Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!

We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and the rest is screen history. Thanks, Al!

THE BLUE GARDENIA (Warner Brothers 1953; D: Fritz Lang ) – Minor but well done film noir with Anne Baxter, after receiving a ‘Dear Jane’ letter from her soldier boyfriend, falling into the clutches of lecherous artist Raymond Burr ,who plies her with ‘Polynesean Pearl Divers’, gets her drunk, and tries to take advantage of her. Anne grabs a fireplace poker, then blacks out, wakes up, discovers his dead body, and thinks she killed him. Did she? Veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuracra’s shadowy camerawork helps elevate this a few notches above the average ‘B’, as does a high powered cast led by Richard Conte as a newspaperman out to solve the case (and sell papers!), Ann Southern and Jeff Donnell as Anne’s roommates, George Reeves as a dogged homicide captain, and Familiar Faces like Richard Erdman, Frank Ferguson, Celia Lovsky, Almira Sessions, Robert Shayne, and Ray Walker. Based on  short story by Vera Caspary, who also wrote the source novel for LAURA. Not top-shelf Lang, but still entertaining. Fun Fact: Nat King Cole has a cameo singing the title tune in a Chinese restaurant, but the real ‘Fun Fact’ is the guy playing violin behind him… that’s Papa John Creach, who later played rock fiddle in the 70’s with Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna!

ILLEGA(Warner Brothers 1955; D: Lewis Allen) – ‘Original Gangster’ Edward G. Robinson stars as a tough, erudite DA who sends the wrong man to the chair, crawls into a bottle of Scotch, and crawls out as a criminal defense attorney working for racketeer Albert Dekker. EG’s practically the whole show, though he’s surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, including Nina Foch as his protege, Hugh Marlowe as her husband, Jan Merlin as Dekker’s grinning torpedo, Ellen Corby as EG’s loyal secretary, and Jayne Mansfield in an small early role as Dekker’s moll. Keep your eyes peeled for some Familiar TV Faces: DeForest Kelly (STAR TREK) as EG’S doomed client, Henry “Bomber” Kulky (LIFE OF RILEY, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) as a witness, Ed Platt (GET SMART) as the DA successor, and sour-voiced Herb Vigran, who guested in just about every TV show ever, as a bailiff. Fun Fact: Co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett wrote the novel LITTLE CAESAR, which Warners turned into Eddie G’s first gangster flick back in 1930!

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (20th Century-Fox 1974, D: John Hough) – The late Peter Fonda costars with sexy Susan George in this classic chase movie from the Golden Age of Muscle Cars. Fonda and fellow AIP bikesploitation vet Adam Rourke (a personal fave of mine!) are a down-on-their-luck NASCAR driver and mechanic, respectively,  who pull off a robbery and are saddled with ditzy George, with Vic Morrow as the maverick police captain in hot pursuit. The stars are likable, the cars are cool (a ’66 Impala and a ’69 Charger), and there’s plenty of spectacular stunt driving in this fast’n’furious Exploitation gem, with an explosive ending! Fun Fact: Roddy McDowell has an uncredited role as the grocery store manager whose family is held hostage.

BONUS: Now kick back and enjoy the noir-flavored blues of Papa John Creach and his band doing “There Ain’t No More Country Girls” from sometime in the 70’s:

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!:

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