Saturday, August 27, 2016

MISSING WOMAN (1951)


This is a fun way to spend sixty minutes with one of the most abrupt endings in B-moviedom. The story moves along in tidy fashion, leaving much of the 35mm film on the cutting room floor, yet it will task your suspended disbelief sensibilities. Standard night scenes of the era were created with filters along with a limited use of studio backdrop driving scenery. There is a fair share of location filming however and one brief chase scene for the auto and highway patrol motorcycle enthusiast.

Taller than many actresses of her era, pretty Penny Edwards plays the title character. We have no background on her character other than she is a newlywed. She and her husband’s honeymoon auto is hijacked by two car thieves, James Millican and John Alvin. Millican puts a slug in her gallant husband and with a blow to the head, she falls forward on the steering wheel. The depressed horn continues, signaling local officers patrolling the area. Her character then becomes implausibly polished to pull off the potentially deadly scheme she has in mind. Maybe she was a former FBI agent.




While being questioned by the local authorities, Edwards gets the idea to go undercover to locate the killer of her husband and report his location to the police. She has a lot of savvy for this sort of thing and certainly knows how to bamboozle everyone. All we know is she has experience utilizing a fake persona. Five years on Broadway? Her assumed photographic memory comes into play as she only briefly reads a prisoner’s rap sheet but has all the details down pat. Apparently women come in handy as a distraction during a car heist, so she goes from brunette to Edward’s natural blonde hair in a complete reversal of television’s Richard Kimball. She rolls with every conversation like a pro. We are not sure at what point she will feel in over her head with this charade, but you know it is coming.

She gets the honor of meeting Robert Shayne, the boss of the chop-shop. In an awkward scene, after she is driven to the shop location to look around and meet all the nice fellows, Alvin bids her goodbye until later. She walks out the side door and I wonder where she is going. She has no car. She has no place of her own. The director must have dozed off during the dailies.

Per usual, there are bits of unintentionally funny scenes for twenty-first century replays. Bureau of Missing Persons officer, James Brown, gets a tip on Edward’s whereabouts but it is so screwy, her being undercover and all, he tells his superior he might as well file it in the trash can. The superior, in a serious reply, “Never file anything in the trash can.” Oh...right chief. And another. Edwards knew one thief by the name of Hans and with that to go on the superior officer writes down “Hands” on the backboard. He spends countless hours trying to make sense of the nickname and make a connection with it. James Brown enters the room and erases the “D” and suddenly the mystery is solved.

Police locate Edwards and she begs to go back and help round up Shayne and gang. They seem to think it is quite dangerous to return but tell her to try and stay alive. Bolstered with that encouragement, her missing person’s reward poster is spotted by Alvin and her undercover work appears to be coming to an end. We learn that everyone in a chop-shop carries a gun. The ending shootout with police includes the trademark Republic Pictures gun sound from their many westerns. And then the film ends abruptly. The director looked at his watch and announced we are done here, folks. Edwards transitions to television in the 1960s and retires. Abruptly.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

INTENT TO KILL (1958)


This is a pretty effective drama/thriller directed by Jack Cardiff, famed cinematographer. More effective than the paid assassins in the film. Shot during a cold, snowy season in Montreal, the movie opens with a climatic score (over a blaring ambulance siren) yet we are only into the film’s first two minutes. Perhaps not that peculiar as it anticipates what is ahead. But one expects something drastic to happen at any moment but the only “excitement” is the quiet and careful deboarding of a South American president, Herbert Lom, who has been transported to Montreal for personal safety and special surgery on his potentially fatal cranial blood clot. Having previously survived an assassination attempt, the fire escape outside his window makes him nervous and requests a move to another room. A nice touch in the film’s early going as who knows what goes up or down those steps all hours of the day or night. To help comfort him, he asks a nurse to bring him his statue of the patron saint of assassination.

Lom’s political opponents have hired hitmen, Warren Stevens, John Crawford and Peter Arne in an effort to kill Lom for good. They are taking orders from Lom’s personal aide, a detail unaware to Lom. Crawford and Arne do not get along. Stevens has to bring the hammer down on Crawford for his attitude and his absences for drinking and womanizing. Arne, a former doctor, is to administer a needle full of air into Lom’s vein. Stevens’ scouting made him aware about Lom’s move to another room and informs Arne after his deed while sitting in the rear seat of their automobile. He forgot to mention this to Arne. Sorry about that.

Mixed into this assassination plot are surgeon, Richard Todd, and his nagging, self-centered wife, Catherine Boyle, who has arranged for him to take a high-paying position back in London. The high-paying part is of special interest to her. Todd has no interest except in fellow doctor, Betsy Drake. Judging by Boyle’s effective, irritating performance, most viewers might feel Todd deserves better. Meanwhile, the personal aide is hoping for a future with Lom’s beautiful wife once he has been dispatched.


