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Monthly Archives: February 2009

Cry of the City

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He’s out there somewhere…in an alley, on a roof…looking for a way out.

One of the most interesting, and the most enjoyable, aspects of the best noir pictures is the blurring of the lines between the hero and the villain. In a way, the noir world doesn’t have any real heroes, just people forced to make the best of whatever circumstances life pitches at them. Characters may be stylised, situations may be exaggerated, but the dilemmas and bad breaks that have to be faced are issues that most people can identify with on some level. I think it’s this ambiguity that ensures the enduring popularity of these films. While fashions, speech patterns and social attitudes are obviously changing all the time, human nature remains constant. Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948) is a classic manhunt thriller that toys with the viewer’s sympathy by presenting both hunter and hunted as two sides of the same coin.

Martin Rome (Richard Conte) is an Italian American hood who’s just taken one chance too many. A botched hold-up has left a policeman dead and Rome badly wounded and clinging to life. As his family and priest gather at his bedside to pray for him, the law in the shape of Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) hovers in the wings, waiting to hand down retribution. Rome is a doomed man, his killing of a cop can have only one outcome. But doomed men can be of value to desperate men, and so the vultures circle. With the knowledge that Rome has no future, crooked lawyer Niles (Berry Kroeger) tries to coax him into confessing to a murder that would let his client off the hook. When this approach doesn’t meet with any success, Niles makes the mistake of threatening Rome’s girl, Teena Riconti (Debra Paget). Now, he has a reason to live; both the police and Niles want to get their hands on Teena for their own ends. Rome needs to get out of the prison hospital, track down Niles and his accomplices, protect Teena, and try to make good his escape. All the while he’s dogged by his nemesis, the tenacious Candella, a man who seems to be on a personal crusade to run him to ground. As Rome runs and Candella pursues him, we get to see the contrasts and similarities between the two men. Both come from essentially the same background, namely poor immigrant families, but both have chosen different paths out of the urban squalor. Candella walks with the righteous, but the face of the law he presents is a rigid and largely inflexible one. He shows no mercy in his dealings with all the little people who offered assistance to the fugitive, promising instead only prosecution and punishment. As such, it is notable that Candella never receives any willing help whereas Rome has no shortage of people prepared to go the extra mile for him, albeit for their own reasons. Also, when Rome lay wounded in hospital he was surrounded by family and friends, but when Candella later suffers a similar fate his only visitor is his partner.

Hope Emerson putting the squeeze on Richard Conte.

Richard Conte’s smooth talking gangster is a fine performance. You know he’s no good but can’t help rooting for him. The fact that he gets to deliver the best lines of the script and enjoys the lion’s share of screen time is helpful of course. It’s also significant that the killing for which he’s originally wanted is never shown and is only referred to briefly. When he does off someone on screen, that character is such an unpleasant slimeball that you feel he’s justified in doing so. Victor Mature’s persistent detective, on the other hand, is hard to like. He plays a cold, judgmental man with only a trace of humanity; the scenes where he visits Rome’s family are where he comes off best, yet even there his sincerity is open to question. It’s not really any surprise that his character has doors slammed in his face where Conte has them opened invitingly to him. The supporting cast is excellent, although the real stand out is Hope Emerson. This imposing figure of a woman is a genuinely unnerving presence, and you feel she could crush Conte’s ailing Rome just for the sadistic pleasure of it.

Robert Siodmak made a lot of noir pictures, and I don’t believe any of them were poor. Cry of the City may not be his very best but it’s not far off. There are some beautifully framed shots on view, not the least of which is the final showdown between the two protagonists. He also handles the more suspenseful passages, such as Rome’s brazen escape from the hospital with a deft touch and excellent camera placement. The whole film exudes the noir atmosphere with plenty of wet sidewalks, flashing neon and wailing police sirens. I think what helps the film succeed the most is the inclusion of all the incidental characters and situations, from the Rome’s apartment with the Amercan and Italian flags hanging side by side above the mantle to the frightened immigrant doctor who’s willing to risk imprisonment to find the cash to care for his sick wife. I can’t help seeing some parallels between this film and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out in terms of theme and narrative structure, although Conte never achieves the level of pathos seen in James Mason’s dead man walking. I’d also like to mention the great score by Alfred Newman; this music was used on a number of occasions in Fox movies but its melancholy notes are the ideal accompaniment to this fatalistic production.

