Crime Does Not Pay: Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (United Artists 1956)

Before Stanley Kubrick became Stanley Kubrick, he made a pair of low-budget crime dramas in the mid-50’s that are standouts in the film noir canon. The second of these, THE KILLING, is a perfect movie in every way imaginable, showing flashes of the director’s genius behind the camera, featuring just about the toughest cast you’re likely to find in a film noir, and the toughest dialog as well, courtesy of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson.

THE KILLING is done semi-documentary style (with narration by Art Gilmore), and follows the planning, execution, and aftermath of a two million dollar racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden plays the mastermind behind the bold robbery, a career criminal looking for one last score. He’s aided and abetted by a moneyman (Jay C. Flippen ), a track bartender (Joe Sawyer ), a teller (Elisha Cook Jr. ), and a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia ). He also hires a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey ) and a chess playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani) to create diversions in order to insure the heist’s success.

And indeed the robbery does go off without a hitch… but there’s a proverbial fly in the ointment. Seems timid Cook has a bitchy wife (Marie Windsor ) who constantly berates him for being such a loser, so he spills the beans to her about his upcoming good fortune. She in turn gives the info to her young stud lover (Vince Edwards ), who gets ideas of his own. I won’t say anymore for those of you who haven’t seen this marvelously malevolent movie, among the finest films noir you’ll ever see, with an unforgettable final line delivered to perfection by Hayden.

Kubrick’s photographic eye captures every detail, from the mundane day-to-day lives of these people to the audacity of the crime itself. He sometimes repeats scenes to show them from different character perspectives, giving them added depth. Kubrick began as a photographer for LOOK Magazine, and then got into films directing several documentary shorts. He wanted to be his own cinematographer for this film, but the union wouldn’t have it, and the veteran Lucian Ballard was hired, but make no mistake, every shot in THE KILLING is pure, unadulterated Kubrick!

The cast is perfect, but Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor absolutely steal the show as the weak, mousey husband and his unfaithful wife. Cook, unquestionably the Crown Prince of Film Noir, adds to his Rogue’s Gallery of weaselly types as a schlemiel who only wants to please his rotten wife. And Windsor is rotten indeed, the ultimate Queen of Mean, a beautiful package on the outside that masks an ugly black soul. Their scenes together are sheer dynamite, and Kubrick allows both actors to shine.

The oddball Timothy Carey gives yet another oddball performance here, but it’s brief and it works. Kubrick’s chess playing friend from New York Kola Kwarianai, a real-life professional wrestler and promoter, plays the goon hired to create a distraction. Under Kubrick’s watchful eye, Kwarianai does well with his dialog, and excels in the wrestling-inspired scene at the track. There’s so much going on in THE KILLING at all times (something that definitely caught my eye: a poster for a Burlesque show MC’d by Lenny Bruce) it takes more than one viewing to take it all in. And I’m OK with that; THE KILLING is worth watching over and over again.

Roomful of Mirrors: Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia 1947)

For my money, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is the perfect film noir, a tour de force by producer/writer/director/star Orson Welles that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer enthralled at all times. All this despite the meddling of Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, who demanded Welles reshoot scenes and ordering its 155 minute running time cut down to 87. The version we see today, released in the states in 1948 (it was first run in France six months earlier), is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking thanks to the immense talents of Welles and his cast and crew.

Orson Welles scared the pants off American radio listeners with his Oct. 30, 1938 “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. Signed to an unprecedented contract by RKO, Welles’ first feature was of course CITIZEN KANE (1941), now considered by many the greatest film ever made. The film didn’t light up the box office at the time though, and ruffled the feathers of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whose life KANE is based. It lost the Oscar to John Ford’s sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, then Welles’ second production, 1942’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, was butchered by RKO. No longer the boy wonder of motion pictures, Welles made JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE STRANGER (1946) before taking on a stage project, a musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Strapped for cash, Welles offered his services to Cohn for the money he needed to launch his play. Legend has it he saw the cover of the book his theater cashier was reading and told the mogul he had it in mind for his film. The truth is Columbia contractee William Castle  owned the rights to Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake”, and asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, hoping to direct it himself. Welles decided to direct himself, leaving Castle with an Associate Producer credit, as well as having an (uncredited) hand in the screenplay and some 2nd Unit work.

Welles also narrates the tale (complete with Irish brogue!) as sailor Michael O’Hara, who spots beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister riding through Central Park in a coach. She’s played by Rita Hayworth , Welles’ estranged (at the time) wife, with a short ‘do and hair dyed blond, another detail that went up Cohn’s ass. The girl is abducted by some ruffians and Michael stops a rape attempt. In gratitude, she offers him a job… on her husband’s yacht. Disappointed, Michael rips up her card and walks away, as two as-yet unidentified men watch from afar.