As Lom recovers, he comes to the conclusion that the two may be romantically involved or plotting to kill him. The hitmen, determined not to lose their payoff, become even more incompetent leading to confrontations in the hospital. Arne tries once again to needle Lom but a detective assigned for protection asks him to identify himself. I would say Arne loses his cool at this point but he never had any from the start. Todd volunteers as a lookout in the stairway entrance and Drake joins him. Crawford shows and threatens Drake at gunpoint to vouch for Arne. She stumbles over a  question from the detective answering, “He...he is...doctor...watch out!” An unusual name to be sure. The detective falls from Arne’s bullet. What is funny are the gunshots which sound like cap pistols. Would not hurt a fly. The film takes a nosedive from this bad sound edit alone and barely recovers. Arne gets a bullet in return and when Crawford enters the hall, sends Arne to eternity by shooting him a few times. Nice knowin’ ya, bub.

Todd tangles with Crawford, who leaps down a flight of stairs in swashbuckling form that Dr. Peter Blood would envy. Todd jumps on Crawford again and their struggle crashes both through a window where they fall to the pavement below. Crawford is arrested and Todd is due for surgery to remove Crawford’s cap pistol bullet.

As confusion and chaos rages in the hospital, Stevens assumes the role of an authoritarian figure, ordering nurses and orderlies around. Very official. It manages him to enter Lom's temporarily unguarded room to perform a quick hit. Barely inside the room, he discovers Lom knows how to use that statue in a manner he could never have anticipated.

It is a decent, forgettable film with competent performances. I can forgive Lom’s dull performance owing to his brain surgery. Alexander Knox possesses his role as the chief surgeon and wise counsel. Stevens stays cool and calm despite being a failure at the boss level. In an odd Todd closing, prior to going under before surgery, Drake leans over next to his face and quietly says, “Breathe deeply.” Outside of that common medical order, one could spend some time debating why that line ends the film.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

THE GREAT ST. LOUIS BANK ROBBERY (1959)


The mere mention of Steve McQueen makes this movie more well known. Even early in his career he gets top billing which tells you something about the other actors in the film. With the exception of Crahan Denton, they are virtual unknowns. This is a solid docu-drama based on the actual 1953 robbery. Everything is filmed on location and for the historical transportation geek, it is an eyeful.

The opening score has a brief solo piano segment giving the film a macabre aura, befitting the gloomy, chilly autumn period. Not many would choose to meet under a park shelter in this weather so one could assume the meeting is of a serious nature. It looks suspicious. The sound department’s inclusion of a crow’s “caw-caw” adds to the stark scene. McQueen walks into this first scene like his feet hurt. Soft-spoken, nervous and with no criminal record, he is hired as the getaway driver. He just wants to drive. This meant nothing in 1959, but it is telling to McQueen fans today.

Crahan Denton looks the part as the heist’s mastermind, in dark overcoat and fedora hat, who plans on this being his last haul. His facial features and a permanent frown are a dead giveaway of his troubled past, his distrust of women in general and a guy you do not want to cross.



Number two man, David Clarke, is a loose cannon, claustrophobic from a prison term and seems to take the seriousness of the heist rather flippantly. He vouches for McQueen because his sister, Molly McCarthy, dated McQueen in college. She agrees to meet McQueen in a tavern where the most out of tune player piano in St. Louis is plunking away. Despite his denials, she suspects he is going down the wrong path, thanks to her loser brother, and tries to talk him out of it. Her acting is a weak point. None worse than when, later, almost hysterically, between a laugh and a cry, drunk and sober, writes in lipstick on the bank window that it will be robbed. Her male companion thinks she is loony as she keeps repeating, “But it’s funny. Isn’t it funny?! Don’t you think it’s funny?!” He does not. Neither did I. Her acting is very forced, lacking any believability. Her singsong voice is also annoying.

Number four crime partner, James Dukas, is jealous of McQueen because he wanted to drive the escape vehicle. Like a child throwing a tantrum, through his smart-aleck smile and taunting, does everything he can to discredit the young McQueen.


When Denton finds out about the lipstick tip-off at the bank, thanks to Dukas’ spying, he is livid with McQueen, who has been denying he ever saw McCarthy in the first place. But Dukas gets his wish and becomes the driver. Denton threatens to call off the whole thing. Alone in his room, under the pressure and real fear the robbery will fail miserably, he momentarily breaks down emotionally. It is powerful, but brief, scene for Denton.

