Sunday, May 29, 2016

Destination Murder (1950)

Film noir loves strong characters, and not just men... Granted, the strong women are more often than not of the femme fatale variety, but still... you've got to be tough to survive in the noir universe, male or female. But aside from the many femmes fatales of noir, there are also instances where a non-fatal woman takes the initiative or is the driving force to solving the mystery/crime at hand. In a noir like 'The Dark Corner' it is secretary Lucille Ball who is the force behind private eye Mark Stevens, who is the weak link of their partnership. And Nina Foch can only rely on herself to unravel the truth in 'My Name Is Julia Ross'. Just like in that noir, in 1950's 'Destination Murder', the female amateur sleuth if you will, is personally and emotionally involved in her case, and in many ways can't trust anybody in her quest for the truth.

The amateur detective here is Laura Mansfield (Joyce Mackenzie, 'The Racket'). One quiet evening her dad, an influential businessman, is shot and killed by a courier, in front of Laura. As she checks up on her dad, she spots the killer skipping over the front porch to a waiting car... The police at first suspect her dad's main business competitor Frank Niles (John Dehner) to be involved somehow, but he is quickly cleared. Laura is then asked to identify the killer from a line-up of couriers, but the ones she picks as potentials, all have an alibi. After leaving the police station, she offers one of her picks, Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements, 'Canon City') a ride to apologize for the trouble she caused. But when she sees him skip the frontporch, like the killer, she realizes who he really is. And guess what? She starts to date the guy, to expose him and find out why he killed her dad! The longer they date, the more she realizes that there is more going on and that Wales might have been hired by Armitage (Albert Dekker, 'The Killers'), the owner of a nightclub that Wales likes to hang out at. She decides to go 'undercover' in the club by getting herself hired as a cigarette girl...
You see miss Mansfield, we're dealing with killers. And a killer has only one destination: murder.
The phrase 'everything but the kitchen sink' certainly applies here, the plot outlined above barely scratches the surface when it comes to describing this movie. Aside from the rather crazy notion that it's a good idea to date a killer in order to uncover the truth, this movie contains a lot of additional crazy and quirky elements. And that is not even counting the large amount of twists and double-crosses that happen at random intervals during the 70+min runtime. This one's a rollercoaster!

A word of warning, the rest of this review might contain (even) more spoilers than usual. This is almost unavoidable due to trying to explain some of various characters and relationships.

A few more of the movie's characters need to be introduced here. First off, Stretch Norton, played by Hurd Hatfield ('The Unsuspected'). Such a cool name with a 30s gangster ring to it. And lo and behold, he's not just the manager of Armitage's nightclub, he is well involved with Armitage's plans to take over the business run by Laura Mansfield's dad. There's even a bit of a twist/reveal, which actually makes some sense, in the relationship between Stretch and Armitage. Armitage himself is quite the character. He refers to himself as 'Armitage' in conversations, and needs to have the Moonlight Sonata played whenever he's about to beat or even kill someone. He even has a pianola set up with that tune in his office. The first time this happens he savagely beats Wales with his leather belt, later on the music announces doom for someone else in Stretch's apartment. Armitage and Stretch make a nice villainous pair, but the reveal I mentioned does lead to a rather awkward scene where Armitage falls out of character. Oh well, you can't have everything...
Jackie Wales: 'You're uh.. you're not two-timing me are ya?'
Laura Mansfield: 'If you only knew how I feel about you.'
And then there's also Myrna Dell ('Nocturne') as Alice Wentworth, who is Armitage's girl but only sees him as another rung in the ladder towards financial independence. She's the femme fatale of the movie, as she double-crosses and plays almost everybody in this movie, altho in this case she does it with the bad guys... And that can never end well... She even tries her hand at playing Wales by getting him to blackmail Armitage, and of course it works at first. But Wales is just a kid really, who thinks he's the real deal, but despite his cocky and brash attitude is just naive. I mean, he doesn't even hesitate for a second when the daughter of the man he killed starts dating him! To top it all off, he also has a gambling debt, so Alice's blackmail idea works fine for him. And it gets him some money at first, but it's never a good idea to double-cross or blackmail your boss, and that goes for Alice too!

