Wednesday, September 21, 2022

‘L.A. Confidential’: Wounded Cops Take On the System

From left, Det. Ed Exly (Guy Pearce),
Det. 
Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey).

‘L.A. Confidential’ just had its 25th anniversary and that makes us look anew at the astounding saga of police corruption in the City of Angels, circa 1953. A quarter of a century later the film’s authentic retro look, snappy musical soundtrack and motley selection of characters still make the story hum.

Two of a Kind
Deep wounds make great characters, and two of the film's protagonists, Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exly (Guy Pearce), are both emotionally scarred, yet polar opposites. 

White is a thug who beats up bad guys when enlisted to do so by his boss, Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). But he's also a staunch protector of women. Turns out his dad used to beat his mom, so Bud has a soft spot in his heart for battered females, but not for much else.

Exly is a self-consciously ethical cop who wants to follow in his father's rather large footsteps. His dad was a policeman killed in the line of duty, allegedly by a purse snatcher. But given the corruption and lawlessness of the L.A. Police Department in that era, the story of the senior Exly's demise is questionable. Was he bumped off for not turning a blind eye to his fellow officers' malfeasances? In a telling moment Smith tells Exley to get rid of his steel framed glasses, saying he can't think of another man in the department who wears them — another way of warning him to not look too closely at the goings on around the station house. 

Both White and Exly are flawed characters, too. White pummels out-of-town gangsters looking for a foothold in L.A. and looks the other way when unsavory activities take place. Exly is a polished social climber who never misses an opportunity to advance himself. He's more than willing to rat out brutal cops who beat up Mexicans being held in the station jailhouse. But in return for his testimony he demands to be bumped up to lieutenant. He knows that he’ll be hated by the other cops, but that doesn’t matter to him. He’s like the smart nerd in high school who gets tripped and wedgied in the hallways, but takes solace in the fact that he’ll someday be his antagonists’ boss.

Jack the Joker

There’s also Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the police consultant on “Badge of Honor,” a TV show that is a stand-in “Dragnet.” He’s always ready to make a buck, but eventually decides to fight on the side of the good guys. We don’t know much about Vincennes background, so it’s difficult to judge whether or not his actions are due to any emotional wounds he’s suffered. Ethically speaking, he stands somewhere between White and Exly, but his eventual conversion to the side of righteousness comes at a high price. A bit of a jokester, a gag he plays on his boss turns out to be a genius bit of black humor that also plays a major role in the plot. 

As Exly and White begin to understand how corrupt the department is, it's their wounds that make them want to rout out the rot of lawlessness that surrounds them. In White's case, he's become involved with a call girl, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), who belongs to a cadre of ladies of the night who have been given plastic surgery to make them resemble movie stars — she looks like Veronica Lake. She's in danger of being chewed up by the corrupt men pulling the strings who routinely use and discard people who have outlived their usefulness. White is intent on protecting her, and to do that he must bring down the big boys.

A Substantial Sacrifice
Exly has been cited for bravery in killing a group of alleged kidnappers and rapists, but he later learns their guilt is questionable and proof exists that they were framed. Then a plot to bump him off goes awry and he’s convinced it’s time to act. By calling out the corrupt forces within the department he will lose the prestige he’s earned and perhaps his lieutenant bars. Despite his political instincts, he’s willing to tear it all down “with a wrecking ball.”

There are a number of plot twists that grab us, all of which lead to an extended shootout in a decrepit abandoned motel on Victory Blvd. It’s the perfect setting for the wrap-up. It’s the place where Dudley Smith takes undesirables and Bud White beats them. The building’s shabbiness reflects the systemic rot that dominates the police department. It’s also a relic of California’s tourism boom. Unlike the sunny picture postcards shown as the opening credits roll, the state’s image as a windswept paradise is a phony public relation gimmick, and like the motel, is rotten on the inside.

The conclusion manages to avoid crime film clichés. Instead, we see the grim choices that one faces when taking on institutionalized corruption. It’s not a clean sweep of bad guys, but a blow to departmental abuse of power — at least in this instance. Of course, there’s a coverup of what actually took place behind the scenes, and that’s to be expected. It’s a story about the L.A. Police Department, after all.





Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Noir Directors and their Eyepatches

A

n eyepatch can make a director look like a badass and that's a good thing in the famously brutal movie biz. Sure, a lot of them are scary enough without a patch, but put a piece of black fabric over an eye and your game is automatically upped exponentially. 

Cranky, spoiled actors, pushy studio execs and slacker crew members might think twice before tangling with a guy who looks like a buccaneer. The presence of an eyepatch opens the door to wild speculation. "Did he lose it while dueling, or something?"

André de Toth, Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang and John Ford all sported eyepatches at one time or another. Most were the heavy-drinking he-men types who ruled the set with a heavy dose of intimidation.

Lack of depth perception be damned, these directors soldiered on and made classic cinema. Tough, like the characters in their movies, they cut a striking figure — the eyepatch added to the their' mystique and forever after enhanced their legend.

