Blu News – 4 Noir Classics

November,  when we feel the nights drawing in with a vengeance – an ideal time to take in some dark cinema. Arrow Academy are putting out a very attractive-looking set of noir movies on dual format Blu-ray/DVD  packed with extra features on Nov. 20, and now up for pre-order here.

Film noir has had many influences. Long before the term was even coined, we had atmospheric studio-shot detective thrillers, whose characters gradually became more ambiguous, and whose locations started to take in the world outside (notably New York City). This collection showcases some classic examples.

In The Dark Mirror (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers), a man is murdered and there’s an obvious suspect, but she has an identical twin sister (both played by Olivia de Havilland, Gone with the Wind), and one of them has a cast-iron alibi. The perfect crime? A psychologist with a specialist interest in twin psychology delves into the heart of the mystery, at considerable risk to himself. In Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Fritz Lang (The Big Heat) adapts the Bluebeard legend with a dash of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Shortly after their marriage, Celia (Joan Bennett, Suspiria) begins to suspect her architect husband Mark (Michael Redgrave, Dead of Night) of having a secret past, and wonders about the reason behind multiple rooms in his self-designed home, one of which is kept permanently locked. In Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), an unscrupulous lawyer (John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice) scents a personal fortune when he concocts a plan to merge New York City’s numbers rackets into a single powerful and unbreakable operation, but reckons without his brother, who’d rather stay independent. And in Joseph H. Lewis’ ultra-stylish The Big Combo (1955), Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde, The Naked Prey) is determined to bring down mob boss Mr Brown (Richard Conte, Thieves’ Highway). But Brown feels the same way, and is far less constrained by the law, leading to some wince-inducing set pieces (some involving a pre-stardom Lee Van Cleef).

This collection showcases many of the genre’s major names on both sides of the camera. In addition to the directing and acting talent mentioned above there are cinematographers Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter) and John Alton (An American in Paris), composers Dmitri Tiomkin (High Noon) and Miklós Rósza (The Killers) and writers Nunnally Johnson (The Woman in the Window) and Philip Yordan (Johnny Guitar). It’s little wonder that directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino were so struck by them.

Seeing as I’ve written about, and enjoyed, three of these movies myself (The Big Combo, The Dark Mirror, Secret Beyond the Door) I’m certainly looking forward to what promise to be the definitive editions of these films.

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Blu News – Jake Wade

Just spotted this announcement for a most welcome upcoming release on Blu-ray from Warner Archives. The Law and Jake Wade is a superb western – featuring Richard Widmark & Robert Taylor and directed by John Sturges – that never gets talked about enough as far as I’m concerned and has the potential to look great in hi-def. I wrote about the movie some years ago here and I’m very pleased to see it getting this well-deserved upgrade. The WA post on Facebook has this to say:

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958)
NEW 2017 1080p HD REMASTER
Run Time 86:00
Subtitles English SDH
DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 Mono – English
ORIGINAL ASPECT RATIO – 2.35:1, 16 X 9 LETTERBOX
COLOR
BD 25
Special Features:
Theatrical Trailer (HD)

Robbing banks, holding up stagecoaches: That’s the life Jake Wade tried to leave behind when he put on a badge, found himself a pretty fiancée and set his path on the straight and narrow. But not yet. Wade’s outlaw partner resurfaces to take the lawman and his girl captive, forcing them into a trek to recover the loot Wade buried long ago — and plunging captors and captives into the violent heart of Comanche territory.
John Sturges (The Great Escape) directs, continuing his string of rugged, character-driven tales of action. Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark deliver vivid contrasts as the resolute hero and the depraved desperado. And the snowcapped Sierras provide towering backdrops for the mounting clash of wills.

Republic Studios – A Private Tour

One of my followers, Terry, just sent me details of the following event. It’s not something I’ll be able to take part in personally but it sounds very tempting and may be of interest to some US-based readers. So, read on…

What: Once in a lifetime chance for a private Tour of CBS Studio Center (formerly Republic Studios) & July 4th Celebration

Where: 4024 Radford Ave. Studio City, CA 91604

When: Tuesday July 4th at 5 pm (arrive early to allow time for security check and parking)

How much: $1,000 per person

Only 10 tickets available on a first come, first serve basis. Tickets will only be sold online. https://www.freshtix.com/events/4th-of-july-fireworks-festival-2-2

Get a behind the scenes tour of the historic CBS Studio Center (formerly Republic Studios) backlot given by none other than Studio Center President Michael Klausman.

