Eat To The Beat(nik): Peter Falk in THE BLOODY BROOD (Kay Films 1959)

I suppose you could categorize THE BLOODY BROOD as Canadian Beatnik Noir – and it would definitely be a category of one! But this low-budget entry from The Great White North tells its tale at a fairly swift pace (or aboot as swift as those Canucks can get, eh?), features an oddball cast of characters, and offers viewers the unquestionably non-Canadian Peter Falk in his second film as a dope-peddling psychopath who gets his kicks from “death… the last great challenge of the collective mind”.

Falk, warming up for his breakthrough role as Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles in MURDER INC. a year later, plays Nico, who  pushes his junk to the Beat Generation rejects that hang around the local cafe (“He’s a salesman, baby… he sells dreams”). When an old man dies of a heart attack before their eyes, psycho Nico thinks it’d be far-out to deliberately off a square, so he and his pal Francis give a ground-glass-laced hamburger to an unsuspecting messenger boy. The kid calls his big brother Cliff right before he croaks, and now Cliff dives into the seedy world of bongos, bad poetry, and slinky chicks in leotards to avenge the boy, despite being warned off by Police Detective McLeod and copping a beating from a pair of Nico’s leather-clad thugs, Studs and The Weasel…

Falk steals the show as the cool-but-deadly Nico, giving us a mesmerizing portrayal of a sociopath. The film serves as a showcase for the then-32-year-old Falk’s undeniable talent, and his performance is worth the proverbial price of admission. As for the rest of the cast, none of them are anyone you’d immediately know, unless you’re a fan of Spaghetti Westerns – actor Jack Betts, who plays Our Hero Cliff, later changed his name to Hunt Powers and rode the dusty trail in Italian Horse Operas like SUGAR COLT, ONE DAMNED DAY AT DAWN… DJANGO MEETS SARTANA (as Django), DJANGO AND SARTANA ARE COMING… IT’S THE END (as Sartana!), COFFIN FULL OF DOLLARS, and A FISTFUL OF DEATH (and later portrayed Boris Karloff in the James Whale biopic GODS AND MONSTERS!).

All the usual beatnik trappings are to be found here in THE BLOODY BROOD, and director Julian Roffman manages to squeeze a decent little ‘B’ out of his rock-bottom budget limitations, aided by veteran DP Eugene Schufftan, the German immigrant who worked on everything from Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS to Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD to Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE to his Oscar-winning work on Robert Rossen’s THE HUSTLER. There are four screenwriters credited, including Elwood Ullman . Wait, what? Ullman? Famous for scripting all those Three Stooges/Bowery Boys slapstick comedies? How’d he get in here? Maybe he took a side job while out on a caribou hunting trip, eh?

THE BLOODY BROOD is now available for viewing on The Film Detective

Goodnight, Vienna: THE THIRD MAN (British Lion 1949)

I’m just gonna come right out and say it: THE THIRD MAN is one of the greatest movies ever made. How could it not be, with all that talent, from producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, director Carol Reed , screenwriter Graham Green, and cinematographer Robert Krasker, to actors Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli , and Trevor Howard. It’s striking visuals, taut direction, and masterful acting transcend the film noir genre and make THE THIRD MAN one of the must-see films of 20th Century cinema.

The story starts simply enough, as American pulp novelist Holly Martins arrives in post-war Vienna to meet up with his old pal Harry Lime, only to learn that Harry was recently killed in a car accident. He attends the graveside service, meeting Harry’s mysterious actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt, and is quickly pulled down a rabbit hole of intrigue and deception involving the British military police, black marketeers, and a very much alive Harry…

Reed fills the screen with dazzling cinematic imagery, from a terrifying ferris wheel ride to the shadow world of Vienna’s sewers, each scene giving the viewer something different: Dutch angles, quick cut edits, close-ups, and atmospheric lighting. Little touches like that kid and his ball or the man with the balloons add greatly to the film’s mood. While Reed was already one of England’s master craftsmen, there’s a heavy Orson Welles influence throughout THE THIRD MAN. Most historians claim the film is pure Reed, but the Welles touch is so evident in many scenes that one wonders…

