Saturday, November 18, 2017

HIGHWAY DRAGNET (1954)


Allied Artists signed off on this slightly average B-movie production. Thanks in part to adequate casting and nearly all of it shot in a desert location for authenticity, it should hold your attention, however. Just keep in mind it was never intended to be funny. The ominous opening notes of the theme music by Edward Kay resembles numerous crime dramas of the era. The opening bars of the melody being sort of a minor key macabre version of the “Laura” theme's first notes, turned inside-out. If you lived in or traveled through California over a forty year period, you might enjoy scenes shot at Roy Roger's Apple Valley Inn. Likewise, you may never have heard of “The Salton Sea,” featured in the closing scenes, unless you have lived on the west coast. There are numerous tell-tale clichés that Roger Corman co-wrote the script. The whole premise is predictable with little singled out that might be construed as creative.


Richard Conte, as usual, is commendable. A fine actor who may have simply needed a better agent. He plays a recently released Korean War veteran who visits Las Vegas where whatever happens in Vegas stays with Conte. He meets Mary Beth Hughes, whose character used to be somebody. Half drunk, she misinterprets Conte's badly versed compliment and loudly demands an apology because he hurt her feelings. It happens all the time today. While hitchhiking his way out of town, he is arrested and brought back for questioning by Reed “Joe White Eagle” Hadley. Hughes has been murdered and there were plenty of witnesses who jumped to conclusions about what may have happened. Conte can take refuge in that there is not yet Twitter. He is hot under the collar and, after a few probing questions, stereo-typically slugs Hadley, holds his deputies at gunpoint, shoots one patrol car tire flat then steals the other Nash patrol car. His self-inflicted bits rack up a lot of violations, usually at gunpoint.


He helps two stranded motorists get their car started and expects to get a ride as thanks. Professional photographer, Joan Bennett, is cool to the idea but her young assistant, Wanda Hendrix, would like to have a hunk along. Bennett's expression while riding in the convertible looks like she smells road kill. Her upper lip being overloaded with lipstick or she is just disgusted by life in general. Her esses and “r” pronunciations are Barbara Walters-lite. I digress. While stopped along the dragnet of highways, Bennett's little dog gets hit by an unconscious speeding motorist. You may protest why they included this scene at all. Only later do we learn why this happens and who is really at fault. Conte tries to fake his persona but the ladies are suspicious. They try to leave him behind at a diner but the car keys are dangling from Conte's hand. He is not much on small talk after this.

Much of the “excitement” is typically resolved with clichéd staging. These scenes make up the bulk of the film. Getting through a sweat-inducing road block or stealing a car that happens to have the keys in the visor to name only two. Perhaps the most preposterous is when Conte commands a delivery driver at gunpoint to move his ice cream truck across the highway to block the chasing police. He shoots the tires flat. Not as flat as the surrounding desert terrain yet Joe White Eagle cannot go around the truck. Apparently, because of a dust danger. He is completely bamboozled. If you have not laughed or cringed by now, the ending should do it.


Conte has inherited from his family a house on coastal waters that is dry when the tide is out and when the tide is in every room has its own wading pool. A family heirloom. It is his final hope to connect with a fellow veteran, his only alibi on the night of Hughes' murder. Hadley—he finally had the courage to go around that truck—arrives to take a Bennett bullet in the shoulder yet he treats it like a mere BB gun hit, rubbing the wound with his fingers. “Gee Willikers, that stings.” Conte chasing Bennett in apparent slow motion through knee-deep water is...well...not as funny as Bennett, in near panic of drowning in waist deep water, with her arms held up as if preparing to signal a field goal. It makes for a silly but revealing ending befitting this effort to produce a film which has not stood the test of time.

Once again, ignore the poster's enticing content. Conte is not a “thrill-killer” nor do we see any female with a strap around her neck. The cast never drove a Kaiser Manhattan, here attempting to burst through a roadblock, either.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

99 RIVER STREET (1953)


John Payne is a tough prize fighter in another film for director, Phil Karlson. A familiar tale of a “man against the world.” George Zuckerman's story is pretty far-fetched and cannot be believed as routine. If this Edward Small production falls short of being a great movie, the spot-on performances allow one to overlook weaknesses. Today, old films seem to be full of clichés, however. The budgeted studio sets with perpetually wet city streets was a standard device to give a city life. The painted or rear-projected buildings are present to add depth. There seems to be a very noticeably odd “processing” during the harbor climax scene which looks like a stage scrim has been set up in front of cargo ships. 