In the early 1920s silent film producer and director Mack Sennett relocated his movie studio to southern California and the neighborhood around the studio became known as Studio City. The Mack Sennett Studios produced movies featuring the Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle before becoming Republic Studios. Republic launched the careers of Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and many others. Today the studio is known as CBS Studio Center. Past and present shows filmed on the lot include Gilligan’s Island, Gunsmoke, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, CSI New York, Will and Grace, Seinfeld, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Hot in Cleveland, Last Man Standing and many others.

Public tours of the studio are not available, so this is a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in film and television history. You will see the open air space where John Wayne showered, Seinfeld’s Central Park, and Leave it to Beaver’s house, among many other iconic locations.

The tour begins at 5 pm before the Fourth of July celebration and guests will be taken around the lot on studio golf carts. Preferential parking will be provided. Space is limited to ten participants. After the tour enjoy our VIP July 4th celebration on stage 15 with a meal, sampling stations of food and alcohol from various local restaurants, caricature artists, facepainters and more! Then take your seat on the roof of the parking structure for the view of the best fireworks in Los Angeles. Tickets are available https://www.freshtix.com/events/4th-of-july-fireworks-festival-2-2. Click on VIP plus Private Lot Tour w/Studio President

Please call 818-655-5916 if you have any questions.

Five Card Stud

On a number of occasions this blog has cast a critical eye over that curious phenomenon that is the 60s western, and how it behaved as the decade wore on. Challenged from within and without, internationally by the Spaghettis and other Euro varieties, and nationally by a society in flux as well as the continued pressure from the small screen, the genre was not only threshing around in search of direction it was also seeking to redefine its very identity. While figures like Peckinpah and Hellman were exploring more radical avenues of development, others like A C Lyles’ production unit were trying (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to tap into the nostalgia market. Antone familiar with the western will attest to its malleable quality, its almost unique ability to adapt itself to changing tastes and situations and both absorb and reflect new ideas or themes. This can only come about through experimentation and although I’ve mentioned two diverging paths being followed at the time that left a center ground where other options could be explored. And it’s in that area we find a movie like Five Card Stud (1968), something of a hybrid beast where the trappings and attitudes of the western are blended with the plotting of the classic mystery. Does it work? Well, let’s see…

The title alludes to poker and so the film opens with a game of cards, and one of those tropes so common to the western – an allegation of cheating and the hot-headed response that typically prompts. While professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is away from the table trouble erupts and a stranger is accused of being a card sharp. Spurred by the vicious and vindictive Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), the other players determine to lynch the cheat. Morgan is appalled by this overreaction and sets off in pursuit, hoping to avert a tragedy. However, his protestations are ignored and he’s casually clubbed down before the vigilantes mete out their punishment. Morgan decides this shocking event signals as good a time as any to move on and see how the tables are playing elsewhere. When word reaches him of the sudden and violently gruesome deaths of two of the men involved in the hanging he finds himself drawn back. In his absence, a gold strike has attracted miners and also a new preacher, Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, but main point of interest remains the apparent determination of someone to ensure that a form of rough justice is served, and to that end those present at that fateful card game and its aftermath are being relentlessly picked off.

Revenge, retribution or a reckoning are often found at or near the heart of the western. Of course we’re usually aware of who is the instrument, the man (or woman) with his finger on the trigger. If Five Card Stud can’t quite be said to subvert this, it does at least play with it a little by bringing Christie to the frontier and inviting the audience to see if they could figure out who among the suspects and potential victims was the guilty party before there were, in fact, none. So, as I asked above – does it work? I guess the fair answer to that is to say it’s a partial success. The mystery of who is doing the killing isn’t that hard to work out in itself and while it contains something of a twist that is arguably revealed a bit too soon. As a straight western, as a whodunit, as a piece of cinema from Henry Hathaway, Five Card Stud remains essentially unremarkable. Yet I do feel it’s one of those cases where the eventual sum is actually greater than its components – the finished film is quite entertaining, almost in spite of itself. It is by no means a great western, it is not a great mystery, and it is not a great Henry Hathaway film. For all that, it adds up to a rather enjoyable mystery western directed by Hathaway.

