Saturday, July 30, 2016

MURDER BY CONTRACT (1958)


From the film’s opening scene you experience the seemingly mundane life of an ordinary man. Perry Botkin’s minimalist guitar score, befitting an avant garde film, fits the quirky central character, played by Vince Edwards. The music is subdued and disengaged from any particular scene and you may have the tune plunking in your head for another twenty-four hours. It belies a hired killer premise. Yet in the same unusual way Edwards dispatches his contract hits, it is appropriate. He is smart, cautious and creative. Added with some great camera points of view, this eighty-one minute film has cult classic written all over it. The shoestring budgeted film may bore you or enthrall you.

Although Edwards has a decent job and pension, he wants to be a “contractor” to bring in money faster. He sets up a meeting with a former mob boss. Edwards knows nothing about contract killing. Never done it before. But in a Career Builder upgrade, he would like to kill people for money. After waiting nearly two weeks for a return call, all the while staying fit by doing pull-ups and push-ups in his apartment, Edwards’ first contract is a local barber. Getting a bad haircut is not taken lightly in these parts. He poses as a barber in period white apron with banded collar. He later uses same apron to pose as a medical doctor with a stethoscope accessory. We quickly notice that our film has edited in a scene from Ben Casey! His most recent contract is the former mob boss himself. Now that he has reached an acceptable level of murder, he is sent to Los Angeles where henchmen, Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine pick him up at the train station. In sunglasses and a calm, restrained voice similar to one Dirty Harry will make famous, Edwards just wants to see Los Angeles before doing anything else. He loves LA. We ride along with an in-car camera for awhile. A real treat as there are plenty of humorous studio projected backdrops signaling a limited budget. Edwards soon starts acting like he is in charge and will take care of the hit when he is good and ready. Pine's patience is running thin. A nervous guy who is beside himself with Edwards’ superior attitude.


Edwards is there to kill a high profile witness, played by Caprice Toriel, in her only acting role, to testify against the henchmen’s own boss. She has a pretty nasty and ungrateful attitude toward her in-house police protection. To be fair, it is her lack of acting experience in finding the right balance between frayed nerves and anger. Edwards is visibly upset when he is informed the hit is not a man. Men are creatures of habit. Predictable. Women are unpredictable. Hard to read.



Reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote, in a complicated process he wires her TV to explode when she turns it on. But he did not count on a remote control keeping her a distance from the set. Drat! Next, Edwards searches a sporting goods store for the right weapon. A rapier? No. At one point he stops to consider a gatling gun! With tight security at the witness’ home, the only way to kill her is to get her to the front door. As a distraction, he trains Bernardi’s accuracy in the use of an amateur’s bow and arrow to shoot kerosene-tipped arrows into the nearby brush. Had no idea it was that difficult to shoot an arrow randomly in the air, potentially setting half of California to flames. Despite Edwards’ aversion to guns it is the only way. He pulls the trigger on the high-powered rifle as she opens the door. She falls.

In a sequence that may leave you scratching your head, thinking the DVD has skipped ahead several minutes (or days) or you missed an earlier appearance, out of the blue appears Kathy Browne, female escort. Apparently Edwards called an agency asking for a companion for the evening. Why he is not in a good mood is odd. He has completed his contract and he is home free. Obviously, he has issues with women in general. It is not a particularly fun encounter for her as he treats her with disdain because no one could possibly live up to his superior expectations. His disrespectful comments roll right off her, however. Her role as a slightly ditsy, unassuming lady is noteworthy, yet odd when after only a few sips of wine, she instantly becomes a bit tipsy. She freely shares inside information about who was actually murdered at the door and the newspaper headlines were fake. All of which reveals why she was written into the script. Visibly rattled, Edwards now knows he actually had killed an undercover policewoman. Double drat!


With the second foiled attempt, Bernardi and Pine now have orders to take out Edwards but he kills them both instead. Edwards obtains ACME survey blueprints of the estate and notes a large drainage pipe leading to the house. Once at the house, he appears to crawl through an outdoor fireplace which miraculously leads to a metal door in the very room where a policemen is dozing. At this point, the film starts falling short of a perfect ending. Overtaking the officer with a blow to the head, he assumes the relief officer on duty as Toriel enters the room. An accomplished musician, she begins playing the piano to help calm her nerves. In fact, Edwards demands she play. And look straight ahead. She sees him take off his tie yet she still is able to play the correct notes. I said she was accomplished. He reaches a reality point and does not have the nerve to strangle her. He should have bought the gatling gun. She vows not to scream if he leaves. The police throw tear gas down the drainage pipe during his escape. Triple drat! It makes for an abrupt if not disappointing ending. Perhaps a better ending (which has since been done many times) would have had Edwards leave Los Angeles after the Browne encounter and then be tracked down in his own style of sophisticated, unsuspecting elimination in a twist of fate.