Next day the woman’s husband, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister, comes calling at the union hall. Bannister, “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, insists Michael take the job. Reluctant but still attracted to Elsa, Michael accepts, and the crew set sail on The Circe from New York to San Francisco. We now meet the two men, one of whom is Sidney Broome, a sleazy PI working for Bannister’s divorce cases. The other is Bannister’s partner George Grisby, who makes Michael an unusual offer… five thousand dollars to commit murder. The victim: Grisby himself!

Things spiral out of control quickly for Michael from here, as he’s caught in a web of lies, deceit, and an elaborate frame-up that finds him being defended by Bannister for Grisby’s murder. These people to Michael are sharks feeding on themselves, and he’s trapped in their cesspool of wickedness with seemingly no way out. Welles performs wonders with this film, using close-ups, odd camera angles, and deep shadows to create this unholy world of the rich and powerful. The overlapping dialog injects the film with a sense of realism, as does the location footage. The Aquarium scene, the circus-like courtroom atmosphere, the Chinese theater scene, all are breathtaking, but take a backseat to the finale set in a Twilight Zone-ish funhouse Hall of Mirrors, a dazzling cinematic piece de resistance that has been often imitated but never duplicated. It is a masterpiece in every way, and has been rightly hailed as true work of art.

The marvelous Everett Sloane almost steals the picture as Bannister, the egotistical, cruel attorney. His bit cross-examining himself in the courtroom is a work of acting art in itself. Broadway star Glenn Anders is strange indeed as Grisby, and this is his best known of the ten films he was in. Ted de Corsia, the brutish Willie Garzah of THE NAKED CITY , adds his brand of menace to the role of Broome. Other Familiar Faces include (besides Sloane) CITIZEN KANE alumni William Alland, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, and Harry Shannon. Errol Flynn’s yacht The Zaca stood in for Bannister’s Circe, and the actor can be spotted in a scene hanging out in front of a Mexican cantina (which wasn’t much of a stretch for Flynn!).

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is perfect in every way, as film noir and as filmic art. Even with the cuts and extensive retakes, Welles’ talent shines through; in fact, they may have even helped the film. We’ll never know, as the trimmed footage is apparently lost, yet what remains is an electrifying piece of cinematic magic you don’t want to miss!

One in Eight Million: NAKED CITY (Universal-International 1948)

Producer Mark Hellinger, who brought you the film noir classics THE KILLERS and BRUTE FORCE , traveled to the mean streets of New York City to shoot  NAKED CITY, along with director Jules Dassin and a solid cast led by Barry Fitzgerald. The movie, though fiction, is shot in docu-drama style, with Hellinger himself providing narration throughout. It was an attempt to do something boldly different with the genre, and it succeeds thanks to the talents in front and behind the cameras.

Beautiful young model Jean Dexter is found by her housekeeper brutally murdered in the bathtub. The homicide squad, with veteran Lt. Dan Muldoon and rookie detective Jimmy Halloran, gets to work investigating the case. They discover Jean had been seeing a mysterious man from Baltimore named Henderson. The team then begins the slow, methodical process of catching a killer, pulling on the loose strings of Dexter’s life. Their number one suspect becomes lying young wastrel Frank Niles, engaged to Dexter’s model friend Ruth Morrison. Through dogged determination and old-fashioned footwork, they’re led to a harmonica-playing ex-wrestler named Willie Garzah, who leads them on a chase through the gritty streets of New York, winding up on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, where the real murderer is finally shot down and killed.

Barry Fitzgerald excels as the no-nonsense veteran cop. Lt. Dan Muldoon is a far cry from his Father Fitzgibbon in GOING MY WAY or Michaleen Oge Flynn in THE QUIET MAN , but Fitzgerald still displays that old Irish charm. His partner Halloran is played by Don Taylor, whose star would soon be on the rise in films like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and STALAG 17. It fell just as quickly, and Taylor turned to directing, helming ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU among others. Howard Duff’s star was also on the rise as the cad Niles; Duff would later star in his own police procedural TV series THE FELONY SQUAD.

Ted de Corsia  makes a most memorable villain as the brutish Willie Garzah. Though Garzah is spotted throughout the film, our first real encounter finds Halloran tracking the thug to his sparse apartment, where he’s stripped to the waste and incessantly working out. After rabbit-punching Halloran into unconsciousness, Garzah takes it on the lam. He’s so mean he even kills a seeing-eye dog along the way before going down in a blaze of inglory atop the Williamsburg Bridge. De Corsia (who also appeared in the noirs LADY FROM SHANGHAI, THE ENFORCER, THE BIG COMBO, THE KILLING, and several Westerns) makes Willie Garzah one of the vilest villains in film noir history, and that’s saying a lot!