Performances across the board are adequate to good, but it's up to Joyce Mackenzie to carry the movie. And she does well, combining a homely look with a more resilient character. She comes across look-wise as a younger Barbara Hale, and is very easy to sympathize, and emphatize, with. Her career in movies and TV was rather short, lasting under 10 years, not counting a random appearance in the TV-show 'Perry Mason' in the early 60s 7 years after her last credit. Maybe she decided Hollywood wasn't for her, but she had nice screen presence. The 'romance' angle with the much more juvenile looking, and acting, Stanley Clements doesn't really work because of Mackenzie's more homely and 'older' presence, despite Clements being 3 years her elder in real life.

The movie was directed by Edward L. Cahn, who directed well over a hundred movies, most if not all of them low-budget B movies, including the sci-fi cult classic 'It! The Terror From Beyond Space' from 1958. As with any decent B-director, he knew how to get the most out of the material he had to work with, as he proved here. He also co-produced this movie, which was then picked up for distribution by RKO. But make no mistake, even tho the movie starts with the familiar RKO logo, this movie is most definitely a low-budget movie, albeit a small step above poverty row level. There is also some nice, albeit not too striking, cinematography by Jackson Rose ('Dillinger') who worked on tons of (mostly B-)features, his earliest credits going back to 1914!

The movie throws all kinds of quirks, double-crosses and twists at the viewer, definitely a few too many to make this a great movie. Maybe this was an attempt by the writer of the original screenplay, Don Martin ('Shakedown'), to mix things up a bit. It does make this movie stand out, it is definitely not a routine programmer, even if in many ways it's B-fare from start to finish. But his screenplay, which also lacks the memorable type of oneliners and dialogue that typifies noir, does turn the movie into a bit of a mess. But to me, it's a fun and delightful mess. It is definitely one that has the ability to surprise you! Don't expect greatness, but expect a movie that requires you to stay focused.


Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Houston Story (1956)

Film noir relies on suckers. People, typically of the male variety, who for one reason or another make a bad choice or fall for someone or something, and as a result end up in a world of hurt. And if they could turn back time, they'd make the same choice again. This is often due to a scheming femme fatale, and with all the classic ladies, who can blame the men, right? But there are also men who are driven by ambition, taking on risks that they can't afford to take, and biting off a piece that is way too large for them to chew on so they eventually choke on it. A classic noir example is 1950's '711 Ocean Drive' which stars Edmond O'Brien as an electronics engineer who tries to take over a nation-wide bookmaker outfit. A similar story is told in 1956's 'The Houston Story', except it involves the blackest source of money of them all, oil.

The movie starts off with an intriguing pre-credits scene. An unknown girl is found dead near a Houston pier, apparently suicide by drowning. Oil driller Frank Duncan (Gene Barry) identifies her as a chorus singer that went missing some time prior. The coroner, probably jaded, ends the prologue with a nice reference to 'Casablanca':
Out of all the docks in the world to jump off, she had to pick Houston.
After the credits roll, Duncan waits around for the newspapers to write about the dead girl's identification and the person who identified her. Sure enough, the next day he receives a visit from local mob muscle-man Chris Barker (Chris Alcaide), and he gets himself an invite to see nightclub singer Zoe Crane (Barbara Hale), whose real name is the same name Duncan gave to the dead girl. Duncan used to work with Crane's husband back in Oklahoma before she ran away from him. But Duncan wants more than to simply meet her, that was only the first part of his plan. He knows she has contacts with the local mob, and with her in a jam, she introduces him to Paul Atlas (Edward Arnold), who runs the Houston territory. Duncan has come up with a plan to siphon away oil from the oil fields, so it can be sold on the black market, but he needs financing to get the plan in motion, and that is where Atlas comes in. The plan works well, and soon Duncan is swimming in money, working his way up in the organisation. But Atlas's second man, Gordon Shay (Paul Richards) feels threatened, and is out for blood. And when the operation steals some oil pipes with lethal results, police inspector Gregg (Roy Engel), is also trying to get to the truth.