Though Payne has starred in gritty, career changing films before, he is believable as a guy beaten down inside and outside the ring. Payne is on a career roll, leaving behind his lighter characters. There is never a dull moment. The boxer's volatile temper, blunt dialogue and realistic action catapults the film above the average, late film noir offering. I found the opening boxing scenes more believable than the over-the-top Rocky Balboa bouts. Though both films seem to use the same sound effect of punching a cardboard box with throw pillow inside. Because of the potential permanent eye damage during his championship fight, Payne's heavyweight career comes to an end. Three years on he is now a taxi driver with dreams of owning his own service station. His wife, Peggy Castle, is a nagging, unsympathetic wife who blames him for her lack of social importance and personal career crusher. Owning a lowly gas station is the last round for her. Castle is already two-timing with a jewel thief, Brad “Smarmy” Dexter. No secret to Payne. 



Jay Adler moonlights as a backroom jewel fence, incognito as a pet shop owner. He refuses to pay off Dexter for his latest jewel delivery, not only for killing the original owner, but primarily because he brings Castle into the mix. Adler tells him there is no deal if a woman is involved. Emotional attachments have a way of altering the end game. Dexter takes his “advice” and gets rid of Castle, hiding her cold body in the back of Payne's cab. The frame is set. 



Playing an aspiring actress, Evelyn Keyes has two supporting roles with Payne. Besides being his co-star, she is a frequent taxi fare. When she finds about his predicament she wants to help but he is reluctant to get her involved. Keyes' attractiveness is her persona more than being naturally beautiful. One actress who might have preferred one camera angle over another but who cares. She is good. Jack Lambert, Adler's muscle, has a good turn here, also. He has an underdeveloped sense of humor. Calls everyone at gunpoint, “kiddies.” His fight scene with Payne is worth noting. Suspecting he is in with Dexter, he slaps Payne around from behind who is slowly coming to full boil. Lambert becomes a body-double for a punching bag. He completely did not anticipate the jackhammers hiding at the end of Payne's arms. Poor Lambert is repeatedly blasted over furniture and becomes wall décor, after a fashion. It is well choreographed, vicious and believable. 



Adler and crew are confused about Payne's supposed involvement in a jewel heist. He is picked up on 99 River Street and they need answers to a few questions. After the butt-end of a revolver from a revengeful Lambert, Payne tells Adler about his frame-up then all bullets have Dexter's name on them. Continuing to hone her acting skills, Keyes' role playing comes in handy as she lures Dexter out of the diner. Spotting Payne outside, Dexter makes a run for it with Payne taking a bullet in the arm. One arm is plenty and Dexter is soon down for the count. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954)


This lower budget Columbia Pictures drama succeeds thanks to its excellent cast and screenplay. A better than average B-movie centering around an automotive theme. It starts off in realistic fashion, hiding the plot initially with racing sequences filmed on location in southern California. Outside of these scenes, a studio Jaguar XK120 prop car is being hounded by rear-projected cars, however. Scenes are also filmed at an actual automotive repair shop and it is an eye full for foreign car fans and Detroit's contribution as well. Under echoes of the garage's concrete interior, each vehicle is lined up in their stall as their tune-up awaits.


Mickey Rooney is first rate as a naive master mechanic and part-time racer of the aforementioned Jaguar. He lives and breathes automobiles leaving little time for socializing. Throwing a wrench into his garage is Dianne Foster, who brings her car in specifically asking for Rooney to work on it. The very next day, Foster again has “car trouble” with her British Hillmanprobably expected―but Rooney has to drive to her apartment this time. Being the perfect gentleman, he gets her car started with no more than a thank you expected. She quickly gets him started, twisting him so tightly around her finger it is cutting off the circulation. He is unpretentiously smitten by the amazon female towering over him. She is a woman with interior...uh...ulterior motives. Kevin McCarthy and Jack Kelly finish out this deceitful trio.


