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Stakeout on Dope Street (1958)
Spotty, At Best
Three aimless young men find a briefcase containing a load of valuable heroin. So what are they going to do with it. Desperate, they end up trying to sell it through an ex-junkie. The trouble is the mob wants their heroin back and are on the trail of the kids. And so are the cops.
Given the potentially explosive material, the 90-minutes comes across as peculiarly lacking in drama. The motions are there, but not the felt impact. Much, I think, has to do with the quality of the performances. Of the three boys, Marlo manages some grit as Nick. However, Wexler and Haze (yes, that Haze) appear to flounder in stand-around bland fashion. Plus, poor Abby Dalton looks completely lost. Thus, the movie's core is compromised at the outset. Then too, the cops are a particularly colorless bunch, adding nothing to the impact. Kramer, at least, looks the part of a washed-up ex- junkie, getting the big dramatic turn of painful drug withdrawal, where he writhes in expressive fashion. It's a scary public warning.
Then again, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the movie's high point. Namely, where the boys thrash through a real city dump looking for the heroin as a dozer keeps piling the trash higher. Talk about needles in a haystack, or climbing a mountain that keeps getting higher. One thing for sure, I've seen nothing like it before or since. Anyway, the direction (Kershner) is pretty spotty. There are some nice touches like the crashing bowling ball and bouncing pinball punctuating the two beatings, plus the cascade of heroin down the tank's side. Clearly, however, Kershner is more adept at staging than either coaching actors or building suspense. Even the imaginatively staged showdown doesn't generate the suspense it should. One big positive is the staging throughout. Real locations are used, lending a good glimpse of LA, circa 1958. Too bad the movie as a whole never quite gels, despite the promising premise.
A Few Points in More Depth
Great movie, perhaps the best labor drama since 1954's Salt of the Earth. I wasn't around in 1920, but the gritty "feel" of the times is present, in spades, along with the sheer poverty surrounding the mines. At the same time, we're made to feel the abominable safety conditions prevailing in the black holes. No, this film ain't going to play your local chamber of commerce anytime soon. After all, union organizer Kernehan (Cooper) isn't just an outsider, he's likely also a communist, though the script fudges the issue. The coal company is about to beat back the strikers with Negro and ethnic scabs, until the organizer arrives with a tactical sense of how to foil their plans. So now the company brings in two arrogant thugs to push the miners out of town. And we anticipate a dramatic showdown, but one that's also based on historical fact.
I love the way Sayles refuses to prettify the mountain folk. In their plain print dresses and drab denim work clothes, they're the anti-Hollywood. And when chief thug Hickey calls winsome Bridey Mae "mountain trash", I wanted to reach through the screen and throttle him. I also love the moment when colored scab Few Clothes (Jones) enters the union meeting wanting to join up. It's an understandably hostile reception, until Kernahan defuses the hostility by telling the men to recognize a "worker" when they see one. And indeed, the strike won't succeed unless the racial and cultural differences are overcome. I like the way Sayles shows this overcoming in small steps, instead of rubbing our nose in it with a kumbaya moment.
It's also apparent that religion plays a big part in how the mountain folk react to organizing efforts. The established preacher's (Sayles) message is to stick with the company and reject union troublemakers. For years, his message has prevailed. However, the kid preacher Danny (Oldham, in a gripping performance) is no longer just an oddity. Now he has seen the struggle, knows the sacrifices, and experienced the brutal company tactics. Thus, his movement toward the union message both helps galvanize the community, as well as reflects their becoming radicalized.
I also like the fact that when push comes to shove with the company thugs, the town mayor and sheriff, defend their community. That's based on historical fact, and not what you'd expect when the company, in effect, owns the town (the houses and stores). But the allegiance of the two town officials is ultimately with the people instead of the owners. In fact, it's that growing sense of labor solidarity and community identity that create the force capable of standing up to the combined business interests that extend beyond the little town of Matewan.