Here are a half dozen noir directors who plied their craft wearing an eyepatch and made it look damned exciting:


Walsh

Word has it that Raoul Walsh lost his right eye when a jackrabbit leaped through his windshield. He was perhaps the first with an eyepatch on the Hollywood scene and may have unintentionally started a trend. His noir and gangster films include "They Drive by Night" (1940), "High Sierra" (1941) which helped bridge the gap between gangster films and noir, "White Heat" (1949), "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), "The Enforcer" (1951) and "The Man I Love" (1946).



de Toth

Hungarian born director André de Toth was monocular and had no depth perception, though he directed one of the first 3D movies, "House of Wax" (1953). He was known for his hard edge pictures and for depicting violence in a realistic manner that Hollywood was still squeamish about in the 1940s. Some of his better known noirs include "Pitfall" (1948), "Guest in the House" (1944), "Dishonored Lady" (1947), "Crime Wave" (1953), "Dark Waters" (1944) and "Hidden Fear" (1957). 


Lang

No one ever accused Fritz Lang of being a softie. The German born director was known for browbeating and intimidating his casts to get their best performances. His work includes influential noirs "The Big Heat" (1953),  "Scarlet Street" (1945), "Fury" (1936), "You Only Live Once" (1937), "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943), "Ministry of Fear" (1944), "Human Desire" (1954), "Clash by Night" (1952) and German Expressionist masterpiece "M" (1931).

Ray

Nicholas Ray not only directed some of the most moving noirs, he was married to noir diva Gloria Grahame. Their marriage didn't end so well. Among Ray's masterpieces are “They Live By Night” (1948), “In A Lonely Place” (1950), “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) and campy western/noir "Johnny Guitar" (1954) as well as "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955).


Fuller
Firebrand independent director Samuel Fuller started out working in the tabloid press. Dramatic stories and garish headline were his stock in trade, which lent itself nicely to his noir and crime films, including "House of Bamboo" (1955), "Scandal Sheet" (1952), "Pickup on South Street" (1953), "Shockproof" (1949), "The Racket" (1951), "Gambling House" (1950), "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) and "Underworld USA" (1961), among others.


Ford
John Ford isn't usually thought of as a noir director — his westerns are legendary. But a number of his films fit in neatly with the genre as either pure noir or noir influenced, including "The Informer" (1935), "The Long Voyage Home" and "The Grapes of Wrath" (both 1940), "The Fugitive" (1947) and "Sergeant Rutledge" (1960). And, yes, Ford was a tough customer, too. Just watch filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich try to interview him during a break in shooting.

 






 

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Driving a Stake through Swinging London’s Heart

Turner (Mick Jagger), left, keeps watch over
Chas (James Fox) in 'Performance' (1970).

‘Performance’ is a drug-induced,
decadent, rock ’n’ roll-inspired noir 

"Performance” (1970) isn’t on many “best neo-noirs” lists — absolutely zero that I could find, honestly. Some might say it shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the 1960s crime films that pay homage to black and white noir classics of the 1940s and ’50s, but allow me to disagree.

The Mick Jagger-co-starring cult film has preoccupations we sometimes find in noir, including the fluidity of, and confusion over, identity. Many a noir anti-hero and heroine develop amnesia or hijack another’s identity, only to learn that posing as the other one can run great risks. In “Performance,” the story is all about a thug’s unexpected search for his identity within the confines of an appropriately shabby mansion in the bohemian part of 1960s London.

The film toggles between a drug-induced hallucinatory tale and a blood-splattered gangster flick. East London mobster Chas (James Fox) elbows his way into the abode of washed-up rock star Turner (Mick Jagger), and it becomes abundantly clear that Chas has crossed the threshold into a world over which he has little understanding and even less control.

Turner (Mick Jagger) in his lair.
First Choice: Brando
Aside from the film’s violence, “Performance” is a good deal more exotic in tone and risqué than other crime films of its era. Donald Cammell, who made his directorial debut with “Performance,” originally conceived it as a film about an American gangster hiding out in London. He intended to cast his pal Marlon Brando as Chas, but plans changed and James Fox took the role. Nicolas Roeg, who later directed British supernatural horror classic “Don’t Look Now” (1973), co-directed “Performance,” taking charge of the look of the film.

Hardly 'Swinging London'
At its first screening, the film gave movie execs the heebie-jeebies — the paean to “swinging London” they were expecting turned out to be a blunt depiction of sex and drugs that was far more edgy and dangerous than anticipated. Its first reviews were not flattering. One commentator disparagingly observed that it’s as if “Performance” was penned by Mickey Spillane trying to write like Harold Pinter. Upon witnessing the eyebrow raising antics depicted in the film, a Warner Brothers executive’s wife allegedly vomited. Richard Schickel of Life magazine said “Performance” is “the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.”

From Woodstock to Altamont

Warner Brothers panicked and shelved the film for a couple of years. Of course, the swinging London era of mods and rockers was hopelessly passe by then and a darker, more decadent atmosphere had taken hold. The counter culture's touchstone event, Woodstock, took place in August of 1969. But so did the Manson Family murders, and four weeks later the Stones organized a free concert at Altamont Speedway in California that saw four fatalities, including the murder of an audience member by Hell's Angels security personnel. “Performance” was already in the can by the time all of these events occurred, and if the film was not exactly prescient, it was at least an indicator of the period of hipster despair and dissolution that was to follow. Of course, Mick and the Stones had earlier recorded and released a hit song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968, an ode to the prince of darkness, himself, so the band’s nod to the demonic was already in plain sight and should have come as no surprise. 

