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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Yet another in the fortunately long list of B movies that are worth
seeking out, HELL BOUND is full of enjoyable detail. Plot-wise, this is
a sort of low-budget ASPHALT JUNGLE. Independent crime operator, Jordan
(rigid, ice-cold John Russell) approaches a corrupt insurance man Harry
Quantro (Frank Fenton) about a foolproof plan to get ahold of
contraband narcotics. He sells the plan with a film he staged with
actors playing it all out. HELL BOUND starts with Jordan's film,
narrated by him, and it's a surprising way for such a modest production
to begin. It's also clever, since we are shown the entire crime acted
out successfully and it stays imprinted in the mind for the rest of the
movie. Now Jordan has only to cast the roles for his scheme. When the
part of a phony nurse comes up, Quantro's girlfriend Paula (June Blair,
rather good, and doing a near-perfect, if unnecessary, Marilyn Monroe
imitation) readily volunteers. Paula takes the place of a real nurse,
accompanying real doctor Eddie Mason (Stuart Whitman, in a strong
performance). But Paula's too emotional and a big complication arrives
when she and Eddie fall in love. It's another plus that the romance
angle is completely believable in this film. More and more
complications ensue with unreliable or unstable players being cast in
the roles for the big caper. And to top it all off, Jordan has been
planning to cheat Quantro from the very beginning and take off with the
drug stash. His own machinations behind the scenes add some nice, dirty
detail. Needless to say, everything goes terribly and excitingly wrong,
ending with some great imagery of Jordan crushed to death by falling
steel scrap. HELL BOUND is sometimes listed as a Film Noir. It has the
classic collection of desperate characters doing desperate things. And
Jordan makes a nicely existential, isolated criminal type, setting it
all in motion. The look of the film is typical of the late-50s
Noir--more light than dark. But no matter: Noir enthusiasts should find
much to enjoy.
This is a well-paced, fast-moving piece of B movie-making. Director William J. Hole Jr. knows the value of keeping the viewer's eye interested at all times and there is not a dull moment in the 69-minute running time.
WITHOUT WARNING turns out to be well worth the wait for those Noir fans who have long wished they could see this legendary movie. The direction is tight, the acting mostly very good, and the look of the film is priceless because it captures so many LA locations that are no longer in existence, or that have been drastically altered over 50-plus years. On the visual level alone, WITHOUT WARNING is a must-see. For a movie of this length (77 min) and low budget, we get several nicely executed edge-of-your-seat thrills. However, the intelligent screenplay provides plenty of dramatic interest as well. This is one of many 'police procedural' Noirs, but it's several cuts above most others: the narration is concise and mostly unobtrusive, and the scenes of 1950s-style police forensics are all interesting and even feature a degree of humor from a witty lab technician. Best of all is the intrigue. An early example of a serial killer Noir, WITHOUT WARNING compares favorably with THE SNIPER (from the same period)--in its close observation of a killer at work, interspersed with police attempts to track him down--but it's much less sympathetic to the perpetrator in this case. A movie of this type needs a lead actor who can gain audience interest and hold it. This is the case with THE SNIPER, and it's also true in WITHOUT WARNING. Let's hope Adam Williams is around to see the beautiful DVD issue of his great lead performance as Carl Martin. This is a fully realized characterization: tormented, enraged, clever, and pathetic. Williams makes it all believable, and he is ultimately responsible for making the film work so well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
THE HANGED MAN was Don Siegel's second made-for-TV film (following the
unaired THE KILLERS) produced in 1964. Based on the Dorothy Hughes
novel, this is a color remake of the far superior 1947 RIDE THE PINK
HORSE, directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. Both versions take
liberties with Hughes's interesting novel, but the 1947 is much closer
to it in spirit. Siegel's title refers to the card in the Tarot deck,
symbolically linked to the lead character. The locale of the story has
been moved to contemporary New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Harry Pace
(Robert Culp, in the Montgomery role) comes to town in search of the
man he believes murdered his close friend Whitey. That man, a corrupt
politician played with relish by Edmond O'Brien (in the Fred Clark
role) has married an old flame of Pace's (Vera Miles, perfectly cast
and looking great). This version presents the story in a pretty
conventional way. In typical Noir fashion, there is a lot of duplicity
behind the characters' facades. It's interesting enough as a plot, and
the Mardi Gras setting is colorful enough, to hold the attention, but
there is none of the near-poetic atmosphere of Montgomery's film.
