Saturday, June 25, 2016

THE CAT BURGLAR (1961)


This film opens with night moves by petty thief, Jack Hogan, climbing on balconies and roofs in his cat burglar apparel, a black sweatshirt and a flat cap. Hogan shines as the burglar, giving the distinct impression we are watching a young James Caan. When his character audibly shares his inner thoughts his vocals pull it off with a natural flair. The film feels promising, too, when accompanied by the opening Buddy Bregman jazz score. Some location shooting and numerous period vehicles helps bolster the limited budget. The story, written by Leo Gordon, prolific television actor, screenwriter, novelist and all-around burly guy, has a subplot which I did not see coming so some kudos are in order for this. But this is a solid B-movie so expect the usual awkward scenes which have now become amusing.



Hogan steals a briefcase from June Kenny’s apartment hoping to find something of value. His usual pattern is to fence his take at a local pawn shop run by Gene Roth. Roth is effective here as the stereotypical cigar smoking owner with an annoying cough. Hogan’s contents do not bring much of value except for a notebook he thought worthless. He leaves that behind in his trash can.

Kenny, the unsuspecting briefcase courier, tells her boss/boyfriend, John Baer, about the theft and his only concern is that notebook. Without telling the viewer how, Kenny manages to locate a rotund, unkempt man in a sleazy apartment complex. He is downtown’s official informant and takes her to the pawn shop. After telling her story, Roth knows to contact the cat burglar. After paying Hogan for the briefcase contents, Roth returns the briefcase back to Kenny. Baer is not amused the notebook is still missing and verbally assaults Roth assuming he knows where it is.



Greedy mastermind, Gregg Palmer, learns of the missing case and questions his partner, Baer. In surprisingly low camera angles, we have a detailed view of his waistline and trouser cut as he comes down on Baer’s recklessness in commanding form. It demands we see his face. But the cameraman cannot find Palmer’s face in his viewfinder. Another low camera position in the film may be an experiment in the attempt for an avant garde touch. When we hear Palmer’s threatening words as he thrusts a newspaper’s damaging headline at Baer, it is immediately followed by six descending notes of doom from a trombone, da-da-dum, da-da-dum. It is the funniest element in the film and repeated often just when you would expect it. The very same quintessential notes of doom used for years in many comedy skit parodies.

Before dumping the notebook, Hogan tore out a couple pages to level his teetering dresser which his motel owner refuses to fix until he pays his rent. He arranges to get the notebook back to Kenny after a rather ambitious plan for a guy who calls himself a “crumb.” He painstakingly writes out several fake pages to fill out the notebook and get a fast hundred dollar reward.

Baer meets with Palmer who is enraged by the pages of gibberish in the notebook. Not the engineering plans for a new ICBM propulsion unit he expects to trade on the black market. I did not see the national security angle coming. They immediately head for Hogan’s motel room and Palmer’s muscle gives Hogan a thorough beating. But the thug is not quite comfortable enough. Wanting to get down to business, he takes his suit coat off, slowly rolls up his sleeves and intends to finish him off before Palmer tells him to stop. With this vicious beating, Hogan realizes that notebook must have high value.

Daffy Billie Bird, Mrs. Prattle, is the motel owner. She insists everyone pronounce it Praytel. The Praytel Motel does have a ring to it. Comically, she grumbles about being interrupted in the middle of nothing important. Drag racing legend, Tommy Ivo, plays her somewhat dimwitted son who helps Hogan locate the notebook after trash removal day. Hogan suspects Baer is up to no good.

Kenny, assuming the benefit of the doubt, tells Baer that Hogan thinks he is involved in espionage. Da-da-dum! Da-da-dum! With lies spewing left and right, she soon finds that Palmer is not a police lieutenant, either. Hogan is waiting in a warehouse full of empty, blank boxes with the notebook. As the last to enter the warehouse, Palmer releases Baer of any future and seriously wounds Hogan. At the clichéd elevated position, he and Palmer struggle, both (stuntmen) falling onto the aforementioned empty boxes to break their fall. Both die from severe paper cuts. Blood everywhere. Perhaps. You will have to watch it yourself.


At sixty-five minutes this black and white film is pretty decent for the era. Except for Kenny, whose untrained voice and stage presence hurts her performance, and the young Ivo, everyone is first rate. Admittedly, Palmer is a bit over-the-top. The music score is cool in the beginning yet becomes stale as the movie progresses with the same riff repeated over and over by the jazz combo. Bregman’s score is appropriate for the title but writing for films may not have been his forté.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

JET OVER THE ATLANTIC (1959)


With obvious roots to the “The High and The Mighty,” the result of this B-movie may have forced Guy Madison to only do foreign films from here on. Notice the first few notes of the main theme are lifted from that film as well. Not exciting enough to be a thriller, the film does fall into the disaster category. The holes in the script are numerous and the only storylines that are important is the love story between Madison and his co-star, Virginia Mayo and whether Madison is going to prison. She is not aware that FBI agent, George Raft, is assigned to arrest him for two alleged murders. Raft looks like Inspector Gadget in the opening sequence.

