Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE RACKET


At the beginning of John Cromwell's hard-hitting film noir THE RACKET (1951), we see a state-wide crime commission meeting with the governor of an unnamed state. The investigators on the commission are out to clean up a corrupt city (again, unnamed) and need subpoena power to do the job. The governor agrees and it's the last we'll see of two of the commission investigators, Les (SHAZAM!) Tremayne and Milburn (GUNSMOKE) Stone until the end of the film.

Cut to the city where tough but fair police captain Tom McQuigg (Robert Mitchum) has just been put in charge of one of the worst precincts in the city. McQuigg has two objectives: to run a tight, clean and by-the-book operation and to bring down psychotic gang boss Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan). Scanlon has had the run of the town for years but now he has to answer to higher-ups for the first time in his career as "the syndicate" has moved into town, fronted by suave but vicious R.G. Connolly (Don Porter). There's also an alleged "Mr. Big" (who is never seen or heard), behind the scenes but it's left up to the viewer to determine if he really exists or if it's just an alias of the cold-blooded Connolly.

In order to solidify the mob's control of the town, they're backing a crooked candidate for judge, District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch (Ray (PERRY MASON) Collins). There's also a bent state cop, Detective Sergeant Turk (William (CANNON) Conrad), on the take.

McQuigg enlists the aid of straight-arrow beat cop Officer Bob Johnson (William (PERRY MASON) Talman), in his quest to destroy Scanlon. Caught in the crossfire are nightclub singer Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott) and young newspaper reporter Dave Ames (Robert Hutton). 
Things come to an explosive climax at the precinct station after which Tremayne and Stone show up with subpoenas for Collins and Conrad. 

Based on a play (with Edward G. Robinson as Scanlon) and filmed previously in 1928, Cromwell's version of the material hews close to the original narrative while opening the action up for more dramatic impact, The screenplay by William Wister Haines and W. R. Burnett, tosses in a house bombing, a rooftop fight to the death between McQuigg and a trigger-man, a chase between a locomotive and a car and other bits of mayhem and violence to liven things up. There's still a lot of scenes of characters just standing around and talking but with a cast and material like this, you're never bored.

Tough, two-fisted and unflinching, THE RACKET is a first rate film noir. Recommended.


Friday, November 17, 2017

THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT


Knowing my fondness for pulp fiction, my buddy Dennis gave me this copy of Fredric Brown's THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT recently. I'm familiar with Brown as both a science fiction and mystery writer and I have several of his books on my shelves but CLIPJOINT is the first of his books that I've read. And it's a good one.

Published in 1947, THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT  won the Edgar Award for Outstanding First Mystery Novel. The story centers on young Ed Hunter, a teenager in Chicago. When his father is killed in a dark alleyway late one night, young Ed sets out to catch the killer. He's aided by his Uncle Ambrose, "Am" as he's called, his father's brother who is currently a carney worker. Ed and Am make a good pair of amateur detectives as they explore the seedy underbelly of the city. They discover secrets about Wally Hunter that neither knew, cross paths with murderous gangsters, solve the mystery and hop a train together at the end of the novel for parts unknown.

Ed is the narrator of the story and CLIPJOINT often reads like a crime story told by Holden Caulfield. It's part coming-of-age novel, part mystery thriller. Ed and Am meet boozers, bartenders, a crooked cop, a nympho step-sister, a cougarish femme fatale, and other assorted and colorful characters along the way to solving the mystery.

THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT moves at (you'll pardon the expression) a good clip and Brown knew how to make a reader keep turning the pages. He wrote other Ed and Am mysteries over the course of his career and if they're all as good as CLIPJOINT, I've got some book hunting to do.

Recommended.



Friday, November 10, 2017

BLOOD AND SAND


It's not every night that you get to watch a movie starring Zorro, Superman, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Batman villain Dr. Daka. What the hell kind of movie is that, you ask? It's Rouben Mamoulian's lush Technicolor bullfighting melodrama BLOOD AND SAND (1941).