Most significant of all is the reduction of the "Pancho" character (brilliantly enacted by Thomas Gomez in 1947) to an incidental figure played by J. Carroll Naish. Here, he's just a pretty nice guy who reluctantly gives Pace shelter for the night, not a figure of selfless humanity as Gomez played him. Equally significant is the portrayal of "Pilar" (here called Celine) by Brenda Scott. This actress, who bears strong resemblance to Rosanna Arquette, makes the character a simple girl who feels she's over the hill at 16, in desperate search for a husband as she eyes Culp throughout. None of the ambiguity and mystery surrounding Pilar is present here. And neither is there any real equivalent to the poetic image of "Tio Vivo", Pancho's merry-go-round with a pink horse.
Despite these differences, the film does have a number of strong scenes. A particular standout is the assault on Pace in a dark alley, as the Mardi Gras revelers scream in the background. Culp is excellent in the lead, and he brings out enough of the existential in the character to keep him firmly in line with Film Noir expectations. Al Lettieri (so terrifying later in Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY) plays one of O'Brien's henchmen. And Norman Fell adequately portrays the agent Art Smith so memorably embodied in 1947. Also in the cast: Pat Buttram, Edgar Bergen (sans dummy), Gene Raymond and Archie Moore.
The musical score is credited to Benny Carter, but more noticeable are two partial performances by Stan Getz with Astrid Gilberto (1964 was the year of "The Girl from Ipanema").
Worth seeing for fans of the novel or the actors.
The main operator in THE CROOKED WEB is a steely-eyed, calculating femme fatale. Viewers who seek out and enjoy this classic Noir character-type may not be disappointed, but Mari Blanchard seems to stress the hard-edged, self-absorbed floozy interpretation of the role well beyond the pale of believability. She's possibly one of the least appealing femmes fatales in all of Film Noir. To accept that anyone could fall under the "spell" of this witch requires a suspension of disbelief that must be superhuman. Without spoiling too much, it should be said that this movie revolves around a big surprise in terms of one of the protagonists. The perception of Blanchard, Richard Denning or Frank Lovejoy at the beginning will surely change drastically a third of the way in. This partially explains Blanchard's approach (and probably the director's as well), but it doesn't make her any easier to take. For a B movie from 1955, THE CROOKED WEB has a decent variety of locales. The German ones are presumably studio back lots, but the LA neighborhood shots in the film's early stages are welcome examples of the way such films documented the less glamorous sections of US cities. It's a decent third-level Noir rarity that begins very well, but then bogs down in dialog a few too many times. Worth a look for collectors.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A near-masterpiece directed by Tony Richardson, MADEMOISELLE can now be
viewed on DVD in its proper aspect ratio (Panavision). . Based on a
screenplay by Jean Genet (and Marguerite Duras) this almost entirely
unique film is a study of human sexuality as a kind of game of power
We are literally plunged into the world of Mademoiselle (the astounding Jeanne Moreau at her most Bette Davis-like) as the film opens: she is in the process of opening sluice gates that will flood a large stable in the small French town where she teaches young children. The very realistic depiction of this calamity and of two more (both fires) provide opportunities for Manou (Ettore Manni), an Italian woodsman, to perform heroic deeds. Manou, who is seen exclusively as an outsider by every French character in the film, risks his life in rescuing animals and in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a human. In each of these unhappy events, the Italian is vilified and even blamed for causing them. This is a situation of which Mademoiselle has taken advantage. Bringing about these calamities herself, she can control the handsome man whom she desires in a way that is depicted with utmost carnality, yet without a trace of prurience. Concurrently with these incendiary activities, Mademoiselle cruelly humiliates Manou's young son, Bruno, in her classroom. She does this to get a rise out of Manou, but it does not work because the boy never tells his father of her mistreatment. The unfortunate child's isolation and frustration are played to great effect by Keith Skinner, as Bruno acts out his own torment in an act of senseless brutality.
