Saturday, April 30, 2016

TRAIN TO ALCATRAZ (1948)


Republic Pictures offers up a rather typical crime story in the fact that you can expect a shootout with people getting at least injured, if not killed, in the process. Also typical is a female trying to help their escape. What is not typical is that it takes place entirely on a train transferring criminals to Alcatraz. They are all under guard, in leg irons and in a separate coach from other passengers. The plan to break out from the train is masterminded by the worst of the lot, Don Barry. There are no lapses in the script. It is a slow burn film and worth a ticket.

William Phipps is the other central character. He is studied at the train depot by a young woman. She is surprised to see him handcuffed to a detective, because he does not fit her idea of a criminal. He looked guilty to me. They make eye contact and board the same train. As he is led through the prison coach, one officer gives a brief bio of the dozen, sounding like a tour guide at a museum. It reminded me of an early thirties drama when everything had to be spelled out for the audience. This scene is a bit tedious but it does have an affect on Phipps if not the audience. He recognizes the last man as the one who framed him for murder, Milburn Stone. Barry’s planned escape is aided by Stone’s girl in the passenger coach. She manages to get the key that will unlock their leg irons.

Barry is ruthless even by current standards. During the standoff with the guards he holds one hostage, threatening to kill him if the sheriff does not stop the train in ten miles. The sheriff refuses to compromise and Barry keeps his word. Upping the ante, he vows to kill another in the next ten miles. Stone’s girl, with unknowingly perfect timing, pulls a derringer on the conductor and commands he stop the train. His pull of the emergency brake throws everyone about and Barry makes a run for it, getting “spiked” about five ties down the tracks by two sharp-shooting hunters on board, anxious to hone their skills before their wildlife hunt. In the meantime the murderer is identified, apprehended and confesses. Phipps flashes his only smile in the film as he reunites with the girl who believed in him.

This is a fairly gritty crime drama despite an old premise. When Barry slaps Stone hard across the face it looks and sounds authentic. Perhaps was. And the cold blooded murder of the guard is startling, though we only hear the gunshot. There are a couple of unintentionally funny moments as two convicts are shot, both letting out loud falsetto screams. Then there is Iron Eyes Cody letting out war whoops as he starts the fight that initiates the escape. Old habits are hard to break, I guess.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

THE MAN IN THE VAULT (1956)


This easily forgotten RKO drama stars William Campbell in another of his underwhelming films, this time as an expert but lowly locksmith by the name of Tommy Dancer. Would you trust a locksmith with that underworld name? One cannot judge a book by it’s cover, but in Campbell’s case I will make an exception. Actually, Campbell comes off well in this one with help from other experienced actors. Anita Ekberg not one of them. Adding authenticity are some location filming, like at Art Linkletter’s La Cienega Lanes bowling alley. No kidding. 

The excruciating song, “Let The Chips Fall Where They May” is sung by Vivianne Lloyd in her singing/acting debut and career closer. Barry Kroeger, small-time hoodlum, throws a party at his home and he requests she sing his favorite song. He is obviously fascinated by anyone who can sing different pitches on purpose. Lloyd makes her rounds in a small party room, giving a performance more fitting a nightclub, accompanied by piano and strings. But there are no string players in the room. Her bad lip-sync is very romantic as she blasts Campbell’s eyebrows back from inches away, arching them even more. It is the most embarrassing and funny moment of the film. Why any song was planned for this film is a mystery. Like Lloyd’s career. She actually does a halfway decent job vocally. It is just her awkward lip-sync and expressions which make the viewer sweat.


Cute Karen Sharpe, with incredibly bouncy hair, is at the party because she gets want she wants in that crowd. I think that his her occupation. She is spurned by her on and off again boyfriend/lawyer, played by a Chuck Woolery impersonator. Pouting, she exits the party. Cocky Campbell has had enough of feeling out of place and also leaves, walking past Sharpe. She offers him a lift in her car but neither seem to have a destination. She asks him if he drives. I guess wondering he might not have any experience driving an automatic or unfamiliar with the purpose of that big round ring on the left side of the dash.


