Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

laura1

If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

laura2

Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

laura3

McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

laura4

Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

laura5

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

laura6

LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!

 

 

 

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

kc1

My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

kc2

The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

kc3

But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

kc4

There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

kc6

The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

kc5

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!

A Bout De Souffle: Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (Universal-International 1949)

cc1

CRISS CROSS hits you like a sucker punch to the gut, delivered hard and swift, followed by a non-stop pummeling that doesn’t let up until the final, fatal shot. Things kick right in as we find clandestine lovers Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee going at it hot’n’heavy in a nightclub parking lot. They go inside, and Steve gets into it with Anna’s husband, the gangster Slim Dundee, who pulls a knife, but the fight’s interrupted by Lt. Pete Rameriz, Steve’s boyhood pal. What Pete doesn’t know is the fight was staged for his benefit: Steve is the inside man on a planned armored car heist Dundee’s gang is pulling off.

cc3

Flashbacks tell us how Steve got here: he was once married to Anna, and after the volatile couple divorced left L.A., drifting across country picking up odd jobs along the way. Returning to the City of Angels, he finds himself drawn back to their old hangout, hoping to run into the woman that still haunts his dreams. He spots her doing the rhumba on the dance floor, they talk, then Dundee drops by, her latest beau. After getting his old job back with the armored car company, Steve still pines for Anna. The bartender at “their” place gives him bad news: Anna has wed Dundee, and they’ve taken off for Yuma.

cc2

The star-crossed Steve and Anna meet at Union Station, and she blasts him, saying everyone from his mother to Pete warned her to stay away from Steve, so she wed Dundee in haste. She shows him bruises and welts left by her new hubby, and Steve gets drunk as a skunk, confronted by Pete at the bar. They continue to see each other on the QT, and when Dundee and his boys catch them, Steve swerves the hoods by saying he can set up an armored car job and make everybody rich.

cc4

The robbery is meticulously planned, and now we’re back to the present: Steve is driving the truck with the oil refinery payroll, there’s an explosion from a manhole, and Dundee’s gang tosses teargas to cover their tracks. Things then take a wrong turn as Steve’s partner is killed, and a shootout leaves both Steve and Dundee wounded, the money gone with Anna, and deadly repercussions…

To give away anymore would spoil one of the best damn noir flicks I’ve seen in awhile, so you’ll have to watch this one yourselves. In fact, you owe it to yourselves to see this cynical masterpiece from director Robert Siodmak , pulling out all the stops to bring his dark vision to the screen. Producer Mark Hellinger died before the cameras started to roll, so Siodmak had no restraints, and this is his finest hour, creating the quintessential noir complete with doomed characters, moody camerawork (by DP Franz Planer), and a sense of paranoia marked by people who know, despite everything, no one here gets out alive.

cc5

Burt Lancaster’s Steve is a man whose fatal attraction slides him quickly downhill; he knows deep down Anna’s no good, but wants her anyway. Yvonne DeCarlo steals the show as Anna, the femme fatale that brings everyone around her down to her depths. The marvelous Dan Duryea (Slim) tones it down, bringing a quietly menacing presence to his role. Stephen McNally tries to be the voice of reason as Pete, warning Steve to steer clear of these unsavory characters. Even the minor roles deserve recognition: Tom Pedi stands out as a hood with his catchphrase “That’s the ticket”, Alan Napier shines as an elderly criminal mastermind with an unquenchable thirst, Percy Helton makes the most out of his bartender role, and Joan Miller adds to the atmosphere as a barfly. Familiar Faces pop up throughout the film: Richard Long , Meg Randall, John Doucette, Gene Evans, Vito Scotti, Charles Wagenheim, and Bud Wolfe. The young man doing the rhumba with DeCarlo early on is Tony Curtis, making his film debut.

cc6

All this aided by a superb Mikos Rozsa score (with Esy Morales and His Orchestra providing the rhumba rhythms) add up to make CRISS CROSS a shadowy tour de force from all concerned. This is cinematic dynamite you don’t want to miss, a devilishly good time for fans of pessimistic pictures that will leave you breathless. Highly recommended!

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

dillinger1

Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

dillinger2

The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

dillinger3

Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

dillinger4

This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

dillinger5

There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Happy Birthday Lucille Ball: THE DARK CORNER (20th Century Fox 1946)

corner1

Having grown up on endless reruns of I LOVE LUCY (and her subsequent variations on the Lucy Ricardo character), I’m not used to watching Lucille Ball in a dramatic role. In fact, I think the 1985 TV movie STONE PILLOW is the only time I’ve seen her play it straight until I recently watched THE DARK CORNER on TCM, a minor but enjoyable noir with Lucy headlining a good cast in a story about a private eye framed for murder. And since today marks the 105th anniversary of the redhead’s birth, now’s as good a time as any to look back on this unheralded hardboiled tale.

corner2

Lucy, looking mighty sexy at age 35, plays Kathleen Stewart, secretary to PI Bradford Galt, recently relocated to The Big Apple. He’s got a secret past that’s dogging him, and a shady man in a white suit following him. Galt confronts the tail, who claims to be a fellow PI named Foss working for Galt’s old partner Jardine. Kathleen’s sweet on Galt, but he keeps warning her to get out while she can. He finally reveals his deep, dark secret to her: Jardine was a blackmailer of women and embezzler who, when Galt found out, set up the detective on a manslaughter rap, earning Galt two years in stir.

corner3

Jardine’s chummy with art gallery owner Hardy Cathcart, a sarcastic sophisticate married to Mari, a much younger woman. Slimy Jardine’s up to his old tricks, wooing Mari under Cathcart’s nose. But the cagey codger knows what’s up, and he’s hired a hitman (Stauffer, using the alias Foss) to kill Jardine and frame ex-partner Galt for the murder. Stauffer does the deed, and winds up getting shoved out a 30th floor window by Cathcart for his troubles. Jardine’s body is found under Galt’s bed, and now he and Kathleen must work diligently to solve the mystery before Galt ends up in the electric chair.

corner4

Lucy’s good as Kathleen, working as Galt’s partner rather than just a mere secretary. Her banter with the PI is cute in a non-cloying way, and it’s not spoiling anything to let you know she gets her man in the end. Miss Ball was freelancing at this point in her career, no longer under contract to RKO or MGM, and she was getting a reputation as strictly a B-movie queen. A savvy businesswoman, Lucy moved to radio and starred in a hit sitcom called MY FAVORITE HUSBAND. That new-fangled medium television came along and, with a switch of leading men (Richard Denning to real-life husband Desi Arnaz) and change of titles, the show debuted on October 15, 1951 as I LOVE LUCY. And the rest, as they say, is history.

the_dark_corner

Mark Stevens plays tough-guy Bradford Galt, and though he’s a bit stiff, he’s  better here than in BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN . Clifton Webb is the acerbic, lovelorn Cathcart in a part very similar to his Waldo Lydecker in LAURA. The always reliable William Bendix is Foss/Stauffer, adding his particular brand of menace to the film. Kurt Kreuger, usually an evil Nazi, is the suave but just as evil Jardine. Reed Hadley keeps popping in and out as a police lieutenant keeping a sharp eye on Galt. Cathy Downs (Mari) was once the sweet title girl in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE , later costar of THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Constance Collier, Ellen Corby, Molly Lamont, Donald MacBride, Matt McHugh, John Russell, and Charles Wagenheim.

Henry Hathaway keeps things taut for the most part, though for me the film dragged in some places. Hathaway was one of those Hollywood directors not noted for any particular genre, but always managed to make good movies. Some of his other noirs were the classic KISS OF DEATH, THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, 13 RUE MADELEINE, and NIAGRA. He worked with stars like Gary Cooper (seven times!), Randolph Scott, and Mae West (GO WEST YOUNG MAN). He’s mainly regarded for his Western work, and guided John Wayne through his Oscar-winning performance in TRUE GRIT. Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography is appropriately dark and atmospheric.

THE DARK CORNER is not a great film, but it gives fans a great chance to see Lucille Ball act in a dramatic role. The girl was good, no doubt about it, and should have spread her thespic wings more often. But once she hit the small screen, everyone just wanted to see the lovable redhead clown her way through one madcap adventure after another. Happy birthday, Lucy.. we still love you!

 

 

Strange Bedfellows: THE GLASS KEY (Paramount 1942)

glass1

Anyone who watches television, reads a newspaper, or surfs the Internet today knows the axiom “Politics is a dirty business” is dead on point. The mudslinging and brickbats are being tossed at record rates, and it just keeps escalating. Here at Cracked Rear Viewer, we’re just plain tired of all the nonsense. Ah, for the old days, when politics was much more genteel and civil, right? Wrong! Politics has always been a dirty business, proving another old adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun”. Case in point: the 1942 film THE GLASS KEY.

glass2

The story’s based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and was filmed once before in 1935 with George Raft, Edward Arnold, and Claire Dodd. In this version, Paramount chose to star their red-hot team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, fresh off their hit THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Brian Donlevy takes the Arnold role as Paul Madvig, a shady political boss who came up from the streets to become a powerful kingmaker. Madvig throws his support to reform candidate Ralph Henry, mainly because he’s got the hots for Henry’s daughter Janet. Madvig’s second-in-command Ed Beaumont doesn’t trust her, as she’s been making the goo-goo eyes at him.