McCarthy―looking surprisingly like Max Headroom at times―has been scouting local race tracks for a fast driver, though his interest has nothing to do with competitive racing. He and Kelly single out Rooney as their ideal unassuming candidate. Like diesel fuel in sub zero weather, the plot thickens. Along the way, most of Kelly's lines are witty remarks usually at Rooney's expense. Script lines perfectly befitting Kelly's condescending delivery. McCarthy wants Rooney to drive a crooked, dangerous road in twenty minutes that would safely take forty. In mock fascination, he pumps up Rooney's ego on what it would take to do this. The script's accurate and lengthy details of the customization needed for a heavy, fourteen-year-old American sedan to make such a drive is spot on. And Rooney could not be more authentic explaining it. Puzzled, he cannot figure their intense interest in automobiles or why twenty minutes is so important. The two need twenty minutes to get away from the bank they plan to rob. Rooney immediately yanks the handbrake on the plan. McCarthy smoothly calms him and suggests he see Foster before deciding. She lays out a prearranged story and loony Rooney's spark plugs ignite again.

The studio prop car's “driving” sequences are pretty funny during their shortcut's dusty escape. The studio's stunt driver and sound department put on an impressive show, however. Rooney's faking of the prop car steering wheel suggests he understands and respects the car's limits. He supposedly hits 100 mph at one point with Kelly hanging on for dear life in the back seat as the rear-projected scenery out the front windshield swifts abruptly left to right, tires squealing in the dirt. Not wacky like W.C. Fields' climactic driving in “The Bank Dick,” but nonetheless, amusing.


Showing sincere remorse for towing Rooney along, Foster bluntly spills her guts much to McCarthy's ire. Rooney knows a bit too much at this point. It is Kelly's job to eliminate him along the coastal roadway. As an excellent driver, Rooney also knows how to roll a car. Rooney survives and stumbles back to McCarthy's with Kelly's gun. The one in the poster that suggests Rooney carries it with him all the time, being a hired killer or something. The ending minute leaves the story somewhat unresolved but it does not take a certified master mechanic to figure one.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

DOUBLE DEAL (1950)


This is the first picture produced by Bel Air Productions, a studio known for B-movies and location shooting to protect a budget. There is nothing unique here. It is about as typical as it gets. Even the film's title was used before and after this one. There is the usual frame up, someone getting beat up yet nothing ever heats up. Richard Denning adds the only spark to this clichèd drama. He is easy to like despite a mostly forgotten film career. Marie Windsor receives top billing, in a role against type as a decent sole. But it is a pretty enjoyable romp thanks to a talented cast.

Out-of-work engineer, Denning, is looking for a job in Oklahoma oil country. Thinking he might at least triple his nine dollars, he joins a back room gambling table after meeting hostess, Windsor, in the adjoining tavern. James Griffith stands over the table. He wins most of the time. As Denning discovers, Griffith's dice are loaded. After losing, Denning calmly walks over and removes his nine bucks from Griffith's pile of cash. Windsor and her boss, Carleton Young, take notice of his bold move. They hope to persuade Denning to help Young's oil well turn a profit. He has limited time to strike oil or the well defaults to his sister, Fay Baker, as per their father's will. Baker is a manipulator by profession and there is no love lost between brother and sister. She is determined to get all his holdings one way or the other. Using all her feminine wiles, she tries to get Denning to change sides. He rejects her and the offer. Griffith is devoted to Baker and will stoop low enough to make her Will a reality. After Windsor's boss is murdered, Denning is set up to take the rap while at the crime scene. Young's Will is a real dividing point for the two females. It leaves his ranch to Windsor, not his conniving sister.

Taylor Holmes plays the attorney who represented the father before he died. Holmes was also the previous owner of all the land mentioned in the Will. He lives with a talented, unemployed organ grinder monkey. His character is annoying because of his perpetual drunk routine. Since the beginning of entertainment, stumbling drunks have been either harmless, lovable creatures or used for comic relief. In reality, alcoholics are pathetically in need of help. Even Otis Campbell. I digress. No sooner than Baker can say, "Thy Will be done," she is shot and killed by, apparently, the camera man, as the audience is left to guess who pulled the trigger. Thanks to the monkey's brilliant hurdy gurdy moves, Windsor's life is spared from Holmes' remaining bullets. The suddenly sober Holmes was planning to eliminate all family members, claiming the well for himself. Never trust a fake drunk. Windsor gushes over Denning as their oil well strikes a pose.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

THE LAS VEGAS STORY (1952)


Howard Hughes puts his trademarks on this film, what with the flying sequences and microscopic closeups of his leading lady. A film that is hardly unknown. With the pairing of two popular Hollywood stars, Victor Mature and Jane Russell, it is hard to ignore. The perfect sneering couple. Throw in Vincent Price and you have great movie potential.