Cry of the City is available on DVD in a number of editions in R2. I have the German release, and I understand it’s the pick of the bunch. It was previously only possible to buy this in combination with Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo but it is now available in a stand alone edition. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the transfer which has very good contrast, is sharp, and displays next to nothing in the way of damage. There have been rumours for some time of this title getting the Criterion treatment but, at the time of writing, it still remains absent in R1. I’m not sure why Fox never went ahead and released this as part of their own noir line and, given recent reports of personnel changes taking place in their home video division, it remains to be seen what will be forthcoming from them in the future. Anyway, I give Cry of the City a big thumbs up, it’s an excellent film noir from a director at the top of his form.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Richard Conte, Robert Siodmak, Victor Mature

 

Sirocco

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Just think of the concept: Humphrey Bogart, an exotic location, gun-runners, freedom fighters, black marketeers, a love triangle, and a beautiful femme fatale. Sounds like a sure fire winner, right? I mean, it should be a given that throwing all these elements into the mix would produce a memorable movie, maybe even a bona fide classic. Superficially, it may seem like I’m referring to Casablanca; unfortunately, I’m not. No, what I’m talking about is Sirocco (1951), a poor, distant relation of Michael Curtiz’s much loved film. Now I count myself a big fan of Bogart, I even like those one dimensional thugs and heavies he played during the late 1930s, but Sirocco is a movie I really struggle to take anything positive from.

The story takes place in Damascus in 1925, during the period of French control. The end of WWI saw the carving up of the old Ottoman Empire, with modern day Syria being governed by France under a mandate from the League of Nations. But these are troubled times, and the nights are filled with the sounds of sporadic small arms fire as the Syrians launch periodic attacks against the occupying army. In the wake of one such attack, which has wiped out yet another patrol, the French military commander decides to crack down hard on the insurrection. Despite a tight blockade, shipments of weapons are making their way into the rebels’ hands. It is the task of Intelligence chief Colonel Feroud (Lee J Cobb) to halt this traffic, and this means rounding up the top black marketeers. Harry Smith (Bogart) is an American with a chequered past who uses his food imports as a cover for the more lucrative business of running guns into Damascus. While Feroud stalks Smith through the serpentine passages and subterranean catacombs of the ancient city, the relationship between the two men becomes further complicated by the fact that both have fallen under the spell of the beautiful, yet shallow and self-obsessed, Violette (Marta Toren). With the French troops hot on his heels, Smith finds himself a fugitive in a city of curfews and hastily organized ambushes. Just when escape to Egypt and safety seems within his grasp, Harry Smith finds that fate has one more twist to serve up. 

Humphrey Bogart is snared in a shadowy net.

Throughout the ’40s Bogie was the very epitome of weary cynicism, the poster boy of film noir. Those hangdog features and his lisping delivery were perfect for expressing the pessimism and disillusionment of the time. However, his portrayal of Harry Smith is almost too weary and cynical for its own good. For the first hour or so we see a man without a shred of decency, a man who would sell out anybody or anything as long as the price was right. In itself, that’s not a problem, although there is only the vaguest hint given of what led him to this. The bigger problem is that in the final twenty minutes the viewer is expected to buy the notion of this self-serving profiteer undergoing a change of heart, and laying everything on the line in order to save the life of the man who has hounded him. In short, it doesn’t work; the character shift is too great and too abrupt to be believable. Lee J Cobb does better as the soldier whose conscience drives him to place his life in danger, and whose honor and bravery contrasts sharply with the venal amorality of Harry Smith. Marta Toren certainly looks good as the faithless Violette, but her character is a deeply unattractive one; after a horrendous bombing incident in a crowded bar, her only concern is for the damage inflicted on her dress and stockings. In truth, her role doesn’t serve any particular purpose except to add an edge to the rivalry between Smith and Feroud. In supporting parts, there’s some good work done by Everett Sloane, Zero Mostel and Nick Dennis. Curtis Bernhardt directs competently enough but the story plods in places and is only lifted by the camerawork of Burnett Guffey, who creates some atmospheric shots in the shadowy alleys and catcombs. It’s in these scenes that the film is most effective and they save it from being a complete failure.

 Sirocco is available on DVD from Columbia in an excellent transfer. The print used doesn’t seem to have any damage and there’s a healthy, but not excessive, amount of natural looking film grain. Extras are limited to galleries of promotional material. The film was made for Bogie’s own production company Santana, which he set up after leaving Warners. The company made only a handful of pictures and, with the exception of In a Lonely Place, none of them set the world alight. Sirocco isn’t so much a bad film as a run of the mill one, a formula piece that’s never especially involving. One for real Bogart fans, and even they will likely endure it rather than enjoy it.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2009 in 1950s, Film Noir, Humphrey Bogart

 

Breakout

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Some movies just can’t seem to decide what they want to be, and that’s pretty much the case with Breakout (1975). Charles Bronson made a string of pretty good and entertaining movies through the 70s, none of which were ever going to draw too much critical acclaim. Breakout boasts an embarrassment of talent both in front of and behind the camera, but never manages to make the best use of it. The main problem lies with the script, which lurches from near farcical comedy, to drama, then on to action, and back again without ever really succeeding at any of them. In the end, the movie tries to be too many things and just loses its way.

Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is a wealthy American who finds himself kidnapped in Chile, hauled off to Mexico to face trumped up charges in a rigged trial, and sentenced to 28 years in a prison run by Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache of The Wild Bunch). It’s never made clear exactly why Wagner needs to be subjected to this treatment; all we know is that both his powerful grandfather (John Huston) and a rogue CIA agent wish to see him safely out of the way. Only Wagner’s wife Ann (Jill Ireland) seems intent on proving his innocence or, failing that, breaking him out of jail. It is to this end that she comes to hire Nick Colton (Bronson), a less than successful charter pilot. As Wagner begins to decay physically and psychologically, a number of attempts are hatched to spring him from his incarceration. A combination of poor planning and betrayal ensures that they fail, until Colton decides to take the bull by the horns and do what no-one expects. This is another problem with the film; after the total incompetence of the first couple of botched jailbreaks, we are suddenly presented with an operation that’s planned and executed with military precision.

Charles Bronson - clearly not happy with the choice of curtains in this scene

Bronson is about the best thing in the film and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in some lighter moments. However, those moments of clowning around with Randy Quaid and Sheree North sit a little uncomfortably with the sombre tone of the prison scenes where Duvall is slowly disintegrating. Director Tom Gries and the writers didn’t seem to know whether they wanted to make a serious prison movie or a spoof caper, and ended up falling between two stools. Thus we get the startling sight of Quaid dragged up as a Mexican whore juxtaposed with scenes of Duvall breaking down and assaulting his own wife. I don’t think I’ve seen Duvall give too many bad performances and I couldn’t fault his playing here. He’s pretty convincing as a man who goes from being strong and self-confident to a character whose health and will are gradually broken. As for Jill Ireland, the less said the better. She was a fairly limited actress whose blank countenance was ill-suited to playing the kind of emotional role this film called for. John Huston has a small cameo role that’s really wasted as it goes nowhere. In fact, his character simply disappears about half way into the story and is never mentioned again. Emilio Fernandez is similarly underused, and doesn’t have much more to do than leer sadistically in his bogeyman part.