Last time I posted here I commented on some slightly unconventional casting in westerns. And by complete coincidence I find myself continuing in a similar vein here. Roddy McDowall was an actor I always liked, he came across as a very likeable guy throughout his long career in film and television, and could generally be relied on to deliver a good performance. But he never struck me as a natural for westerns; even though he did make a handful of them he had that refined, urbane air that felt at odds with the usual frontier drama. The fact is he does cut an incongruous figure when he first appears yet, though he never completely loses this, he does grow into his role as the movie proceeds.

On the other hand, the two leads were comfortable genre fits. Mitchum, in a part that feels almost like a parody of his memorable work in The Night of the Hunter, eases his way through a setting he knew like the back of his hand. Dean Martin came to serious westerns (yes, I know he’d already spoofed the genre a few years before with Jerry Lewis) with Rio Bravo and clearly took to it. He’s arguably too relaxed in Five Card Stud but that’s no bad thing with a “big” persona like Mitchum present. In support there is strong work from Yaphet Kotto as well as smaller parts for  the likes of Denver Pyle,  Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia and John Anderson. The female roles, it has to be said, are pretty weak and less than memorable, especially the part (one of her last as it happens) handed to the tragic Inger Stevens.

Five Card Stud was put out on DVD many years ago by Paramount and the transfer looks a bit aged now. The film is presented 16:9 and looks reasonably clean but it also appears quite faded and insipid in places. While it could stand an upgrade, I’m not sure how much of a market there is for it and therefore whether the expense would be justified. This is another of those 60s westerns which doesn’t fully satisfy – still, it avoids the pessimism that was a significant flaw in some of its contemporaries and at least has the confidence to try something different. There’s enough in the casting and plotting to hold the attention of both western and mystery fans but it’s unlikely to win any converts. As such, I think it just about earns itself a qualified recommendation.

Copper Canyon

Do the stars of a movie need to be what we think of as genre regulars for it to a success? Back in its heyday the western attracted just about every leading player in Hollywood, some of them slotting in with ease and a number actually going on to carve out a niche for themselves within the genre. Frequently, when less familiar western stars were cast they were backed up by co-stars who had already grown accustomed to riding the cinematic range. However, Copper Canyon (1950) seems to be on of those more unusual productions where none of the three headline stars would have had a background in westerns when the movie was made. So does it succeed? I suppose it does to some extent, although you do have to wonder how much the relative inexperience of the cast hurt it.

The setting is the years following the Civil War, when the process of national healing had only just begun and the wounds remained raw. The whole plot revolves around the struggles of former Confederate miners and obstacles they are confronted with as rivals seek to drive them out of business. These men are in need of a champion, someone capable of figuratively rallying the troops and protecting them. It’s with this aim in mind that a small delegation is sent to sound out Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), a former Rebel officer who has changed his name and, in an attempt to reinvent himself, has become a trick shot artist working the saloon circuit. It is only with the greatest reluctance that he allows himself to be drawn back into conflict with anyone. But once he does the allure of saloon boss Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) and the challenge of facing down corrupt lawman Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) are enough to keep him interested.

Copper Canyon offers few surprises  in its scripting. The story is typical fare dealing with the oppression of the little guy by the powerful, and a hero who endeavors to tip the  balance a little in the former’s favor. While this is a solid enough premise, I tend to think a touch of ambiguity can elevate such a tale into much more interesting territory. However, that’s not really offered here and so we’re left with the uneasy reconstruction angle and, to a lesser degree, the gimmick of Milland’s sharpshooting to provide a more distinctive flavor – both of which are well enough employed yet I can’t say I regard either as very compelling. On the other hand, the pacing is reasonable and director John Farrow composes some nice shots, favoring plenty of titled low-angles in the interiors. What’s more cameraman Charles Lang lights the interiors to maximize the atmosphere and captures some fine views of the Sedona locations.