With similar “dangerous” facial features, testy pout and a noteworthy sneer, Jane Russell reminds me of a female Elvis. She could hardly be called flat except for her acting. Adequate, but her eyes are generally expressionless. True, few men of the era were really that interested in her eyes. Her potentially witty comebacks are not as pointed as in “His Kind of Woman” a year earlier. Perhaps due in part to a screenplay by Frank Fenton or her costar, Robert Mitchum, who knew his way around witty dialogue. Nonetheless, she had one of the most beautiful smiles in Hollywood. But lately, those smiles only happen when she is around Hoagy Carmichael.


Hoagyas Happyis the casino pianist. Thanks to his delivery, he lightens the film considerably, if not frequently. His opening narration sets up the background for the film's stars prior to their appearance. Hoagy's folksy tone of a “country cool cat” is endearing. He performs an early “rap” song with, “The Monkey Song.” The difference with his rap is that he uses an actual melody. Not percussion-backed rhyming. From 1938, “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is reused for this film. Written for this film, “My Resistance Is Low,” is a fun song but hard to sit through because of the syrupy delivery and slurring lyrics by Russell. She is filmed only from the waist up, providing another comparison to Elvis. But with opposite intentions.

Russell's husband, Vincent Price, insists on vacationing in Las Vegas. He is undoubtedly a character with selfish motives and is determined to play the tables in hopes of winning enough to pay his debts. Russell preferred a flight anywhere but Vegas from fears of running into her old flame, Victor Mature, now a lieutenant with the Sheriff's Department. Through most of the film, he and Russell get along without each other very well. Their parting years before, the result of poor communication skills. Russell's necklace becomes Price's collateral with the casino owner taking possession. In between a couple of songs, he ends up dead and the necklace goes missing. Getting off the same plane was Mr. Smarmy himself, Brad Dexter. He has been assigned by his insurance company to watch Price and Russell's...uh...necklace.


The exciting climax, perhaps filmed at the former Tonopah Army Airfield, was the first car and helicopter chase sequence in a movie. Flying twice through an open hanger was a groundbreaking sequence and I imagine approaching something of science fiction for the era. Mr. Smarmy's kidnapping of the necklace and Russell is a useless attempt at a sedan escape. The foot chase between Mature and Dexter is typical of the era, resulting in Dexter making a final curtain call. Price is given a sentence for embezzlement and divorce papers to sign while incarcerated. The film ends unresolved but one gets the feeling she and Mature have a future together. Viva Las Vegas!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950)


This film hardly falls into the unknown category for any film noir fan. It is generally highly regarded despite a familiar B-movie path. Directed and produced by Otto Preminger with screenplay by the typically great Ben Hecht, it follows the story of another cynical detective who hates criminals to the core. Subconsciously because his late father was a gangster in his own time. His methods of getting a criminal to talk are not by the book and the Inspector, Robert Simon, in his first film role, repeatedly calls him on the carpet for it.


Dirty Dana” Andrews plays the aforementioned detective where violence seems to be around every corner. Murder suspect and gambler, Craig Stevens, who is particularly soused, strikes Andrews across the jaw then he is decked, hitting his head on the floor. Andrews tries to wake him but he is out. Permanently. Andrews turns white with fear. He will surely lose that parking spot in front of headquarters! When he finds out Stevens was a war hero and the silver pate in his head is what killed him, he feels even worse. Things get more dicey after Andrews discovers that Gene Tierney was his wife. Andrews' web of deceit plunges him deeper into self-loathing. Andrews devises a plan to detour the manslaughter rap.


Gary Merrill is Andrew's gangster nemesis. It was Andrew's father who set Merrill up in the mob. His character is somewhat in the mold of Richard Widmark's screen debut role, though not mentally unstable. Cool, calm and polite with nice threads, Merrill's quirk is his apparent addiction to nasal inhalers. A medicinal gimmick that seems to only afflict the underworld. Hiring Neville Brand as a heavy, here doing double duty as a massage therapist, was also a customary gimmick during this period.