Adelaide Klein & Grover Burgess as the grieving parents

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City”, and it seems there are also as many Familiar Faces roaming its streets, many of whom make their Silver Screen debuts. Among the throng of humanity you’ll spot cast members Dorothy Hart, Frank Conroy, and House Jameson, and in smaller bits Jean Adair, Walter Burke Paul Ford Kathleen Freeman , Bruce Gordon, James Gregory , Robert H. Harris, Enid Markey (who was Tarzan’s first Jane opposite Elmo Lincoln back in 1918!), John Marley, Arthur O’Connell, David Opatoshu, Nehemiah Persoff, Molly Picon, and John Randolph. A special Cracked Rear Viewer round of applause goes to actors Adelaide Klein and Grover Burgess as the victim’s parents; their few scenes are brief but packed with such raw emotion I felt I just had to give them a shout-out!

circa 1944: Polish-born American photographer Arthur Fellig (1899 – 1969) with his Speed Graphic camera. He was known by the police as ‘Weegee’ for his ouija-like prescience of crime scenes and disasters. In fact he kept a radio in his car tuned to the police frequency, and was often able to reach the scene before the police themselves. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

The screenplay by Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald was inspired by a book of photographs titled NAKED CITY by famed photojournalist Weegee , noted for his uncompromising pictures of life in the urban jungle. The film earned two Academy Awards, for William Daniels’  stark cinematography and Paul Wetherwax’s precise editing, and spawned a later television show in the late 50’s/early 60’s. The score is credited to both Miklos Rozsa and Frank Skinner, but who is responsible for what I just don’t know. NAKED CITY was Mark Hellinger’s last film; he died of a heart attack while watching the final cut three months before it’s release. He certainly went out on a high note, as the film has become one of the most influential of its ilk. The New York locations make this a must for history buffs and film buffs alike, giving us an up-close-and-personal look at a bygone era as well as one of the greatest films noir of all time.

The real star of “The Naked City” – The big Apple circa 1947

 

Folsom Prison Blahs: INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON (Warner Brothers 1951)

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Filmed on location inside the infamous prison, and with a testosterone-loaded cast led by Steve Cochran  , David Brian, Ted de Corsia, and Philip Carey  , I expected INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON to be slam-bang entertainment along the lines of BRUTE FORCE . Well, not so much. The trouble’s not with the cast, nor the atmospheric direction of Crane Wilbur. It’s Wilbur’s script that commits the cardinal sin of any action film: too much talk!

Even the prison itself talks, narrating the opening credits: “I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me Bloody Folsom. And I earned it…”, intones the prison, voiced by Charles Lung (an appropriate name for someone who talks to much!). The movie begins with an attempted jailbreak, put down by sadistic Warden Rickey (de Corsia) and his thugs. He then ratchets up the punishment, making life even more miserable for the cons, until new Captain of the Guards Mark Benson (Brian) is assigned by the institution’s board of directors. Benson’s a reformer who witnesses the deplorable conditions and implements policy changes designed to rehabilitate the men. The warden goes along at first, but instructs one of his trusted sergeants (Edward Norris of THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER  ) to keep his eyes and ears open.

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When con Red Pardue (Carey), up for parole soon, rats out an escape attempt by Ferretti (young William Campbell  in one of his first roles),  the warden puts him back out in the yard, to Benson’s chagrin. Red is an explosives expert and needed to finish a job. Ferretti offers Tinker (Dick Wesson) $300 to make sure Red never leaves Folsom, and in a tense scene, Tinker sabotages Red with his own dynamite, blowing him to kingdom come!

Benson blames Warden Rickey for Red’s murder, and resigns in disgust. Rickey now has full control of the prison once again, and reinstates his brutal reign of terror. The cons, led by lifer Chuck (Cochran), make a daring takeover of their cellblock, and this is where the action begins to quickly pick up. Unfortunately, it just as quickly fizzles out, and the damn prison starts talking again to wrap things up!

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Crane Wilbur had been around since the dawn of cinema, having been the hero of 1914’s sensational serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Returning to the stage, he wrote and toured with an updated version of THE BAT, later filming it with Vincent Price in 1959. He’s probably best known for his screenplay on another Price shocker, HOUSE OF WAX. Wilbur wrote and/or directed movies in every genre, from prison dramas (ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CRIME SCHOOL) to film noir (HE WALKED BY NIGHT, THE PHENIX CITY STORY  ) , exploitation (HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS), juvenile delinquents (THE DEVIL ON WHEELS), science fiction (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND). He penned two of Boris Karloff’s Warner vehicles (WEST OF SHANGHAI, THE INVISIBLE MENACE) and Price’s HOUSE OF WAX follow-up THE MAD MAGICIAN. Crane Wilbur’s last film HOUSE OF WOMEN was a distaff version of his many prison flicks. He died in 1973.

Besides the tough guy actors I’ve already mentioned, Paul Picerni, Danny Arnold, Tom Dugan, Anthony George, Damian O’Flynn, George Wallace, and Sheb Wooley all add their machismo as various cons and guards. Anyone who’s seen the biopic WALK THE LINE knows this is the film Johnny Cash was watching which inspired him to write his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues”. The Man in Black like the movie a lot. As for me, I thought it was okay, but could have been so much better. I prefer Cash’s country classic, so here it is: