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!:

Halloween Havoc!: THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (Universal 1942)

The natives are getting restless… and you will too, while watching THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET, which feels a lot longer than its 61 minute running time. The film does have a few saving graces, mainly the great Lionel Atwill as a mad scientist experimenting with bringing people back from the dead, and is an early endeavor for future film noir auteur Joseph H. Lewis . But the extremely lame script by Al Martin, whose inexplicably long career included the Lewis-directed Bela Lugosi vehicle INVISIBLE GHOST, manages to sink this shocker despite Atwill’s and Lewis’s best efforts.

Dr. Ralph Benson offers a man $1000 to let him put the man in a “catatonic state”, and revive him later. Benson has mad dreams about conquering death and disease with his untried (and definitely not FDA approved) methods. When the man doesn’t return home the next day, his wife calls the cops, who come a-knocking, and Benson takes a powder out the window. The man is dead, and an APB is sent out for Benson, who shaves his beard, dyes his hair, and jumps on a cruise ship headed to New Zealand. Here we meet the rest of the cast: lovely Patricia Wentworth and her ditzy Aunt Margaret, equally ditzy boxer Red Hogan, lovestruck young purser Jim, and Ship’s Officer Dwight.

After Benson murders a detective on his trail and throws him overboard, a catastrophic fire breaks out onboard, and everyone abandons ship. Our main cast get stranded on an uncharted desert isle (no, not Gilligan’s), and the superstitious natives (who naturally speak English!) take them prisoner, to be thrown into a fire for bringing “evil spirits” to their happy home. The Chief’s daughter is dead, and Benson says he can restore her to life (which he does with a shot of adrenaline – seems she only suffered a mild heart attack). The natives now worship Benson as “The God of Life” and do his bidding, including keeping the others captive now that they know his true identity. The mad Dr. Benson plans to continue his life-and-death experiments here on this tropic isle, by making Patricia his bride and using her as his latest “experiment”…

Lionel Atwill’s as Mad as a Doctor can be, with that insane glint in his eyes and God-complex in his soul helping him to rise above the weak material. This was his last starring vehicle after a 1941 sex scandal involving orgies and porn at his home ruined his career; he’d be relegated to smaller supporting parts in the future. Nat Pendleton (Red) and Una Merkel (Aunt Margaret) salvage what they can in comic relief roles, but Claire Dodd (Patricia) and Richard Davies (Jim) are as boring as horror movie romantic leads can be. KING KONG’s Noble Johnson is once again an island chief, John Eldridge the officious Dwight, and Anne Nagel , Milton Kibbee, and Al Kikume have tiny cameos.

Lewis uses tight close-ups and shadows to hide the budget limitations, and almost (but not quite) succeeds. The opening scene in Benson’s office is probably the spookiest, but once we get to Universal’s backlot island things go steadily downhill. Lewis does employ a neat trick of having Atwill’s ether-soaked cotton pressed directly into the camera to transition from scenes; other than these few instances he was still a work in progress. THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET is for fans of Lewis and/or Atwill only, an eminently missable entry in the Universal Horror canon, though if you’re in the mood for bad cinema you might just get a kick out of it!

Silk Purse: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Columbia 1945)

Columbia Pictures cranked out 52 films in the year 1945, mostly ‘B’ movies with titles like LET’S GO STEADY, I LOVE A MYSTERY, EVE KNEW HER APPLES, ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES, TEN CENTS A DANCE, and THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY, along with their continuing series featuring Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Crime Doctor, The Durango Kid, and The Whistler. They were programmers, budget jobs, designed to fill a double bill  and a theater’s seats, bread-and-butter movies with no pretenses to reach any artistic heights.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS was one of those programmers, a quickie cashing in on the success of the previous year’s hit GASLIGHT. Whereas MGM’S psychological thriller boasted stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer directed by George Cukor, Columbia headlined their contract players Nina Foch and George Macready , good, competent actors but hardly box office draws. And in place of Cukor, Joseph H. Lewis sat in the director’s chair, fresh from directing oaters at Universal and East Side Kids pics at Monogram. Lewis had made some critics take notice with his 1941 psychological horror INVISBLE GHOST starring Bela Lugosi, that is what few critics bothered to see the low-budget Monogram effort.