As I mentioned at the start, the stars hadn’t much of a western pedigree when Copper Canyon was made. Ray Milland had a strong body of work behind him at this point and had an Oscar to his name but, with the exception of California (1947) which was also made with Farrow, he had mostly straight drama and noir roles among his credits. While he would go on to other material in the genre, notably the superior A Man Alone (1955), he was still something of a novice at this point. In a similar vein, Macdonald Carey had only made Streets of Laredo (1949) prior to this but he too would make a number of other westerns in the following years. Hedy Lamarr isn’t a woman anyone would automatically associate with the west (although that running gag in Blazing Saddles might suggest otherwise) and Copper Canyon was, aside from a few television appearances, her only foray into frontier drama. All three acquit themselves well enough, though I do wonder how contemporary audiences would have viewed that lineup. In support we do get more typical faces like Harry Carey Jr and Frank Faylen. In addition, there are parts for Mona Freeman, Peggy Knudsen and, in a truly startling red wig, the imposing figure of Hope Emerson.

Copper Canyon was a Paramount production and was released on DVD in the US by the same company years ago. Even though the disc was a bare bones affair, the transfer is quite a good one, bright and colorful with only minor damage on show. It’s a fairly entertaining movie but hardly what could be termed essential. There’s competent work from all in front of and behind the camera yet it also has to be said that all either did or would do much more memorable stuff on screen. So, let’s say it’s okay but not something you need go out of your way to see.

TRIAL AND ERROR (1937) by Anthony Berkeley

This is another of those occasions when my friend Sergio has been kind enough to allow me a platform to put my thoughts on a piece of classic mystery/crime fiction. Follow the link here to read them in full, and have a good look around Sergio’s ever excellent site while you’re there.

Tipping My Fedora

It’s time for a guest post from my blogging buddy Livius, who writes about movies at his marvellous blog, Riding the High Country. And now it’s over to the man himself:

The inverted crime story is one where the perpetrator is known from the outset, or close enough to it, and the thrust of the story is carried forward by our interest in seeing law or its representatives piece together the clues and evidence that will bring the criminal to book. In short, if you’ve ever seen an episode of Columbo, then you know exactly what I mean.

We submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog

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The Wild One

Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Whadda you got?

James Dean was not the first American teenager nor was he the first screen rebel, with or without a cause. Sure we all know that but one would be forgiven for thinking it were actually so if some commentaries on the development of social issues in the movies are held to be true. Disaffected youth had, to a greater or lesser extent, been present on screen for a much longer time; you could make a case for some of the pre-war crime/gangster movies, and a far stronger one for later noir-style disillusionment such as They Live by Night (courtesy of Nicholas Ray, who would of course cast the aforementioned Dean in his most iconic role) or Lewis’ Gun Crazy. No, young people had been butting heads with society for quite a while but the 1950s with the attendant changes of the aftermath of the war seemed to make the phenomenon appear, if not unprecedented, at least more marked. The Wild One (1953), while it no longer retains the same impact, must have provoked a reaction at the time both for its frank approach to its subject matter and the style and attitude of the star.

The opening is one of those ominous warnings about the events about to unfold being extreme yet perhaps indicative of some as yet ill-defined social malaise. And then the bikes and their riders appear and power their way towards the camera. Front and center is Johnny (Marlon Brando), looking tough and insolent in black leather and aviator shades. The bikers ride into a small town in the midst of a race, strutting and swaggering and soon being told to be on their way by the anonymous face of the law. They do so, but the next town they arrive in gets to host them a little longer. The bulk of the movie plays out here, as Johnny’s rival Chino (Lee Marvin) turns up and duly encourages further displays of machismo and bravado. While the bikers become increasingly foolish in their boorishness, the locals (or a group with the local population) let their own boorishness grow ever more vindictive and mean. At the heart of it all is Johnny, simultaneously detached and driven, proud of his outlaw, outsider status yet also drawn to the sweet respectability of waitress Kathie (Mary Murphy).

