Little Tin God: SHIELD FOR MURDER (United Artists 1954)

Edmond O’Brien  is big, burly, and brutal in 1954’s SHIELD FOR MURDER, a grim film noir about a killer cop trapped in that ol’ inevitable downward spiral. It’s a good (though not great) crime drama that gave the actor a seat in the director’s chair, sharing credit with another first timer, Howard W. Koch. The film, coming at the end of the first noir cycle, strives for realism, but almost blows it in the very first scene when the shadow of a boom mike appears on an alley fence! Chalk it up to first-timer’s jitters, and a budget that probably couldn’t afford retakes.

O’Brien, noted for such noir thrillers as THE KILLERS , WHITE HEAT, and DOA, stars as crooked cop Barney Nolan, who murders a bookie in that alley I just mentioned and rips him off for 25 grand. Apartently, this isn’t the first time Nolan’s killed, with the charges being swept under the rug as “in the line of duty”. Nolan hides his ill-gotten gains under the porch of a model suburban dream home he’s thinking of buying for himself and fiancé Patty Winters.

The 25 G’s belong to gangster Packy Reed, who of course wants his dough back. Reed’s two menacing goons threaten Patty, but are stopped by Nolan’s partner Mark Brewster. Then Nolan learns there was a witness, a deaf mute old man, and goes to try and bribe the old geezer, but accidentally kills him instead. Mark is called to investigate and finds a note the geezer wrote implicating Nolan in the bookie’s death. Nolan now becomes a hunted man, with the squad leader putting all cops on the lookout, leading to Barney Nolan’s unavoidable date with destiny.

There’s some shocking violence in the scene where Nolan, getting drunk at an Italian restaurant with a local floozie, spots the goons who threatened Patty, and savagely pistol whips them both. The final scenes, where the hunted Nolan engages in a gun duel with a goon at a high school swim meet, then is ferociously gunned down himself by his police brethren, are also well staged. O’Brien directed one other feature, 1961’s MAN TRAP, while Koch went on to a long career as a director (BIG HOUSE USA, UNTAMED YOUTH , FRANKENSTEIN 1970 , BADGE 373), producer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, FOUR FOR TEXAS , THE ODD COUPLE, AIRPLANE!), and a stint as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The cast is terse and tough, and includes John Agar as Nolan’s partner Mark, Emile Meyer as the no nonsense precinct captain, Claude Akins as one of the goons, and a blonde Carolyn Jones as the floozie. Sexy Marla English plays Patty; she’s best known for a pair of chillers, THE SHE CREATURE and VOODOO WOMAN. The rest of the cast list features Familiar Faces from the world of episodic TV: John Beradino (GENERAL HOSPITAL), William Boyett (ADAM-12), Robert Bray (LASSIE), Richard Deacon (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Stafford Repp (BATMAN), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, STAR TREK’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”) and Vito Scotti, who was on just about every TV show made from the 50’s to the 70’s!

SHIELD FOR MURDER offers noir buffs a darkly good time, although I feel it’s definitely second-tier stuff. O’Brien and the cast make it worth watching, as does the intermittent outbursts of violence. Would I watch it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. You Dear Readers will have to decide for yourselves.

 

Paranoia Strikes Deep: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Allied Artists 1956; United Artists 1978)

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These two versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS have much in common. Both are visions of the paranoia of their times disguised in the veneer of science fiction. But while the 1956 film is an allegoric warning of the dangers of Communism, its 1978 remake focuses on conspiracy theory paranoia in the post-Watergate era. The films are equally good reflections of the times they were made, and the differences lie mainly in the visions of directors Don Siegel (’56) and Philip Kaufman (’78).

Siegel’s roots were planted firmly in the old studio system. He began his career at Warners, then RKO before moving onto to independent productions in the mid-50s. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was made for Allied Artists (formerly known as Monogram, home of The Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi quickies.) Siegel was well versed in working within budgetary constraints. Early films like PRIVATE HELL 36 and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 were low-budget but effective noirs notable for their toughness. Siegel’s version of the story has that noirish  feel to it, with the protagonist caught in an ever-downward spiral towards an inescapable fate.