Kroeger, who was born to smirk, gets his leg man, Paul Fix, to locate a good locksmith. Kroeger then pressures Campbell to break into a safe deposit box rented by big-time mobster, James Seay, and make a duplicate key. But Fix double-crosses Kroeger and suggests Campbell take the 200k himself. Temptation is acted upon and Campbell stores the money at the bowling alley for a striking finale.

Campbell’s running is unintentionally comical near the end, arms swinging back and forth, left to right. I burst out laughing. Fix, after killing Kroeger with an Oldsmobile, goes after the 200k with Campbell only armed with a bowling pin. Funny? He throws it through a window and sets off the burglar alarm. Smart. Paul is in a fix by then and is quickly apprehended. Meanwhile, mob boss Seay is charged with murder and Campbell reunites with Sharpe, the dominant driver. Campbell has some explaining to do at police headquarters after turning over the money.

Two humorous notes. The shady lawyer is played by Robert KEYS and there is a visit to the Hollywood BOWL. Coincidence? I think not.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

THE BIG BLUFF (1955)


The big bluff is John Bromfield, looking dashing yet untrustworthy with a pencil mustache. He loves a nightclub entertainer. They are both being hounded by her estranged husband. Untrustworthy is exactly how he sees Bromfield. Thankful that this only seventy minutes, it is still a fairly intriguing noir.

The film, produced by Planet Filmplays and distributed by United Artists, (a match made in heaven) opens at the bedside of a rich widow, played by Martha Vickers, terminally ill with a heart condition. Her secretary and doctor, Robert Hutton, think it best not to tell her, feeling a positive outlook would be best for her. The doctor also suggests a move to a more remote part of Los Angeles for peace and quiet. The views from her window are spectacular if the smog ever clears. Hutton gives a rather comatose performance.

While dining out the secretary meets Bromfield who then learns about Vickers and her wealth. He wines and dines the rich widow and goes diabolical after learning of her health. They marry and he does his best to wear her down with late night parties and physical activity. He replaces her medication in capsules with sodium bicarbonate in one pill container, keeping the real medicine to back up his vow to take care of her. He puts the sin in sincerity. 

I found it annoying that Vickers acts like a schoolgirl, gushing over him every moment. But her secretary sees right through Bromfield’s phony behavior, especially after noticing two identical pill boxes. The doctor, along with a detective, test the pills and confirm something is truly wrong with Bromfield.


As part of his diabolical plan, Bromfield suddenly becomes nasty to his wife, ranting and raving. This is simply a cover for him to storm off to Palm Springs, return and confess his intimate indiscretions. To back up his story and his carefully planted evidence, his girlfriend dutifully drives to Palm Springs. Instead of a Palm Springs weekend, however, his real plan is simply to kill Vickers while she sleeps, drive around then return and "discover" someone has killed his beloved wife. The last ten minutes is the reason to see the film through.  A slick double-twist that will have your frown turned upside down.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

LOST, LONELY AND VICIOUS (1958)


Starting out as a pseudo-documentary, the narration by an authoritarian figure informs us that life can be troubling for young Hollywood thespians. He makes it a point to mention these are only actors portraying real people. These “actors,” ironically, are a cast of unknowns, each hoping for their own break in show business. This film is not going to help. Their dialogue is perfectly memorized, each ready for that one word, “Action!” The main focus of this thin-budgeted film concerns confused youth with “Rebel Without a Cause” fresh on Hollywood’s mind. Ken Clayton plays the troubled main character. 



Our handsome hero's very first starring role turns out to be an overnight success. His fellow actors and actresses seem to have less talent and nothing but unrealistic dreams with little drive or ambition. No wait. Those are Millennials. These wannabes meet at a soda shop where seemingly one area microphone was used for that realistic soda shop feel. There is a lumpy guy with a plaid driver’s cap, always standing around eating popcorn and staring. If that is not funny enough, old “Toots” fakes playing the harmonetta with a bouncy rhythm unrelated to the song playing. Yes. These teens are confused.




Decent location filming is used for a car chase of sorts. Despite the phony automobile sound effects, it is the only “real” element in the film. But the rising star seems fixated on death, alternating between violence and kindness. He angers a jealous actor with his T-Bird convertible, trying to make him crash on a highway. He nearly hits a girl at one point and the script brings them together later in the library. After reconsidering nearly being crippled for life, she makes googly-eyes at this rich, cute guy. She becomes interested in his odd thinking and helps him consider other things besides death. Like a future together. Driving lessons. They even share two Cokes to seal their friendship. A Coke and a smile.