The movie doesn't waste too much time introducing all the characters, which extends even beyond the ones mentioned already. There's also waitress Madge (Jeanne Cooper) who carries a torch for Duncan and is rather naive. Then there's his landlord Louis Phelan (Frank Jenks) who Duncan sets up as the owner of the front for the illegal oil selling business, so there's a fall guy just in case. And finally there's a big boss, who oversees all the different mob territories, Emile Constant (John Zaremba). He runs the outfit like clockwork and Duncan quickly realizes it's him he's got to please, not Atlas and definitely not Gordon Shay. Duncan is smart, and both Atlas and Shay underestimate him, but Duncan also overestimates himself. What else is new?

Frank Duncan is the real noir deal. Ambitious, ruthless, fast, tough, and caring little about others. Pretty much the same can be said for Zoe Crane. Duncan effortlessly moves from the mousy waitress Madge to the sexy and sophisticated Crane. But at no point are Duncan or Crane fully committed, they are simply drawn to each other by sheer greed, lust and dollar signs.The part of Frank Duncan was originally given to Lee J. Cobb, but I really don't see that working well here. I like Cobb, but as an oil driller who ends up with Barbara Hale? No way. Gene Barry ('Naked Alibi') got the part, and the movie's the better for it, he is great here. And he has nice chemistry with Barbara Hale ('The Clay Pigeon', Perry Mason's secretary Della Street), who is an almost unrecognizable platinum blonde femme fatale here. Her first scene has her singing 'Put The Blame On Mame' at the nightclub, and while she's no Rita Hayworth in 'Gilda', she pulls it off well and she shows throughout the movie that she could really be a tough and sexy dame. I found their performances and parts in this movie quite memorable, especially Barbara Hale was an inspired casting decision!

The rest of the cast consist mostly of B and character actors who are solid across the board, but you won't remember much of their performances. The actors are also helped by the screenplay by Robert E. Kent (credited under his usual pseudonym, James B. Gordon), which is fast-moving, complex and twisty, without ever coming across as ludicrous or far-fetched. The movie owes a lot to him, with the rich story that never feels like it loses sight of itself. It's not the most original story however, I already mentioned '711 Ocean Drive' before, but it doesn't detract from the movie's entertainment value. The movie has some decently snappy dialogue, primarily between Frank Duncan and Zoe Crane, who are both tough cookies in their own ways.
What are you trying to do, write your own death certificate?
This was director William Castle's last noir, after he also directed noirs like 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' and 'Hollywood Story'. Soon after this movie he would find his 'niche' so to say, in horror/exploitation movies such as 'The Tingler', 'House On Haunted Hill' and 'Homocidal'. Castle knew his craft, and was a good director who knew how to translate a screenplay to the big screen. For this movie he had cinematographer Henry Freulich ('The Crooked Web', 'Chicago Syndicate') by his side. Freulich was a prolific cinematographer on dozens and dozens of B-features, and he does a really good job here. It won't necessarily give you goosebumps, but he does use his lighting setup's effectively and unlike a lot of late 50s noir movies, never gives this movie that brightly lit TV-like look.

This movie works remarkably well, and in almost every way feels like it had a bigger budget than it probably did. It also has a suitably downbeat ending, with several characters ending up dead, and no easy way out for anybody. Well-made, well acted, with a strong story, you can't really go wrong with this one. It even has a little noir pearl of wisdom, as one of the last lines spoken by Zoe Crane captures the femme fatale ethos perfectly:
I can't afford to latch on to has-been's.
And with that line, I will end this review of a movie that deserves to be better known. A great film noir, that simply delivers the good. Highly recommended!


Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Street With No Name (1948)

The documentary-style noirs were quite popular in the second half of the 40s. Instead of glamorizing crime and showing flashy but still sympathetic criminals as was so common in the 30s, they depicted hard-working government agents in their struggle against criminals, focusing on the dangerous work these men did and how they defeated crime. The manner in which these movies did this, with not-so-subtle patriotic and pro-government messages, can come across as overly moralistic/naive these days. But with WWII just over and a general sense of disillusionment in the US, it maybe helped people feel more secure again. An early example was 1945's 'The House On 92nd Street', whose box-office success opened up a new avenue for its studio, 20th Century Fox, leading to a string of docu-noirs, including 'Call Northside 777' with James Stewart. One of the FBI agents from 'The House..', agent Briggs, played by noir regular Lloyd Nolan ('Lady In The Lake'), returned again a few years later in 1948's 'The Street With No Name', another Fox docu-noir.
The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America. It is the street with no name.
The movie takes place in fictional Center City, where the investigation into a violent robbery/murder turns up a suspect. Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) from the FBI is called in to interrogate the guy, who keeps denying involvement. After the guy ends up dead himself, shot with the same gun as the original murder, they decide they need an undercover agent trying to wriggle his way into Center City's underground world. They turn to promising young agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens) for this dangerous job, with veteran Cy Gordon (John McIntire) as his contact-person. They both check in in some cheap hotels on Center City's seediest, but popular, street, Cordell under an assumed name, George Manly. By proving his chops in the ring of a local boxing club owned by Alec Stiles, who is also behind the robbery, Stevens gets some attention. Stiles has an insider in the local police department and has a background check done on Manly. The FBI anticipated this and a custom prepared document ends up in Stiles' hands, showing Manly's fabricated criminal background. Manly is enlisted into the gang, who are planning another robbery. On the night of the robbery Stiles receives word however that the police are awaiting him and he realizes he has a snitch among his ranks. Cordell needs to get a hold of Stiles' gun fast to see if it can be linked to the murders. And who is Stiles's inside man?

This movie is one of the best examples of the documentary-style noir. Besides the segments that focus on the FBI, including a few telex messages from J. Edgar Hoover 'himself', the movie also uses stock footage of the FBI records archives. The movie makers even had access to the crime labs and training grounds, where Cordell gets to impress Briggs with him shooting skills. Shooting on real locations, let aline non-public ones such as the FBI locations, wasn't yet all that common at the time, a lot of movies, including noirs, were shot on studio lots. In contrast, only a handful of days were spent on studio lots for this movie.

After making his movie debut in 1947's 'Kiss Of Death' as crazy psychopath Tommy Udo, which earned him an Oscar nomination, Richard Widmark quickly became a go-to guy for playing weird  and creepy villains. 'The Street With No Name' was his second role, and again he plays an unusual, scene-stealing, villain. Stiles is a control-freak and a germophobe carrying nasal spray with him at all times (even a small sneeze from one of his men nearly sends him into an outburst). He also has an unhealthy disdain for women, despite being married to Barbara Lawrence ('Thieves Highway') in a small, but memorably sleazy part. Why she never played more of these roles, I don't know.

Mark Stevens ('Time Table', 'The Dark Corner') plays his Gene Cordell with a gritty tone, but with a playful edge. Cordell takes his undercover assignment seriously, but he also enjoys the opportunity to distinguish himself. I have a soft spot for Stevens, and he once again proves he's an underrated and unjustly 'forgotten' actor. The pairing of Stevens and Widmark works great, they play characters at opposite sides of the spectrum, not just in the legal sense but also in the personality sense, and both are great in this movie and play well off each other.

Lloyd Nolan ('Lady In The Lake') has very little to do in this movie, but he's always a pleasure to watch and was a real professional. As a bit of trivia, both Lloyd Nolan and Mark Stevens would go on to play private eye Martin Kane on TV. One of the people in the gang is played by Joseph Pevney. After a brief acting career (including 'Thieves' Highway' and 'Body And Soul') he switched to directing, and became a very successful TV director. He also directed a few noirs, including 'Shakedown' (he also had a small role in the movie) and 'Female On The Beach' with Joan Crawford. One of the other hoods in the gang is played by Donald Buka ('Between Midnight And Dawn'). He has several memorable scenes in this movie and is truly scary as the knife-wielding 'Shivvy'. Ironically, in the 50s he would be the host of the 'Crime Does Not Pay' radio show.