Breakout has been given a nice anamorphic transfer to DVD by Columbia. The disc in R2 is a barebones affair, but it can be picked up for next to nothing. When you get a movie with a cast like this, a score by Jerry Goldsmith and cinematography by Lucien Ballard, it’s not unreasonable to expect something more satisfying. On top of all the other issues there are some exceedingly poor effects shots; notably a man falling to his death through a tiled roof that looks suspiciously like it’s made of canvas, and the appalling demise of another guy who’s supposed to get minced by a plane propeller. I wouldn’t call Breakout a total failure, it does have a few entertaining turns and Bronson is always watchable, but it could have been a whole lot better. This one’s pretty much for Bronson completists – I guess I’m guilty on that score.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2009 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall, Tom Gries

 

Lust for Gold

 

Based on the legend of the Lost Dutchman mine, Lust for Gold (1949) is a hybrid western noir. However, it differs from the handful of other movies in that category on account of its narrative structure. The western part is actually a flashback which takes place within a contemporary mystery story. As far as I’m aware this is a unique approach; I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen the technique used to combine these two styles of film anywhere else.

The film’s opening pitches you right into the action – the snappy voice-over narration gives some brief background information before the latest treasure seeker comes to an untimely end, shot dead by an unseen sniper. There’s a breathless, urgent quality to the narrator’s voice which sets the tone and the pace of the picture. Barry Storm (William Prince) has come to Arizona to try his hand at finding the fabled lost mine that his grandfather, Jacob Walz (Glenn Ford), is reputed to have discovered back in the 1880s. When the explorer he was following perishes at the hands of the unknown assassin, Storm finds himself with two mysteries to solve; one in the half remembered past, and the other much closer in time. While the shadow of death hangs over the present, his research reveals some unpleasant facts about his Grandpa. Walz is shown to be a ruthless and greedy man who has no qualms about murdering three men (including his own partner) to secure possession of an old mine with a blood-soaked history.

Such stories are usually morality plays, and Lust for Gold is no exception; Walz’s fortune is a source of little comfort to him. He starts out as an opportunistic outsider and, though his sudden riches bring the semblance of popularity, he finds himself more alone than ever. The superficial bonhomie of those around him who wish him well masks the envy and disdain they truly feel. This petty begrudgery pales into insignificance though when compared to the scheming and deceit practised by Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino). When this grasping, amoral female sniffs a chance of a fast and easy buck she doesn’t hesitate to dismiss her weak failure of a husband. The only questions are how long she can string Walz along, and how he will react when the truth finally dawns upon him.

Glenn Ford finds himself in a viper's nest.

Glenn Ford managed well in a role that called for him to be both reprehensible and sympathetic. There’s no doubt that Walz is a cold-blooded killer, but Ford was able to invest a certain childlike innocence in the character. This works especially well in his scenes with Lupino, where buys into her deception because it’s what he wants to believe. However, like any emotionally immature character, his vengeance is terrible to behold. The pleasure he takes in watching his tormentors destroying each other, as they die of thirst among the barren, sun-baked rocks, is akin to that of a small boy pulling the wings off a fly. If Ford is good, Lupino may even be better. Her self-obsessed manipulation of the men around her is the equal of any of the great femme fatales of the noir canon. Her character has not one redeeming feature, and there’s a certain grim satisfaction to be had from seeing her get her comeuppance.

Sony have given Lust for Gold an excellent transfer to DVD. The image is sharp and crisp with barely any damage. The film is out in R1 and is widely available in R2 in continental Europe, though not in the UK; I have the R2 and I believe the R1 is identical. The disc is totally barebones but the quality of the image and the movie itself kind of compensate for that. This is a fine, neglected film that should have crossover appeal for fans of westerns and film noir alike. Both the contemporary and historical parts of the story complement each other, though I feel the western flashback works best. That’s largely due to the aforementioned performances of Ford and Lupino, and the dark, bitter tone. The modern mystery does have a satisfying resolution but it suffers in comparison to the bleakness of what went before. All in all, I recommend it.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2009 in 1940s, Glenn Ford, Westerns

 