His drama coach and life-guide is a Greta Garbo-looking and sounding actress, Lilyan Chauvin, who seeks counsel from a mental health expert, asking why this talented boy is consumed with death. Could be this picture. In another amateur scene, she tries to break through to him, hoping he will appreciate the talent he has to offer. They have a very close relationship but they never, ever shared a Coke. Their long conversations are excruciating to sit through which explains my own thoughts about death.

One dark and stormy night. Okay. It was not stormy. He drives his T-Bird, along with his self-portrait painting, at high speed seemingly ready to meet his Maker. Painting and all. He stops at the lake where he first fell in love with Coke girl and realizes his life does have a future. His real intention was to toss the painting into the lake and symbolically drown his past. One look at his painting talent says it was a good plan. The film ends with some final wisdom from the adult narrator. As for the girl in the negligee featured in the lobby poster, she is not in this film. 

With a budget that would raise no one’s eyebrows and high school level interior sets, this HOWCO International production would have been more accurately produced by, HOWCOME International.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

CRY VENGEANCE (1954)


Not many films of any era are centered in Ketchikan, Alaska. There is not much noir with this location and it is one reason the film just does not excite. There are no night scenes and barely a shadow is cast, except on the poster. By the mid-fifties film noir was getting stale, often using recycled scripts. This film is a good example.
Mark Stevens stars and directs this familiar story about a vengeful San Francisco ex-cop who loses his wife and daughter in a bomb explosion. Himself disfigured in one of the more obvious latex make-up jobs in show business. Being framed and spending three years in prison makes a man self-obsessed, too.



The film also stars Douglas Kennedy, the hoodlum on Steven’s revenge list who he believes is responsible for destroying his life. Kennedy is assuming a new life with his young daughter. When they meet, Kennedy tries to reason with him but Stevens goes a bit psychotic talking about how Kennedy is going to suffer.


Adding a bit of scenery to the otherwise gray landscape is Frontier Tavern owner, Martha Hyer, the calm and level-headed equalizer for the disturbed Stevens. In one interior scene she wears an out-of-place spaghetti-strapped cocktail dress while on duty in the rustic, wooden tavern. Ahh...summer in Ketchikan. She and Kennedy are close but she becomes more attracted to Stevens and soon understands why he is in Alaska.
But the showstopper is the unhinged hitman, Skip Homeier, and his bleached white hair, black thick-rimmed glasses and bow tie. Pee Wee Herman’s evil brother. In less than three minutes into the film he makes a bad impression on Stevens and the audience. His smart-aleck, condescending tone deserving a fist in the face. He tracks Stevens to Ketchikan. Pretty visually funny when he slowly pops up in the backseat of Kennedy’s studio prop car. For his amusement, Homeier skips a stone across a lake after killing Kennedy in cold blood.



The dialogue is mundane, lacks snap, except for one brief scene when Joan Vohs, Homeier’s lush-friend, shows up at the tavern to warn Stevens. She asks the bartender for a drink unfamiliar to Alaskans. A screwdriver. Puzzled, the bartender asks, “Somethin’ loose?” She replies, “Comedy, yet. You drink it, Hyrum!” “The name’s Rusty.” “So’s your sense of humor.” She eventually returns to Homeier’s room. Sick of seeing her drunk again, his remedy is for her to take one bullet and not see him in the morning.
Knowing nothing of Kennedy’s demise, Stevens’ plan to kidnap his daughter as payback quickly disintegrates. With child-like acceptance, she is glad to see him again and kisses him on the latex side of his face. She asks Stevens to return the kiss, like her daddy does, and this nearly crushes him. A rather touching and pivotal scene of surrender.
After a slow mountain car chase, more dusty than exciting, Stevens finally catches Homeier, his real target, on top of a dam. Homeier oddly points his gun down and to the right, getting off two shots. Nearly hitting the dam. Some hitman! Stevens’ directing took a more direct hit. Stevens’ aim is more true and Homeier stumbles. 
Cleared of any wrongdoing, Stevens returns to San Francisco but leaves the viewer open to the possibility he might return someday (yawn) to start a new family with Hyer and Kennedy’s little girl.