This is a B-movie that seems a decade ahead of itself in a number of ways. I recommend it. One of those quirky gems that few recall. Edwards is fine as a disturbed, angry human with no regard for the sanctity of life. To overcompensate for his aberrant behavior he has developed a superior attitude toward everyone else. I imagine this film disturbed a lot of young minds and fully understand Martin Scorsese being highly influenced it.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

GANGSTER STORY (1959)


This sixty-five minute film, released at the very end of 1959, appears to be the first leading role for Walter Matthau after nearly being invisible in various television episodes and supporting film roles. It is also his directorial debut and curtain call. A low budget cult wannabe film through which we begin to see the subtle Matthau humor that will define his career. The canned stock background music has no relationship with the scenes. Just awful. One element the director was oblivious to. As always, there are many unintentionally funny moments for today’s viewers.

The opening blues combo title song, “The Itch for Scratch,” (clever) is sung by a warbling Ted Stanford over shaky film of a bank vault and period typeface. It screams low budget. About 75 grand worth. Stanford was virtually unknown at the time and has remained so to this day. A guy who needed a gig. Any gig. His voice gets so quiet at times it is hard to understand the lyrics, in which every other verse rhymes. I think. The bank vault transitions to a wet night scene and then to a local policeman broadcasting an all-points bulletin for Matthau’s recent escape and subsequent murders. The officers at headquarters appear to be actual policemen judging by their acting. Like many early talking pictures, they act as “narrators” of the movie in the early going to keep the viewer abreast of Matthau’s latest entanglements.

In the apartment where Matthau is hiding, he calls the front desk asking for a plumber. His real objective is to steal a hammer from the plumber tool kit so he can knock off the remaining handcuff with the aid of his pocket knife. It is a crude way to get the job done and the grunts and grimaces on Matthau’s face indicates it is quite painful. A pretty effective scene.

Matthau pulls off a bank con by posing as a film director. It is a clever idea on paper but the filmed execution is too ludicrous to believe. He requests actual officer’s help in his “rehearsal” of a bank robbery scene. A rehearsal without any studio cameras. The police watch the robbery take place right under their noses, totally believing they are rehearsing. Matthau locks the bank manager in the vault and tells the officers he has to go back to the studio. The loot goes with him. The officers are beyond naive. What were their instructions from Matthau? Were they supposed to stand in front of the bank all day?

The local mob boss is upset that he is blamed for the bank job. He sets out to find Matthau at the horse race track. Matthau is quite animated when cheering for his horse to win. It all looks amateurish as if Matthau, while directing, suggested he pop in front of the camera as the real life crowd adds realism. Searching over the crowded grandstands, one mobster says astutely, “I can’t figure where he’d be in this crowd.” The segment’s edits are a nightmare, numerous and quick, in the attempt to make some sense of a difficult scene to film. Matthau escapes and tells a patron backing out of his parking space his rear tire is flat and when the driver gets out to inspect, Matthau karate chops him on the back of the neck. That was easy.

Stock library adventure music kicks in during the chase. Matthau keeps an eye on the car chasing him by looking over his shoulder. He later adjusts his rear view mirror to get a better view. What we see is a view of Matthau in the mirror looking at the camera. That seems an odd detail to include. He abandons the car in town and wanders into the local library where he meets the librarian, Carol Grace, the real life wife of Matthau. Grace, in the second of her three movie roles is somewhat comical in her big spectacles. Her soft-spoken, slightly raspy voice adds to the stereotypical librarian. She seems awkward yet cool. Matthau shows his flair for subtle humor as he asks if she has any books. He is looking for work and he is a bank robber. She never flinches. Their initial interaction is amusing when she answers all his questions with her own questions. The scene seems out of place in the film because it is quite charming.


She suggests working on her citrus farm as an extra hand. He appeared to be the only hand. The next scene he and she are a couple. First in the orchard then on the beach. Opposites do attract. Later, while running errands, she spots his wanted poster and she does not flinch. Mobster, Garry Walberg, searching for Matthau, tells his partner after spotting the library, “Let’s try this place” as if he does not recognize the singularity of a library. Matthau escapes by holding stacks of books in front of face as they pass each other coming and going. You would think that Matthau’s wrinkled overcoat might be a tip off.

Once located and apprehended, Matthau and the boss have a brief talk about big money. He joins the local mob chapter and Grace wants to go where he goes. Library work is so boring. The final big job is to hit the safe at a fancy golf resort. Matthau and pal sneak onto the course on the back nine, packing iron. Not 9 irons. The three guys in charge of the resort are none too bright and I lost all respect for the person who hired them. After knocking out a fellow golfer, Matthau tells the three stooges there is a guy on the green that is dead or something. All three rush out leaving the safe vulnerable. The crooks getaway truck does not get far as the police close in. Two things are noticeable, Matthau towers over his costars and a tall guy runs funny, stiffly, like in a comedy. And the closing shoot out is close to a comedy. Officers and crooks being shot from the oddest angles with bullets going around or over vehicles to hit their mark.

Madame Librarian has had enough of the gangster life and as quick as she fell for the gangster she just as quickly decides to leave him. He cannot figure the problem. Matthau tells her he needs her. He loves her. In a reply built for a comedy, she tells him in deadpan flair, “You never said that before and now you have.”

Matthau tells the mob boss he is through but the boss did not become the boss with benevolence. He informs the FBI of Matthau’s whereabouts but escapes to settle the score with the boss. Grace will meet Matthau in Mexico but when she hears the news report, turns the car around before the border. Still, she does not flinch. After being AWOL for who knows how long, I hope she got her librarian’s job back.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

MY GUN IS QUICK (1957)


It has long been suggested there are two things you do not discuss with your friends. Add a third. Do not discuss who was the best at portraying Mike Hammer. If you acknowledge and accept this B-movie version, Robert Bray does a decent job and generally looks formidable, toned and fit in a tee shirt. The action is limited with Bray becoming the punchee more often than not with this script. The bold sans serif lowercase opening title credits gives the impression the film is not only breaking all grammatical rules but that Bray will be breaking procedural rules as well. It was a trendy designer’s touch during this period.


Under those trendy titles, we have Bray wearily walking by storefronts at night, exhausted from two days without sleep. The makeup for his two-day facial hair growth is dark and oily. Not a stubble to be found, however. He tries later to convince you it really is a beard with a nifty electric razor he keeps in his office. A practice that had a limited run. Stopping in a diner, he meets a young woman fresh from the Midwest who has been trying to make survival money any way she can. For shame. Bray notices she is wearing a unique ring which he later learns is part of a famous jewel collection smuggled out of Nazi Germany during World War II. How about that?!

From his Ford Fairlane convertible, Bray tails a suspect in two murders centered around the jewel collection. It is a long film-reel-eating sequence but the ride is authentic enough with in-car camera and location shoots. Still, budget dictates the usual studio prop cars with back-scrim footage. The suspect disappears at Whitney Blake’s beachside home. The suspect is confronted by Bray and Blake. Words are exchanged. She fires her butler on the spot. It is a scene that seems to have little consequence to the story at that point. With that stressful situation behind her, she asks Bray if he can handle a boat. He says, “I can handle anything.” Do tell. While on the open water we hear the sob story of Blake’s life with Bray seemingly more interested in boating. Blake seems oblivious to his wise counsel as well. Her story seems a bit too polished.

While in Europe she rented the house to an Army Colonel, played by Donald Randolph, the man who smuggled the jewels to California. He has lost track of their location due to his ten year prison term for the theft. His embodiment of the character seems an odd choice as he comes off more a dapper, sometimes witty, underworld kingpin than an Army vet. He and Bray verbally spar yet Randolph likes his bluntness. He feels they will get along fine and asks for Bray’s help to locate the jewels. Patricia Donahue is one of the colonel’s companions in another of her condescending, smirking roles who always seems amused by whomever she is with. In the end, all is sorted out with guns blazing and the jewels located. A murder rap awaits one, while another has reserved a room at the state prison.


In the only noir element, outside the opening, Bray is jumped and beaten in a darkened room by stuntmen. It is obvious they are pulling their punches in precise choreographed form. Bray lies bruised and bleeding on the floor while a high wailing trumpet sums up Bray’s consequence. A lone neon sign flashes from dark to light over his body.

I am safe in saying Robert Bray was not going to reprise this role again yet he makes the film better. It is not a bad film despite obvious budget restraints. There are numerous one-liners that could have worked but the script did not include any. Bray could have delivered those pretty well. Instead his comebacks are not very clever. One exception might be his comment about his curvaceous secretary, Velda, played by Pamela Duncan. Bray’s pet name for her is “Beautiful.” For the first couple of weeks after she started working for him, he could not take his eyes off her. But she is smart, too. He says “she has a brain that figures all the angles. I only figure the curves.” Rim shot! 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

TELEVISION’S INTEGRAL CHARACTER

VERN ST. CLOUD

In my previous “Integral Characters” entry of March 6, I introduced a recurring and integral character, Richie Brockelman, from The Rockford Files. If Rockford ever had a sidekick, Richie would fit in the traditional sense. One of the more amusing characters to appear in multiple episodes was also in Rockford’s line of work. But this character is a royal pain. Obnoxious. Nobody wants to see him let alone work with him. He cheats his way through cases, all the while complaining about how unfair life is to him. He is a bore and a blowhard. The character is Vern St. Cloud, played perfectly by Simon Oakland.