George McCready had one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood. A menacing growl of strength, yet respectability, that sounded like he has not gotten over a massive head cold. Here, he plays a wealthy deranged man who feels responsible for his young daughter’s death. We are not told why. He is convinced that killing all the people on the plane, including himself, will make amends. He meets a character before the flight who does his best Peter Lorre impersonation and hands over a wrapped chemical device/bomb which looks like a deli-wrapped ham. As deadly as a five pound canned ham can be up side the head, this device triggers a toxic chemical to kill the pilots. But only make the passengers sleepy. Apparently.

Those pilots begin taxing a Bristol Brittania airliner. The British-built plane that was the pinnacle of turbo-prop travel but arriving too late on the market to be a success. It was shut out by the jet airliners. So the title of this film is out of whack but to be fair, many referred to turbo-props as jet-props in the day. Admittedly, “Turbo-prop over the Atlantic” does not roll off the tongue and the advertising department could not use “Turbo-prop” in place of “Jet-Hot.” The pilots are completely unaware that when their plane takes off, it becomes a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. Continuing the poor editing trend, the plane is cruising at altitude but the insertion clip shows the landing gear still down. They probably will not have enough fuel to make New York City anyway with all that drag. There is a “rear lounge” in the plane that is large enough to be on a cruise ship. Nearing the end of the film, one asphyxiated pilot informs the passengers of their status in a voice of groggy, unintelligible doom. I suspect not very comforting to the passengers.

There are the usual annoying characters on board. All of which will only remind you of the famous Zucker Brothers air disaster production. There is a wedding for Madison and Mayo during the flight. Raft is nearly shot by McCready but Madison saves his life. Gunshots ring out several times while in flight. The script is bound and determined to bring the plane down one way or another. Autopilot saves the day after the flight crew is poisoned. Fortunately, Madison flew 4-engined planes during the war and lands the plane safely. Whew! We learn that Madison was framed and having saved everyone on board, Raft has the last words of the film, “Yeah. Quite a guy.” Guy Madison, that is.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

PITFALL (1948)


Opening in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Dick Powell is an insurance agent who is weary of his predictable life template. He and his wife, Jane Wyatt, trade humorous quips and verbal jabs in the early going as many couples might do. A son completes the family album. When he begins investigating an embezzlement case this typical family man soon changes into a life of secrets and danger. As the film progresses all humor is gradually abandoned. The actors elevate this potential B-movie and it suggests that any average family could face pitfalls quite unintentionally.

Powell is to recover some expensive gifts given to Lizabeth Scott by her boyfriend embezzler who's serving time in prison. With no particular place to go, they end up spending the day on her speedboat gift which becomes the catalyst for a romance. What is it about boats in water? Scott, with her pronounced “esses” is even more annoying when whispering. Nothing attractive or sultry about this. Not sure it was a speech impediment or she was born with bad dental development, her lip snarls on her right side and out flow the consonants resembling someone with an overbite. Scott falls into the Lauren Bacall category of actresses who are not classic beauties but have niche appeal.

Raymond Burr is cast this time as a private detective working for Powell and the insurance company. An occupation that seems legit but we soon learn he is once again a bit  psychotic and overly obsessed with Scott and wants her all to himself. In probably the largest suit in show business outside Orson Welles, he trails Powell and pummels him good. Wanting to help and knowing Powell’s address, she drives there. From curbside she tells Wyatt that she must have the wrong address. Awkward!

As the day of her jailbird lover's release from prison approaches, Scott fears for her safety. Powell is beginning to see the errors of his ways and longs for the days before he got involved with her. He has had enough of Burr as well and gives him a bit of his own medicine. Burr tells the jealous jailbird about him and he attempts to kill Powell in his darkened study. However, Powell permanently removes all worry from the jailbird’s mind of ever serving prison time again. Confident all competition has been eliminated, Burr expects Scott to go away with him. Instead, she puts him in the hospital.

Powell gives a full confession to the police department but a tougher confession is forthcoming for Wyatt. She reluctantly gives him a second chance but is not sure their relationship will ever be the same. No definitive outcomes are revealed and those are left to the viewer’s imagination. At any rate, a shaky happy ending.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955)


The early, low budget Richard Fleischer movies were noted for realism through location shooting and in-car cameras, giving credence to the scripts. “Violent Saturday” has the realism front covered but this time with a larger budget worthy of the then popular CinemaScope. Hiring Hugo Friedhofer to do the score settles the issue. From the opening scene of the obligatory bus arrival, Fleischer does not let your attention waver. Cameras weave in, out, up and down setting up scenes and characters with no loose ends. Each bank robber stationed in pivotal locations in anticipation of something. Maybe even violent. It is not without its faults, however. The script turns a typical bank robbery into a myriad of character subplots, not unlike many TV dramas today. These may generate a few chuckles in the truest soap opera sense. And there is probably at least one illogical scene that thrusts the suspension of disbelief on you. But the film is a first-rate classic.


Victor Mature gets top billing. An obvious assumption based on his leading roles from the past decade. But his supporting cast is strong, including up-and-comers, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Along with stalwarts, J. Carrol Naish and Stephen McNally, are Richard Egan, Sylvia Sidney and Virginia Leith. They even managed to work in Brad Dexter as his smarmy self.

Tommy Noonan has a creepy subplot as the awkward and emotionally challenged bank manager who moonlights as a voyeur of local nurse, Leith. He walks at night to peek into her window. He follows her around town to get closer to her. He nearly faints in one scene at the drugstore as he finds himself in a tight spot exiting, brushing between her and a display rack. It was not meant to be funny in 1955. His character is also married which makes one wonder how that is going. He is wounded this violent Saturday and Leith is the nurse monitoring him. With a sense of manliness, he confesses his weird behavior to her. She does not give it a second thought. She is actually flattered. What a gal. What an era.


Known for her somewhat wooden acting and one of the most unfortunate female voices since the silent era, Virginia Leith never made it into the big time. She was attractive enough but it is hard to describe her untrained voice. Part Gomer Pyle. Part Lizabeth Scott. When she keeps her volume low, it disguises her real danger when she smiles and talks. Her throat tightens up and all her feminine qualities vanish. Her first greeting to Egan in the drugstore is classic Leith. Her most infamous role is the decapitated woman whose head is kept alive in, “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.” Her voice was dubbed by another actress. Having the appearance of her head on a lab table and her natural voice was too shocking. But I digress.

That obligatory bus lets off McNally, the obligatory “traveling salesman.” He is soon joined by two “junior salesmen,” the sadistic nasal inhaler, Marvin, and Naish, who appears to be everyone’s favorite uncle though far from it in reality. Naish has been through this routine before and has the presence of mind to keep candy in his suit pocket in case an unruly child in the bank needs befriending. While posing as a salesman, McNally’s frequent observations have given him a well-planned heist. 

There is a somewhat humorous scene for Marvin, who knew his way around comedy. Subtle or not. It is a great scene that captures his character. Some time after McNally has reviewed the bank robbery plans, Marvin is restless. Cannot sleep. He does, however, want to talk about all the women who have messed up his life to McNally. He always went for “skinny broads.” Just skin and bones. One wife in particular was a record holder for getting colds. Then he would get her cold. Maybe fifty times. That is how he got addicted to nasal inhalers. She left him for a two-bit undertaker. The other side of his persona centers a scene around a local boy who accidentally bumps into Marvin, knocking his inhaler to the sidewalk. Uh-oh. As the boy apologizes and attempts to retrieve the inhaler, Marvin grinds the boy’s hand into the concrete with his shoe. Marvin’s character enjoyed it.


McNally fakes a visit to an Amish farm outside town in which Borgnine is the head of the household. Borgnine calls any stranger, “neighbor” and says “thee” and “wouldst thou.” It will be the perfect hideout. McNally later describes him to his partners as “a religious screwball.” Right out of the Hollywood playbook. McNally is given the obligatory glass of buttermilk as well. Nothing more refreshing in the desert! Set in the fictitious town of Bradenville, the southwest Arizona desert seems an unrealistic location for the Amish, given their expertise and dependency on growing and harvesting crops in fertile soil. But it is Borgnine’s magic pitchfork which may explain why the Amish were scripted in.


Mature’s Mercury is what the robbers need and at gunpoint he is ordered to drive to the Amish farm. Fleischer’s in-car camera goes to work and Friedhofer’s score cranks up the excitement. The bandits tie up Mature and the Amish family in the barn’s hayloft. Seeing the family of five lined up with white tape covering most of their faces is a bit unsettling, creepy, as they look less than human. Mature manages to cut the ropes around his wrists and then set the Amish free. So to speak. After the heist, the robbers return. All they want is to leave in their getaway truck. Here is one illogical setup. For some reason, Mature wants to shoot the robbers rather than let them leave in their truck. The bandits threaten to burn the barn down. Do not understand this thinking, either. “If we cannot take the truck, we’ll burn your barn down!” Take the truck. Please! I am not sure any of this is logical but it does explain Mature’s “happy ending.” They position his car in front of the barn doors. With a huge stone over the accelerator, the high revving engine is remotely shifted into gear with a rake and the car rams through. Slick. They set the car’s gas tank on fire. With little fear or knowledge that the car might explode, Mature crawls underneath the car and shoots another of the robbers. With the help of Borgnine’s pitchfork, Marvin finally kicks his inhaler habit. One could imagine the pain from a pitchfork in the back yet with medical attention it would seem survivable. I hope the jury is still out on how deep a pitchfork could be driven into a human’s back. Plenty of bones to hit. Could sever the spine. Still, it would take one monumental thrust to drive a pitchfork deep enough to be killed instantly, but that is the assumption. This stand-off scene was controversial with critics. All pitchforks had to be registered from then on. You can believe that if you want.

Mature was more useful in the copper mines during World War II. His son cannot explain why his friends think his dad is a “coward.” After the recovery of the stolen money, blowing away two criminals with a shotgun and getting wounded himself, he becomes a hero to his son and all his friends. Mature’s happy ending.