Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Threat (1949)

When it comes to film noir from the classic period, no studio did it at such a consistently high level as RKO in my opinion. They were cranking out a lot of great crime thrillers that would retrospectively be called noirs. While Howard Hughes had acquired RKO in 1948 and was just beginning to slowly run the studio into the ground, 1949 saw the release of 'The Threat', based on a story by Hugh King, who also produced this movie. King would also co-write the story for another great noir, 1950's 'Dial 1119'. The movie was directed by Felix Feist ('The Man Who Cheated Himself'), with cinematography by Harry J. Wild ('Murder, My Sweet', 'Pitfall') and music by Paul Sawtell who composed (mostly stock) music used in literally hundreds of movies. Anyways...

Charles McGraw is escaped convict Arnold 'Red' Kluger, who has 2 things on his mind: get his hands on the money from the last robbery he did and get even with the people he holds responsible for him doing time in Folsom. To that end he kidnaps police detective Ray Williams (Michael O'Shea) and D.A. MacDonald (Frank Conroy), who captured him and sent him to prison, and his former gunmoll Carol (Virginia Grey) whom he suspects ratted him out to the police. Together with fellow escapees Nick Damon (Anthony Caruso) and Lefty (Frank Richards) they drive to an abandoned shack in the desert with innocent truck driver Joe (Don McGuire) and his moving truck. There they wait for Kluger's partner to take him to Mexico and his money. Meanwhile the manhunt for Kluger is led by inspector Murphy (Robert Shayne), who believes Williams went undercover to find Kluger..
I'm headed for that gas chamber anyway, you two won't even count.
While not top-billed, and not yet a household name, the real star of the movie is without a doubt Charles McGraw. After a string of smaller parts, including a memorable part as one of the eponymous killers in 1946's 'The Killers', this movie proved to be his break-out role. It landed him a long-term contract at RKO where his next movie would be another great noir, 1950's 'Armed Car Robbery' (guess what that one's about...). As 'Red' Kluger, McGraw shows his intensity, charisma and screen presence. The man's chiseled face with his gruff voice were a perfect match for film noir. He also carries an impressive gun with an impossibly long barrel here, as can be seen in the poster as well as the screenshot below. Does anybody know the make and model of this gun? I'm curious...

As is often the case in a 'squeaky good guy versus vicious bad guy' movie, the bad guy is the one who's fascinating to watch. And McGraw, no matter what role he played, was fascinating to watch. One of noir's toughest tough guys. Director Felix Feist directed another genuine tough guy a few years earlier in another noir, Lawrence Tierney in 1947's 'The Devil Thumbs A Ride'. But while Tierney was probably the bigger (and definitely more notorious) tough guy in real life, McGraw was the better actor. And he's excellent here, elevating this movie to a higher level. He exudes menace and ruthlessness from every pore of his (in this movie extremely sweaty) body, whether it's by calmly threatening people or by getting truly violent. The few times McGraw gets violent, the camera focuses squarely on him, showing his pent-up intensity as he shoots somebody or, in the most violent scene, slams a wooden chair to bits and pieces over O'Shea whom he has pinned down on the floor.

Top-billed Michael O'Shea does a decent enough job, but to me he is not noir-material. He also appears in a few other (low budget) noirs, like 'Mr. District Attorney' (1947) and 'Parole, Inc.' (1948), but his face is far too friendly. Maybe the studios didn't know what to do with him, he never seemed to find his niche in Hollywood. But to be honest, O'Shea isn't an actor you watch a movie for, especially not something as dark as a film noir. To me he's miscast here, I cannot see how O'Shea could ever be a police detective, let alone an undercover one. Virginia Grey ('Highway 301', 'Strangers In The Night') on the other hand is great here as the gun moll. She is both desperate and seductive, and plays her part very effectively.