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Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held in the mental ward at a hospital. He’s hysterical, screaming about an impending doomsday. Psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in, and Bennell recounts the story of what’s been happening in his sleepy little suburb of Santa Mira, California. Bennell had just returned from a vacation when he’s told about a strange phenomenon occurring in town. People have been reporting their loved ones aren’t really their loved ones…they’re imposters. A young boy claims his mom is not his mom. Bennell’s girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) has a cousin who insists Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira. Psychiatrist friend Dr. Kauffman thinks it’s mass hysteria caused by “what’s going on in the world”. But Bennell has nagging doubts about that diagnosis, doubts that are confirmed when he goes to Jack and Teddy Belicec’s (King Donovan, Carolyn Jones) home to discover a body on their pool table. An unformed body, approximately the same height and weight as Jack!

Things go steadily downhill as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs find weird seed pods in the greenhouse. The pods bubble and ooze, popping out newly minted body doubles of the quartet. They burn the pods, and soon find out most of Santa Mira has been taken over by the pod people. Bennell and Becky are now hunted by the pod people, who are intent on making the couple one of them. The key is to stay awake, for only while humans sleep can the pod people take over their bodies. Bennell and Becky finally escape through an old tunnel, hearing music when they get to the other side. Bennell investigates, thinking there must be other humans, but is shocked to find the music’s coming from a pod farm! He goes back to Becky and kisses her, and to his horror realizes she fell asleep, and is now one of them! Bennell is chased to the highway, frantically trying to flag down drivers, yelling, ” Listen to me! Listen to me! They’re here! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” The drivers pass him by, thinking he’s just drunk or some kind of nut.

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Dr. Hill listens, but dismisses Bennell’s tale as the rantings of a deranged man. He leaves the room just as an accident victim is being brought into the hospital. It seems his truck was broadsided, and he was trapped by the weight of its load… filled with pods! Hill immediately realizes Bennell’s telling the truth, and calls the authorities. This INVASION ends on a positive note, with hope for mankind’s future. The message is quite clear, to remain aware and act when necessary. 50s worries about Communist infiltration (whether real or imagined) were at their peak during this era, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS offers a chilling warning to its audience. All the best science fiction includes some underlying message, and Siegel’s movie delivers without hitting the viewer over the head,  his film noir touch only adding to the frightening mood.

Philip Kaufman is rooted in another film school altogether, that of the director as auteur. Kaufman’s works are a product of the individualistic cinema of the 1970s, when visionaries like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were creating genre-bending films based on traditional themes like THE LONG GOODBYE and THE CONVERSATION. His influences were French New Wave directors like Goddard and Truffaut, and independent American mavericks like John Cassavettes and, to a lesser extent, Don Siegel. Kaufman’s version of INVASION ratchets up the paranoia, giving the viewer a much bleaker perspective of a world where it may indeed be far too late for hope.

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Kaufman’s protagonist is now Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), and his occupation has been changed to Public Health inspector. A bigger change is in moving the setting from quiet suburbia to bustling San Francisco. This widens the scope of the horror, as we see even large cities aren’t safe from the vast conspiracy. It’s not just happening in some small, out-of-the-way burg, it’s right here in Big City America. Bennell’s colleague, microbiologist Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), believes her once-affectionate husband Geoffrey (Art Hindle) “is not Geoffrey” anymore. He’s now aloof, meeting with strange people, and always away from home. Bennell brings Elizabeth to see his friend, pop psychologist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy in a brilliant piece of casting).   Kibner has heard this complaint recently from others, and spouts some platitudes about a “hallucinatory flu” going around, caused mainly by people just not listening to each other anymore.

Bonnell’s friends Jack and Nancy Belicec (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright) run a trendy Mud Bath health spa, and a cocoon-like body is found there. Bennell sees it, and begins to believe Elizabeth’s story. Bennell rushes to her and spies her doppelgänger in the greenhouse growing while she sleeps. He grabs her and returns to the Bellicec’s. Kibner is called in, but the body is nowhere to be found. Kibner’s still skeptical, and suggests they all get a good night’s sleep. It’s only when the camera follows him outside that we learn the truth… Kibner is one of THEM!

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Bennell’s stymied at every turn by government bureaucracy, passing him from one department to the next, some not taking his calls at all. The exhausted quartet finally fall asleep, and the pods try to overtake them, nearly encompassing Bennell until Elizabeth’s screams wake him up. They run but they can’t hide, and the rest of the film generally follows the original’s path except for a completely different ending that I won’t spoil here.

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Kaufman pays homage to the first film with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (virtually recreating his iconic highway scene) and director Siegel (as a cab driver who’s not what he seems). The newer INVASION utilizes sound editing to build up the terror, something the quieter original didn’t capitalize on. And the larger budget means better special effects, including a bit where a street singer’s head is transposed on his dog’s body. Kaufman’s version is closer to horror than noir, and it also has a sense of humor not found in the 1956 INVASION.  I like both versions, but enjoyed the Kaufman version just a bit more. Growing up in the 70s, I’m well aware that governments cannot be trusted. Young people today share these sentiments with me, at least some of them do. The story’s been retold twice since 1978, in BODY SNATCHER (1993) directed by Abel Ferrara, and 2007’s THE INVASION, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Neither has had the impact the first two films did, both of which can hold their own in the horror/science fiction pantheon. I suppose as long as people are worried about conspiracies and the dehumanization of mankind, the story will be retold again. It’s only when we STOP worrying about what’s really going on behind the curtain that we as a species will truly be in trouble.

 

Big Entertainment: Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (Columbia, 1953)

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Fritz Lang is one of the most influential film directors of all time. Getting his start in Germany’s famed Ufa Studios, Lang became world renown for masterpieces like  METROPOLIS (1927) and M (starring Peter Lorre, 1931), and his Dr. Mabuse series. Lang fled the Nazi regime in the early 30s, coming to America to ply his trade. He became a top Hollywood director particularly famous for film noir classics like SCARLET STREET (1945, a personal favorite of mine), THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1954). One of the best of these is 1953’s  THE BIG HEAT.

The movie starts with the suicide of Tom Duncan, head of the police records bureau. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in and interviews the widow. Bannion’s a family man with loving wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) and young daughter. While at home enjoying some quality time, he receives a call from a woman named Lucy claiming Duncan didn’t kill himself. He meets her at local watering hole The Retreat, where she tells him Duncan and her were lovers, and he planned on divorcing his wife. Bannion doesn’t believe the B-girls tale until she’s found tortured and strangled the next day.

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Bannion decides to investigate, but is warned to stay off the case by his boss, Lt. Wilkes. He presses further anyways, going back to The Retreat and speaking with an uncooperative barkeep. A threatening call to his wife sends Bannion to drop in on Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), an old-school gangster who runs the rackets, not to mention most of the city’s politicians. Bannion’s called on the carpet again by Wilkes. Frustrated, Bannion and his wife decide to have a night out at the movies. While he tucks in his daughter, Katie goes to warm up the family car. An explosion rocks the house, as the auto has been rigged with dynamite, killing Katie and shattering Bannion’s idyllic world.

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Lt. Wilkes and the police commissioner assure Bannion justice will be served, but Bannion’s not buying it. He turns in his badge and seeks solo vengeance. Leaving his daughter with best friend Hal, Bannion goes on a personal crusade to find Katie’s killer and rid the city of Lagana’s influence. He tangles with Lagana’s top torpedo Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who has a penchant for burning women. Stone’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), a bubbleheaded lush, makes a play for Bannion after Stone ditches her at the bar, but is rejected. When Stone finds out, the maniac scalds her with a hot pot of coffee, scarring her for life. The movie then kicks into high gear as new alliances are formed, secrets are revealed, and Bannion finally gets the closure he’s been looking for in a violent climax.

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Glenn Ford is perfect for the part of Dave Bannion, a stand-up guy if there ever was one. Bannion’s singleness of purpose drives THE BIG HEAT, as Ford’s warm scenes with his family are juxtaposed with the brutality of the rest of the movie. Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) gives another of her fine performances as Debby. Vince Stone was a breakthrough role for Lee Marvin, and the coffee throwing scene is jolting. Other notables in the cast are Willis Boucher, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, and Adam Williams. Look quickly and you’ll find Carolyn Jones, Dan Seymore, John Doucette, and Sidney Clute in smaller roles.

Behind the scenes, Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz) worked his magic as director of photography. One of Hollywood’s premier cinematographers, Lang was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning in 1934 for A FAREWELL TO ARMS. His work can be found in such diverse films as DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934), THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR (1947), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), BLUE HAWAII (1961), WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967), and THE LOVE MACHINE (1971). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1991. Screenwriter Sydney Boehm has quite an impressive resume, too, responsible for such fare as UNION STATION (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (1956), and SHOCK TREATMENT (1964). Everyone contributes to the success of THE BIG HEAT, and if noir’s your thing, it’s a must-see. Even if you’re not a noir fan, you’ll enjoy the performances of Ford and company, and the talent behind the lens. THE BIG HEAT is big entertainment.