MADEMOISELLE has extraordinary cinematographic beauty, the work of David Watkin, who surely deserved the BAFTA prize for which he was nominated. But this is also a difficult film to watch, because of its images of animal suffering and its strange, yet riveting portrait of the elemental power of female sexuality. Unable to give herself to Manou (as several other women in the town have done) and thereby renounce her control, Mademoiselle engineers circumstances that lead to his complete submission. The turning point is a rather heavy-handed, surrealistic scene in which Manou--encountered 'by chance' in the woods--reveals a snake wrapped around his waist. He offers it to Mademoiselle to touch. At this point, the woman is seemingly transformed by phallic contact. In a sequence of hedonistic degradation that is typical of Genet, she allows the male power to overtake her, going limp and nearly catatonic in the process. But this is revealed as the ultimate goal of her long-range plan. She believes Manou to be completely in her grasp. When he tells her he is leaving the town to escape the taunts of the villagers, Mademoiselle marches home in a stupor and denounces him. If she cannot possess Manou, no one can, and he must be destroyed.
There is something almost biblical in the parable-like way this tale is told. The stark, profoundly beautiful nature imagery and the complete absence of music create the effect of a closed universe where naked emotions are in charge: dark, ultimately uncontrollable lust and virulent xenophobia. MADEMOISELLE is not exactly like any other film and a discerning viewer will not soon forget its power.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Probably still the biggest genre, in terms of the sheer number of
movies made, the classic-period Western can still hold surprises.
YELLOW TOMAHAWK (1954) appears at the heart of the the Western's last
gasp before it changed drastically in the 1960s, and then virtually
disappeared. This little film actually presages an aspect of the
typical later type of Western in its unexpectedly graphic violence.
It's a very well-paced, nicely cast and generally well-acted movie that
shows why investigating films from this period is still worthwhile.
Rory Calhoun (dashing, and in fine acting form here) forms a friendship with Indian Chief Lee Van Cleef. As a courtesy, Van Cleef warns his friend that the local Union Army camp will be raided, with no prisoners taken. There is time to evacuate women and children, but the attack will occur as scheduled. When Calhoun delivers his dour message, the army Major (Warner Anderson) refuses to leave and allows many of the vulnerable population to remain in defiance of the warning. The raid takes place and is almost shockingly violent. Many are killed on both sides. Calhoun manages to survive, along with the beautiful fiancée (Peggie Castle) of a fallen Lieutenant (Patrick Sexton). They begin a romance that is typical Western fodder. Also along for the ride are affable Noah Beery (playing a Mexican), Rita Moreno (his Indian girlfriend "Honey Bear"), ne'er-do-well Peter Graves, and supporting stalwarts Adam Williams and James Best. Calhoun's friendship with Chief Van Cleef reaches a crisis when the Chief refuses to allow the escapees free passage out of the territory. The film ends with an extremely well-realized shoot-out and a few surprises.
This film was evidently shot in color. Presumably TV prints were cast in black & white and this is how the film can now be seen. It's badly in need in restoration as a good example of a tautly-made, exciting vintage Western.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Few B movies can enthrall the Noir enthusiast more than the insane
inspiration of Robert Aldrich's bizarre amalgam of
Noir/Sci-fi/Horror/Comedy---KISS ME DEADLY As wonderful as the visuals
are in KMD--and they truly are amazing in their variety and creativity,
and in the way some of them evoke a perfect Noir sensibility--And as
terrifically complex and disorienting as the narrative can be---It's
the characters that keep many of us coming back again and again.
Ralph Meeker, as Mike Hammer, is a perfect embodiment of a detached, self-interested opportunist (who still has vestiges of humanity brought out by the sad and tragic "Christina"). He does a great job with offhand line delivery and is a unique member of the canon of Noir anti-heroes.