Orson Welles  doesn’t appear as Harry Lime until around 30 minutes into the film, but his presence is felt throughout, and the entire movie revolves around this charming rogue. Welles is reunited with his Mercury Theater cohort Joseph Cotten as the pulp fiction writer Holly (“I write cheap novelettes”), who sets things in motion. Alida Valli was well known to Italian movie lovers; she’d go on to a long and prosperous international career. Trevor Howard is good as always as British Major Calloway, and his second-in-command Sgt. Paine is played by James Bond’s future boss Bernard Lee. There’s another 007 connection in THE THIRD MAN as well: assistant director Guy Hamilton would go on to direct GOLDFINGER , DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER , LIVE AND LET DIE , and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.

Then there’s that unique zither score by Austrian native Anton Karas, unlike anything heard in films before or since. Allegedly, Reed didn’t want to go with traditional Viennese waltz music, and came across Karas playing his zither at a wine garden one night. One thing led to another, and the zither plays a huge factor in making THE THIRD MAN so memorable, not to mention making a brief star out of the humble Karas, whose “Harry Lime Theme” became an unlikely #1 hit in 1950:

I could go on and on about the brilliance of THE THIRD MAN, but why waste time reading my humble scribblings? Go out and watch the film yourselves, and if you already have – watch it again!

The Dork Knight: Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (Universal 1982)

Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!

Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI Rigby Reardon, a hard-boiled knucklehead who takes on the case of Juliet Foster’s missing father, a famous scientist and cheesemaker. Rigby instantly falls for the femme fatale (“I hadn’t seen a body like that since I solved the Case of the Murdered Girl With the Big Tits”), and who can blame him, since she’s played by the delicious Rachel Ward, who shot to fame in SHARKY’S MACHINE and the TV miniseries THE THORN BIRDS!

“For God’s sake, Marlowe, put on a tie!”

The case leads him to discovering a conspiracy involving “The Friends and Enemies of Carlotta”, but the plot is strictly secondary to Martin’s interacting with movie stars of the past. Rigby’s got a partner named Marlowe, none other than Bogie himself, using footage from THE BIG SLEEP , DARK PASSAGE , and IN A LONELY PLACE . His interaction with Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, dolled up in a blonde wig and tight sweater to resemble Barbara Stanwyck, is a scream. Martin dons drag again as James Cagney’s mother in a funny riff on WHITE HEAT .

Besides those previously mentioned, other classic stars appearing include Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner, from films like THE BRIBE , DECEPTION, THE GLASS KEY , HUMORESQUE, I WALK ALONE, JOHNNY EAGER, THE KILLERS , KEEPER OF THE FLAME, THE LOST WEEKEND, NOTORIOUS , THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, SUSPICION, and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (and by the way, that’s 70’s Exploitation queen Rainbeaux Smith doubling for Veronica Lake in her scene opposite Martin).

There are some great running gags throughout the film, like Juliet’s unique way of extracting bullets (“It’s really for snakebite, but I find it works for everything”), Martin going berserk every time he hears the phrase “cleaning woman”, and his constant chiding of ‘Marlowe’ for not wearing a tie. DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID was the last film for a pair of Hollywood greats: composer Miklos Rozsa and costume designer Edith Head. Both went out on a high note, a loving homage to films noir past, and a brilliant piece of work that itself stands the test of time.

New York After Midnight: 99 RIVER STREET (United Artists 1953)

The trio that brought you KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL – star John Payne, director Phil Karlson, and producer Edward Small – teamed again for 99 RIVER STREET, and while it’s not quite on a par with their film noir classic, it’s crammed with enough sex’n’violence to hold your interest for an hour and a half. Karlson’s direction is solid, as is the cast (including a knockout performance by Evelyn Keyes), and the camerawork of the great Austrian cinematographer Franz Planer gives it a wonderfully brooding touch of darkness.