Here is a glimpse into the three episodes in which St. Cloud appeared on The Rockford Files. Vern is another integral supporting character who establishes credibility for the series. We can assume within the vast Los Angeles metro area there are many private detectives. Inevitably, St. Cloud and Rockford will cross paths.

Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, but Waterbury will Bury You
Rockford’s first meeting with St. Cloud, Season 3, is not a pleasant experience. As Rockford exits his Firebird late at night and he gets hit over the head from behind. When Rockford rises to his feet he finds St. Cloud all smiles in a Marquees of Queensberry boxing stance. Rockford is amused by it. Until he gets punched twice in the face. Jim realizes this guy is serious and punches him in the stomach so hard, Vern drops to his knees and begs for ulcer mercy. Jim pulls out St. Cloud’s wallet and barks, “Vern St. Cloud. Okay. What’s your problem? Rabies?!”

After complaining about his ulcer, St. Cloud confesses that he thought Rockford might be his only lead in finding a difficult to locate suspect. St.Cloud along with some other Los Angeles private investigators have lost their P.I. license. Cleavon Little also stars as Billy Merrihew, another P.I. out of work, who is also involved in the same case as St. Cloud.


Rockford discovers a mega investigating company, Waterbury Security Systems, has been framing and eliminating some independent investigators, padding their client list. St. Cloud has no optimism whatsoever with Rockford’s plan and spends his energy complaining that it will not work. Rockford tells him,  “It will work and you are going to do it, Vern!” St. Cloud creates a diversion, threatening to jump from atop of the Waterbury’s 16 storey building, beer bottle in hand, while Jim and Billy grab enough evidence to convict certain members of the Waterbury. As the story wraps with a successful ending, Rockford and Merrihew suggest the three grab a drink together. St. Cloud, visibly uncomfortable with the thought of social interaction, says no thanks because on a week or two they will all be competing again, “Dog eat dog!” The stinger is that Vern has to undergo a psychiatric evaluation because of his “suicide” attempt and his despondency. Vern states jokingly, “Imagine me, despondent!”

The House on Willis Avenue
While attending the funeral of a legendary Los Angeles P.I., St. Cloud causes a disturbance and accuses Richie Brockelman of trying to bleed the widow with a supposed case. The late P.I.’s office is bugged, unknown to St. Cloud, who is snooping around and making “free” long distance calls on the deceased’s office phone. Two operatives barge through the door and


Vern finds himself at gunpoint. He is shuttled off to a parking garage where Garth McGregor, played by Jackie Cooper, has his car hooked up to a lie detector with Vern’s ride. St. Cloud is scared to death and quickly confesses about trying pick up another case from the deceased’s files. Things are tough all over for him plus the expense of a minor surgery coming up and all. MacGregor realizes Vern knows nothing that would jeopardize him and tells his operative to take him out and cut him. Vern is in a panic over the “cut him” phrase fears his end is near. It simply meant to cut him from the electronic equipment. McGregor’s right hand man, Pernell Roberts, tells him, “Vern, when you go in for that surgery, don’t let them take out any guts. You’re running short as it is.”

Nice Guys Finish Dead
Though a bit less integral to this episode, Simon Oakland’s final appearance as Vern St. Cloud is in Season 6 of The Rockford Files. He is the emcee for the local Goodhue Award ceremony honoring outstanding detective work for the year. He is disgruntled that Rockford is even nominated and has few words of praise when introducing him. Afterall, Rockford did nothing


more than check record files which corrected a timing error in a case which changed court laws forever. Larry Manetti plays St. Cloud’s nephew who is a chip off the old block. Just the site of Rockford disgusts him. But when Vern introduces another nominee, Lance White, played by Tom Selleck, it is with endless praise and endorsements. This is one of the most memorable episodes of the series thanks to the chemistry between Garner and Selleck and the whole idea of an annual detective award ceremony, which, after a fashion, did exist in LA at the time. Lance, Mr. Perfect, praises Rockford’s work and says he voted for him. Rockford feels sheepish because he voted for himself.