Okay, so none of those characters actually appear in the film but the actors who played them do. Dark, handsome and dashing Tyrone Power starred as Zorro (with BLOOD co-star Linda Darnell) in Mamoulian's THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940). Supporting player George Reeves went on to play Superman on television's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1952-1958). John Carradine was Dracula in two Universal Studios monster mashes: THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and THE HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), while Laird Cregar was Jack the Ripper in THE LODGER (1944). Anthony Quinn went on to play Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1956) while J. Carroll Naish was Dr. Daka, Batman's first on-screen foe in the 1943 serial BATMAN. In addition to those great actors, BLOOD AND SAND features not one, but two drop-dead gorgeous leading ladies, the dark haired Linda Darnell and the ravishing red head Rita Hayworth.

That's an impressive cast for this compelling drama which charts the rise and fall of a brash young Spanish bullfighter. Juan Gallardo (Power), dreams of becoming a bull fighter like his dead father. He faces many obstacles but eventually achieves his goal, becoming the greatest bullfighter in all of Spain. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Carmen (Darnell) and all seems well. But Gallardo's fame carries a heavy price as he's soon seduced by the rapacious Dona Sol des Muire (Hayworth). Before you know it, Gallardo's lost everything but Carmen who still loves him, no matter what. Gallardo is determined to fight one last bull and then retire to live the rest of his life with Carmen. But things do not go well for Gallardo. After all, the title is BLOOD AND SAND.

BLOOD AND SAND is a handsomely mounted production, overseen by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. The studio spared no expense to bring the story (previously filmed in the silent era in 1922 with Rudolph Valentino in the lead) to lush and vivid life. The story takes time to develop, starting with Gallardo as a young boy with a "posse" of friends, one of whom grows up to be John Carradine while another later becomes Anthony Quinn. There are several well staged bullfight sequences (coached by Budd Boetticher, who would later go on to direct several outstanding Westerns with Randolph Scott). Rotund character actor Laird Cregar practically steals the show as the flamboyant newspaper critic Natalio Curro. But ultimately, BLOOD AND SAND belongs to the love triangle of Power, Darnell and Hayworth, which simmers with real erotic tension.

BLOOD AND SAND is an old-fashioned Hollywood epic, the kind of picture you can get lost in for 125 minutes. I'd never seen it before watching the other night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended.



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

RAW DEAL


Fuel injected with lurid pulp thrills and sensationalism, Anthony Mann's hard-boiled masterpiece RAW DEAL (1948), may be one of the most perfect examples of film noir ever made. Sure there are slicker, more polished works but for sheer, bravura film making and a powerful narrative that pulls no punches, RAW DEAL can't be beat.

All of the elements are here. An escaped convict, Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe), goes on the run from the law with the help of his faithful, constant companion, Pat (Claire Trevor). Once out of the big house, Joe has one objective, to recover $50,000 in cash from a previous crime, money that is in the possession of sadistic mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr). While on the lam, Joe takes the attorney who defended him, Ann (the lovely Marsha Hunt), hostage. The three stay one step ahead of the law with a doomed love triangle developing between the good girl, the not-so-good girl and the bad-man-with-a-good-guy-inside.

While on the run, the trio crosses paths with a killer on the run, a frightened wife-murderer played by the great Whit Bissell. And to illustrate just how sadistic Rick is, he tosses a dish full of flambe into a woman's face (the flames head straight into the camera while the horrible burning takes place off-screen, accompanied by anguished screams). There's a knock down, drag out brutal fight in a fishing shack and Joe finally confronts Rick in a fiery, fight to the death.

Beautifully shot by genre master John Alton, RAW DEAL looks great from beginning to end. It's drenched in atmosphere, whether on the fog shrouded streets of the big city or the wide open rural countryside. Mann and Alton filmed the big set pieces of the screenplay by Leopold Atlas and John C. Higgins, first, then took their time with the quieter, character bits and it's here that the film really sings.

The geometry of the love triangle is what gives RAW DEAL it's beating heart. Pat desperately loves Joe and will do anything to help him escape, even lying to him about Ann's endangerment. Ann thinks Joe is a savage brute at first but comes to see the broken, wounded soul within and eventually wields a gun in his defense. Joe wants both of the women for different reasons. He knows that Pat has been loyal and faithful and right beside him every step of the way while Ann touches a part of him that's been buried deep for a long time. But no matter the situation, one of these three will be dead by the end of the film.

RAW DEAL is one of the touchstones of the film noir genre. If you love film noir and haven't already seen RAW DEAL, you should check it out immediately. If you're on the fence about noir, give it a try and you'll see what all of the fuss is about.

Highest recommendation.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

BIG JIM McLAIN


On paper, it sounds good. Big John Wayne and even bigger James Arness as two-fisted government agents smashing a ring of Communist spies in Hawaii. Sure, I'll go for that. Sign me up.

But the execution of this seemingly can't-miss proposition leaves much to be desired as BIG JIM McLAIN (1952), is a DRAGNET style pseudo-documentary boiling over with hyperbolic anti-Communism rhetoric and flag-waving patriotism mixed with a filmed travelogue of our fiftieth state. See John Wayne and lovely co-star Nancy (SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)) Olson visit scenic vistas and beach front restaurants and bars. You'll get a lump in your throat when Wayne and Arness pay their respects at the Battleship Arizona (before the covered memorial structure was erected).

The story, such as it is, is pretty routine but the trouble is, it took three (count 'em!) three, writers (Richard English, James Edward Grant and Eric Taylor) to concoct this mess. It's never a good sign when there's a screenplay by committee and this one plays like it was financed by the United States government to showcase both Hawaii and the vital work being done by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). But instead of turning Wayne and Arness loose to bust some Red heads, the script meanders with no direction and lots of filler.

The scene between Wayne, Olson and Hans Conried is a good example. Conried just shows up at Wayne's door, delivers a lengthy monolog about his skills and prowess, all the while demonstrating that he's a nut. It's supposed to be funny (it's not) and it's a truly WTF? moment in the film which has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the movie.

The Communist spy ring is headed by Alan (BATMAN) Napier and he's evil through and through. In fact, all of the Communists depicted in the film are seen as absolutely vile human beings. It's a completely black and white world view in which no consideration is given for people who may have joined the Communist Party for political reasons. Here, every Commie is a subversive and dangerous agent set on doing harm to the United States.

Arness doesn't get a girl to swoon over like Wayne does and he's knocked over the head in one scene only to turn up dead later in the film. Wayne looks uncomfortable in a coat and tie and he doesn't carry a gun. He finally gets to cut loose in the finale, a fist fight between Wayne, the Honolulu police and the Commie spies. Trouble is, after arresting the bad guys, they all plead the fifth at their hearing and get off. But that's okay because the final scene of the film has Wayne and Olson looking lovingly at a bunch of Marines as they board a ship in Pearl Harbor.

Produced by Robert M. Fellows and Wayne, BIG JIM looks like a tax-write off to me, a way to pay for a trip to Hawaii for Wayne and his family. See some sights, enjoy the nightlife and make a hodge-podge of a movie in between. Director Edward Ludwig had worked with Wayne on two previous occasions: THE FIGHTING SEABEES (1944) and THE WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948) and would later helm THE BLACK SCORPION (1957, with stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien). His direction here is nothing spectacular. He gets a boom shadow into one tracking shot multiple times but overall makes good use of the Hawaiian locations.

BIG JIM McLAIN could have been a good little action thriller. Instead, it's a boring movie with as much filler as a can of cheap dog food. Thumbs down.



Saturday, November 4, 2017

FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH


Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes, I can recall events from my past with crystal clarity. At other times, I have at best a fragmentary recollection of people, places and events. Case in point, exactly when and where I first saw FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967), an outstanding British science fiction film from Hammer Studios. My memory is that I saw it on television, specifically a broadcast on the ABC-TV Sunday night movie. Moreover, I recall watching it at my buddy Blake Brown's house. I was a frequent guest at his house where we regularly stayed up until the wee small hours of the morning watching horror and science fiction films on television. If the movie did indeed air on a Sunday night, then it must have been during the summer because there's no way I would have been hanging out at his house on a Sunday evening during the school year. This is what I remember. This is what I'm sticking with.

