the witness stand and the thought of having to do that sickens him.

It’s a movie that poses some moral dilemmas. Defending gangsters might not be very moral but Cardigan discovers that the respectable world, the world that will lead him to the governor’s mansion, can be just as unsavoury. You still lose your self-respect and your peace of mind.

The courtroom scenes might be, in fact are, wildly unrealistic but they’re wonderfully entertaining and dramatic with Barrymore in full flight.

Barrymore’s performance overall is dazzling. He was at the top of his game. There’s plenty of humour mixed with the legal melodrama and Barrymore handles both the comic scenes and the dramatic scenes with equal assurance. Cardigan is quite a complex character who doesn’t really know what it is that he wants out of life or out of his career.

Helen Twelvetrees is excellent. Her career peaked during the pre-code era and she faded rapidly into obscurity after that but during that pre-code era she did some great work.

There’s plenty of pre-code content. June is a whore but she’s the nice girl, the good girl. Cardigan and June live together openly. Political corruption is taken for granted.

This movie is one of five in a Spanish DVD set, Pre-Code RKO Volume 1, which also includes the fine romance The Common Law (1931), the enjoyable melodrama Kept Husbands (1931) and the delightful farce Lonely Wives. The movies are in English with removable Spanish subtitles. It’s a very worthwhile set for pre-code fans.

State’s Attorney is an enjoyable mix of courtroom drama, humour and romance and it deals quite well with the price of ambition theme. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Chinatown (1974)

I think of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown as the first true neo-noir. There are those who consider Point Blank (1967) to be a neo-noir but Chinatown is the first such movie that really feels like a film noir. Until the end of the 1960s nobody (outside of a handful of French critics) had even heard of the term film noir. Then suddenly it became an obsession with critics and film scholars and cinephiles.

Chinatown ticks almost all of the noir boxes. There’s the atmosphere of corruption. There’s a slightly morally ambiguous protagonist who is out of his depth and getting in deeper all the time. There’s the femme fatale. There are no flashbacks but the seeds of the mystery lie in the past. There’s the sense of impending doom. You may not be sure which of the characters is likely to be doomed but you just know that really bad things are going to happen. There’s an atmosphere of obsessive and unhealthy eroticism.

Even the opening credits are done in a 1940s style. Of course Chinatown is also very much a 1940s-style hardboiled private eye movie (film noir and hard boiled crime were not the same although they overlapped a great deal).

On the other hand it’s not quite an actual film noir because it’s in colour. Polanski and cinematographer John A. Alonzo understood that you cannot reproduce the film noir visual style in colour, so they adopted a visual style which would work in colour. Everything is bathed in sunlight. They manage to make the California sunshine noirish. As the movie progresses the colour palette becomes darker and more subdued and more obviously noirish.

Chinatown
is so much more successful than most neo-noirs because it’s totally lacking in fashionable irony. It isn’t trying to deconstruct film noir. It isn’t trying to play clever games with noir conventions. It isn’t interested in self-referential games. It’s not trying to mock the movies of the 40s. It stands in marked contrast to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, made around the same time, which is guilty of all of those things.

Polanski understands the conventions of film noir and the hardboiled PI movie and he respects those conventions. Chinatown isn’t so much a neo-noir as a classic noir that happened to be made in the early 70s. It’s a classic film noir and it’s a movie of the 70s and it doesn’t feel like a cynical contrivance or an exercise in nostalgia.

The story is told rigidly from the point of view of PI Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). The viewer only knows what Jake knows. And Robert Towne’s script is littered with clever traps, with scenes that are going to mislead us. But Towne and Polanski never cheat. Everything we see is true, but both Jake and the audience are going to jump to obvious conclusions and in this movie those obvious conclusions will always turn out to be wrong.

It starts in the time-honoured fashion for private eye stories. Jake takes on a very routine case. Evelyn Mulwray hires him to find out if her husband is having an affair. Jake finds incontrovertible evidence that he is having an affair. Then comes the first twist. Things are not what they seem to be.

There are two mysteries to be solved but Jake doesn’t know that yet. What he does know is that something strange is going on at the reservoir. Lots of strange things are going on that are connected with water but none of these things make any sense.

Jake slowly becomes aware that there’s another mystery. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) has hired him but there’s something she’s not telling him and it’s something very important. That’s all he knows. He doesn’t know why she is hiding something. He doesn’t know if he can trust her. Jake doesn’t like mysteries that he can’t solve. Somehow he is going to find the answers.

He does suspect that some of the answers lie in the past, and that Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (John Huston) is involved somehow. Noah Cross is very rich and very powerful and very ruthless.

Jake gradually uncovers some answers but they always lead to more questions and they’re usually the wrong answers anyway. Jake isn’t stupid. He is not a seedy down-at-heel PI eking out a living. He’s a very successful private eye. He knows his business. He just has no way of knowing what he’s stumbled into. He thinks he’s doing everything right but it all turns out wrong.

It’s like Chinatown all over again. Jake had been a cop in Chinatown where he’d learnt that it doesn’t matter how smart you are and how hard you try you’re not going to find the answers, your investigation will always lead nowhere and you might as well not bother trying. And when you to try to save someone, as Jake once tried, you end up dooming them instead. That’s why Jake isn’t a cop any more. Jake couldn’t take that sort of thing any longer.

Screenwriter Robert Towne saw Chinatown as a metaphor for the futility of good intentions.

