Almost a Vigilante: Charles Bronson in GANG WAR (20th Century Fox 1958)

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Here’s a chance to see Charles Bronson in an early starring role, playing a man who’s wife is killed by thugs. But this ain’t DEATH WISH, it’s GANG WAR, and though the title may promise plenty of action, it doesn’t deliver. It’s a low-budget potboiler about schoolteacher Alan Avery (Bronson) witnessing a gangland rubout, and the mobsters who’re out to get him. Presumably by talking him to death!!

The film starts out like gangbusters, with lots of violent action scenes before the credits roll. Unfortunately it’s stock footage, and that’s about as good as it gets for action. After that, it’s Avery seeing Maxie Meadows’ two thugs murder a stoolie, calling the cops anonymously. But Avery leaves his pregnant wife’s medicine in the phone booth, and they trace him to his home. He identifies the goons, so Maxie sends his booze-soaked lawyer Barker to pay him off. Avery’s too principled to accept, so Maxie sends dimwitted flunky Chester to rough Mrs. Avery up. Chester goes a bit too far and winds up killing her. Korean War vet Avery grabs his gun and commando-crawls through Maxie’s back lawn, where he takes aim before being stopped by the cops (the cabbie who brought him tipped them off).

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The GANG WAR of the title refers to “The Syndicate” trying to muscle in on Maxie’s turf. I expected lots of blazing machine guns and things blowing up, but was disappointed to discover it’s a pretty bloodless coup. The filmmakers couldn’t afford to stage any action scenes, hence the early stock footage come-on. In fact, the budget was so tight that when Mrs. Avery holds up the morning newspaper, we can see there’s nothing written on the back page!

If only they’d given us more Charlie Bronson going after the hoods that killed his wife, we’d have something. Alas, DEATH WISH was sixteen years away. It’s still cool to watch Charlie in an early sympathetic part, instead of the usual villainous henchmen he played during this point in his career. There’s lots of familiar faces here, including TV’s BOSTON BLACKIE Kent Taylor as the sleazy lawyer. Taylor enjoyed movie stardom during the 30s and 40s before essaying the role of Blackie, but wound up his acting days in Grade-Z Al Adamson schlockers. Gravel voiced tough guy John Doucette goes over-the-top as Maxie, but that’s the way the part’s written. Mrs. Avery is Gloria Henry, forever known as the mom on TV’s DENNIS THE MENACE. Barney Phillips is one of those “I know the face but can’t name him” actors who’s probably best remembered for playing the diner owner in THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?” Jennifer Holden (JAILHOUSE ROCK), Ralph Manza, Jack Reynolds, and Larry Gelbmann (SHE DEMONS) round out the cast.

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Yes, the dialogue is hokey as hell, the budget’s rock bottom, the action’s almost non-existent, and director Gene Fowler Jr’s done better (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE). But fans of Charles Bronson will definitely want to take a look at their hero before he shot to superstardom in THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH series. He’s the only reason to catch GANG WAR. Everyone else, you’ve been warned!

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.

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