The story itself is highly improbable yet highly entertaining: ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne), once a heavyweight contender now reduced to driving a cab, is married to ex-showgirl Pauline (the delectable Peggie Castle), who’s two-timing him with crook Victor Rawlins (slimebag Brad Dexter ). Ernie catches them making out through the window of the flower shop Pauline works at, and his PTSD is triggered. Then when his friend, struggling actress Linda Jordan (Keyes) sets him up as a patsy so she can nail an acting job, Ernie explodes and beats up the play’s producer and crew!

Meanwhile, Victor and Pauline try to sell a load of hot diamonds to fences Christopher and Mickey (Jay Adler, Jack Lambert ), but they balk at dealing with a woman – that and the fact Victor killed a man during the heist. So the dirty douche strangles Pauline and dumps her body in Ernie’s cab. The cops are already looking for Ernie after his meltdown at the theater, and that old familiar noir downward spiral rapidly escalates as Ernie, with the help of Linda, races to find the killer at large and clear his name…


Payne does a fine job as the guy who’s taken one too many blows to the head, and although things like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries aren’t specifically mentioned, it’s obvious Ernie’s troubles go deeper than just financial or marital. Good as Payne is, Evelyn Keyes totally stole the show for me as Linda. The scene where she tricks Payne into believing she’s murdered someone had not just Payne’s character fooled, I was totally taken in! Later, she impersonates a drunken floozie in a sleazy waterfront gin joint while trying to lure Dexter’s Victor out in the open. Keyes, best known as Scarlet O’Hara’s little sister Suellen in GONE WITH THE WIND and her years at Columbia (making, among other films, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE JOLSON STORY, and JOHNNY O’CLOCK), never really got a chance to strut her stuff, and she certainly delivers the goods here.

DP Franz Planer makes the backlot look and feel like New York After Midnight. The veteran’s career stretched back all the way to 1919 in his native Austria-Hungary. Leaving war-torn Europe in 1937, he came to America and worked on films both large and small. Planer’s name doesn’t get mentioned a lot in the film noir conversation, but he was the man behind the camera on gems like the aforementioned FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE CHASE, CRISS CROSS , and CHAMPION . Perhaps it’s because his other work overshadows his noir efforts: among his resume you’ll find classics such as PENNY SERANADE, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE CAINE MUTINY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S . He was working on SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE when that film was shelved due to the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe; it proved to be his last job, as Planer himself died a year later.

After 99 RIVER STREET, the trio of Payne, Karlson, and Small went their separate ways, though they worked together in various combinations on occasion. Pairing this film with KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL would make a dynamite film noir double feature, perfect examples of what can be accomplished on a low budget with little money and a whole lot of talent before and behind the cameras.

THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

Dark Valentine: THE LOVES OF CARMEN (Columbia 1948)


Love takes many strange forms, none more strange than the obsessive love Don Jose has for the Gypsy temptress Carmen in THE LOVES OF CARMEN, Columbia Pictures’ biggest hit of 1948. The film, based on Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella and Georges Bizet’s famous opera, reunites GILDA stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford with director Charles Vidor, and though it’s in glorious Technicolor and set in 1800’s Spain, it’s got a lot of film noir elements going for it: there’s the protagonist caught in a rapidly moving downward spiral, the amoral femme fatale, crime, murder, and a bleak, downbeat ending. Think I’m stretching a bit? Let’s take a look…

Young nobleman Don Jose arrives in Seville with a dragoon squadron, a corporal with political ambitions and a bright future ahead of him… until he meets Carmen, a gorgeous red-haired Gypsy who is an expert manipulator. Jose is enchanted by this free-spirited beauty, even though she steals his watch when first they meet. Carmen gets into a street fight with a “respectable” citizen, slashing her face with a knife, and is arrested. Don Jose is put in charge of bringing her to jail, but allows her to escape.

Punished for his actions by his Colonel, Jose discovers his superior has designs on the Gypsy woman himself. He’s forced to stand sentry duty at a party, looking on forlornly as Carmen dances and clicks her castanets for the Colonel and his guests. She entices Jose into breaking his restriction, and when the Colonel later finds Jose at Carmen’s humble abode, a sword fight breaks out, and Carmen trips up the officer, who falls onto Jose’s sword, dead. The two head for the mountains, Jose now a deserter wanted for murder.

An old Gypsy woman has predicted “one love” who’ll bring death for Carmen, but the unfettered girl refuses to listen. The Gypsies in the camp have raised bribe money to free their leader, the lusty bandit Garcia… who also happens to be Carmen’s husband! Jose is subjected into joining Garcia’s highwaymen, with Carmen teasingly out of reach. She takes up with the bullfighter Lucas while scouting potential victims along the roadside, and after Jose kills Garcia in a knife fight (adding more blood on his conscience),he becomes leader of the bandits, not allowing Carmen to join in on the robberies. She refuses to sit around camp and be a simple esposa, taking off for a few days to dally with Lucas. The film culminates with Jose tracking down Carmen to Lucas’s estate and, finally realizing she’s no good, plunging his knife into her as Lucas shoots him in the back. The cursed lovers fall on the steps in a final death embrace.

Now if that’s not a film noir plot, I don’t know what is! Rita Hayworth, who was born for Technicolor, is stunning as the seductress Carmen, a woman who’s “bad all the way through… a liar, a thief, and a cheat”. Carmen cares about no one but Carmen (“No one tells Carmen’s eyes where to go or how to behave”, she declares), treating men like lace handkerchiefs to be used and discarded. We first meet her eating a juicy piece of fruit, tantalizingly licking her lips while Jose approaches, and there’s no doubt of the symbolism! Rita scorches every scene with her sex appeal; she’s the ultimate CT, and a femme fatale for the ages.

Glenn Ford’s Jose is a well-bred, ramrod straight soldier until he succumbs to his lust for Carmen. Jose is unworldly, in sharp contrast to the been-around-the-block Gypsy, and though some have criticized his performance, I found him to be more than up to the task. Victor Jory gets the plum part of bandit leader Garcia and runs away with it; I think it’s one of his best roles. Others in the cast are Luther Adler, John Baragrey (Lucas), Wally Cassell , Arnold Moss, Ron Randell, Phil Van Zandt , and Margaret Wycherly as the old Gypsy who predicts Carmen’s doom. Rita’s father Eduardo Cansino helped choreograph the Spanish dances for his daughter (whose production company was responsible for the film).

So while THE LOVES OF CARMEN may not fit neatly into anyone’s idea of film noir (which, let’s be honest, is a genre open to interpretation), a case can certainly be made for this dark tale of “delusion, idealism, and love gone wrong”. It’s the perfect anti-Valentine’s Day movie for those who’ve been burned by love, and a film that deserves a little more love itself from classic film fans out there. Now excuse me while I go eat a box of chocolates…

Happy Valentine’s Day from Cracked Rear Viewer

Rage in the Cage: CAGED (Warner Brothers 1950)

“In this cage, you get tough or you get killed” – Kitty Stark (played by Betty Garde) in CAGED

 

The Grandmother of all “Women in Prison” films, CAGED still packs a wallop, nearly seventy years after it’s release. This stark, brutal look at life inside a women’s penitentiary was pretty bold for its time, with its savage sadism and heavy lesbian overtones, and matches up well with BRUTE FORCE as an example of film noir prison flicks. Everything about this film clicks, from its taut direction by John Cromwell to the use of sound to create mood by Stanley Jones, plus a powerhouse mostly female cast led by Eleanor Parker .

The 28-year-old Parker convincingly plays 19-year-old Marie Allen, given a one-to-fifteen year sentence for accessory to an armed robbery during which her husband was killed. The mousey Marie is indoctrinated, given a number (Prisoner #93850), and poked and prodded by staff, who discover Marie’s two months pregnant. Marie is given light duty by the prison-reform minded superintendent Ruth Barton, but sadistic old-school ward matron Evelyn Harper has other plans.