The movie plays out in 2 parts. The first part introduces the characters and is fast-paced. The second part starts when they get to the cabin and while the pace slows down, the tension only increases in the sweltering heat. Feist and Wild do a great job at balancing the movies parts together in a cohesive and natural manner, with a smooth but very tight flow. Also visually they keep a tight reign on things, with some excellent and clever shots, camera angles and shadows to keep things interesting.

The plot is pretty straight-forward but it does have some nice touches to it. At one point Williams, forced at gunpoint by Kruger, calls inspector Murphy over police radio to have them search in the wrong direction. He ends with a message for his wife and unborn son, using the one name he would only give his son with a gun to his back, hoping she'll catch it and inform the police. But she doesn't pick up on it until much later in the movie!

'The Threat' is a solid lean and mean slice of film noir with a lot of tension and hardly a wasted frame of film. It doesn't have a real femme fatale (altho Carol turns out to be a lethal lady), and the leading guy is nowhere near as cool as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. But it has Charles McGraw. And any crime movie with Charles McGraw is worth watching, take my word for it.


Fun piece of trivia: while O'Shea starred opposite McGraw in this movie which jumpstarted McGraw's career, O'Shea's wife Virginia Mayo starred opposite another silver screen tough guy, James Cagney, in 'White Heat' (also 1949) which reinvigorated his career after abandoning his gangster movies from the late 30s.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"C"-Man (1949)

Film noir is almost by definition a style that suited the low-budget poverty row studios. It allowed for cheap sets, low-key lighting and does away with glamour. A shadow-filled world for shady characters living in seedy apartments. 1949's '"C"-Man' is an excellent example, as it's clearly a low-budget movie yet it manages to rise above its low expectations and deliver a great noir. This movie shows how a lack of budget does not mean a movie is not deserving of more attention. In fact, I'd say '"C"-Man' is kind of a hidden gem. It was the first of 3 movies produced by the short-lived Laurel Films production company, the next would be the Zachary Scott noir 'Guilty Bystander', and finally a wrestling comedy called 'Mister Universe'

Dean Jagger plays Cliff Holden, a customs agent, or "C"-man, working for the U.S. Treasury Department. His new assignment is to take over a case previously worked on by his best friend, who got killed because of it. It revolves around the theft of a valuable necklace belonging to Lydia Brundage (Edith Atwater), somewhere in France. The only lead they have is Matthew Roy (Rene Paul), who is flying back to the States soon and who they expect will smuggle the necklace back into the States. Holden is to fly to France and catch the same flight back. While waiting at the French airport, he meets Kathy Von Bourne (Lottie Elwes) who is flying to the U.S. to marry her war-time love. But on the plane Kathy is drugged by Doc Spencer (John Carradine), planting the necklace on her underneath bandages he wraps on her head, so it can be smuggled past customs. As both Holden and Kathy quickly find out Roy and his gang, including a crazy Owney Shor (Harry Landers), will literally kill for the necklace.

The movie starts off thanking people from the Treasury Department without whose help this movie apparently could not have been made. I suspect the title card was inserted to add some sort of credibility to the movie, because nothing from the sets to the story itself really point to something that required official government help.

I'm not really familiar with Dean Jagger. In this movie he seems to be channeling Dick Powell's Philip Marlowe from 'Murder, My Sweet' mostly, coming off as a second-rate version in the process. He's adequate, good even, but in terms of noir actors, he's no Powell. He would win a best supporting actor Oscar for the psychological WWII drama 'Twelve O'Clock High' the same year, but he's not as suited for this sort of darker, more cynical material as Powell turned out to be. Despite appearing in a few more noirs like 'Private Hell 36', film noir simply wasn't Jagger's best match.