Henry’s son Taylor is a young wastrel with a gambling habit who’s in deep to gangster Nick Varna. Varna’s backing another candidate, and he and Madvig are at odds (at one point Madvig calls him “a pop-eyed spaghetti bender”). Taylor’s been dating Madvig’s sister Opal, and Ed warns her to steer clear of him. Soon Taylor’s found murdered, and Madvig’s the #1 suspect. The local newspaper (in Varna’s pocket) is splattering Madvig’s name all across the headlines (Aside: I love it when the newsboy screams, “Extry! Extry! Read all about it!”).

glass3

Soon Janet asks for Ed’s help in solving her brother’s murder. Varna sends for Ed and offers him a stake in his gambling joint in exchange for dirt on Madvig. He tells Ed he’s got a sworn affidavit from an eyewitness, but Ed turns the gangster down flat, causing Varna to sic his brutal henchman Jeff on him. Ed’s locked in a room as Jeff continuously beats the shit out of him, trying to “persuade” him. Ed escapes by setting fire to a mattress and lands in the hospital.

Madvig and Janet visit Ed there, and reveal they’re now engaged, though Janet’s still hot for Ed. When he leaves the hospital, Ed goes to the Pine Lake home of publisher Matthews, finding Varna and his hoods there as well. Ed figures it all out, and the publisher commits suicide, leaving a note behind. Ed grabs the note and puts the kibosh on the story. The so-called “witness” is gunned down by Varna’s men, then Madvig astounds Ed by telling him he really did kill Taylor! Madvig’s indicted, and Ed tracks Jeff down at a seedy bar. The hulking brute is drunk, and plans on more fun and games with Ed. Varna arrives, Jeff spills the beans that he killed the witness, Varna pulls a gun, Jeff strangles him, and the real murderer is finally revealed (no, I won’t tell you who it is!). Ed and Janet leave for a new life in New York, with Madvig’s blessings.

glass6

The dense story, a Hammett trademark, is adapted well by screenwriter Joanthan Latimer, no slouch himself in the hardboiled department. Latimer covered the Chicago crime beat during the heyday of Al Capone, then began writing novels featuring tough PI William Crane, three of which were filmed as part of Universal’s “Crime Club” series. Latimer also wrote the scripts for the noir’s NOCTURNE, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, and over thirty episodes of the TV classic PERRY MASON.

glass5

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake had an onscreen electricity between them, a red-hot sexual chemistry that wasn’t topped until Bogie & Bacall. Of the seven films they appeared in together, three (THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY, THE BLUE DAHLIA) are bona-fide film noir classics. Ladd, who’d kicked around Hollywood for years, became a major star in films like SHANE and THE GREAT GATSBY. Veronica Lake, whose “peek-a-boo” hairstyle became a 40’s fad, wasn’t so lucky. A troubled soul diagnosed with schizophrenia, Lake turned to alcohol for relief, and by the early 60’s was working as a bartender in New York City. Her final film was the Grade-Z FLESH FEAST, in which she played a Nazi mad scientist. The beautiful Miss Lake died from complications of cirrhosis in 1973.

glass4

Always reliable Brian Donlevy is at his sleazy best as Madvig. I like Donlevy much more when he plays villainous roles, and though Madvig’s not exactly a villain here, he definitely is a political slimeball. Joseph Calleia (Varna) was one of Hollywood’s great gangster types; he’s got a face made for wanted posters! The sadistic Jeff is brutish William Bendix  , and he’s one scary dude. Jeff is supposedly homosexual, but I see him more as a sadistic animal who gets off on inflicting pain no matter who it is. It’s a good performance any way you look at it, and a far cry from Bendix’s later success as a likeable lug on early TV’s THE LIFE OF RILEY. Bonita Granville (Opal, also called ‘Snip’) was just graduating from juvenile leads (as in the popular Nancy Drew films) to more mature roles. The doomed Taylor is Richard Denning, years before his days as a sci-fi hero (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE BLACK SCORPION ). Some other Familiar Faces of note here are Donald McBride (as the dishonest DA), Frances Gifford (a lovely sight to behold!), Moroni Olsen, Dane Clark, Billy Benedict, and Three Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent in a small role as a bartender.

Director Stuart Heisler graduated from the editing room, and does a great job handling the film. Would that I could say more about him, but he was mainly relegated to undistinguished ‘B’ pictures with a few exceptions (ALONG CAME JONES, SMASH-UP THE STORY OF A WOMAN) before ending his career in television. Given some bigger productions and we could be talking about Heisler as a major director, but it just wasn’t to be. That’s a shame, because THE GLASS KEY is a fine example of noir filmmaking, and a film everyone should see during this crazy political season. There’s just as much shady shit going on here as there is today on both sides of the aisle. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Bloody Pulp Fiction: THE SET-UP (RKO 1949)

setup1

The seedy worlds of professional boxing and film noir were made for each other. Both are filled with corruption, crime, and desperate characters trapped in situations beyond their control.  Movies like CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, and THE HARDER THEY FALL expose the dark underbelly of pugilism. One of the best of this sub-genre is THE SET-UP, Robert Wise’s last film for RKO studios. He doesn’t fail to deliver the goods, directing a noir that packs a wallop!