Lewis took the somewhat derivative script by Muriel Roy Bolton and created a noir mood aided by his cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who later worked on noirs like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR and IN A LONELY PLACE , and won Oscars for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE. The opening scene of Julia Ross, returning to her rooming house in the rain, is vintage film noir. Budget restrictions helped give the film a claustrophobic atmosphere, as Julia is set up, drugged out, and awakened in unfamiliar new surroundings. The scene of her coming down the staircase, her plan to escape thwarted by “husband” Ralph Hughes, is framed to heighten that sense of oppressiveness, and the denouement , taking place on the rocky sea-shore, is a tense little masterpiece of noir filmmaking. Only the tacked-on happy ending ruins what could have been a gripping scene.

Nina Foch as Julia Ross is great in a role that would’ve been terrible in the hands of a lesser Columbia starlet, say Jeff Donnell or Lynn Merrick. Foch’s acting ability was such that you believe this improbable scenario could happen, and your sympathy lies with her and her plight all the way. It’s too bad Columbia czar Harry Cohn didn’t think she had enough “sex appeal” to be a star, and kept her in a slew of ‘B’ movies until her contract ended. Granted, she’s no Rita Hayworth (no one is!), but Foch was quite an attractive woman, and her acting was head and shoulders above most of the Hollywood starlets toiling at the time. Nina Foch would move on to supporting roles in prestige pictures, and was a respected acting coach right up until her death in 2008.

George Macready makes a convincing, civilized psychopath as Ralph Hughes, who along with his mother (Dame May Whitty) tries to ‘gaslight’ Julia into believing she’s really Ralph’s mentally unstable wife Marian Hughes. Macready, the consummate screen villain, is all restrained rage, his eyes bugging when angered, his fondness for knives a giveaway into his dark soul. MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS isn’t a perfect film, but it’s perfectly constructed by Lewis and his cast. While it didn’t help poor Nina Foch’s bid for Hollywood success, Macready would go on to portray Ballin Mundson in GILDA the next year, and a long film career. Director Lewis made more films noir, including SO DARK THE NIGHT and the essential noir classics GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO. It’s here with JULIA ROSS that he made his reputation as an auteur to be reckoned with, a brisk ‘B’ programmer that’s poor in budget but rich in atmosphere.

Take the Money and Run: GUN CRAZY (United Artists 1950)

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GUN CRAZY is a thrill ride that will have you hanging on for dear life as it takes its protagonists on a downward-spiraling roller coaster ride that turns straight downhill into rock bottom. This is the ultimate noir, moving at breakneck speed towards its inevitable conclusion, a sordid tale of sex and violence that’s second to none. GUN CRAZY was a huge influence on many later films, especially 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE, right down to the fashion style of lead Peggy Cummins.

Bart Tare loves guns. So much so that, as an adolescent, he smashes a store window to steal one. Busted by the cops, he’s sent to reform school until he’s of age. After a stint in the Army, Bart returns to his hometown, and with old pals Dave and Clyde, attends a carnival. It’s there he meets Annie Laurie Starr, a trick-shot artist. There’s immediate heat between the two, as their mutual love for guns is surpassed only by their unabashed lust for each other. Bart bests Laurie in a shooting contest, and he’s asked to join the carny. When Bart catches owner Packy trying to put the moves on her, he shoots, shattering the mirror behind the boss, who promptly fires them both.