Lottie Elwen was a really nice surprise, her portrayal of the Dutch Kathe van Bourne is pretty good and engaging. But according to IMDb this was her only on-screen appearance, I have no idea what happened to her, was she perhaps primarily a stage actress? In any case, it's a real shame, she had talent. Legendary character actor John Carradine, often cited as having more acting credits on IMDb than anybody else at close to 350, makes the most of his limited screen time. His alcoholic Doc Spencer is a minor character in the movie despite Carradine being billed second, but he leaves quite an impression. The same can be said for Harry Landers ('Guilty Bystander', 'Drive A Crooked Road') as the vicious and volatile Owny. He does a good job, altho he does ham it up a bit, sometimes a more restrained performance can exude more menace than a crazy one. The rest of the cast are good too, giving fairly solid performances, which help elevate the movie.

Besides the solid acting lifting this movie out from the bottom-scraping level, there are additional factors that elevate this flick. There is an unusual high amount of location shooting on the seedy streets of New York City. And it works really well here, it gives a great impression of NYC, not just in the scenes where Holden is walking across the city looking up all the liquor stores in search for information that will lead him to Doc Spencer, but also stock footage of people rushing around the Staten Island ferry terminal and such.

And then there's the music, composed and conducted by Gail Kubik. It is pretty unique and sounds way more modern than late 40s. A few years later he would win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his overall work. His score here plays throughout a large part of the movie, in some places it's almost a quiet muzak-like tune, but it is still there. But during key scenes his music adds a weird vibe and also provides almost horror-like sound effects, most noticably during the brutal beating of Doc Spencer by Owny. He's also responsible for the song that is played in a jazz club, which again sounds like something you'd hear in a mid to late 50s movie, not a late 40s movie.

Both director Joseph Lerner and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld started out with this movie, and also worked on the other 2 Laurel Films movies. Lerner's career fizzled out rather quickly but Hirschfeld stayed behind the camera well into the 90s! They both do great jobs here actually, if one manages to look through the beat up, washed out public domain print that is available online. The script by Berne Giler, who would write mostly for TV shows, is not exactly remarkable in any way, it's straight-forward and with decent but not very exciting dialogue that is clearly inspired by far better movies. But on the flipside, it means it's got a nice noir sensibility to it, that will appeal to noir lovers.

'"C"-man' is a low-budget noir and it shows. It also lacks any real star-power, an original story or anything really surprising. However, its sum is bigger than its parts. The movie as a whole, judged as film noir, works far better than expected. It rises above what it should be, and that is always a good thing. In fact, this to me is worthy to be called a hidden gem. If you love film noir, you need to check out this movie. If you're not into film noir however aside from 'the classics', this might not be your new favorite.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lesser-known film noir gems

Recently I got asked to contribute a list of whatever I wanted to a site called While the reason I got asked is music-related (I also do a blog on 90s hardcore/punk called One Path For Me Through Destiny), I decided to contribute a film noir list instead, called 'Lesser-Known Film Noir Gems', listing some films noirs that I feel deserve more recognition. I also added some quick thoughts on each choice. I would love to read other people's thoughts are on overlooked, under-appreciated noirs, so please leave a comment with your hidden gems.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Chicago Syndicate (1955)

Film noir is littered with titles referring to US cities: 'Inside Detroit', 'New York Confidential', 'Miami Exposé', 'New Orleans Uncensored', 'The Las Vegas Story' and so on. The windy city, Chicago, might top them all however in this list with 'Chicago Deadline', 'Chicago Confidential', the near-noir 'Chicago Calling', the proto-noir 'Gangs Of Chicago', and this one, 'Chicago Syndicate'. Released in 1955, it's also part of another long list of noirs, those dealing with exposing crime rackets. They became very popular after the Kefauver hearings in the early 50s, as I already mentioned in my review of 'New York Confidential'.

In this movie, Chicago's criminal top dog is Arnie Valent (Paul Stewart). By setting up countless small legitimate outfits as fronts for his less legal activities, and by using strawmen in his books, he's virtually untouchable for law enforcement. His top accountant however is ready to spill the beans to a newspaper editor, only get get gunned down by Valent's men outside the newspaper office. The newspaper editor and several city officials convene and decide they need an inside man to find something they can use on Valent. That man is Barry Amsterdam (Dennis O'Keefe), an accountant with an army background. After dropping hints he saw the hit and a talk with Valent he lands himself a job as an accountant for one of Valent's legitimate insurance firms. By first saving the company money on some big claims, and then showing Valent his top men are holding out on him, he works himself up to Valent's personal accountant. But before he can get to Valent's books, the ones with his name in them, he has to deal with Valent's girlfriend Connie (Abbe Lane) and socialite and high stakes gambler Sue Morton (Allison Hayes) who has her own reasons for wanting to get close to Valent.
'Winters said you were a bright boy.'
'I'm bright enough to be a coward where the syndicate is concerned.'
The movie's climax takes place in a tunnel system below Chicago, supposedly used for moving stock from a central warehouse to department stores around the city without having to deal with traffic. It's short but sweet, altho not coming close to similar and more memorable underground/tunnel scenes like those from 'He Walked By Night' and 'The Third Man'. But for a B-movie which this clearly is, it's really well-done.

Dennis O'Keefe is best known in noir circles for his lead roles in the Anthony Mann/John Alton noirs 'Raw Deal' & 'T-Men'. He appeared in a ton of noirs tho, mostly for B-studios. In some ways he always reminds me of a poor man's Alan Ladd, and like Ladd, he's perfect for film noir. He has the right look and stoic expressionless face. His Barry Amsterdam doesn't take the inside job out of a sense of duty or injustice, the only reason he's interested is the $60K reward that the group is offering him, so he can start up his own accounting firm. A nice touch, which helps set this movie apart from the usual breed of 'brave' men in these movies. His adversary here, Paul Stewart, was an accomplished actor, both on the screen and in radio, having paid his dues in Orson Welles's Mercury Group. Like O'Keefe he appeared in many noirs, such as 'Champion' and 'Kiss Me Deadly'. He is great here, giving a sophisticated edge to Valent, while also showing Valent to be from the streets when he visits his mother in one of Chicago's lower class districts with Amsterdam.

Allison Hayes plays a tricky role here, as Sue Morton is only an alias, she's really somebody else. That reveal comes at the halfway point of the movie, both for Barry Amsterdam and the viewer. It adds an extra plotline to the movie, and Hayes pulls it off well. I also liked that her character and Amsterdam have obvious chemistry, but don't really do anything about it, they're both 'all business' in a sense. Contrast that with Abbe Lane's Connie, who is only about one thing, her relationship with Valent and more importantly, everything that comes with it. She's jealous and suspicious, trusting nobody except Valent and her bandleader, played by Lane's husband Xavier Cugat. Cugat was a bandleader in real life, he and his orchestra appeared in several movies, primarily those with Lane in them. They also do a few musical numbers here, with Abbe Lane singing, she's not dubbed as was often the case in these noirs. Lane does an nice job of portraying a beautiful and jealous woman, including a scene where Connie and Sue exchange catty remarks back and forth before enaging in a catfight.
'Everything gets better with age... except women.'
The names behind the camera are far more obscure. Director Fred F. Sears did direct several of the city noirs mentioned before, together with one half of this movie's duo of cinematographers, Henry Freulich. The other half, Fred Jackman Jr. lensed B-noirs like 'The Night Holds Terror' and 'They Made Me A Killer'. They managed to give the movie a decent, if unimaginative, look. The writers were also fairly undistinguished, Joseph Hoffman and William Sackheim. The crew does show what experience and workmanship can accomplish, as this is by no means a bad movie, it is well-paced and well-made.

As per usual, the movie ends with voice-over narration. But unlike most of these crime-busting noirs, the words spoken are not of the patronizing 'The brave government agents saved the day, order has been restored, you can sleep safely at night again.' sort, but more cynical, as it also implies that everybody, not just law enforcement agents, but also the general public needs to stay on their toes to keep the syndicate from rising up again. A nice touch to an above-average movie. 'Chicago Syndicate' is no classic by any standard, but it's well worth the effort.