THE SET-UP follows one night in the life of aging, washed up fighter Stoker Thompson ( Robert Ryan ). Stoker’s 35 now, ancient in boxing terms, but still has delusions of making the big time. Wife Julie (Audrey Totter ) is tired of going from one tank town to the next, and fears for Stoker’s safety. She refuses to go to tonight’s fight, a matchup with up and coming young contender Tiger Nelson. Julie, unlike Stoker, knows the man is running out of time.

setup2

Time plays an important role in this movie, as the script is laid out in real-time, three years prior to the Oscar-winning HIGH NOON. The clock in Paradise City’s town square looms large in the film’s beginning (9:05) and end (10:16). Clocks pop up frequently throughout the movie, letting us know, as Julie already does, that Stoker’s time is running out. Wise’s brisk direction keeps the 72 minute film marching towards Stoker’s inevitable date with destiny.

Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) have made a deal with crooked gambler Big Boy (Alan Baxter) for Stoker to lose in the third round. But they don’t tell Stoker because they assume the bum will lose anyway, and why split the dough three ways? But they fail to realize the fighter in him, angry his wife hasn’t shown up and determined to prove himself worthy, won’t allow him to do anything but his best.

setup3

The locker room is filled with fighters on their way up and down. Young Shanley (Daryl Hickman) is a bundle of nerves before his first professional bout. Cocky Danny (Edwin Max) lives for wine, women, and song, while devout Tony (Phillip Pine) depends on a Higher Power. Black fighter Luther (James Edwards) has big dreams ahead, but punchy Gunboat (David Clarke) has taken one too many blows to the head. The locker room is held together by cynical Gus ( Wallace Ford ) who’s seen ’em come and go, and knows that no one here gets out alive.

setup4

The main event between Stoker and Tiger Nelson is well choreographed by ex-welterweight Johnny Indrisano, a stuntman and bit player (GUYS & DOLLS, SOME LIKE IT HOT, JAILHOUSE ROCK ). The bout is intense and realistic, with Wise using three cameras to capture the brutality. DP Milton Krasner’s use of shadows and light should’ve been Oscar nominated, but wasn’t (Paul Vogel won B&W cinematography that year for BATTLEGROUND). Editor Roland Gross ( THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD ) intersperses the action with shots of the bloodthirsty crowd, including a fat man who keeps stuffing his face, a blind spectator and his pal who interprets the carnage, a young couple, an older couple (the husband seems appalled at his wife’s blood lust), and a gentleman trying to watch the fight and listen to the ballgame on his transistor radio.

Tiny and Red finally tell Stoker to lay down, but the proud fighter is determined to prove himself one more time, and winds up knocking Tiger out. This doesn’t sit well with Big Boy, who just lost a bundle. The gambler, Nelson, and his people confront Stoker in the locker room. He tells them the truth, he didn’t know the fix was in. Tiny and Red have taken a powder, and now Stoker is truly alone. He attempts to leave through the arena, which is locked, and has no recourse than to head out through the alley, where Big Boy and his crew await. He valiantly fights back, but the odds are against him once again, and he’s held down as Big Boy crushes his hand with a brick. Julie sees her husband stagger out of the alley through their hotel window and rushes to him. Bloodied but unbowed, his meal ticket hand ruined, Stoker tells his wife “They wanted me to lay down… I took that kid… I can’t fight no more”. “I won tonight. I won”, he says, and Julie tells him “We both won tonight”, as the camera pulls back to show the town square clock, signaling time has finally run out for Stoker Thompson.

su

The powerhouse script is  by ex-sportswriter Art Cohn, who died in the same 1958 plane crash as producer Mike Todd. It’s based on a poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh, with the protagonist changed from a black man to white due to the unsteady race relations of the era (RKO didn’t think a film starring a black boxer would sell in the segregated South). The casting of James Edwards (HOME OF THE BRAVE) was a crumb tossed to black audiences. Even with the change of race, THE SET-UP is still one of the best boxing films in film noir, and holds up well today. Special mention should be made to the use of sound in the movie, with Phil Brigandi and Clem Portman’s work outstanding. Plenty of Familiar Faces show up, like Herbert Anderson, Bernard Gorcey (Louie Dumbrowski of THE BOWERY BOYS series), Donald Kerr ( THE DEVIL BAT ), Tommy Noonan , Charles Wagenheim, and Constance Worth. Famed New York crime photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig has a cameo as the timekeeper.

THE SET-UP is downbeat as all hell, but that’s what makes a good noir, a glimpse into the dark side of life. With its squalid boxing milieu and shady cast of characters, this is one movie fans of the genre will not want to miss.

setup6