As for the fictional Turner, we meet him when he’s experiencing career lag, but his prospects are about to be changed by an unlikely alliance as he and the psychotic Chas cross paths. 

Johnny Shannon as
crime boss Harry Flowers
Flowers the Mobster
It turns out, the brutal mobster routinely squeezes pound notes out of the locals who are unfortunate enough to be caught in crime kingpin Harry Flowers’s (Johnny Shannon) grip. Chas pours acid over one target’s spotless Rolls Royce, smashes things and brutalizes others. He’s a domestic terrorist serving a brutal criminal regime that seems to operate with impunity.

Chas eventually falls out of favor with his boss and barely escapes a gangster home invasion with his life. He’s desperately in search of a safe haven, and when he overhears a conversation about a recently vacated basement room he lands on Turner’s doorstep.  

Creative Atmosphere
At first he’s not well received but he browbeats the eccentric rocker, claiming he needs to live in a creative atmosphere — he’s a juggler, he maintains. Reluctantly, the singer and his live-in female companions, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton), who are the other two-thirds of the singer’s live-in ménage-a-trois, take in the rogue gangster. Turner realizes that Chas possesses something he lacks — a gangster persona, which is an essential element for a rock ‘n’ roll star, you see.

Identities become fluid
in 'Performance.'
The creative atmosphere — and later, some psychedelic mushrooms — have an effect on Chas. He dyes his hair the color of a bucket of rusty nails, trying to blend in to his new outré sanctuary, and in hopes of evading the gangsters he’s trying to dodge. It’s not a particularly effective disguise, but it’s the first sign of a transformation — and he is one sorely in need of a behavioral transformation.

Fun with Psychedelic Fungus
Earlier in the film we see him having a sadomasochistic encounter with a woman, which fits in with his brutal manner. But after Pherber encourages him to release his psychological demons by exploring the female side of his personality, Chas, fully blitzed on ’shrooms, has a psychological breakthrough as he hallucinates Turner as his crime boss performing the song “Memo from Turner.” It’s classic a moment as neo-noir takes a surreal turn, melding noir with 1960s gender-bending drug culture. 

A gangsters' painting party.
Godard Connection
Perhaps the film of that era most similar to the chemically induced psychedelia of “Performance” is “Point Blank” (1967), with Lee Marvin as a gangster trying to collect money he is owed. “Point Blank” delves into the hallucinatory, but its surrealistic elements are the product of a dying man’s feverish nightmare rather than hallucinations of the drug-induced variety. It does, however, share a raw, jump-cut induced nervous energy with “Performance,” both of which are kindred spirits with the French New Wave of the 1960s. We see that when an apartment where Chas is doing his dirty work is sprayed and splashed in blood-red paint. The scene is reminiscent of Jean Luc Godard’s color-drenched anarchic “Pierrot le Fou” (1965) — perhaps not so coincidentally, Godard directed a documentary, “The Rolling Stones: Sympathy for the Devil” (1968), the same year that “Performance” was shot. 

Confusion, double meanings
When “Performance” finally wraps up, we see a thorough blending of identities among the inhabitants of Turner’s decadent pad.  The film’s denouement confused the movie executives at its jaw-dropping debut, and, no doubt, many others continue to walk away wondering if they’re missing something. Like “Point Blank,” whose ending is open to interpretation, “Performance” uses noir tropes but also upends them with its elusive, not readily explainable, ending.

Mergers, Acquisitions
Turner has apparently merged with Chas, but exactly how did this transformation come about? Don’t strain yourself looking for answers. “Performance” is a mind-bending, occasionally incoherent experience, and you’re welcome to put whatever spin on it you’d like. If you’re curious about that era, this is one film that provides a bracing if somewhat unsettling journey into the past. It may appeal to the nostalgically inclined, those who missed out on the scene entirely, and of course, the ones who were there but, for the life of them, can’t seem to remember any of it — you all know who you are.







Sunday, August 14, 2022

Hey, College Boy, Wanna Rob a Casino?

Four vets attending college on the GI Bill and a
cabaret singer try to rob a Reno casino and 
pull off the perfect crime. 

‘Five Against the House’ (1955):
Part soap opera, part screwball comedy,
with a heist tacked on at the end

A

quartet of Korean War veterans studying at college are best buddies. While they’re older than the average college kid, some are in their second childhood. They chase girls; a couple of them haze a freshman and make him their personal slave. This is supposed to be all in fun but on today's campuses it would break the needle on the creepy meter. All of which has little to nothing to do with the heist that they’ll eventually plot.

The foursome goes to Harold’s casino in Reno, Nev., for a quick shot of gambling before they must turn around and get back to campus. Pop culture enthusiasts may be interested to learn that the film was shot on location at Harold’s, which long ago met with the wrecking ball, as aging casinos do.

By chance, a couple of the guys witness one of the all-time dumbest robbery attempts at the cashier’s window. The would-be holdup man gets caught, but that’s when Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) gets the idea to pull a stickup of his own. He’s a rich kid who doesn’t need the money, but wants to prove he’s smart enough to rob the joint without getting caught (shades of Leopold and Loeb). 

The idea is to leave the stolen loot where the casino can recover it. It’s meant to be a prank. But Brick (Brian Keith), who suffered a head wound in the war, is a wild card in this shaky spectacle. This gimmick recalls William Bendix’s shell-shocked Buzz Wanchek in “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), who may or may not have committed a murder.

The most serious-minded of the group, Al Mercer (Guy Madison), whose on again, off again relationship with Kay (Kim Novak) takes up a chunk of the film’s first 40 minutes or so, plans on a career in law and the prank is clearly not his cup of tea. But he's tricked into going along with the group.

That a band of such well-scrubbed lads would flirt with arrest and possibly deadly consequences is a stretch. The whimsical tone shifts to somber when we realize that there's a deranged maniac among the lads who’s been waiting to show his cards.

We never feel that this band of preppies is up to the task of pulling off such a hoax, but never mind. The film’s final minutes are what makes it worth watching, assuming that you can hang in there that long. The guys employ a clever but highly improbable homemade machine which they hope will make a successful robbery possible — but then things go wrong. 

With a bigger helping of hijinx, or a more disciplined approach to the caper, “Five Against the House” could have been a winner. Instead, it runs low on chips toward the middle, and just about folds before the game really gets underway.











Tuesday, August 9, 2022

What, Another Insurance Man is Out to Beat the System?

Charles McGraw holds a gun on
worrying Peter Brocco in 'Roadblock.'

On the face of it, “Roadblock” (1951) is a tall tale filled with absurdities. An insurance investigator who can’t conceive of how easily he might get caught if he robs one of his employer’s clients. He’s the same guy who catches perps who rip off the customers, and ought to know better. Added to that is an inveterate gold digger who changes her stripes midstream when the underpaid insurance investigator falls for her.

But it’s not all bad news, in fact, there’s a lot to stick around for.

A clever twist at the beginning gives a hint about where the story is headed. Insurance investigators Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) have a way of tripping up thieves with carefully laid traps. It’s this subterfuge that gives us a clue about Joe’s inner world. He’s skilled at pulling the wool over crooks’ eyes. But, clearly, it won’t be long before his penchant for theatrical misdirection takes him down a different path.

Joe is a straight arrow, but once he meets hot tamale Diane (Joan Dixon) his morally upright resolve begins to crumble. Diane, he quickly learns, is no slouch at working a scheme or two of her own. She hustles a discounted airline ticket, which conflicts with Joe’s moral standards, or so it seems. Beneath his mask of ethical superiority lies a con man wannabe. In Diane he sees a pretty face and perhaps a kindred spirit and, a bit too quickly, he goes goo-goo-eyes over her.

Diane (Joan Dixon).
For her part, Diane is laughably mercenary in her pursuit of fur coats and golden baubles. She sidles up to gangsters and sharpies in her quest for minks and sables — a man-eater lusting after scalps. She’s as self-obsessed as any femme fatale we’ve met and she doesn’t care who knows it.

Joe is in a downward spiral, although he’s not aware of it, and soon she’ll be on the upswing. Somehow, they’ll meet in the middle and connect. Unexpectedly, and inexplicably, things begin to change with Diane once the two couple up. Could it be that beneath her materialistic exterior lies the heart of a woman yearning for true love and the simple life of an insurance inspector’s wife? How that transformation comes about is not quite clear. Without warning, she seems to join the ranks of the exceedingly small sorority of femmes fatale who experience the curative powers of romance. 

But all is not well with the smitten Joe. His gangster cohort soon convinces him that she’ll tire of the simple life, and he becomes convinced that he must take drastic action. He devises a plan to score a large cache of loot.

For a film that tears at the fabric of believability, the story moves forward quickly enough to keep us from noticing or caring too much about how little sense much of it makes. It might be called a weak sister to “Double Indemnity” (1944), which is about another insurance man scamming the system in order to hold onto a gorgeous babe.

Doomed by the choices he makes.
But lapses in logic somehow make “Roadblock” more substantial in unexpected ways. Emotions have a way of clouding our judgment, and the seemingly off-kilter decisions that characters make seem true to human fallibilities and life’s unpredictability. As in true crime TV, the most human elements, at times, are the utterly illogical choices people make when their lives begin to spiral into a crisis. How many times in true crime stories would factual occurrences be considered too coincidental, illogical or outlandish to be included in a fictional story? With that in mind, “Roadblock” gives us plenty of barely credible elements to chew on.

Joe’s foray into criminal enterprise is a leading example of emotions overwhelming logic. His rookie entry into the world of crime is doomed, and pretty soon the couple ends up on the lam. He aims to get himself and Diane to Mexico where they can live outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement. The finale takes place in the Los Angeles River bed, a dry concrete gulf that Joe desperately detours through with the police in hot pursuit — in today’s Los Angeles the chase would undoubtedly be telecast live to boffo ratings. 

Despite it all, don’t be deterred. This low-budget RKO production, shot for around $200,000, doesn’t show the thread-bare trappings of many a cut-rate endeavor. Like a handful of other cheapo productions, “Roadblock” is gritty, a bit slap-dash, but somehow keeps us watching. Just think of it as a savory tidbit for times when you’re not in the mood for a heavy meal. 


 



Friday, July 8, 2022

A Cache of Hot Money Fires Up ‘Private Hell 36’

Det. Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) and wife Francey (Dorothy Malone)
in 'Private Hell 36' (1955).

We’re in a New York City office building. A pair of elevator doors open and a dead man is sprawled on the floor inside. Another, wearing an elevator operator’s uniform, exits and disappears into the night with a satchel of loot — $300,000, to be exact.

The blunt, factual opening sequence coupled with voiceover narration gives “Private Hell 36” the feel of a police procedural, initially, at least. The story moves abruptly from New York to Southern California, not the breezy, palm-tree shaded Los Angeles that delights tourists, but in a shadowy, claustrophobic urban landscape that’s as confining as any sprawling East Coast city.

Some of the money stolen in New York has turned up in the City of Angels and two L.A. Police detectives are tracking it down. Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran), the younger of the pair, is freewheeling and a bit reckless. His partner, Jack Farnham (Howard Duff), is a family man and the picture of responsibility. In contrast to the risk-taking Cal, Jack worries that he could leave his wife a widow and his young daughter fatherless. 

While the two have a collegial relationship and seem to make a good team, it’s likely that their differing styles will sooner or later cause friction.  Sure enough, money and a woman are destined to come into the picture and disturb their equilibrium.

At the Scene of a Crime
When we meet Cal, he’s stumbled upon a robbery in progress and rather than call for backup, he takes the risky step of halting the burglars single-handedly. Gunfire erupts and he kills one robber, and after a raucous fistfight, subdues, pummels and arrests the other. With his penchant for gratuitous violence, Cal clearly harbors a world of suppressed anger that drives his impulsive behavior.

Later at the station house his boss, Capt. Michaels (Dean Jagger), an apt judge of character, warns him against taking unnecessary risks, a tip that Cal brushes off, just as he does the news that a fellow policeman has died in action. That he’s so blasé about the killing of another law man says a lot about his detachment from the reality of police work. It’s easy to take him as a fatalist, believing that death is inescapable once your number’s up. But his arrogant posture suggests that beneath his risk-taking bravado he believes firmly in his own infallibility.

Steve Cochran and Evney Serovich —
heavy-handed persuasion.
Meanwhile, Cal slaps the robber around as he’s questioning him at headquarters, as is probably his standard operating procedure. When asked for his address, the prisoner mutters that he’s a “transient.” That’s a term some would use to disparagingly describe Southern California’s populace — rootless, shady, on the move and restless for change, in contrast to stable, Middle America, with its “traditional values.” It also sums up the contrasts between the two detectives, Jack being the dependable, traditional one, while Cal is dwells among the impatient, rootless, vaguely dissatisfied fringe of society.

Steve Cochran’s Cal has a more internalized sinister edge than accused murderer Bill Clark, whom he portrayed in “Tomorrow Is Another Day” (1951). Unlike the reactive Bill Clark, a fugitive from justice who digs himself into a deeper hole when confronted with bad breaks and unfair treatment, Cal’s dark impulses compel him to tempt fate. He’ll lie dormant until the right circumstances come along, then ditch his present identity and move on to an idealized life in a distant land.

'Wrong People Got Framed' 
While chasing after the stolen money Cal meets lounge singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), who has a low opinion of cops. She once cooperated with the law and “the wrong people got framed.” Working for tips and living a low-rent life, she wears a flashy faux diamond bracelet and carries a fake gold cigarette holder, but wants real diamonds and gold someday soon. Cal takes a shine to her and eventually, after aggressive, slightly creepy pursuit, breaks down her resistance and they become an item. Lilli’s outlook brightens when she’s with Cal, but like him she’s uninterested in a committed relationship. She brushes off the topic of marriage with noir-appropriate sarcasm — rice is for eating, not for throwing.

Howard Duff, Ida Lupino and Steve Cochran
scan the crowd at Hollywood Park.
The trail of the cash brings the two detectives to Hollywood Park racetrack with Lilli in tow. A customer tipped her a hot $50 bill and she’s eyeballing the crowd in search of the chiseler. Once again, we’re confronted with a view of Los Angles that offer little relief from the confining walls and swelling crowds of the city. Racetracks are, of course, a noir-infused environment. You can practically smell the stogie smoke floating in the breeze. A crush of spectators makes the racing oval seem no less confining than city avenues lined with granite skyscrapers that block out natural light. 

Stakeout Pays Off
After days of wandering through the crowd and searching for the heavy tipper she spots him and a car chase ensures. Cal and Jack are in close pursuit, tires screeching on winding canyon roads. The perp drives over the edge of a cliff and lands at the bottom of a valley and the two detectives hike down into the canyon to investigate — it’s probably the first open, unconfined space we’ve seen them in and it’s outside the watchful eyes of the public. The suspect is dead and an open box of money was ejected in the crash. Dollar bills waft across the ravine, and the two detectives are on it, quickly scooping up the loot. But what to do about it?

Howard Duff and Steve Cochran
discover a box filled with loot.
Cal doesn’t hesitate to avail himself of this quirk of fate, we could suppose, because he feels entitled to extra rewards for the risks he faces as a cop — of course, the greater danger he encounters are often due to unwise chances he seems compelled to take. His determination to provide the materialistic Lilly with luxurious baubles allows him to further justify his morally unsound actions. 

Jack stands on shaky ground. He’s torn between duty and loyalty to his partner. It’s plain to see that he’s tempted to go along with Cal and take the cash but it goes against every fiber of his being. The money, blowing in the breeze, no less, represents freedom that’s there for the taking. It’s hard not to think of the bank notes churned up by airplane propellers and blowing away from Sterling Hayden in the final scene of “The Killing” (1956) as he grimly watches his last chance of starting life anew go down the drain.

Living in Cramped Quarters
Cal and Jack exist in downscale claustrophobic spaces, far from the prosperous suburbs where others have achieved the American dream. Their situation is reminiscent of GIs who live in relative poverty after risking their lives overseas in World War II and in Korea. A telling moment occurs when, during a dinner party at Jack’s home a loose coffee table leg pops off and he quickly fits it back into place. His reaction lingers between humiliation and fury. Embarrassed that his household is so obviously shabby, Jack’s angrily determined to keep his hands off the hot money and feels powerless to stop Cal from stealing it. His silence is the private hell in which he lives, tamping back his frustrations with a bottle of whiskey.

Cal stashes the money at a trailer park, in a unit he’s renting — it’s trailer number 36, hence the movie’s title. They’re the kind of camper trailers that families tow to Yosemite and other outdoorsy destination, the perfect vehicle for the mobile, rootless lifestyle that he wants. 

Ida Lupino and Steve Cochran.
Cal and Lilli edge toward marriage, and Lilli’s values begin to change. The security of a lasting relationship seems within her reach, and her disdain for matrimony dissipates as does her shallow materialistic outlook. Cal doesn’t change. Morally corrosive materialism has only made him sink deeper into the abyss to the point where he’s willing to commit murder to make a clean getaway. 

Jack wants to come clean and Cal is vehemently against returning the loot he’s pocketed.

Capt. Michaels sees through the consternation emanating from the two detectives and intuits that something troubling is going on. We can see the wheels turning inside his head as he watches their petty squabbles escalate. 

Cal receives an anonymous threatening phone call from a third party who was involved in the New York heist who knows that the detective is holding the money. He tells Lilli that they need to leave for Acapulco immediately — she’s in the dark about the stolen loot.

On the Run
The film’s climax occurs at the trailer park, the symbolic homeland of middle-class nomadic dreams, further heightening the permanent vs. transient battle being symbolically being waged. Cal lives in a world where one can take advantage of an illicit opportunity, run to Acapulco and live in luxury, and he’s now willing to kill if it’ll ensure he gets what he’s after. 

But sooner or later a risk-taker’s luck is liable run out, and we discover, to paraphrase noir novelist Jim Thompson, that things aren’t what they seem to be. That may be the only immovable truth we’re likely to encounter in this, Cal’s private hell.

  




Thursday, June 30, 2022

Out of the Shadows (and onto the Cathode Ray Tube)

Raymond Burr in 'Pitfall' (1948).

Film noir heavies and second bananas of the 1940s got respectable in the late ‘50s and ‘60s when they morphed into TV doctors, lawyers and sitcom moms and pops. But could they ever wash the stage blood off their hands?

You mean Mom and Pop were once arch criminals? Jeepers!

Yup, those affable folks we’d tune in to see on weekly TV series followed twisted paths in their younger days, when noir filled movie screens across the country. 


The Actors of Film Noir

In the 1940s and ’50s they murdered, robbed and kidnapped. Some were cops who chased, collared and manhandled hoodlums — Miranda rights weren’t a thing yet. Ever in close proximity to the scum of the earth, they were the ones in low-budget, gritty crime stories, always in black and white, relentlessly exploring the seedy underbelly of urban life. The dramas unfolded mostly at night, lit by neon signs and police spotlights. They chain-smoked cigarettes, bet on the ponies and kept a flask of hooch and a racing form in their coat pocket.

But by the late 1950s these denizens of the night left the silver screen — by choice or otherwise. Some made their way onto the small screen and starred in network television shows. Their transformation may have been a jolt for noir fans. The straight-laced characters they played on the boob tube were a far cry from the jackals and cutthroats some portrayed in films. No more brass knuckles and suitcases stuffed with loot. Instead it was family picnics, PTA meetings and touch football. Knuckle-dragging tough guys were replaced by wacky neighbors.

So, here’s a far from exhaustive list of some of the actors who made the leap into TV roles that starkly contrast with their former noir selves:

William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont in
The Blue Dahlia' (1946)
Hugh Beaumont played Ward Cleaver in the popular family sitcom “Leave It to Beaver” (1957 – ’63). But his TV sons, Theodore (Beaver) and Wally, and wife June, would be shocked to learn what skullduggery he was up to before he went straight. He was the shady Michael Dunn in “Bury Me Dead” (1947), where he may have been involved in a bludgeoning murder. His other noir roles were milder, but he persistently roamed among rough characters. In “Railroaded” (1947) he is police Sgt. Mickey Ferguson, investigating the murder of a fellow officer. In “The Blue Dahlia” (1946) he was George Copeland, whose Navy buddy, Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), is accused of murdering his wife. He also appeared in “Tokyo Joe” (1949), “Phone Call from a Stranger” (1952), “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943), “The Lady Confesses” (1945), “Night Without Sleep” (1952), “Apology for Murder” (1945), “Money Madness” (1948), “Pier 23” (1951) and “Alias Mike Hercules” (1956).

William Bendix, an actor who pulled off stunning personality changes, also appeared in “The Blue Dahlia” (1946) as Buzz Wanchek, Navy buddy to George and Johnny. Buzz, shell-shocked in the war, has painful seizure-like episodes and he just might have murdered Johnny’s wife during one of his fits. Among the numerous roles in crime films Bendix that played was the sadistic henchman Jeff in “The Glass Key” (1942), who gleefully beats Alan Ladd to a pulp. He also appeared in “Detective Story” (1951), “They Drive by Night” (1940), “The Web” (1947), “Macao” (1952), “The Dark Corner” (1946), “The Big Steal” (1949), “Calcutta” (1946), “Dangerous Mission” (1954), “Cover Up” (1949), “Crashout” (1955), “The Hairy Ape” (1944), “Race Street” (1948), “Johnny Holiday” (1949) and ”Gambling House” (1950). Who would have guessed that Bendix would turn up as the good-natured, occasionally put-upon, bumbling pop in the TV sitcom “Life of Riley” (1953 – ’58) — could Jeff be Riley’s evil doppelganger?  (Just a thought).

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray
in 'Double Indemnity' (1944)
And then there were Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who plotted to ice Phyllis’s blowhard husband in “Double Indemnity” (1944). In the chilling murder scene, Walter pounces on the hubby and throttles him in the front seat of the family sedan as Phyllis calmly drives — ice water flows through her veins. In “Borderline” (1950), MacMurray plays an undercover cop trying to bust a drug smuggling ring. He was a corrupt cop in “Pushover” (1954) and a man in search of a stash of pearls in “Singapore” (1947). How odd it was to see him pivot to the role of widower Steve Douglas in the family sitcom “My Three Sons” (1960 – ’72). His roles in light-hearted family-friendly Disney movies were also a hoot.

Speaking of Barbara Stanwyck, she appeared in countless film noir roles, including the murderous Phyllis in “Double Indemnity” and the bedridden victim of a deadly plot in “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948). Her other noirs include “Clash by Night” (1952), “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947), “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), “No Man of Her Own” (1950), “Crime of Passion” (1956), “Witness to Murder” (1954), “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1949), “The Lady Gambles” (1949), “The Other Love” (1947) and “Jeopardy” (1953). She later portrayed family matriarch Victoria Barkley in the TV western drama “The Big Valley” (1965 – ’69). It wasn’t her first western. She appeared in many, most notably as Jessica Drummond in Samuel Fuller’s “Forty Guns” (1957). But “The Big Valley” was among her most successful series, running four seasons. She also hosted a TV anthology series, “The Barbara Stanwyck Show” (1960 – ’61).

Robert Young and Jane Wyatt.
Robert Young played Larry Ballentine, a fast-talking, slippery character who ends up on trial for murder in “They Won't Believe Me” (1947). In “The Second Woman” (1950), he’s Jeff Cohalan, a guy who’s plagued by bad luck, persecution, or maybe paranoia. In “Crossfire” (1947), he’s Finlay, an investigator looking into a murder of suspicious circumstances. Later, he ditched the trench coat and put on a cardigan and portrayed average middle-class American dad Jim Anderson, father of Betty, Bud and Kathy, in TV sitcom “Father Knows” Best (1954 – ’60). Later, he starred as the kindly, wise physician in “Marcus Welby, M.D.” (1969 – ’76).

Jane Wyatt played Jim Anderson’s wife, Margaret, in “Father Knows Best.” Before her days in the Anderson household she was middle-class housewife Sue Forbes in “Pitfall” (1948), Marjorie Byrne in “House by the River” (1950), Lois Frazer in “The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1950), all solid noirs. 

An actor famous for portraying disreputable characters, Raymond Burr played numerous louts, sadistic mobsters, corrupt detectives and murderers in “Desperate” (1947), “Pitfall” (1948), “Raw Deal” (1948), “I Love Trouble (1948), “Walk a Crooked Mile” (1948), “Red Light” (1949), “Borderline” (1950), “His Kind of Woman” (1951), “The Blue Gardenia” (1953), “Rear Window”(1954) and “Crime of Passion” (1956). He finally ended up on the right side of the law as the eponymous Los Angeles defense attorney in the TV drama “Perry Mason” (1957 – ’66).

His “Perry Mason” co-star, William Talman, played District Attorney Hamilton Burger, the poor stiff who never won a case against Perry — except one, but Burger’s record was otherwise pitiful. He was something less that pitiful when he played sadistic killer Emmett Myers in “The Hitchhiker” (1953), the murderous Bailey in “The Woman on Pier 13” (1949), Dave Purvis in “Armored Car Robbery” (1950), Officer Bob Johnson in “The Racket” (1951) and Hayes Stewart in “City That Never Sleeps” (1953). Other noirs he appeared in include “Big House, U.S.A.” (1955), “Crashout” (1955) and “The Man Is Armed” (1956).