Marie’s first night inside the walls is a frightening experience for the youngster. She’s befriended by three tough street chicks led by Kitty Stark, boss of a shoplifting gang who wants to recruit the kid when she gets out of stir. When fellow inmate June is denied parole, it’s Marie who finds her hanging during the night, causing her to go into shock and give birth  prematurely. Her mom refuses to take the baby, then she’s denied parole, and a switch flips inside Marie’s head, turning her as hard as the veteran cons.

Tensions flare when Marie finds a kitten outside the prison laundry and takes it in, and a catfight over the cat between Marie and Harper escalates into a full-scale riot! Marie is given three days in solitary by Barton, but before serving the cruel Harper shaves her head. Kitty, who’s spent a month in solitary enduring beatings from Harper, gains justice of her own in a swift and vicious stabbing of the matron in the cafeteria, as Marie cheers her on, yelling, “Kill her, kill her”. Prison life has changed Marie, but not for the better, and the final scene has Barton resigned to the fact that she’s failed, and Marie will be back.

Parker was justly nominated for an Oscar for her performance, as she transforms from young innocent into hardened criminal during the course of the film. Also nominated was Hope Emerson as the sadistic Harper. Emerson’s 6’2″, 200+ pound frame make her an imposing physical presence, and she’s about as mean as a prison screw can get. Neither actress won – Judy Holliday picked up the statuette that year for BORN YESTERDAY, while Josephine Hutchinson won for HARVEY – but a case could certainly be made for them.

Agnes Moorehead’s  part of reform warden Ruth Barton also deserved Oscar consideration. Her battles with bureaucrats and the disrespectful Harper (who treats the inmates like pond scum and constantly refers to them as “ya tramps”) highlight the differences between rehabilitation and punishment, battles that are still going on today (and as someone who once worked inside the prison system, trust me on that). The film gives an impressive cast of women the chance to shine: Betty Garde is the hard-bitten Kitty, Lee Patrick her rival “Vice Queen” Elvira Powell, Jan Sterling the CP (that’s Common Prostitute) Smoochie, Ellen Corby a nutty husband killer, Gertrude W. Hoffman the wise old lifer Millie, Olive Deering the doomed June, and the tragic former star Gertrude Michael as the haughty Georgia. Other Familiar Faces behind the walls include Don Beddoe (as the political hack prison commissioner), Jane Darwell , Marlo Dwyer, Sandra Gould, Esther Howard , Sheila MacRae (billed as Sheila Stevens), Queenie Smith (as Marie’s mom), Amzie Strickland, Nita Talbot, and Ann Tyrell.

CAGED’s tougher-than-the-soles-on-a-streetwalker’s-feet screenplay is by Virginia Kellogg, who wrote the story with Bernard Schoenfeld (both were Oscar nominated). Kellogg, who wrote the stories for the tough films noir T-MEN and WHITE HEAT , was a former reporter who used her contacts to go undercover as an inmate in four different prisons to do research on the subject. The result was this knockout of a movie, as realistic a look at prison life as was possible for the time. The bleakness of doing a bid behind bars, the corruption that still goes on, and the dehumanization of people contributes to the high recidivism rate experienced even today. The women of CAGED are no saints, not by a long shot, but their treatment here offers no hope for redemption, just a revolving door for those tagged as social outcasts. It’s a film that is still relevant today, and a film noir you don’t want to miss.


Fever Dreams: Fritz Lang’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (RKO/International Pictures 1944)

Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his men’s club to meet his pals for supper, but before going in, the three men gaze admiringly at a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window next door. Wanley’s friends, DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) leave after dining, but Wanley stays behind to finish his brandy, and reads a copy of Solomon’s Song of Songs.