Clarke suggests his sister go back to Chicago, leaving her in the care of Denton. Along the way, down the outdoor fire escape, Denton goes a bit nuts with mental flashbacks of the women who have ruined his life, including his mother. He becomes mesmerized by the long flight of stairs and they compel him to shove McCarthy down them. In the midst of the failed robbery, McQueen asks Denton what happened to her. In evil disgust, Denton growls, “What do think, punk!” A line which may have given Clint Eastwood a cue for delivery. It is a tough scene illustrating the futility of these criminals. The shootout is relentless by any standard and a cloud of doom covers the robbers. One, in total despair, commits suicide off camera. A scene that probably shocked moviegoers to close out the Fifties. McQueen predicted Dukas would chicken out behind the wheel. True to form, he panics and drives away leaving his “pals” to fend for themselves.

A nice stylistic touch from the director is worth noting. When McQueen makes a call from a phone booth we do not hear his voice, only his actions talking to McCarthy. Her voice is the one we hear, replying to McQueen. And as a testament to how patient people used to be, she asks the customers to hold while she takes his brief call. Not one customer threw a hissy fit.



There is a fine and somewhat humorous early scene for McQueen. As a test, Denton wants him to find an out of state license plate in the supermarket parking lot where they are parked. He does not want to do it but Denton insists. Adding sensory perception to the scene are the sound department’s obligatory horn honks in the distance. McQueen finds a vehicle and bends down quickly behind the car. While crouched down he is startled to see a man walk behind him, between cars, but he continues down the line. McQueen hears an engine roar and wonders where it is. He is immediately surprised when the car he is crouched behind accelerates away from him, leaving McQueen puzzled and Denton nervous watching from a distance.

A McQueen trademark is improvising little details of his character. In the process of unscrewing that license plate, his hand “slips” and he acts like he cut his finger, sucking on the “wound.” Another is when he places his hand briefly on McCarthy’s martini glass just before leaving, in an awkward, “what do I do now” moment. Later, when she discovers him with Clarke, who is supposed to be in Chicago, McQueen’s temperature rises from embarrassment. He wipes “sweat” from his forehead, giving authentication to his character. What is less believable, however, is his apparent mental breakdown after the robbery is foiled. An extreme and sudden emotional turnabout which I found, though possible, not very likely.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

ONE WAY STREET (1950)


For the first twenty-five minutes this barely noir film appears to have potential with its dark shadows and the moody, waiting game atmosphere of poker. The film starts strong with a wounded criminal, a girl who belongs somewhere and the whine of Dan Duryea’s voice. But it all falls apart in the vast middle, becoming a predictable romantic melodrama. It is as if you changed channels and watched another movie before returning for the final ten minutes of noir. Even with a couple of A-list actors, this disappointing film goes nowhere but Mexico City. The opening music theme is befitting a soap opera, which should have been my clue.

Perennial bad guy, Duryea, plays the gangster mastermind of a recent bank job. His partners are William Conrad, King Donovan and Jack Elam. The latter in such a brief role, it is irrelevant here. The mobsters travel with their own doctor, James Mason, who immediately has to attend to Conrad’s flesh wound. In the mix is Marta Toren, who is supposed to be Duryea’s girl but she loves Mason. Mason does not trust the group. Toren in general, Duryea specifically. The slickest scene in the film has Mason giving Duryea something for his headache. Over the years a standard procedure after a tense heist. Mason closes his medical bag and also the matching bag with the 200 grand. He intends to walk out with the loot and Toren wants to go with him. Guns are drawn on Mason but he tells Duryea the “aspirin” he took will actually put him into convulsions in under two hours if he is not given the antidote. Without it, he will die. Since Mason has the knowledge about the antidote, all three watch Mason and Toren leave. Sweating, Duryea hopes Mason’s long distance call with the antidote will come true. Donovan is particularly out of sorts over his disappearing share of loot and in a rage attempts to shoot him from their second story apartment. Duryea, literally, calls the shots in the gang and a bullet releases Donovan’s share. The King is dead.

The nervous couple is off to Mexico as quickly as possible because the pill Mason gave Duryea was a placebo. The next forty-five minutes is a completely different film. But you will have plenty of time to fix that sandwich or wash your car. Mason’s medical practice becomes useful to the locals and as he warms to Toren’s advances, both appear to be living happily ever after. One wonders if Duryea and Conrad have already started work on their next picture because it does not appear as though we will see them again in this one. Thankfully, Mason and Toren want to be free of their past and both think it best to return the money and end this film noir like it started.


Mason arrives on a dark, rainy night to find that Conrad has double-crossed Duryea, mortally wounding him. Conrad demands Mason take the stack of bills out of the leather bag and place them on the table. Stack after stack, Mason complies. But a surprise awaits Conrad with a bullet out the bottom of the bag. Mason and Toren meet in the pouring rain and happily embrace. With great relief he confesses, “I really thought my number was up today.” Never say that at the end of a predictable film noir. Let us just say he should have looked both directions when crossing the street, especially if it is not a one way street.