I guess my only reservation is with the two company thugs. Their arrogance, especially in the revival meeting, is spread on pretty thick. In effect, Sayles has stacked the deck by making them and the side they represent so dislikable. It doesn't reach the level of caricature, but it is manipulation, perhaps in a good cause, but manipulation nevertheless. On the other hand, the mountain folk are fortunately not romanticized or patronized. Instead, they come across as ordinary people finally responding to a bad situation that's only grown worse over time. Then too, Cooper's Kernahan is not romanticized as one might expect if this were a Hollywood treatment. He does intercede at important times, especially with his understanding that violence will only benefit the bosses. And though the unionists win the showdown, unless I missed something, we're not shown that they win the strike as a result.
Anyway, in my little book, this is Sayles' biggest triumph. Filming on location was simply indispensable to the movie's gritty period feel. It's hard to believe that one man could be behind such a professional appearing production, especially as someone basically outside the movie-making industry. That, no doubt, accounts for the movie's willingness to take chances. I just wish the movie could be shown in every highschool history class. People need to be reminded why union's came into being, especially with so much anti-worker static being currently spun. Of course, no institution is above criticism, labor unions included. Nonetheless, America's bloody history of winning worker rights needs to be told each generation. Thanks John Sayles for resurrecting this important story.
Edge-of-the-seat the whole way. It's a single-minded storyline that holds together in nerve- wracking fashion. Four crooks hijack a NY subway car, holding the passengers for a million dollar ransom or they'll be shot one-by-one for each minute the ransom delivery is late. Whew! Mr. Blue (Shaw), the brains of the gang, is calm, cool, and collected. He better be, because it seems every cop in the city is on the case. Meanwhile, back at subway headquarters, transit cop Garber (Matthau) is trying to keep a handle on the chaos the gang's tight schedule has caused.
Usually the authorities are portrayed as cool professionals. Here, they're portrayed much more realistically considering the pressure they're under. And for once, movie cursing amounts to more than just a stab at reality. The profanity amounts to a good pressure check as the crisis intensifies. (Speaking of bureaucrats, somebody really has it in for NYC mayors since the movie's mayor is treated as not only hopelessly inept, but buffoonish, as well!)
Matthau and Shaw are excellent in the two leads. Matthau registers just the right amount of wavering emotion one would expect in his situation, while Shaw remains calmly dispassionate right up to the end. A mystery man through and through. And I love that final sequence where director Sargent does a typically Hitchcockian turnaround that has us rooting for Mr. Green (Balsam) as he tries to hide evidence from the cops. And what about the very last shot, about as ironically inspired as I've seen in decades of movie watching. I can't believe there are remakes when this first version comes appears the last word in suspense.
50's Sci-Fi Classic
No science-fiction library is complete without this 1954 classic, probably the best of the mutant creature craze. Sure, the special effects have long been eclipsed by digital, but the suspense holds up as LA mobilizes to defeat the giant killer ants in a battle of the sewers. The opening scenes are among the best of any era. I don't know how director Douglas got little Sandy Descher to emulate wide-eyed speechless shock, but from that moment on the tension rarely lets up. Then too, her single word eruption in the van may be the single scariest moment and a genuine inspiration on somebody's part. I guess it takes a big man to defeat big ants and thank goodness James Arness has switched to our side since menacing the North Pole in The Thing (1951). He, Whitmore, and Gwenn prove to be great pest exterminators though their methods are a little unorthodox, while poor pretty Joan Weldon sort of tags along after the guys in typical 50's style. Note the many nice touches from both the producer and director-- the well-stocked press conference, the army units deploying in the background, the humorous aside from the ugly guy in the hospital. These are the kind of additions that turn a good movie into a memorable one. It's certainly one I've remembered fondly since its enthusiastic 1954 reception, and so will you if you haven't seen it.
Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)
Soft Core Starring Rock Hudson
Really oddball slice of movie-making. Writer Roddenberry apparently wants to say something derogatory about high-school and football, while director Vadim can't seem to train his camera on anything but a girl's groin area. The two threads occasionally cross paths, but not long enough to produce a coherent result. Rock Hudson, of all people, is a high-school coach who dabbles in serial killing, that is, when not testing girls out carnally in his office. Meanwhile, frustrated teenager Carson is having a terminal case of sexual arousal at all the wrong times. At the same time, a half-clad Angie Dickinson is trying to figure out just what her role is supposed to be, while bemused cop Telly Savalas stands by, practicing for his Kojak role.
The overall result is a sometimes interesting mess that, nevertheless, remains visually compelling for guys, at least. It's like soft-core porn with a Hollywood cast. I'm impressed, however, by how well Hudson performs as a tough talking womanizer and serial killer, not exactly the actor's stock and trade. Too bad Carson has only one frozen expression for every occasion, as another reviewer points out. Anyhow, if there's a point to the narrative buried somewhere inside the rampant lust, I couldn't find it. The movie is really more like an experience than a story told or a moral revealed.
Code Two (1953)
Motor-Cross Meets Dragnet
Solid little programmer from MGM's B period. The documentary influence of TV's Dragnet (1951-1959) is apparent in the early police training segment that looks like it was done at the actual Academy. Three trainees buddy-up there, but later switch to the better-paying motorcycle division. There they get involved with black market beef haulers and excitement ensues. Director Wilcox keeps things moving smoothly, while the filming in and around LA lends a realistic feel. Then too, Wynn gets to practice his tart brand of sarcasm as a tough but fair training officer, lending helpful color. As could be expected, the girls (Forrest and Stewart) are strictly secondary, as wife and girlfriend, respectively.
Meeker gets to play a cocky trainee in what could have been a warm-up for his classic Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). I hope they paid him double for all his stunt work at the end. He earns it. For fans of two-wheelers, there's a lot of motorcycle cross-country action that shows off their rugged versatility. And what a coincidence, as another reviewer points out, that so many of the male cast went on to cowboy starring roles on TVlook for Chuck Connors as a deputy sheriff in an office scene about 2/3 of the way through. All in all, it's a solid programmer of the sort soon to migrate to TV, but holds interest, nevertheless.
Peter Gunn: The Grudge (1960)
Better Than Average Suspense
Good episode. Pete's got to hunt down mad bomber Spence and defuse his bomb before he blows up half the city. Seems he'll do it unless the mayor kills himself! Great hook as bomber escapes hospital. Colorful tour of Pete's low-life contacts. Barfly "Happy" may make you think about that next cocktail. And how about landlady Veronica who acts like she could handle the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then there's Pete, immaculately outfitted for this, the seediest part of town. Then too, catch Spence's escape through the single lane alleyway with windowless buildings on either side. I'm betting that was a passage between studio sound stages. No Edie or Mother, doggone it. But there is plenty of suspense as the clock ticks down to zero hour. So will it be ka-boom or not.
The Professionals (1966)
Certainly can't say I was shortchanged in the action department. If it's not dynamite going off, it's a fusillade of rifle or pistol shots, with an occasional machine gun or bow and arrow thrown in. I expect if it were 50-years later, an A-bomb would also appear. Devious rich guy Grant (Bellamy) hires four soldiers of fortune (the four principal actors) to retrieve his kidnapped wife Maria (Cardinale) from Mexican bandito cum revolutionary Raza (Palance). Each hired professional has his military specialty, and between them they blow up half the Mexican countryside getting the wife back. Then too, Raza's no bleeding heart revolutionary as we see him cold-bloodedly execute about 20 captured Federales. So when the professionals, headed by Fardan (Marvin) make a shambles of Raza's base, we figure good riddance.