Simon Oakland’s Vern St. Cloud character is a standout guest star. After losing his license in his first appearance on Garner’s show, he has to work at his brother-in-law’s shoe store. The latter losing patience each day with Vern. When demanded to locate a specific shoe in bone for a lady who has been waiting a long time, Vern scans the stack of boxes and completely gives up. He cannot even focus on the shoebox labels. A character with little patience who prefers to expend as little effort as possible to get what he wants.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

THREE CAME TO KILL (1960)


Cameron Mitchell seems to continue his role from “Inside The Mafia” in another association with this Robert Kent Production. This is his film and he commands your attention. Told with opening voice over narration in the style of  ABC’s ”Untouchables” series, the device gives the viewer the impression this is based on a true story. But the script is sufficiently perforated with some illogical action and editing. The Los Angeles International Airport stock footage and location shoots of vintage autos will make most transportation historians perk up. The limited budget also requires a good share of studio backdrops yet Kent can usually improve a small budget.



The film opens behind the United Nations building where a foreign interpreter is gunned down in a back alley. Mitchell and his partner, Steve Brodie, exit in a Mercury land yacht as it bobs and weaves over the pavement. The story quickly shifts to Los Angeles where special agent, Paul Langton, arrives from New York on a plastic scale model Lockheed Constellation and deboards an actual Douglas DC-6. Script perforation No. 1: the film’s editor is not interested in following through with the correct aircraft from one scene to another. Langton’s job is to get ahead of possible repercussions from the U.N. killing, hoping to avoid the assassination of a Middle East Prime Minister in seclusion in Beverly Hills. No motor lodge for him. Langton is assisted by a special agent and a local investigator played by King Calder. Calder again comes off authentic in every detail though his screen time is limited. They establish a secret route for the Prime Minister to arrive at the airport safely and return to his country.

Mitchell is the over confident paid assassin to kill the Prime Minister and he will do it from the home of air traffic controller, John Lupton, by shooting the plane’s fuel supply on the runway as the engines power up before takeoff. That might make some sense if you stop watching the film at the twenty minute point. Script perforation No. 2: the studio backdrop film showing the runways appear to be nearly a mile away. Script perforation No. 3: nevermind that Mitchell’s Fisher-Price map has the house on the wrong side of the runway. Nevertheless, Mitchell and Brodie abduct Lupton outside his house and everyone settles in to hear Mitchell boast about his perfect plan in overtones from the movie, “Suddenly.”

Mitchell vows to not hurt Lupton, his wife, her visiting sister and boyfriend if they just go about their daily routine. But the audience is skeptical. He breaks his vow immediately, threatening everyone with a gun to the stomach. Actually not part of their daily routine. Brodie brings a radio to pick up the control tower chatter (Mitchell calls him a genius as he tunes in the tower) but he is annoyed at those “stinkin’ jets!” flying over drowning out the radio. Commercial jets had only been in service less than two years and Brodie does not like the future. As the tense afternoon wears on, Lupton is ordered back to the tower and when the plane is ready for takeoff he is to use a specific phrase signaling Mitchell when to shoot. If he does not follow through, he will start killing his family. Script perforation No. 4: it is harder to hear over any radio a written note being passed to the authorities in the tower of the situation. Brodie rapidly returns with news of the passed note. Mitchell is angry. He grabs his revolver and to look the part, puts on his hat before approaching the room where the family and a previously wounded federal agent are being held captive. Script perforation No. 5: why he puts on a hat is mysteriously funny. He opens the door to find the wounded special agent holding a shotgun at him. Mitchell quickly closes the door and perforates it with bullets.



Script perforation No. 6 or is it 7? I am losing track. He made it a point earlier to Lupton that he must level one table leg to stabilize his world renowned shot. Another nod to “Suddenly.” Yet when it comes time to shoot the plane he simply breaks the window and from a standing position aims for the plane. The one about a mile away. Fortunately, he is jumped as he prepares to shoot. By then the police arrive to level the playing field in a hail of bullets. With the Prime Minister’s plane, a Boeing Stratocruiser, safely in the air it transforms into a DC-6 after takeoff. A final curtain call for the film’s editor.

Mitchell comes off flamboyant as the “big shot” getting set for his big shot. His arrogance blinds his reasoning. The authorities knew who he was thanks to some final words from the U.N. victim. Something Mitchell said was impossible. When he makes people dead they stay dead. If that is not embarrassing enough, they know he drives a Ford Edsel. The film does not give Brodie much to do with his limited screen dialogue but it is good to see him in another of his typecast roles. Lupton is competent and believable. With enough implausibility to elicit a groan or two, the film moves along quite well. This would have been a more stunning television drama, however.