Vince Edwards in 'The Killing' (1956).
It wouldn’t be unfair to label Vince Edwards a punk, a thief and an adulterous murderer — in his early film roles, that is. He was double-crossing holdup man Val Cannon in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956), paid killer Philip Pine in “Murder by Contract” (1958), a murderous mechanic in “Hit and Run” (1957). His noir credentials also include “The Night Holds Terror” (1955), “Dark Passage” (1947). As the 1960s arrived, Edwards reformed and became the “against the medical establishment” Dr. Ben Casey in the TV drama “Ben Casey” (1961 – ’66).

Harry Morgan went from playing average guy Pete Porter on TV sitcom “Pete and Gladys” (1960 – ’62), to crime fighter Officer Bill Gannon alongside Sgt. Joe Friday in “Dragnet” (1967 – ’70). Later, he was Col. Sherman T. Potter in the Korean War-based TV sitcom M.A.S.H. (1972 – ’83). But in his pre-television roles he was often an unsavory character — a thug, a stooge, a flunky, and what have you. He appeared in “Dark City” (1950), “Not as a Stranger” (1955), “The Big Clock” (1948), “Somewhere in the Night” (1946), “All My Sons” (1948), “Scandal Sheet” (1952), “Moonrise” (1948), “Red Light” (1949), “Appointment with Danger” (1950), “Strange Bargain” (1949), “The Gangster” (1947), “The Saxon Charm” (1948), “Race Street” (1948) and “Outside the Wall” (1950). 

Agnes Moorehead.
Agnes Moorehead co-starred with Humphrey Bogart when she played Madge Rapf in “Dark Passage” (1947). She earned her noir credentials playing characters such as Ruth Benton in “Caged” (1950), Christine Hill Cosick in “14 Hours” (1951), Juliana Borderau in “The Lost Moment” (1947) and Mrs. Matthews in “Journey into Fear” (1942). Later, she played overbearing witch-mother-in-law Endora in TV sitcom “Bewitched” (1964 – ’72).  

You may know him as the grumpy, bigoted working-class word-mangler Archie Bunker in TV sitcom “All in the Family” (1971 – ’79), but Carroll O’Connor played crime boss Brewster in ‘Point Blank’ (1967) and an uncredited role as a prison guard in “Convicted” (1950).

Donna Reed found herself in dicey company in “Chicago Deadline” (1949), “Scandal Sheet” (1952), “Ransom!” (1956). Later, she became a doctor’s wife Donna Stone and an all-American mom in “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 – ’66). 

Lucille Ball in'The Dark Corner' (1946).
Before she starred in one of the most popular TV sitcoms of all time, “I Love Lucy” (1951 – ’57), and all of the other iterations of the series that followed, Lucille Ball was rubbing shoulders with underworld mugs. She played Kathleen Stewart in "The Dark Corner" (1946), and appeared in “Blood Money” (1933) and “Lured” (1947). 

Herbert Gillis (Frank Faylen) was Dobie’s dad on the TV sitcom “The Many Love of Dobie Gillis” (1959 – ’63). But before that he was Stan in “99 River St.” (1953), John Payne’s fellow cab driver/dispatcher/boxing trainer. Other noirs he appearing in include “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “They Drive by Night” (1940), “Detective Story” (1951), “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), “Convicted” (1950), “You Can't Get Away with Murder” (1939) and “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954).

Sitcom “The Patty Duke Show” (1963 – ’66) featured identical twin cousins. Patty Duke played both roles — and you thought “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Genie” were far-fetched? Patty's dad (and Cathy's uncle) Martin Lane (William Schallert), was the gas station attendant who gets bumped off in the beginning of "Down Three Dark Streets” (1954). He also plays the assistant D.A. in “Shield for Murder” (1954). His other work in noirs includes “Cry Terror! (1958), “M” (1951), “The Reckless Moment” (1949), “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954), “The Tattered Dress” (1957), “The People Against O'Hara” (1951), “Black Tuesday” (1954), “Hoodlum Empire” (1952) and “The Girl in the Kremlin” (1957).

Walter Brennan, left, and John Garfield
in 'Nobody Lives Forever' (1946).

Walter Brennan was Grandpa Amos in “The Real McCoys” (1957 – ’63). He was the lovable but gruff old codger who often gave his family unsolicited advice. Who would suspect that the occasionally ornery Amos led a double life? In “Nobody Lives Forever” (1946) he played penny-ante con man Pop Gruber who teams up with ex-GI Nick Blake (John Garfield) to fleece suckers and make a big score. He was Humphrey Bogart’s sidekick in “To Have and Have Not” (1944) — “Was you ever stung by a dead bee?” He also appeared in “Hangmen Also Die!” (1943), Fritz Lang’s “Fury” (1936), “Nobody Lives Forever” (1946), “The Racket” (1928) and “Grief Street” (1931).

A Final Word …

No doubt about it, mom and pop’s younger selves kept unsavory company and may have even bumped off, robbed or terrorized a few unfortunates. On the plus side, their later TV selves became model citizens. All of which proves that sometimes it’s better to forget the splintery past and focus on the present.