Maxine Cooper--as Velda--is also sui generis in her way with dialog. The 'maypole' scene where where gradually reveals to Mike the names of two more 'persons of interest' is a case in point: an oddly phrased pseudo-poetic/playful performance. And who can forget Nick Dennis as Nick the mechanic ("Va-va-voom! Pretty Pow!!") a fully realized personage who idealizes his dashing friend and takes far too many risks to help him out. Nick's death is a still-shocking moments in a film of many delectable jolts. Fortunio Bonanova--the "poor man's Caruso" singing off-pitch to the great tenor's recording as Mike invades his apartment: this is the same actor who plays the singing teacher in CITIZEN KANE ("Impossible! Impossible!"). Gaby Rodgers: the seeming amateurishness of her acting is part of the character's duplicity. She's great: a small landmark in a long line of femmes fatales. The two Jacks, Lambert and Elam--their intimidation turning to screaming terror at the unexpected prowess of Mike Hammer (a nice re-tuning of Noir expectations). Albert Dekker--spouting frightening mythological imagery to an uncomprehending Gabrielle/Lily Carver. Wonderfully weasel-faced Percy Helton's unbearably real-sounding screams as Mike 'hammers' his hand in the desk drawer. And Juano Hernandez as boxing manager Eddie Yeager, who gets this memorable dialog exchange:
Mike: "What did they pay you? I'll top it."
Eddie: "You can't top this: they said they'd let me breathe."
So many more small and unforgettable characters---not forgetting to mention Chloris Leachman as Christina, the girl who gets it all going?--They make the film add up to a three-dimensional, one-of-a-kind movie experience not to be missed or soon forgotten.
There is at least one big misconception about BLOW-UP: it's not a film
'about' swinging 60s London, as it is usually characterized. It's not a
critique or condemnation of that 'scene'. Antonioni--although his roots
are in documentary--tends to use locations for their visual impact and
whatever moods they may invoke and not, in his films of the 60s, to
make political statements. He chooses the fashion scene of London
because of its preoccupation with surface (literal surface) and a kind
of primary-color palette. Thomas, (David Hemmings) seems to function as
an 'artist' in this scene, but is very clearly not engaged with it
artistically. It's something he does by rote, offhandedly and (very
importantly) without PASSION (as a number of famous scenes show.
Ironically, these scenes were exploited to sell the film as 'erotic').
The director had much of Thomas's neighborhood in the film repainted to
intensify the bright, primary color scheme. A scheme in which red seems
to dominate, but not symbolically. Red (as well as blue) just
identifies Thomas's milieu. When the photographer goes into the park,
he enters a world of green. Beautiful, almost intoxicating green (a
real feature of the DVD transfer, by the way, is the brilliance of the
color in this film). Green connects obviously to nature, even in a park
landscaped by city planners. But, again, it's not really symbolic
(Antonioni does not tend to use symbolism in any conventional sense, if
at all, until perhaps the end of this film). Rather, it establishes
this alternate environment where Thomas will make a significant
Earlier in the film, we meet Thomas's neighbor, a painter named Bill (John Castle) who introduces the notion of looking at a work of art and seeing something in it after it's complete (he demonstrates this in his own painting). When Thomas develops his photos of Redgrave and her "lover" in the park, he begins to notice other details that are far more interesting. This leads to an investigation that sort of encapsulates, or stands in for the long wandering segments of Antonioni's previous films: a gradual discovery of some kind of knowledge or truth. What does Thomas discover? Perhaps that there's something under the surface of life that we don't want to think about, rushing around in our driven lives; perhaps it's mortality, or just something that SEEMS to be serious and important. When he pursues the investigation by going to see the actual body, the film takes on an almost frightening aspect. There is something primitive and slightly disturbing about the nearly silent scene of Thomas finding the body, accompanied only by the soft rustling of wind through the trees. He's shaken by it. Yet the whole experience has awakened a passion in him, not so much as an artist but as a human being. When the body has disappeared on his second visit, Thomas seems deeply disillusioned. Was any of this real? Does it matter if it was or not? But for a brief moment this jaded young man cared about something that did appear to be serious and important. The encounter with the mimes actually does seem symbolic, and it's a fairly obvious move on this director's part. Here's where it all gets so subjective, that it's deliberately up for grabs: what, if anything , do the mimes stand for? Why does Thomas join their game and then disappear? To some, it's a surrender to the illusory nature of being, so complete that he no longer needs to even exist himself.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
HI-JACKED is another pleasant surprise for those seeking enjoyable
minor films noirs from the B movie era. Like many others of its kind,
this film begins with a stiff-voiced announcer warning us of the
dangers of the crime at hand. Here, the featured crime is truck
hi-jacking. A criminal organization sets up road blocks and other
subterfuges to lead truck drivers into stopping, at which point their
cargo is stolen.