He wrote the part of Jake Gittes specifically for Jack Nicholson and Nicholson gives his career-best performance. It’s a very Jack Nicholson performance but at the same time it’s a controlled disciplined performance. Faye Dunaway also gives a career-best performance as a woman so badly damaged that she’s close to falling apart and Dunaway makes her wholly believable and real. John Huston oozes evil and corruption from every pore.

It’s a movie in which everything comes together perfectly. Towne’s script unfolds beautifully. Polanski was the right choice as director and doesn’t put a foot wrong. The production design is superb. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is magnificent. It’s difficult to find a single flaw in this movie. It’s the most perfect Hollywood movie of the 70s. Very highly recommended.

The Blu-ray is packed with wonderful extras. There’s an audio commentary featuring Robert Towne and half a dozen documentaries covering every facet of the production.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

The Damned Don’t Cry is a 1950 Joan Crawford melodrama with a definite film noir tinge.

In classic noir style the story is told in flashback. The movie opens with the discovery of the body of a mobster found in the desert. A home movie is discovered that shows the mobster with glamorous socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford). Lorna is nowhere to be found which leads the police to speculate that it might be worth questioning her about the murder.

We then get the flashback that fills us in on Lorna’s life. She was once Ethel Whitehead, married to an ordinary working guy, and with a six-year-old son. Life is a constant round of struggle and poverty. When the boy is killed in an accident Ethel has had enough. She leaves. She wants more out of life and she wants to get it before it’s too late.

She gets a job as a fashion model. The models get kickbacks for introducing suckers to a gambling joint. Ethel is starting to make some money and she likes it.

She meets a rather nice man. Martin Blackford (Kent Smith) is an accountant. Through Ethel he meets Grady and Grady has a small accounting problem which Martin clears up. Grady is impressed. Grady is a businessman whose business activities are not what you might call strictly legal. In fact he’s a gangster. Grady is impressed by the idea that a guy like Martin could put his operation on a more sound and profitable footing.

Grady sings Martin’s praises to his boss, big-time mobster George Castleman (David Brian). Castleman sees the possibilities. Castleman represents a new type of gangster. He sees the future in terms of operating a crime organisation like a legitimate business. Much more efficient and much more profitable. In Castleman’s view the days of gang wars and thuggery and having guys rubbed out are over. He offers Martin the job of running the whole financial side of his criminal empire. Martin doesn’t want to be involved in crime but he figures that the only way to keep Ethel is by having lots of money so he takes the job.

Soon Martin is a rich man but he did it all for Ethel but Ethel has set her sights on George Castleman. He can give her what she wants. He can give her more than Martin could ever hope to give her.

Ethel is soon installed as Castleman’s mistress. And with the help of socialite Patricia Longworth (Selena Royle) she reinvents herself as Lorna Hansen Forbes. She has acquired enough class to pass as a high society dame. She has everything she wanted.

For the sake of convenience and simplicity I’m going to continue to refer to her as Ethel.

There’s one fly in the ointment - Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Nick runs the west coast territory for Castleman but Nick is old school. He does things the old way. If someone causes a problem Nick gets the boys to take the guy for a ride. Nick’s habit of having guys killed puts him out of synch with Castleman’s approach and there’s eventually going to be a showdown. And Ethel, much against her will, is going to be right in the middle. Ethel doesn’t like being confronted by unpleasant realities like gangsters planning to have each other rubbed out.

It’s a good script with more than enough noirishness to justify the film noir label. Both Ethel and Martin are nice ordinary people but they get sucked in by the lure of easy money and they slowly become corrupted. They make more and more compromises and as they get in deeper it becomes more and more impossible to get out.

Ethel is ambitious and ruthless but she’s not as tough and ruthless as she thinks she is, and while we’re appalled by her climb to the top we can understand her motivation. We can understand why she thinks it’s worth paying any price to escape the life of poverty and despair she once knew. She might be a bad girl but there are lines she will not cross. One of those lines is murder. She will happily live off the proceeds of crime but she wants no part in violence of any kind. She is attracted to George Castleman because he’s a gangster who has renounced violence. It never occurs to Ethel that a situation might arise in which George would be tempted to revert to violence. Ethel thinks she can remain in control of her situation but she’s wrong.

Martin is in the same boat. He thought that being an accountant for the Mob wasn’t the same as being an actual gangster but he learns that once you work for the Mob you’re a gangster whether you like it or not.

Kent Smith is excellent as the hapless Martin. David Brian effortlessly combines smoothness and menace. Steve Cochran is always a joy to watch.

There’s so much to like about this movie but there is one major problem that can’t be evaded. Joan Crawford is right for the part and her performance is excellent but she was simply too old to play this role. At least fifteen years too old. This was true of several of her 1940s movies. Crawford was never one to let that bother her. She always relied on sheer bravado to carry it off and in most cases it worked. It doesn’t work this time.

I can buy the idea that George Castleman falls for her. He’s attracted by her intelligence, her ambition and her ruthlessness. He sees her as a female version of himself. I can just about buy the idea that Martin falls for her. For years he’d worked long hours for very little money. He had neither the time nor the money for a social life and he’s na├»ve about women.

What I can’t buy is that Nick Prenta would fall for her. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to fall for a woman almost old enough to be his mother. The whole romance between these two is wildly incongruous and totally unconvincing and unfortunately it’s absolutely critical to the plot that the viewer does buy it.

Apart from that problem this is a fine noir melodrama. If you can ignore the problem of Crawford’s age then it’s highly recommended.