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The two get hitched, despite Laurie telling Bart she’s “no good”. They live it up awhile in Vegas, but when their money runs out, Laurie suggests they turn to robbery. Bart’s reluctant, but Laurie’s sexual sway over him is too powerful, and they go on a mad crime spree. They start small, and wind up pulling a bank job. This scene is done in one long take, shot from the backseat of Bart and Laurie’s hot car, and the tension is ratcheted high as can be from start to finish. It’s a pure adrenaline rush of a scene, and the thrill in Laurie’s eyes as they make their getaway says more about her character than words could do justice.

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They plan out one last score, taking jobs in a meat-packing plant in order to rob the payroll. Bart tries to play it cool, but kill-crazy Laurie shoots her supervisor and a guard during the escape. They separate into two cars, planning to meet later. But the codependency they have for each other is too great, and they can’t even make it down the street without rushing back to each other.  The duo plan on heading to Mexico with their loot, but go out for a night on the town first, where the serial numbers on the bills lead the FBI to them. Scramming out of town, leaving their money behind, Bart and Laurie hop a freight train to Bart’s sister’s place. Bart’s childhood friends, now a reporter and sheriff, confront Bart, hoping he’ll give himself up. But it’s no use, as Bart and Laurie speed off, police in hot pursuit, driving up into the mountains where they meet their final destiny.

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Peggy Cummins as Laurie is the baddest of film noir bad girls. When she tells Bart she’s never been good, she means it. There’s something in her eyes that tells you this is one sick chick, not afraid to kill to get what she wants. It’s a tough, realistic performance that puts Cummins in the pantheon of femme fatales with Claire Trevor and Ann Savage. The Irish actress tried her hand at Hollywood a few years, but moved back to England after this film. Her most notable other role was in Jacques Tourneur’s horror classic CURSE OF THE DEMON. As of this writing, Peggy Cummins is still with us at age 91, occasionally granting interviews to fans who’ll never forget her as the wild, sensuous Annie Laurie Starr.

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John Dall (Bart) made his debut in 1945’s THE CORN IS GREEN, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. He was one of the young murderers in Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated ROPE, but his film career never quite got off the ground. His Bart is a conflicted man, an expert marksman afraid to kill (a flashback tells us why), and unable to say no to Laurie. Bart knows he’s doing wrong, but his desire for her is so strong, he’s willing to go to any lengths to keep her. It’s a tricky part, but Dall is more than up to the task. Adolescent Russ Tamblyn plays Bart as a youngster. Other cast members include Berry Kroeger, Morris Carnovsky, Anabel Shaw, and Nedrick Young, who was blacklisted and became a screenwriter under the alias of Nathan E. Douglas, penning Elvis Presley’s JAILHOUSE ROCK, THE DEFIANT ONES (for which he won an Oscar), INHERIT THE WIND, and SECONDS.

Screenwriter Millard Kaufman was actually another victim of the blacklist, Dalton Trumbo, now relegated to B-movies. Director Joseph H. Lewis was a veteran of the B’s, learning his craft on Westerns and East Side Kids flicks. He was in the director’s chair for THE INVISBLE GHOST, the best of  Bela Lugosi’s Monogram series (which is faint praise, given the quality of the others). Lewis made the well-regarded MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS and THE BIG COMBO, but GUN CRAZY is his magnum opus. Using every trick at his command, Lewis (along with cinematographer Russell Harlan and editor Harry Gerstad) keep the pedal to the metal as Bart and Laurie fall farther and faster into a life with no way out.

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And finally, let’s talk about the producers. Frank and Maurice King (née Kozinski) were a couple of shady characters straight out of Damon Runyon. Turning their slot machine empire into an entry to Hollywood, the King brothers hit the jackpot with 1944’s WHEN STRANGERS MARRY,  a noir thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter directed by William Castle. The film got noticed, as did the King’s next, 1945’s DILLINGER with Lawrence Tierney as the notorious gangster. They went on to produce low-budget but moneymaking pictures right up until 1969’s HEAVEN WITH A GUN, starring Glenn Ford. A third King brother, Herman, is credited in GUN CRAZY as “technical advisor”. I don’t even want to guess what that means in a movie like this!

 

 

 

 

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