Regardless of the provenance of that first viewing, FIVE MILLION is one of the great science fiction films of the 1960s, a film beloved by genre fans but not as widely known to general audiences as such other '60s sf touchstones as PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Based on the popular BBC Television serial QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, FIVE was the third Quatermass adventure to be filmed. The first two were THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (THE CREEPING UNKNOWN in the U.S.) (1955) and QUATERMASS 2 (ENEMY FROM SPACE in the U.S.) (1957). Both of those films starred American actor Brian Donlevy who, frankly, played Quatermass as a bit of a dick.

In FIVE, Quatermass is played by British actor Andrew Keir, who does a great job. His Quatermass is a man of science who gets sucked into an incredible mystery that has staggering and profound implications. The remains of prehistoric ape-men are unearthed in an under-construction  London subway tube. As the digging continues, an alien space ship is uncovered. The military is in charge of the investigation, with Quatermass happening to be in the right place at the right time to take part, accompanied by his lovely assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley). Quatermass demonstrates his extraordinary mental acumen by making astounding leaps in deductive reasoning, all with a solid foundation of scientific knowledge. He's Reed Richards without the stretching ability.

 The corpse of an insectoid, grasshopper like alien is found in the ship (the creature reminds me of the Selenites in Ray Harryhausen's FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)). But the real kicker is that the ship itself appears to have a strange power of its' own. Before the spectacular climax, Quatermass and company explore the origin of the Devil himself and mankind's racial memory of evil. Things get pretty wild and woolly in the third act but FIVE is nevertheless an extraordinarily ambitious, pure science fiction film, dealing with ideas, theories and concepts that are fresh and wildly imaginative.

The screenplay is by Nigel Kneale, who created Quatermass and wrote his original adventures for television. The direction by Roy Ward Baker is assured, the cast uniformly solid, the sets and special effects impressive.

FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH is one of the great science fiction films of the 1960s. Check it out and see if you don't agree. Highly recommended.



Friday, November 3, 2017

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS


DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) was the third Hammer Dracula film following upon HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). However, it was only the second Hammer Dracula film to star Christopher Lee as the immortal count.

 It's also the film in which Lee speaks no dialogue as Count Dracula. There are two reasons given for this. One is that when presented the screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, Christopher Lee reportedly said, "I'm not going to say these lines!" and that was that. Sangster's version is that he never wrote any dialogue for Dracula, figuring that such a fearsome presence could get his points across through growls, snarls and hisses.

Regardless of which of these tales is true, the result is an extremely satisfying Hammer horror film with Lee at the top of his game. The only thing that could make PRINCE a better film would be the inclusion of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing but Andrew Keir, as the fearless vampire hunter Father Sandor, does an admirable job.

The story is a routine one. Four travelers (two couples), are abandoned by their coach driver on the way to the haunted European village of Karlsbad. Left stranded at a crossroads, a driverless coach suddenly appears. The four load up and the coach takes them to Castle Dracula (a location they've been sternly warned against).

Once there, they're waited on by Dracula's household staff. Mysteriously absent is their host but since he's dead at this point in the film, that can be excused. Alan Kent (Charles Tingwell), is the first of the visitors to be put to death in the crypt of the castle. Kent's blood is necessary to revive the undead Count Dracula. Once the ritual is completed and Dracula is revived, the count sinks his fangs into the lovely neck of Helen Kent (Hammer icon Barbara Shelley). She's transformed into a shrieking, hissing, spitting vampire harpy. Next, Dracula goes after the even lovelier Diana Kent (Suzan Farmer), but not before Father Sandor intervenes and takes the battle to the Count.

There's an off camera staking through the heart in the third act and the narrative climaxes upon the ice sheet formed on the moat around Castle Dracula. This time it's running water that spells doom for the Count but don't worry, he won't stay dead long.

Directed by Hammer horror auteur Terence Fisher with a stirring score by James Bernard and crisp cinematography by Michael Reed, DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a handsome production from start to finish. There's nothing radical or revolutionary about the story but it's well told and once Dracula is reborn, things really pick up and gather momentum towards the furious climax.

Jeez, that sounds like a porno movie.

Recommended.