Once past the extremely brief announcer's segment, the film opens in a compelling noir mode. On a rainy, dark highway, a truck driver stops to help a stranded motorist. As he approaches the car, three men jump from behind it, cold-cock him, and leave him by the roadside. This particular driver will be seen to be the protagonist of HI-JACKED. Nicely played by Jim Davis (known to many of us from frequent western TV appearances), Joe Harper is placed immediately under suspicion by a detective. Harper has a criminal record. As he himself puts it, "a guy with a record has the deck stacked against him." Given another chance by his employer (Ralph Sanford), poor Harper only falls victim a second time to the criminal scheme (this time, unknowingly transporting stolen merchandise). As it turns out, Harper's employer is behind the criminal operation. When he and his partner (Paul Cavanaugh from HUMORESQUE) decide to gradually wind down their activities, they set up Joe Harper as their fall guy. This is where the film solidly enters noir territory: the fall guy with a criminal record is clearly the quarry of "fate". Things look bad for Harper, even though his faithful wife has returned to him. Thanks to his ability to recognize the voice of one of the hi-jackers (David Bruce of THE MAD GHOUL) on the phone, Harper is able to beat the thugs at their game. In a very dark, violent, classically noir sequence we see him vindicate himself nicely in speedy B movie fashion. The film has a good deal of well-executed violence and there is effective comic relief from a fast-talking truck stop waitress (Iris Adrian) and would-be tough-guy Sid Melton, who insists on being called "Killer".
Several steps in quality above the average 1950s B movie, CHICAGO
CALLING is yet more testimony of the talents of Dan Duryea. In the
hands of a lesser actor, this could easily have slid down into
sentimentalized, feel-good territory. Duryea brings so much conviction
and multi-dimensionality to the role of a downtrodden victim of bad
luck, that it's almost possible to forget that the movie is fiction.
This is surely one of the lanky, blond actor's finest performances on
film, and it must not be missed by any fan.
As the film opens in L.A. , Duryea's wife takes their young daughter and leaves for Chicago. Desperate pleas do nothing to stop them, and the unemployed husband and father is left with the family dog and his own devices. Later, when the telephone man (Ross Elliott) comes to remove the phone for unpaid bills, Duryea coincidentally receives a telegram reporting that his wife and daughter have had a serious auto accident and are hospitalized in Chicago. Someone will call him later to update their conditions. Duryea manages to convince Elliott to leave his phone connected for another day, until the bill is paid. This sets into motion a desperate attempt to raise $50.00--something not so easily done in L.A. of 1951. Circumstances lead to more troubles and, along the way, Duryea makes an unexpected new friend. Without spoiling it, let it be said that the plot continues in a few surprising ways. With Duryea, and some able supporting players, there is an emotional impact that is not easily dismissed. If this deserves to be classed as a film noir, it is because of a relentless pressure from the forces of fate on a hapless protagonist.
Austrian-born Director John Reinhardt (who died two years later) keeps the film tight, suspenseful and very well paced. There is also a music score by Heinz Roemheld that, strangely, seems to recall Tchaikovsky's "Romeo & Juliet".
This movie is also another great example of the value of location photography. Duryea actually seems to inhabit the real city. We see the blue-collar, everyday side of Los Angeles, not the glamour. It's a tough, but real place, where people work construction jobs overnight, and hot dog vendors might actually help out a desperate man. The film is titled CHICAGO CALLING, but it really lives and breathes in L.A.
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