The Wild One was inspired by events in the town of Hollister in 1947, when a motorcycle gang brought chaos  to the small settlement with no apparent explanation. This is essentially what’s going on in this movie, an outbreak of seemingly inexplicable anti-social behavior, a rejection of the comfortable affluence and respectability which characterized the decade following the end of the war in the US. Laslo Benedek, who had a long and wide-ranging career  in television was the director and provided some nice moody visuals, particularly the scenes taking place during the climactic evening. Still, the fingerprints which are even more in evidence are those of producer Stanley Kramer. He is best known for his message films and The Wild One is the type of vehicle you’d expect him to be involved with even without seeing his name attached to the credits.

Without wishing to belittle any of the other members, and there is a long and solid supporting cast, the film mainly revolves around four people – Brando, Marvin, Murphy and Robert Keith. Of these, Brando is obviously the focus; I can only imagine how different his persona was when he came on the scene in the post-war years. That mumbling, brooding Method approach to his art was always going to mark him out in a world still dominated by naturalistic and theatrically trained performers. Frankly, it’s not a style I’m overly fond of and I suspect that how one reacts to The Wild One will be strongly influenced by how one takes to Brando. Marvin was a terrific foil to Brando’s mannered intensity, the brash exuberance still feeling fresh, elemental and somehow more real. Similarly, Murphy’s demure classiness offers another point of contrast, and a very appealing one too. And last but not last, is the quiet presence of Keith, serving up a finely judged study of weakness and self-doubt. As for those supporting players, Will Wright, Ray Teal, Jay C Flippen and Timothy Carey are just a few of the familiar and reliable faces on show.

The Wild One is now another of the consistently strong series of Dual format Blu-ray/DVD releases from Powerhouse/Indicator in the UK. Although I don’t have any other Hi-Def release of the movie to make a comparison I feel this is a very strong presentation – it’s clean and sharp, has excellent contrast and the blacks look appropriately black. So, no issues on that score. The supplements are, as usual, copious and worthwhile. Jeanine Basinger provides the commentary track and there’s a brief introduction by Karen Kramer. Then there are a number of featurettes: one on the films and its history with the BBFC, another on the events in Hollister that gave rise to the story, and finally there’s a piece on Brando. Furthermore, there’s a Super 8 version of the movie included alongside the trailer and a gallery. The accompanying booklet runs to a satisfying 40 pages and includes an article by Kat Ellinger, an article from 1955 by director Benedek on the movie, a piece by Leslie Halliwell and comments from critics of the time.

The Wild One is a well-made, pacy and influential film. I can’t claim it’s a great favorite of mine but that’s at least partly down to my own ambivalence to Brando as an actor and shouldn’t be taken as any dismissal of the artistic and intellectual merits of the movie. For those who appreciate Brando’s work more the film will probably be a more satisfying experience. That aside, it’s a good movie and the new release is a top quality one, something which is now typical of Indicator.

The Earth Dies Screaming

Continuing with the theme of lower budget British movies that I’ve been exploring of late, let’s move away from the crime and noir genres featured so far and look at an area where it could be argued that a more frugal approach is likely to be more harmful. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Sci-Fi is hurt when the cash is in short supply, that the effects suffer and the cheese factor rises proportionately. Well once again, this conventional wisdom may be no more than prejudice wearing the mask of critical conformity. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) is a film which was clearly made on the cheap, using a very small cast and with a running times which comes in at just over an hour.

A short running time means we need to cut to the chase at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s precisely how this movie begins. Vehicles go catastrophically out of control and derail,crash or drop out of the sky, people die abruptly and dramatically. As the title suggest, the Earth is dying, just not with a scream. Although we don’t know why this is happening it’s enough to know that it is, that we’re witnessing an apparently inexplicable cataclysm. Yet there is a natural curiosity, a need to understand and try to make some kind of sense. And there’s a feeling that this knowledge will come our way when we see Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), grim-faced but comfortingly calm and driving along with an air of purpose. As he searches around the desolate village for a means of communication, anything which might raise a living voice anywhere, we get a taste of the enormity of his situation. For a time it looks like he might actually be the last man alive but there’s only a limited amount of dramatic potential in such a setup. No, we need other people to interact with and provide the conflict without which no dramatic situation can truly exist. Enter Quinn Taggart (Dennis Price) and his traveling companion, Peggy (Virginia Field), representing treachery and romance respectively. Others also come on the scene – Thorley Walters and Vanda Godsell to bring some pathos, while David Spenser and Anna Palk are a simultaneously surly and hopeful vision of the future. So, as this small, disparate group gathers in the village inn to plan their next move, we get a hint of what may have happened and who (or perhaps what) was behind it.