Tierney was another actress of the era with a slight overbite. Not nearly the Nutty Professor but not entirely appealing. This physical “feature” is noticeable only when she speaks. Which is every scene she's in. I guess they cannot all be Grace Kelly. I digress. Her father, Tom Tully, is a cabbie who has been understandably angry with his good for nothing son-in-law, Stevens. Because of this and his whereabouts near the time of Stevens' demise, he is inadvertently accused of the homicide. Newly promoted Lieutenant, Karl Malden, is convinced Tully is the killer despite Andrews' attempt to throw the killing in Merrill's direction.

At his personal sidewalk ends, Andrews is abducted and driven to the gangsters hideout. There is a creepiness being helplessly trapped inside a car as it is lifted to the upper level of a parking garage. No dialogue. No music. Just the sound of mechanical hydraulics at work. Feeling more despondent and no better than his father, he hopes to be killed so the authorities can at least pin one murder on Merrill, who is not taking the bait. The gangsters hightail it when the sirens get louder and they lock Andrews in the garage. In their hasty retreat, the gang forgot about an unlocked rooftop door and out pops Andrews. He stops the elevator's descent between floors with Merrill and gang being arrested.

Andrews had written a confession letter to be opened in the event of his death. Simon, now all smiles and grateful to Andrews for bringing down the mob, indicates there is no reason, thankfully, to open it. Awkward. He wants the letter read anyway. In front of Tierney. The Inspector's smile is turned upside down. Andrews will have time to contemplate his future career move. Perhaps security detail at a Woolworth store. As expected, Tierney promises to wait for him. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

QUICKSAND (1950)


Thanks to the Internet, this movie needs little introduction. Mickey Rooney's characterization is legitimate as a young auto mechanic—an occupation he returns to four years later in, “Drive A Crooked Road”—who longs for a lifestyle he cannot afford in somewhat of an ego boost. Throughout the film, he provides his inner thoughts in voice-overs. His innocent borrowing of twenty dollars from the garage's cash register is only the beginning. Though he has every intention of paying it back the next day, his descent into crime pulls him down deeper as each misdeed gets more risky. The twenty dollars is soon forgotten. Rooney improves this film and keeps it from sinking. Many seem to gloss over Rooney's heavy dramatic career shift in the Fifties. This one removed him from Andy Hardy for good.


Not helping is dangerous Jeanne Cagney, who is temptation personified. Saying she is well known in the neighborhood is an understatement. Peter Lorre, seedy owner of a penny arcade, could teach a detailed history class on Cagney's past. Barbara Bates plays the wholesome, unappreciated good girl who has taken her relationship with Rooney seriously. She rounds out the quartet of main characters. Like anyone not taking responsibility for their actions, Rooney's audible inner thoughts express his disgust with the “bad luck” that has befallen him. Things get so bad, Rooney ends up robbing a soused bar patron near the arcade for his large bank roll. And there are eye witnesses.


Seedy Lorre blackmails Rooney over the robbing and in exchange for his silence, requests a new car. Between a rock and a hard place, the mechanic steals one but those pesky witnesses are everywhere. His boss wants the car's price reimbursed at nearly twice the Blue Book. The less-than-lovely Cagney hatches a plan for Rooney to steal money from Lorre's arcade to pay for the car. Been there, done that, she thinks she is entitled to half so she can buy that mink coat she has lusted over. A driving suspense theme kicks in during the theft. A nightwatchmen spots someone inside the arcade and fires a shot. Despite the darkness, a light bulb turns on for Rooney who parts company with the female quicksand. He offers what funds are left to his unethical boss who promptly attempts to call the police. The ominous suspense theme returns with good effect as Rooney viciously stops his boss from speed dialing. Sure he has committed murder, he panics and runs.

Bates returns to see Rooney and the film to the end. She is head over heels in love with Rooney no matter what. In a surprising bit of unlikely good fortune, he hijacks a car driven by a sympathetic lawyer. The most unbelievable sequence in the script. After long driving advice, Rooney sends Bates and lawyer back inland while he tries to sail south until things cool off. He quite literally, misses the boat, but does not miss a bullet from one officer. The lawyer's car does a U-turn when its radio reports that Rooney's boss is recovering nicely. The good news. The bad news is that Rooney is off to prison for a few years. All because of a lousy twenty bucks! Life is not fair, man. Bates promises to wait and I believe her. She is determined to get married.


This United Artist release has a slightly amusing ending as three extras peer in the car's rear window, jockeying for a better view inside the studio prop car as the stationery trio inside calmly discuss the lawyer's fine print of his invoice. Those extras nearly steal the scene.