Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Hoodlum (1951)

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The Hoodlum is a nicely seedy little 1951 crime B- movie that is film noir in style if not in content. It was made for Jack Schwarz Productions, on a very low budget even by B-movie standards.

Vincent Lubeck (Lawrence Tierney) is no good. He’s been in and doubt of reform school and prison since he was sixteen. Now he’s served five years for armed robbery and is eligible for parole. The  warden knows Vincent is no good and recommends that he not be granted parole but he is overruled by the bleeding hearts on the Parole Board, influenced by a sob story from his mother. They believe that the purpose of prison is to reform prisoners. The warden knows this is dangerous nonsense but is overruled and Vincent is paroled. The members of the Parole Board won’t have to pay the price for their lousy judgment - the Lubeck family and the rest of society will pay that price, as they always do.

Vincent’s brother Johnny (played by Lawrence Tierney’s real-life brother Edward)  gives Vincent a job at his gas station. Vincent is not grateful and is already planning his next robbery - the bank across the street from Johnny’s gas station.

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Vincent’s mother, his brother and his brother’s girlfriend Rosa (Allene Roberts)  all try to reason with Vincent. Vincent is too busy wallowing in self-pity to listen. Vincent does take a brief break from feeling sorry for himself to seduce Rosa, thus ruining yet another life.

Vincent has big plans. He intends to rob the armoured car that picks up the money from the bank. He has it all worked out. The plan is foolproof, even to the extent of using a funeral to expedite the robbers’ getaway. Like most foolproof schemes dreamed up by two-bit hoodlums like Vincent the robbery goes badly wrong, and Vincent is soon on the run with nowhere left to hide.

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Vincent is a man with no redeeming qualities. It’s a credit to Lawrence Tierney that he can keep us interested in the fate of such an unpleasant character. It’s a powerful and rivetting performance. Vincent is no film noir hero driven to desperation by the wiles of a femme fatale or caught in the net of fate. He has made his own choices. Both he and his brother Johnny were brought up in poverty but Johnny has worked hard and now has a successful business. It might be only a gas station but Johnny is still rightfully proud that he is earning a good living and an honest one. There was never anything to stop Vincent from doing the same, but Vincent was always too busy feeling sorry for himself and being angry at the world which he obviously believes owes him a living. As his mother admits, Vincent has always been at war with the whole world.

Edward Tierney has the thankless role of the good hard-working brother and he handles it fairly well. Allene Roberts is effective as Rosa, a woman destroyed by her passion for a bad man. In this case it is Vincent who plays the role usually reserved for the femme fatale, using his bad boy glamour to ensnare Rosa.

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European director Max Nosseck does an efficient job. His career never took off, even after he scored a surprise hit for Monogram with Dillinger in 1945, also with Lawrence Tierney as the star. Dillinger became one of the most successful releases in Monogram’s history.

With a running time of just 61 minutes this movie is unlikely to wear out its welcome. The movie’s visual style puts it into the noir camp even though there’s little in the content to justify calling this a film noir. It’s a gritty little crime B-movie and it succeeds quite well on its own terms.

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The mood of the film is unrelentingly bleak. It is bookended by a memorable sequence in the city dump that establishes the movie’s lack of hope, and this darkness certainly gives it some claim to be considered a noir. Vincent began his life in a house so close to the dump that the smell was always there, and at the end of the he’s back there again. That smell really is destined to follow him throughout his life, and to provide him with a never-ending alibi for failure.

Image Entertainment’s region-free DVD release offers an unrestored but acceptable print. There are no extras but at the very low price being asked you wouldn’t expect any.

The Hoodlum is a tough uncompromising movie that is as spiteful as its lead character. An excellent example of the B-movies of its era. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Murder Is My Beat (1955)

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Murder Is My Beat is a 1955 Edgar G. Ulmer film noir but sadly it cannot be described as one of the highlights of his career.

The movie was released by Allied Artists, formerly Monogram Pictures. Allied Artists aimed to make marginally more prestigious pictures than the average Monogram picture, but Murder Is My Beat is all too obviously a very low budget production.

We start with Police Captain Bert Rawley (Robert Shayne) tracking down Ray Patrick (Paul Langton) to a seedy motel in a small town in northern California. Patrick is a Homicide detective who’d worked under Rawley but he’s gone off the rails and assisted a blonde female prisoner to escape. Patrick then tells his story in an extended flashback.

It started with a routine case. Middle-aged businessman Frank Dean had been murdered. His lady friend Eden Lane (Barbara Payton) is the obvious suspect. The only unusual aspect of the case is that Dean had been thrust into a fireplace and his hands and face had been so badly burnt  as to make identification a problem. This is a definite weakness in the plot - everybody acts on the assumption that of course the body belongs to Frank Dean since it was found in his apartment but would any real-life police officer, or any real-life court, accept such a dubious identification?

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Nonetheless the police do assume the body is Dean’s, and Ray Patrick is given the task of making a fairly perfunctory investigation. He talks to Eden’s roommate Patsy Flint (Tracey Roberts) and is soon on Eden’s trail, tracking her down to a mountain cabin. He arrests her and she is convicted.

Shortly afterwards Detective Patrick is assigned to accompany the prison matron escorting Eden to another prison. When the train makes a brief stop in a small northern California town Eden spots a man on the platform. The man is Frank Dean! She is so convinced of this that she manages to persuade Ray Patrick that she really has seen the man she supposedly murdered. Patrick realises that the woman he arrested and caused to be convicted could be innocent. Of course the sensible thing to do would have been to escort her to the prison and then go back and investigate. But if film noir protagonists made sensible choices we’d have no film noir, so Patrick helps Eden to escape.

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He tells her he’ll give it one week. If by the end of that week he hasn’t turned up any evidence that would clear her he’ll take her to the prison.

Of course Patrick’s motives are not as straightforward as a mere desire to prevent an innocent women from being imprisoned - he has fallen for her and he has to believe she’s innocent because he loves her.

After six days he has found a few interesting leads but he is a long way from proving a case. And then Eden disappears. And then Captain Rawley shows up. In true noir style the world is starting to come crashing down on Ray Patrick. He’s thrown away his career, he is likely to face criminal charges and the woman he did all this for has vanished. He does get one lucky break - he persuades Captain Rawley to give him another 24 hours and Rawley agrees and offers to help Patrick in his attempt to break the case.

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The story is fine. It is a bit contrived but it has an authentically noir feel to it, with betrayal, murder and blackmail. The characters are fine. Ray Patrick is a standard noir hero who is dragged down into a nightmare world by an attractive blonde. Eden is not a femme fatale but in plot terms she serves the purpose well enough - she tempts Ray Patrick in giving up everything he has for her.

The problems here are that the acting is not good enough to sell the story, and Ulmer seems to have lacked the motivation to give the film the sorts of stylistic flourishes and the sense of weirdness that characterise his best low-budget work. This is a rather conventionally made low-budget crime flick. Without those stylistic flourishes to balance them the cheapness of the sets and the excessive reliance on rear projection become only too apparent.

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Paul Langton is adequate but lacks any charisma, while Barbara Payton was already far advanced in her systematic campaign of self-destruction and lacks the verve (and much of the sex appeal) that she displayed in her earlier movies.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD looks about as good as such a low-budget can be expected to look.

Murder Is My Beat is unfortunately merely a routine ultra-cheap B movie and while Ulmer completists will want to at least rent it it’s difficult to recommend this movie.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Samson and Delilah (1949)

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Cecil B. DeMille’s career had its ups and downs during the 1940s but Samson and Delilah, released by Paramount in 1949, marked a triumphant return to form. It is pure DeMille and it was a smash hit at the box office.

DeMille never bothered to adjust his fim-making style to the sound era. He continued to believe that the visual impact was what mattered, and Samson and Delilah certainly delivers the goods in that area.

Samson (Victor Mature), of the tribe of Dan, is one of judges of the Israelites. His people have been enslaved by the Philistines. God has a mission for Samson, to begin the process of freeing the Israelites from bondage. In order to achieve this aim God has given Samson supernatural strength.

Samson initially seems an unlikely hero. He spends his time drinking with the Philistines, brawling and chasing women. Miriam (Olive Deering) is in love with him, but Samson wants to marry a Philistine woman, the beautiful Semadar (Angela Lansbury). Samson has another admirer, Semadar’s younger sister Delilah (Hedy Lamarr). During a ceremonial lion hunt Samson demonstrates his great strength by killing a lion with his bare hands. This feat impresses the Philistine leader, the Saran of Gaza (George Sanders). The Saran gives him permission to marry a woman of the Philistines. His choice of Semadar in preference to Delilah enrages the latter. Delilah is determined that no woman will take Samson from her.

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The wedding feat ends in a brawl, with tragic results. Samson finds himself outlawed. Samson is deeply loved by his people and they refuse to give him up to the Philistines. Samson pursues a career of banditry, wreaking havoc among the oppressors of the Israelites. An attempt to capture him ends in disaster with Samson destroying an entire army with only the jawbone of an ass as a weapon. This is a scene that could easily have seemed ridiculous but DeMille handles it superbly. The introduction of the ass’s jawbone is done very skillfully and wittily.

There seems to be no way of taking Samson, until Delilah assures the Saran that she can do the job. The Saran is not as enthusiastic as you might suppose, since he is Delilah’s lover, but there seems to be no alternative. Delilah also assures the Saran that she can discover the secret of Samson’s strength. Delilah’s seduction of Samson sets up the spectacular ending in the Temple of the Philistine god Dagon.

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DeMille had second thoughts about his casting of Victor Mature in the lead role. He’d cast him after being very impressed (and rightly so) by the actor’s performance in Kiss of Death. Mature insisted on using a double for the lion-fighting scene, much to DeMille’s disgust. The underrated Mature in fact does a fine job, as he always did when he had a decent role and a good director.

Hedy Lamarr gives one of her best performances as Delilah. She has no trouble being perversely seductive and she is also convincing as a woman with very conflicted feelings, torn by jealousy and by her mixture of love and hate for Samson. Lamarr got on extremely well with DeMille and she repays his confidence in her.

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George Sanders adds a touch of fun as the Saran. This is Sanders at his most delightfully cynical. He doesn’t try to make the character too much of a clich├ęd villain - the Saran is not evil, he is merely a king who is determined to assert his authority. Angela Lansbury looks very glamorous and she also gives a fine performance.

DeMille’s genius comes to the fore in his treatment of the sexually perverse elements in the story. Some of this is implicit in the original Bible story but the film really ramps up the perversity. The attraction between Samson and Delilah has more than a hint of the sado-masochistic about it.

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This is a typically DeMille mix of sex and spectacle, of lust and religion. Only DeMille has ever been able to carry off such a combination successfully, and without showing any disrespect for religion. DeMille took religion seriously, in fact more seriously than is often assumed.

The climactic scenes in the temple are a tour-de-force. Those scenes cost Paramount a fortune but they were worth every penny. The gigantic statue of Dagon (actually a seventeen-feet high model) is breath-taking.

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Paramount has made us wait a long time for an official DVD release of this movie, but the wait was worth it. The movie look magnificent. The colours are stunningly bright and lush. DeMille’s epics really need to be seen on the big screen but if you’re lucky enough to have a big high definition television you won’t be disappointed by this DVD.

Samson and Delilah is an epic as only Cecil B. DeMille has ever been able to make them. Superb entertainment, truly spectacular and very sexy. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Women’s Prison (1955)

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Women’s Prison is, as its title suggests, a movie about women in prisons. This 1955 Columbia production may well be the worst movie of its type ever made.

Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) has just arrived at the women’s penitentiary. She’s a meek housewife who was convicted of manslaughter after she killed a child in a traffic accident. She is befriended by Brenda (Jan Sterling), an old hand who is just about to start yet another prison sentence.

Helene can’t cope with life in prison. She goes from one hysterical episode to another. The prison doctor, Dr Crane (Howard Duff) feels sorry for her, but then he feels sorry for all the prisoners. He’s one of those people who spends his whole life feeling sorry for people but he reserves most of his pity for people who don’t deserve it.

The women’s prison is separated by a wall from a men’s prison, and one of the male prisoners has found a way to get into the women’s prison. Glen Burton’s wife is in the women’s prison and he wants to get a message to her, a message so important that it has to be delivered personally.

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Meanwhile Helene is still getting hysterical and spends most of her time in the infirmary.

The women’s prison is run by Amelia van Zandt (Ida Lupino). She’s the stereotypical wicked sadistic prison warden. She and Dr Crane have had many confrontations about the treatment of prisoners. Things come to a head when it is discovered than Glen Burton’s wife Jane is pregnant. This is embarrassing for the prison authorities since she has been behind bars for the last two years. Warden Brock (from the men’s prison) and Amelia van Zandt have to discover how Glen Burton got into the women’s section. In trying to get the information from Jane Burton van Zandt gets a bit carried away and after being slapped a couple of times Jane promptly collapses.

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When the women prisoners find out about Jane Burton they start a riot, which threatens to get out of control and leave the prisoners in charge of the prison.

There’s not a single character in this movie who feels real. They are all stereotypes. The prisoners are all good while the authorities running the prison are all bad. Ida Lupino does the best she can but her character is such a two-dimensional villain and the entire movie is so phony there’s little she can do. It’s a complete waste of a fine actress.

Howard Duff has an even more thankless role as Dr Crane. Dr Crane is a smarmy, smug, self-satisfied bleeding heart and that’s how Duff plays him. He’s irritating beyond belief.

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Cleo Moore and Jan Sterling play sympathetic prisoners but again they’re mere stereotypes. They’re the victims of a wicked oppressive system. Phyllis Thaxter is excruciating as Helene Jensen. If only Helene could stop feeling sorry for herself and give some thought to the parents of the child she killed we might be able to respect her but the script never even suggests such a thought. We’re simply supposed to pity her as another victim of an oppressive system.

The entire movie is one long bleeding heart sob story about the inhumanity of the system, and of course no mention is made of the price that victims of crime have to pay. The movie makes it plain that we’re supposed to be on the side of the prisoners but conveniently it forgets to mention the trail of misery that criminals leave behind them.

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Lewis Seiler directed this mess and shows no signs of inspiration or imagination. There’s nothing even vaguely noirish about the visual style of the film.

This movie is included in Sony’s Bad Girls of Noir volume 2 DVD set. It’s an acceptable print although it is rather grainy. There are no extras.

By no stretch of the imagination can Women’s Prison be considered a film noir. It is a social problem message movie, and it’s one of the most annoying and heavy-handed examples of that genre ever made. This is simplistic rubbish that tries to manipulate the viewer into an emotional response. This is a movie to be avoided at all costs.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Blind Alley (1939)

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Blind Alley is an interesting 1939 Columbia crime movie directed by Charles Vidor that can be considered as being in some degree a forerunner of film noir, a proto-noir if you will.

The plot was obviously influenced to some extent by Warner Brothers’ 1936 hit The Petrified Forest, but Blind Alley adds some touches of its own.

Hal Wilson (Chester Morris) is a bank robber and a killer and he’s escaped from the penitentiary and is on the run, in the company of his girlfriend Mary (Ann Dvorak) and a couple of members of his gang. He’s arranged for one of his pals to obtain a boat to get him across the lake (I don’t recall that we’re ever told which lake it is). While they’re waiting for the boat to arrive they decide to hole up in a lakeside house. The house is owned by psychiatrist Dr Anthony Shelby (Ralph Bellamy). In the house are Dr Shelby, his wife and his young son, three assorted house guests and a couple of servants, and they all find themselves held hostage by Wilson and his gang.

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Wilson is both violent and very edgy. After witnessing Wilson committing an act of ruthless and callous violence Dr Shelby decides he’s going to destroy Wilson’s mind. He’s going to do this by taking Wilson’s mind to pieces by means of psychoanalysis. What follows is a battle of minds between Wilson and Dr Shelby.

While this is happening the boat is not arriving. Several hours later it has still not turned up and Wilson and his crew are getting more and more worried, and more and more jumpy. If Dr Shelby doesn’t succeed in breaking Wilson’s mind it’s possible that one of Wilson’s pals will do something stupid. It’s a tense situation and it gets steadily tenser.

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The mental struggle for dominance between Hal Wilson and Dr Shelby is handled quite skillfully, and there’s plenty of Freudian silliness to keep fans of psychiatric noir happy. There are even a couple of dream sequences, making this movie in some senses a dress rehearsal for Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The dream sequences are not as elaborate or as inventive as the ones in Hitchcock’s film but they’re still quite entertaining.

There’s not really very much noir in this movie, although the gradual disintegration of Hal Wilson’s mind does give it a definite dark edge.

Both the resolution of the plot, and the outcome of the mind battle between the killer and the psychiatrist, are delightfully loopy and far-fetched.

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Chester Morris does his best tough guy act as the killer on the run. He portrays the slow crumbling of the hoodlum’s mind quite efficiently without going too far over the top. Ralph Bellamy is perhaps too calm and collected as Dr Shelby. It’s hard to believe that anyone could be quite so cool in such a situation. Bellamy plays Shelby as a standard movie professorial type, complete with pipe. Bellamy does manage to make some ridiculous dialogue sound fairly convincing and overall his performance is effective enough. Ann Dvorak does a fine job as the killer’s loyal girlfriend. As Wilson starts to fall apart she starts edging towards hysteria, adding more tension to the mix. Especially as she has a gun and seems like she might be the trigger-happy type. The supporting players acquit themselves reasonably well.

Charles Vidor directs the movie in a thoroughly competent fashion. The movie lacks the distinctive noir style but it’s technically polished by B-movie standards. Mercifully there’s no attempt to inject any comic relief.

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Sony have done a reasonable job with their release of this movie. Picture and sound quality are both very acceptable. There are no extras.

Blind Alley is enjoyable psychobabble hokum combined with a tense crime story. A good solid crime B-movie and even if its claim to being a proto-noir are dubious fans of film noir and classic Hollywood B-movies should find this to be rewarding viewing. Recommended.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille

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Scott Eyman’s Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille is biography on the grand scale, which is of course the only way anyone could do justice to a man like DeMille.

DeMille has been out of critical favour for decades and to most people today his name is synonymous with everything they think was wrong with Hollywood in its heyday - that his movies were too commercial, too grandiose and too old-fashioned. Happily that situation seems to be improving slightly with the DVD era allowing people to see his movies looking more or less as they should look. And while US critics tended to be dismissive of DeMille even when he was at the height of his popularity in France he has long been regarded as one of the greats, and rightly so.

DeMille was more than just a director. He was one of the founders of the American film industry. He was one of the creators of Paramount Studios and one of the true pioneers of the industry. He was directing films as early as 1914. By the mid-1910s we was one of the major film-makers in Hollywood, the creative backbone of the studio that would eventually become Paramount. And unlike many of the other pioneers of the industry, forty years later  he was still one of the major players in the industry.

A movie directed by DeMille was always a Cecil B. DeMille movie. He was never a director-for-hire. He directed and produced, he either initiated or approved the original concept, he exercised ultimate control over the casting. Every set and every costume was approved by him. He had the final say on whether the screenplay was acceptable or not. if he wasn’t happy with the screenplay it got rewritten. Every movie he made had the Cecil B. DeMille stamp on it, and was instantly recognisable as one of his productions. As French critics realised back in the 50s, DeMille was a true auteur.

DeMille also had the extraordinary knack of being able to continue making movies his way right up to the very end of his career, whilst still pleasing the cinema-going public. His movies expressed his own distinctive vision but he never lost touch with his audience. His last two movies were the biggest hits of his career, and his final movie, the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, was one of the greatest box-office successes of all time. Within a few short years it had been seen by almost a hundred million people, making it still one of the most popular movies ever made, with the only real challenger being Gone with the Wind. A success on that scale from a man in his seventies at the very end of his career is without parallel.

And he was much much more than a director of epics. His output encompasses most genres. His 1920s silent comedies starring Gloria Swanson are among the best ever made. With his 1936 hit The Plainsman he transformed the western from a minor B-movie genre into a major genre worthy of the talents of the best directors in the industry.

The coming of sound made no difference to him. He refused to change his style, always insisting that the motion picture was a visual medium and that it was the image that counted. And DeMille was always technically at the cutting edge. The introduction of sound meant that the camera had to be insulated from the action by a glass wall so that the microphones would not pick up the sound of the camera. This limited the choice of camera angles and reduced the quality of the image. This was totally unacceptable to DeMille, and he did not accept it. He insisted that a solution be found, and it was found.

Scott Eyman does a magnificent job of chronicling DeMille’s career, while also giving us a thorough understanding of a very complex man. DeMille was and still is a controversial figure for both his private life and his politics. Eyman does not gloss over DeMille’s faults but he is remarkably fair about DeMille’s politics, making it clear that DeMille was always making a sincere stand on principles in which he firmly believed.

Despite his reputation as a control freak on the set DeMille was a man capable of extraordinary generosity and great kindness. He never forgot anyone who worked for him. Many of the actors of the silent era had fallen on hard times when sound came in but DeMille would always manage to find at least small parts for them in his later movies. DeMille was widely disliked, but almost always by people who did not know him. Those who actually worked for him remembered him with both reverence and affection.

This is by no means a mere exercise in hero worship. DeMille’s achievements are substantial enough to speak for themselves.

DeMille always believed in offering his audience entertainment and it’s fitting that Eyman’s biography is equally entertaining. A fascinating account of a great career that is equally valuable portrait of Hollywood at its greatest. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Trapped (1949)

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The varied and wide-ranging activities of the US Treasury Department provided material for many entertaining movies and television series in the 1940s and 1950s and Trapped is a typical example of the genre. As was the case with many of these movies it starts off with a semi-documentary introduction, but soon settles down into a typical crime B-movie of its era.

This is a low-budget production that was distributed under the Eagle-Lion banner and released in 1949.

Counterfeit bills, and very good ones, start showing up. Secret Service investigators instantly recognise them as being printed from the same plates that were used a few years earlier in a very major counterfeit operation. Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges) is currently serving a long sentence for his part in that operation. Secret Service agents offer him a deal. He still has seven years to serve but they’ll offer him immediate parole if he’ll lead them to the people now using his plates, but to avert suspicion from his old gang they first have to arrange a phony jailbreak for him. Stewart agrees to the plan. The deal includes having Stewart watched continuously by a Secret Service agent but being a stool pigeon doesn’t really appeal to him so he beats up the agent and escapes and strikes out on his own.

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This is not a complete disaster for the Secret Service  though. They’re confident he’ll hook up with his old girlfriend Meg Dixon (Barbara Payton) and they have her place bugged. Sure enough he does just that and pretty soon the Secret Service know exactly what his plans are. They’re happy to let him go ahead, knowing that he’ll lead them to the people now using his counterfeit plates.

An undercover agent, John Downey (John Hoyt) makes contact with Stewart and manages to convince him he’s an ideal business partner for a counterfeiting ring and it looks like the government men will nail the gang without too much trouble. That’s before things start going badly wrong. Maybe there’s still a chance that Stewart can be persuaded to play ball, but he’s an unpredictable quantity at the best of times and he hates cops so that’s a long shot.

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There’s nothing startling original about this movie. There’s also nothing that would really justify describing it as film noir. The film noir label is a reliable selling point but there were plenty of fine gritty an often quite dark crime movies made in the 40s and 50s that weren’t noir but are still very much worth seeing. This one belongs to the then very popular category of semi-documentary style police procedurals.

The low budget isn’t a major drawback. The production values certainly are not A-picture standard but they’re than adequate and the movie is well-paced. The 78-minute running time won’t strain the viewer’s patience and in general the movie is technically competent with some reasonable location shots. Most importantly it isn’t burdened by any unnecessary attempts at comic relief.

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The underrated Lloyd Bridges gives a nicely gritty tough-guy performance as Stewart. Leading lady Barbara Payton is effective as Tris’s girlfriend Meg. Payton’s own life was more tragic than any film noir. After a series of disastrous relationships she ended as an alcoholic making her living as a prostitute and died at the age of 39. John Hoyt is solid enough as Downey.

Director Richard Fleischer would go on to much bigger things. He does a very competent job here, and the climactic scenes are expertly done. The movie has the characteristic dark and seedy feel of film noir although this is due more to the low budget than any actual intention on the part of the makers of the film.

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The name Alpha Video on a DVD case does tend to give one a sinking feeling but this is actually one of their better efforts. There is some minor print damage but the picture is fairly sharp without too much noticeable graininess. Contrast is not great, but the sound quality is quite good. Overall this particular DVD is of very acceptable quality for an unrestored print.

Trapped is a good entertaining crime B-movie and is certainly worth a look.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Fountainhead (1949)

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The Fountainhead, with a screenplay by Ayn Rand based on her own novel, is not an easy movie to judge. The first difficulty of course is that the movie is a presentation of Rand’s philosophy, a subject that people tend to feel very strongly about, either for or against. But there are other difficulties as well - this is a very odd movie indeed, a movie that breaks most of the accepted rules, and judging it by conventional standards won’t really work. Regardless of all that, whether you’re pro-Rand or anti-Rand there are very good reasons to see this movie. Even if you disagree with Rand’s politics you’ll find this movie to be at the very least interesting and provocative.

When Warner Brothers employed Rand to write the screenplay they rather surprisingly gave her complete creative control. Her contract stated that not one line of her dialogue could be altered. Perhaps they assumed that she would not make an issue of it if changes had to be made. If they thought that they were very mistaken indeed. Rand held them to the letter of her contract.

King Vidor was brought on board as director, with Gary Cooper and newcomer Patricia Neal as the stars. The movie was released in 1949.

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The movie is, on the surface at least, the story of an architect. Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) stubbornly insists on going his own way, refusing to compromise his vision in any way. If nobody wants to employ him as an architect, if nobody wants to build the buildings he designs, it makes no difference to him. He will not alter a design to please a client. At first he has virtually no clients and is forced to take a job as a labourer in a quarry. Finally, after many years, he starts to make a reputation for himself, and when success comes it comes in spectacular fashion. Then potential disaster strikes. He wants to design a huge housing project but he knows that he will not get the job, so he designs it anyway and allows his old friend Peter Keating (Kent Smith) to claim the credit. Keating is a third-rate architect who had enjoyed enormous success but has now fallen on hard times as fashions have changed. When Roark’s design is changed he takes drastic steps to assert his right not to have his work altered to please others. Those drastic steps will land him in court facing a possible lengthy prison sentence.

In his early days when he was working in a quarry to make ends meet he had encountered a woman named Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal). It had been a violently sexual and passionate encounter. Years later he encounters her again. She is now married to newspaper magnate Gail Wynant (Raymond Massey). Dominique is as stubborn and willful and uncompromising in her own way as Roark. She had refused to marry Roark because she believed that the world would inevitably destroy so individualistic a man. But the passions ignited years before are still smouldering beneath the surface.

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Any hero has to have a nemesis, and in this case the role is played by Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), a columnist on Wynant’s newspaper. If Roark represents individualism, then Toohey represents collectivism. Toohey espouses equality, and he believes that the best way to achieve equality is to grind down anyone who is exceptional in any way. In fact what Toohey really believes in is power.

The first thing that should be noted is that Rand had no interest in writing a realistic book or creating realistic characters. The characters are not people; they represent ideas. The events that unfold in the novel would never happen in real life - they happen in order to allow Rand to explicate her ideas. The movie takes exactly the same approach. This should be a fatal weakness, and probably would have been in the hands of any other director.

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Luckily the choice of Vidor as director turned out to be an inspired one. Vidor approaches the movie as pure melodrama, and melodrama was something he understood and was not afraid of. Nor was he afraid of going completely over-the-top, which is of course the only way to do melodrama successfully. The result is a bizarre mixture of deliciously trashy melodrama and uncompromising philosophic didacticism, but surprisingly enough Vidor gets away with it. It’s unquestionably the only way this movie could have succeeded. The biggest mistake you can make in trying to get a message across is to be excessively earnest. The Fountainhead’s extreme melodramatic approach allows it to get the message across whilst remaining highly entertaining.

Gary Cooper was perhaps not an obvious choice to play Howard Roark but he wanted the part very badly and he carries it off superbly. Cooper always was good at playing stubborn characters. Patricia Neal’s performance is bizarre but fascinating. Raymond Massey is delightful as always, while Robert Douglas is wonderfully sinister as the villain of the piece, Ellsworth Toohey. Kent Smith gives what is possibly the performance of his career as Peter Keating.