The name of Terence Fisher must surely be familiar to even a casual fan of British cult cinema. It’s hard not to think of Fisher without Hammer coming to mind, such was his intimate association with the studio. From the early crime and noir pictures of the early to mid 1950s right through to 1970s Fisher’s name regularly popped up in the credits as director, frequently taking charge of some of their most famous and influential movies. The fact The Earth Dies Screaming was also produced by Lippert Films (one of the company’s last titles), another recognizable collaborator with Hammer ties in with this feeling. However, that’s all it is – a feeling – as the famous old British studio didn’t have a hand in this one and had by this time gradually moved away from Sci-Fi, tending to favor (with the odd notable exception) their trademark Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers. Fisher’s flair for and experience of handling pulpy, genre material such as this is evident throughout. There’s a smoothness and confidence to the storytelling and it moves at a very comfortable pace. It’s difficult not to make a comparison with Target Earth, which had been made in the US a decade earlier. That film had used a very similar premise but, in my opinion at least, nowhere near as successfully. The Earth Dies Screaming uses its limited locations to maximum effect and avoids looking any cheaper than absolutely necessary. More importantly though, there is no attempt to move beyond the small, tight-knit cast. This means the focus remains where it should, cuts out any superfluous distractions, and allows the viewer to become better acquainted with these people – all crucial factors in an hour-long feature.

In a film like this, where you have a frankly fantastic storyline, it’s advisable to cast the kind of people who are capable of grounding it all, of keeping the histrionics to a minimum and ensuring that the notionally unbelievable attains a degree of credibility. Willard Parker had that careworn solidity about him, an aura of competence and cool dependability. The Earth Dies Screaming came near the end (he retired from the business after making only two more movies) of what had been a long and varied career for Parker. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that he was the most exciting screen presence but, as I noted, that’s not the quality this production called for. His wife Virginia Field was making her only cinema appearance opposite him – although a bit of research indicates the couple had appeared together in a number of television shows  in the 50s – and also provides a collected and reassuring face. When our attention is on a beleaguered and bewildered group as is the case here, the dynamic works best when there is at lest one disreputable or dangerous member to stoke additional conflict. And it’s difficult to think of anyone who fit the bill better than Dennis Price, a man who practically had a full-time job playing louche wastrels. The rest  of the pared down cast perform admirably – Thorley Walters never disappoints anyway and only David Spenser comes across as mildly irritating, although I suspect that was part of his remit.

The Earth Dies Screaming has been available on a very nice-looking DVD from MGM in the US for a good many years and has recently made an appearance on Blu-ray too. While I’ve no doubt the BD will look excellent I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the old DVD and therefore haven’t bothered to think about an upgrade. That disc has a clean and sharp print presented in the 1.66:1 ratio, and I have no complaints about it. I feel it’s a marvelous little movie, of a type which challenges the idea of Sci-Fi requiring large amounts of money and jaw-dropping effects to be successful. If you haven’t seen it, look out for it and give it a go.

Blu News – 2 for July

It’s just come to my attention that July will see the release of a couple of new western titles on Blu-ray in Germany. Koch Media will be putting out Cattle Drive (1951) with Joel McCrea along with  Audie Murphy’s Showdown (1963). I don’t have any more details at present but I think this should be welcome news for western fans, particularly since I believe Showdown hasn’t previously been available anywhere in any format.

The Shakedown

One criticism sometimes leveled at British crime or noir films is that they were too genteel, seemed too preoccupied with the concerns of middle class protagonists and, consequently, lacked that edge that frequently set apart and elevated their US counterparts. However, like a lot of generalizations and blanket statements it’s not necessarily true; sure examples can be found where this is so but, by the same token, plenty of exceptions to this supposed rule also exist. The Shakedown (1960) is a surprisingly effective British noir that pulls few punches, isn’t overburdened with wholesome characters and looks ahead to the franker approach to social issues that movies in the new decade would increasingly embrace.