As Wanley departs, he stops to again gaze at the portrait – and the woman appears in the flesh, her face reflected in the window! He strikes up a conversation with her, learns her name is Alice Reed, and impulsively joins her for a late night cocktail. Alice takes the professor to her apartment to look at some artist sketches she posed for, all quite innocent. That is, until a man (Arthur Loft) barges into the apartment, angry she’s with someone else, and slaps her hard across the face. A fight breaks out between the man and the scared professor, who grabs a pair of scissors and stabs the intruder to death!

To say things go steadily downhill for Wanley is an understatement, as he methodically concocts a cover-up, dropping the body in a wooded area miles away. His buddy Lalor is on the case, as the deceased turns out to be a big shot financier, whose sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea of course!) comes calling on Alice with blackmail on his mind, and Professor Wanley sinks deeper and deeper into that old familiar noir quicksand…

Fritz Lang’s Expressionist visual roots show up all over this film, and the dark scene where Wanley dumps the body in a rainstorm particularly stood out for me. Krasner’s cinematography is outstanding; he was one of Hollywood’s top DP’s, from his work on 40’s Universal Horrors (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS,  GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN , THE MAD GHOUL ) to film noir (THE DARK MIRROR, THE SET-UP ), comedies (HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH), drama (ALL ABOUT EVE), his Oscar winner THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), and everything in between.

Johnson’s script is a murderous marvel of construction that features a twist ending I admit I did NOT see coming – and I don’t think you will, either! While THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW didn’t supplant SCARLET STREET as my favorite of the Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea/Krasner collaborations, it’s a great film that noir fans will surely love. Like I said before, with all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)

(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t used to seeing at the local bijou. Lewis, aided and abetted by cinematographer John Alton , uses that script as a springboard for some darkly dazzling visuals; the opening scene alone, with a young girl being chased down a dark alley by two menacing thugs, finds Lewis and Alton showing off their talents. The film moves at lightning speed, a pedal-to-the-metal noir that doesn’t let up until the chilling conclusion inside an airplane hangar.

Cornel Wilde  is the obsessed police detective determined to put an end to Mr. Brown’s reign of terror. Wilde had started his own production company along with his wife Jean Wallace (who plays Brown’s moll Susan), and this was their first release. Wallace does fair work in the part, though her performance is eclipsed by the rest of the cast. THE BIG COMBO got them off to a slam-bang start, and their next production, STORM FEAR, found Wilde in the director’s chair for the first time, a seat he would take again for films like THE NAKED PREY, BEACH RED, and NO BLADE OF GRASS.

Mr. Brown wasn’t Richard Conte’s first gangster role, nor would it be his last, but it may very well be his best. Mr. Brown is a smug cocksure sadist, deriding Wilde’s Lt. Diamond every chance he gets (“Book me, small change”, he sneers, referencing the cop’s low-wage job), and his staccato line delivery aids the film’s breakneck pace. Brian Donlevy , no stranger to gangster parts himself, plays his second-in-command McClure, once a big shot, now reduced to flunky status. Donlevy was one of noir’s greatest character actors, and his McClure adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. Helen Walker , in her final screen role, plays the mysterious “Alicia”; to say more about the character would spoil the film, and I want you to see it for yourselves! Suffice it to say Miss Walker gives a bravura career finale.

Many modern critics see ‘gay subtext’ everywhere they look in older films; most of the time it’s something that’s not really there. But the characters of Brown’s hit men Fante and Mingo are without question “more than just friends” in this one. It isn’t anything overt, but Yordan’s script subtly suggests these two psychcopaths are homosexual lovers, and the performances of screen tough guys Lee Van Cleef (Fante) and Earl Holliman (Mingo) leave no doubt in my mind about their off-duty relationship. They don’t flaunt their sexual persuasion or camp it up, but watching their nuanced performances, you just know there’s something beneath the surface. Kudos to both actors for giving these stone-cold killers a deeper shading.