The Wild Geese

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As a boy I used to positively devour westerns and war movies. My friends were pretty much the same, and I can still see us, in the schoolyard or on the way home, re-enacting the action scenes from whatever movie we had seen on the telly the night before; this was back when there were only three channels (actually four in Northern Ireland) so what one had seen, all had seen. Every once in a while you got lucky and you had the chance to go to the cinema and see a big new movie. That afforded you a certain kudos as you were then in the enviable position of being able to relate all the gory details to your mates. What we all yearned for were movies with plenty of guns, explosions, daring escapes and as little mushy romantic nonsense as possible. Such was the case with The Wild Geese (1978), a film that seemed just perfect when I first saw it on release. Looking back on it now, I no longer think it’s perfect but it still retains the power to charm me, and the passing of time hasn’t made it any less fun to watch.

The story has Colonel Faulkner (Richard Burton), an ageing mercenary soldier, arriving in London for a clandestine meeting with millionaire businessman Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger). The purpose of the meeting is to arrange a raid into a fictitious African nation to free from prison a deposed leader who is facing imminent death. This will require the recruitment of the necessary personnel and the formulation of a viable plan for a rapid extraction. Too much focus on the behind-the-scenes stuff can easily scupper this kind of movie, but the finding and hiring of the officers (Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger) and men is carried off in an entertaining way and never slows down the pace. Soon the action has moved to the training camp in Africa, where the RSM (Jack Watson) gets to deliver some marvellously insulting language to the biggest names in 1970s cinema as he kicks, bullies and cajoles his out-of-condition squad into shape. The mission itself starts off well and everything looks like it may run according to schedule, but some devious machinations back in London ensures that the mercenaries will be abandoned to the tender mercies of a ruthless dictator and his Simba battalion. With their rescue flight aborted, and facing certain death, they have no choice but to trek across hostile country with the vague idea of maybe stirring up civil unrest on the way. Under constant attack, Faulkner leads his ever diminishing force south to an abandoned airfield where their last chance for salvation appears in the form of an old, beat-up, twin-engine Dakota. The climax is pure blood and thunder stuff, with Faulkner’s men making their desperate dash for freedom as the air is filled with lead and the ancient plane chugs and sputters in the background.

Roger Moore on a busman's holiday from  the Bond franchise

Andrew McLaglen was arguably at his best when directing this kind of Boy’s Own adventure, and he managed some quite effective scenes here. The action set pieces are all well handled, the stand outs being the scene where a jet strafes and bombs the mercenary column while it’s stalled on an exposed bridge, the parachute jump sequence, and the bloody but exciting climax. The movie runs well over two hours but McLaglen controlled the pace so well that it seems a lot less. The stars of The Wild Geese were all getting a bit long in the tooth for this kind of exertion but the four leads give amiable enough performances and seem very comfortable around each other. While Burton definitely looks the worse for wear, that weary quality kind of fits the role he’s playing. The old-time soldier of fortune looking for a last big score in a world that’s changing around him plays like an amalgam of Burton’s own character and that of Mike Hoare, who served as technical adviser on the film. Neither Harris nor Moore really have to stretch themselves in the acting department but both at least give the impression they were having a hell of a lot of fun. Hardy Kruger gets a bit more to do as the crossbow wielding Afrikaaner who has his preconceptions challenged and finds himself rethinking his position and prejudices. Stewart Granger has only a small part yet he brings an oily condescension to the part of the duplicitous Matherson that makes for a great screen villain.

The Wild Geese has been out on DVD for a while now, and the R2 disc from Mosaic presents the film pretty well. The transfer is anamorphic and quite clean. There’s an entertaining commentary track featuring Roger Moore and producer Euan Lloyd, and a documentary on Lloyd’s career. All told, it’s not a bad package and provides good value. There is a new edition slated for release in March but I doubt if it will add anything new, we’ll see. This isn’t a very deep or serious movie, but it is entertaining, and if you want something that will recall memories of far-off schooldays and more innocent times The Wild Geese is just the ticket.

 
 
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