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Max Steiner’s music complements Vidor’s approach to the material perfectly. The art direction is also extraordinary, with some amazing sets. If you get bored with all this The Fountainhead contains enough sexual symbolism to keep any Freudian very happy indeed.

Whether you agree with Rand’s philosophy or not she  does make some telling points, especially in regard to herd-like behaviour. It is much easier to be a Peter Keating and let other people tell you what to think than it is to be a Howard Roark and think for yourself. Today, in an age where group-think is more all-pervasive than ever before, this movie is even more relevant than it was in 1949.

The Warner Home Video DVD looks terrific and includes a brief documentary on the making of the movie.

The Fountainhead is the sort of movie that could never be made today. Not because of its political message, but because it takes so many risks. It is an uncompromising film and all in all it’s one of the most unusual Hollywood movies of the 40s. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Female Jungle (1955)

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Female Jungle is a grimy little low-budget 1955 crime movie with a distinctly noir atmosphere to it.

Fast-rising Hollywood starlet Monica Madison is found dead outside a bar, a bar that seems a bit too down-market to be one of her regular haunts. Also drinking at the bar that night was off-duty cop Detective-Sergeant Jack Stevens (Lawrence Tierney). Stevens’ problem is that he’s had one of his presumably regular alcoholic blackouts and he can’t remember a thing that happened during the course of the evening. Since the murder was committed during the period of the blackout he’s understandably a trifle concerned.

Detective-Sergeant Duane (Rex Thorsen) is assigned to the case. Stevens offers to help him out, but what he really wants to find out is what he himself was doing during those hours that preceded the murder.

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Also mixed up in the case are Alex Voe (Burt Kaiser) and Claude Almstead. Voe is a failed artist who ekes out a living drawing caricatures of customers at the bar. One of his caricatures will emerge as a vital piece of evidence. Almstead (John Carradine) is a gossip columnist who was responsible for launching Monica Madison’s career. He’d also established himself as her lover although it appears that she wasn’t exactly the faithful type and that she was tiring of the affair now that her career had started to take off.

There’s also Candy Price (Jayne Mansfield). She’s been having affairs with both Alex Voe and Detective-Sergeant Stevens. And Alex Voe’s wife Peggy also gets involved. After Claude Almstead invites himself back to the Voes’ apartment at 2 a.m. Peggy and Alex have a fight, Alex walks out, and Peggy and Almstead set off for a night on the town.

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As you may have gathered, the plot is rather involved and offers a multiplicity of suspects.

Actor Burt Kaiser provided the story and co-wrote the screenplay with director Bruno VeSota, for Kaiser’s own production company. Unfortunately the screenplay is at times a bit on the muddled side and certainly stretches credibility, although to be fair Hollywood starlets have been known to get themselves mixed up with low-lifes and losers and become the victims of blackmail, as happens to Monica Madison.

This film marked Jayne Mansfield’s film debut, albeit in a supporting role. She’s the femme fatale of the piece. Candy clearly has a healthy appetite for men. She doesn’t seem to much care who she ends up with, as long as she ends up with someone. Mansfield was an  underrated actress who gave some good performances in this type of movie, and she’s effective in this one.

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Lawrence Tierney gives a typical Tierney tough guy performance while John Carradine is excellent as the suave but slightly slimy and vaguely sinister gossip columnist.

The entire action of the movie takes place over a few hours in the middle of the night. The characters are people who rarely venture into the sunlight anyway. They’re all creatures of the night, giving the movie a very seedy and very noir feel. The story might not be particularly noir, but the environment is definitely noir.

This is a movie from a minor independent outfit so it doesn’t have the production values associated with B movies made by the major studios in the 40s and early 50s. But low budgets, cheap sets and a generally tawdry atmosphere can be a positive asset to a film like this, and Elwood Bredell’s gritty cinematography captures the perfect mood of sleazy alcohol-fueled nightlife. The movie was later re-released as The Hangover, a title that neatly nails the mood of the film.

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The Region 2 DVD from an outfit called Direct Video offers an acceptable if hardly pristine transfer. Luckily this is the sort of movie that is actually enhanced by a less-than-stellar transfer.

Female Jungle has its flaws, especially in the script department, but it’s a nicely moody crime film that film noir fans should certainly enjoy. Recommended.