THE BIG COMBO is a gripping crime drama in every way, and a fitting end to Lewis’s film noir body of work. It’s dark, sordid, and unsavory, and must-see for fans of the genre. Those who’ve never had the opportunity to watch it are missing a real treat – and since it’s in public domain, I’ll give you that opportunity right now! Consider it my “Happy Noir Year” present to you and enjoy!:

Snap! Crackle! Pop!: TENSION (MGM 1949)

The best films noir deal with post-WWII disillusionment, and that’s exactly what drives Richard Basehart’s sad sack Warren Quimby in TENSION. This cynical, downbeat, and downright sordid little tale of infidelity and murder is  boosted by first-rate performances from Basehart and scorchingly hot Audrey Totter as his manipulative bimbo of a wife, with a taut screenplay by Allen Rivkin and solid direction by John Berry. It may not make anyone’s top ten list (or even top thirty), but it’s one of those ‘B’ films that really works, provided you’re willing to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half.

Mild mannered pharmacist Quimby met and married Claire while stationed in San Diego during the war. He, like many others, hopes to someday live the American Dream: house, kids, the whole nine yards. Trampy Claire doesn’t give a crap about that; she prefers excitement, the high life. Claire is messing around with well-off Barney Deager, and when Quimby confronts them on the beach, he gets an ass kicking (Deager: “Now get going and don’t come back, ya four-eyed punk!”). Something snaps inside Quimby, and he gets contact lenses, calls himself ‘Paul Southern’, and rents a place to establish a residence, meeting and dating pretty young Mary Chanler.

But Quimby has a plan, and begins a series of harassing phone calls to Deager, saying he’s “gonna get” him. He goes to Deager to tell him there’s no hard feelings, then (as Southern) sneaks into Deager’s house to murder him. But the meek Quimby can’t go through with it, and his plan changes to move forward with Mary and start a new life. Then Claire comes back, Deager is found dead, and homicide cops Collie Bonnabel and Blackie Gonzalez are on the case, ratcheting up the tension to trap a killer…

Basehart is perfect as wimpy Warren Quimby, the would-be killer who can’t get the job done. He’s such an underrated actor, never quite getting that signature role but doing fine work throughout his career. His noir resume includes the classics HE WALKS BY NIGHT and Robert Wise’s HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, mainstream dramas like Fellini’s LA STRADA, MOBY DICK (as Ishmael), THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, and the title role in HITLER. Basehart’s most familiar to fans as Admiral Nelson on Irwin Allen’s 1960’s TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA , adding gravitas to the sci-fi silliness. One of my favorite Basehart films is the early TV Movie SOLE SURVIVOR (1970), a supernatural WWII drama featuring William Shatner and Vince Edwards; you can catch this one on YouTube – it’s worth it!

Noir’s Queen of Mean Audrey Totter is the slutty, manipulative Claire (sexy sax music plays whenever she comes onscreen!), treating Quimby like dirt until she needs him. Claire’s hot as a pistol and hard as nails, and is another fine portrayal in Audrey’s Bad Girl Hall of Fame. Barry Sullivan plays homicide Lt. Bonnabel, introducing the movie in a pre-credits sequence while fiddling with a rubber band. Sullivan’s Bonnabel uses some unorthodox (and probably unconstitutional!) methods to snare the killer (and I’m sure you’ve guessed whodunnit by now), and that’s where that suspension of disbelief I mentioned comes in handy. His partner Gonzalez is another film noir regular, beefy William Conrad Cyd Charisse gets a non-dancing part as sweet’n’innocent Mary, Lloyd Gough plays the unsympathetic victim Deager, Tom D’Andrea is Quimby’s soda-jerk pal, and Familiar Faces Virginia Brissac, John Gaulladet, Theresa Harris, and Phil Van Zandt appear uncredited.

Though TENSION may not rank high on anyone’s all-time great films noir lists, it’s a grimy little ‘B’ thriller that’s worth watching. It’s got good performances by Basehart and Totter, moody cinematography by Harry Stradling, and a premise that, while maybe not believable, will have you stretched out in suspense right until the end.