Augie Cortona (Terence Morgan) is an angry young man, and one who happens to be spending his last night in prison having served a sentence for running a prostitution racket. Prowling back and forth , full of pent-up energy and resentment, he impresses upon his cellmate (Bill Owen) how he intends to regain his former position of prominence in the underworld. On release, that’s exactly what he sets about doing, despite the warnings from Inspector Jarvis (Robert Beatty) that his every move will be tracked. And obstacles do lie before him, his old operations being taken over by rival hood Gollar (Harry H Corbett) and old friends in no great hurry to renew their relationship. Still, even when it looks like all doors will remain closed to him, he has a chance meeting in a pub with Jessel (Donald Pleasence), a down on his luck photographer. From this he senses an opportunity to strike out in a new direction. All he needs is the money to set himself up and the dubious rewards of a murky blackmail scheme await.

The Shakedown is essentially a classic gangster noir picture, a British variation on the type Hollywood had been turning out on and off since the 30s, a rise and fall saga of crime and criminals. It appears I spend a lot of time on here debating what might or might not constitute film noir, and what can be said to characterize it in any case. This is tricky enough when dealing with the classic American variety but gets tougher still when we move across the Atlantic. There are some instances of the traditional high contrast imagery in this movie but they don’t dominate. Overall, I’d say The Shakedown has more of a flat look, but visuals aren’t the only means of categorizing noir. The tone and mood have to be taken into consideration and are just as important. If director John Lemont merely flirts with shadowy imagery, he and fellow writer Leigh Vance indulge themselves more noticeably when it comes to the theme. The whole thing is seen from the perspective of Augie, a grasping thug with no redeeming features beyond an oily and superficial charm. This is where the real darkness of the picture lies, in the brazen and ruthless manipulation practised by the central character, in his self-serving attitude and in the (for the time) harsh language employed.

As was the case with a lot of British crime movies of the era, and there were a huge number of them, the budget was limited. I’ve noted previously how I don’t necessarily regard such matters as failings and it’s not a major issue here, although it is clear to see. Location work and exterior shots are kept to an absolute minimum and the action is largely restricted to the inside of a handful of buildings. But, as I sad, that doesn’t make the end product less effective. One of the best sequences in the film is the sting Augie arranges to relieve his rival of his ill-gotten gains and thus get himself back in business. It plays out almost exclusively in an elevator and on a landing yet the way it’s shot and edited together means it holds the attention throughout. And that basically sums up the movie – the tension is carefully maintained and the story is solid enough to keep us from paying undue heed to any other shortcomings.

Terence Morgan was a good choice in the lead. Just a few years before he had co-starred in Tread Softly Stranger, another enjoyable British noir, and he was just OK in that one. His role here suited him better as it allowed him to play up the suave nastiness without the need for any nervy introspection. Regardless of the fact we see most of the events from his point of view, no-one can realistically be expected to root for such a mean good for nothing type. Donald Pleasence garners some sympathy, as the photographer who gets duped and exploited but, for all his class and talent, he was never cast as anything other than a supporting character, and isn’t on screen enough, sadly. The person we get behind is Hazel Court as the trainee model, her part develops nicely as the story progresses and a bit more depth is added. Ms Court should of course be familiar to cult movie fans for her work first on a few classic Hammer titles and then later in Roger Corman’s AIP Gothic horrors. The support cast is packed with faces that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen much British film or television – Bill Owen, Robert Beatty (whose talents have been lauded by a few commenters here in recent days), Eddie Byrne, Harry H Corbett (a guy I usually have trouble taking seriously in straight roles), Georgina Cookson, and an especially strong bit of work by John Salew as a blackmail victim.

The Shakedown has been released on DVD by UK outfit Renown and it’s a moderate looking effort. By and large, the image is clean and acceptably sharp, but the aspect ratio can’t be right – it’s presented in Academy ratio and some kind of wide process must surely have been used by 1960. Still, it’s not horribly compromised and I’d imagine it’s as good as the film is going to get. The film is entertaining from start to finish and is one of those that retains a foot in both camps, holding onto a touch of the reserve of the previous decade while also nudging towards the more permissive style that the 60s would become associated with.