The thing is that this is more than just an action picture with a major twist at the end. In addition, there's a subtle theme playing out in the subtext of a quite clever script. When, at the end, the professionals trail after Raza and and Maria as they head back to Mexico and the revolution, we know the four are not just soldiers of fortune or military professionals, they're idealists, as well. After all, as Raza informs Dolworth (Lancaster), revolution is like a beautiful woman, you are drawn to even though you know the realities will inevitably disappoint. So now, having rejected millionaire Grant and what he represents, the four trail after the beautiful Maria and the wounded Raza. And now we know something more profound has been going on beneath the action filled surface, entertaining though it is.
Marvin and Lancaster are excellent in their dominant roles, while Strode gets a fringe role, which for the time periodearly 1900'sis not surprising for a black man. Too bad, as others point out, that the superb Robert Ryan is not given more to do, but I guess that was because of health concerns. Fortunately, Palance resists the temptation to over-emote in a role that invites such. However, too many other Mexicans appear stereotyped in boisterous, sneering Hollywood fashion, the movie's biggest failing, in my little book.
Anyway, it's an exceptional action movie, well acted, staged, and photographed, with a sneaky script and first-rate direction by writer-director Brooks.
Forty Guns (1957)
Aided by her trigger-happy brother and a small army, a cattle queen owns the county including the sheriff. But there's trouble when a marshal arrives who has a trigger-happy brother of his own. Thus a load of complications ensue.
Interesting, if not wholly successful, western. There's really too many principal characters and plot for the limited time frame (79-min's.). Nonetheless, director and screenwriter Fuller manage a few real surprises. Then too, this may be the "walkingest" horse opera I've seen note how many tracking shots Fuller manages of people walking. This may be a budget consideration since little action occurs away from town. The forty guns are forty guys riding behind queen bee Jessica (Stanwyck) like a mounted army. Oddly, these guys never talk even after being dismissed from the extra-long dinner table, and soon disappear when Jessica's little empire crumbles. There are a lot of cross-currents to the highly involved plot line, so you may need the proverbial scorecard to keep up.
Unsurprisingly, Stanwyck is imperious as the big cheese running both her ranch and the town, while Sullivan is appropriately steely-eyed as the town tamer. But give John Ericson (Brockie) an upside-down Oscar for the worst over-the-top mugging since The Three Stooges. At the same time, Jagger does well as the spineless Sheriff in the employ of queen bee Jessica. Fuller shows real style at times. He certainly knows how to subvert western cliché and keep audience interest. However, in my little book, this is not one of his better films, basically because of a crowded script and budgetary limitations. I mean a lot of money went into the name cast that perhaps had to be made up elsewhere as in the pedestrian settings. All in all, it's, a rather exotic if not exactly memorable western.
Shadow in the Sky (1952)
Earnest Little Film
Earnest little movie that's almost a sleeper, thanks to a solid cast, good production values, and an affecting story. Ex-Marine Burt (Meeker) is in a VA hospital suffering from periodic bouts of battle shock, especially when it rains. Meanwhile, his solid citizen sister Betty (Davis) and her husband Lou (Whitmore) live close by. Burt wants to get out of the confinement and move in with them. But Betty and Lou have two kids and are wary that the unpredictable Burt may prove a live-in hazard. The predicament is compounded by the fact that Burt saved Lou's life during the war, thus Lou has an obligation. So how these various threads get resolved forms the core of the plot.
Hats off to glamorous MGM for foregoing the usual glitz with location filming and a sturdy, if non-glamorous cast. Whatever her politics, Davis-Reagan was a fine actress, excelling at everyday roles, while Meeker at this stage was a Brando-type, though here he calibrates in non-emoting fashion. Of course, Whitmore is Whitmore, looking like an everyday guy as the role requires. Together, they make this story of post-war wounds both affecting and believable, even if in a Hollywood manner. I especially like the rapport between Burt and Lou, which ultimately relies on the male bonding so common among men in battle. Understandably, there were a number of these war trauma films made during this period. However, this obscure little B-film can hold its own even among the bigger boys.