Director William Keighley directed several classic 30s gangster movies, including '"G" Men' (which can be easily seen as a prototype for movies like 'The Street With No Name') and 'Each Dawn I Die'. He retired a few years after this movie, which is not surprising given he was already in his late 50s by the time he made this movie! Keighley's solid directing is helped tremendously by the expertise of director of photography Joseph MacDonald. The man is not usually mentioned in the same breath as noir cinematographers like John Alton and James Wong Howe, but his noir work, which also includes 'The Dark Corner', 'Call Northside 777', 'Panic In The Streets' and the vivid color noir 'Niagara', speaks for itself. 'The Street With No Name' is worth watching just for the gorgeous visuals and the vintage locations.
'There's only one scientific way to get rid of a stoolie: let the cops bump him off.'
Some years later, in 1955, the movie would be remade by Samuel Fuller, as 'House Of Bamboo'. You wouldn't be able to tell tho if you didn't know, as the movie is set in Japan and changed a lot of the elements from the original. Joseph MacDonald would also sit behind the camera for the remake, which was shot in lush Technicolor. Robert Stack and Robert Ryan play the Stevens and Widmark roles in this remake, but overall I prefer the original, even with its preachy crime-does-not-pay angles. In all respects, 'The Street With No Name' is a great noir that doesn't get mentioned nearly as often as it deserves.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Argyle Secrets (1948)

Strange as it may seem nowadays, radio plays were hugely popular back in the 40s, before TV really started to take off. Popular movies would be performed live on radio, often with some or all of the original movie stars reprising their roles. But the reverse also happened, with radio plays being adapted into movies. A hugely popular radio series called 'Suspense', aired a radio play called 'The Argyle Album' twice, first in 1945 starring Robert Taylor and again in 1947 starring noir icon Edmond O'Brien. Its author, Cyril 'Cy' Endfield, would later on turn the radio play into a screenplay and even direct the movie adaptation. Released in 1948 under the new and slightly more provocative title 'The Argyle Secrets', the low-budget B-movie, made in 8 days time, is another great example of the workmanship and efficiency of the independent B-studios of the era. BTW, for those interested, both radio plays, as well as many other 'Suspense' episodes, can be found here.
Oh, it's great to be on the winning side... All you respectable crooks hang together, and we... we just hang.
The Argyle album is an album owned by popular newspaper columnist Allen Pierce (George Anderson). After promising to reveal its scandalous contents in an upcoming column he has a heart attack and is hospitalized. Fearing he might die soon, he tries to give the full details to newspaper reporter Harry Mitchell (William Gargan). But after showing Mitchell a photo of the cover of the album, and before getting to its contents or whereabouts, he has another heart attack. When Mitchell returns with a doctor, they find Pierce with a knife in his stomach, as well as Mitchell's photographer also stabbed to death on the floor. Mitchell immediately becomes suspect #1, and he decides to make a run for it, so he can try and find this elusive album as well as the real killer. But he still doesn't know where the album is, or what's in it. As he soon finds out however, he is not the only one looking for the album. There is the shady Southerner Panama Archie (Jack Reitzen), the threatening trio of Winter (Jack Banner), Scanlon (Peter Brocco) and Hobrey (Mickey Simpson) and the femme fatale Marla (Marjorie Lord). At first Mitchell is offered money in exchange for the mysterious album, but soon the stakes get raised and become more life threatening... And he still has no clue where the album might be, despite everybody else thinking he has the album.

The movie moves at a breakneck speed, as Mitchell runs across town in search of the Argyle album, whose contents are eventually explained to Mitchell by Marla. The album contains a list of collaborators and men who profited from the Nazis during World War II, including prominent businessmen. So while its contents are highly volatile, the viewer, nor Mitchell, ever actually sees the real album. Not even at the end of the movie when he's given a bag, he doesn't even bother to check whether it contains the album or not! A macguffin if ever there was one!

As times this movie comes across as a variation on 1941's 'The Maltese Falcon', and not just because it centers around an elusive object which the main character has never seen but is trying to locate and which everybody else wants. It even seems to directly reference, some might say copy, the 1941 blockbuster, with for instance the Panama Archie character looking remarkably like Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman, and Marjorie Lord coming off as, and at times even looking like, Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy. But it's also quite different and does feel like it's more than a mere copy of said classic.

Gargan's Mitchell is also more of a bastard than Bogart's Sam Spade. Early on in the movie he knocks out Pierce's secretary Ms. Court (Barbara Billingsley) with a punch to the face. But it gets worse, as he even chokes Marla unconscious. Admittedly with her consent, but it's still a rather disturbing scene to see in a 40s movie! Made even crazier when we are made aware of Mitchell's thoughts in voice-over as he's strangling her:
It was a funny experience, choking a woman deliberately. I squeezed pretty hard, scuffing bruises at her throat to make it look good. I got so mixed up I didn't know what I was doing and I stopped once and kissed her very hard.
The voice-over was done by Gargan, and is used throughout the movie to great effect. A one-time Oscar-nominee, William Gargan's career in Hollywood had moved to B-movies and character roles by the time this movie was made, but he was a solid actor who could play parts like this one effortlessly. His look, and especially his pleasant but slightly worldweary voice, worked well in noir and detective roles. He played in a few more B-noirs like 1946's 'Behind Green Lights' but as private eye Martin Kane he really came into his own. He first played Kane on a radio series, and then played him again on 2 separate runs on TV in the 50s (other noir actors also portrayed Kane on TV, like Lloyd Nolan and Mark Stevens).

Co-star Marjorie Lord gives a great performance as a beautiful femme fatale who is initially conspiring with Winter but eventually falls for Mitchell, or does she? As with any good femme fatale, you can never be too sure of where she stands. It's shame she didn't do more noir, at least that I'm aware of, she really impressed me here. The rest of the cast are adequate, but almost all of the principal baddies have quirky accents, giving the movie a slightly silly edge, incidentally adding another 'The Maltese Falcon' hint. Altho appropriate for their characters and origins, the accents themselves sound too forced and put on, and not natural at all.

For a B-movie made in just over a week's time on a tight budget, it certainly pushes the envelope in terms of sets. Maybe they were also recycling sets from other movies, but the movie definitely has a lot of noir visuals, with plenty of deep shadows. Its cinematographer, Mack Stengler ('Fall Guy', 'I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes') also makes effective use of the set-ups. The best example happens when Mitchell is trapped inside a dingy office with Winter and Hobrey trying to gain access to the office using a blowtorch. The blowtorch is the primary source of lighting used in this scene, and it works well to add a threatening atmosphere. But the movie looks like noir heaven from start to finish really, there's even a small dream sequence with faces moving in and out of Mitchell's blurred state. Unfortunately the print I saw was rather murky and washed out, but even so it's clear that visually this movie offers first rate noir visuals.
Oh, I forgot to tell you... Never offer a cigarette light to a woman of uh... questionable background.
Director Cy Endfield ('The Underworld Story') would soon find himself blacklisted by the HUAC. He spent the remainder of his career in the UK, where he directed the great and gritty trucker Britnoir 'Hell Drivers' (1955) as well as the British classic 'Zulu' (1964). He was also a prolific screenplay writer, both credited and uncredited, and this movie shows he had a real knack for good, snappy lines and dialogue.

What can I say? I really enjoyed 'The Argyle Secrets'. It's far from original, and yes, there are more than a few resemblances to 'The Maltese Falcon', but the movie does work. It's got some pretty solid acting, it looks great, has some good lines and dialogue and at just over an hour is a lot of fun. You really cannot go wrong with this one. I hope someday a decent print of this movie is found and cleaned up, because it really deserves it. Recommended!


You can watch this movie on youtube, just keep in mind it's in pretty rough shape: