Southside 1-1000

I find myself somewhat on the fence when it comes to documentary style film noir. Henry Hathaway is usually credited as pioneering the approach with The House on 92nd Street,  and it’s certainly not without its attractions – the increased reliance on location filming, the sense of urgency that accompanies topical material, and the overall heightening of realism. On the other hand, these factors can serve to date a piece (although one could initiate a separate debate on whether or not being “dated” actually constitutes a drawback) and there is, after all, much to be said for the artistry of unreality. Anyway, this all just serves to introduce Southside 1-1000 (1950), an obscure but enjoyable low-budget example of this noir variant.

With one war having ended a few short years before and a new cold one putting a chill on international relations, the film opens with one of the more hawkish and cautionary examples of the voiceover narration – grim end-of-days stuff which  starts with dire warnings about the threat to liberty and moves on to the role of money in maintaining the nation’s security, and then to the vital part played by the treasury agents, the T-Men, in protecting the integrity of the currency and running down the counterfeiters. The purpose of this quite lengthy build up is to draw the viewer into an examination of one particular investigation, and it all begins with a small-time pickpocket being nabbed relieving a mark of some bad money at the racetrack. What follows is an absorbing account of T-Man John Riggs (Don DeFore) and his efforts to trace the money back to its source. The first part of the story unfolds much like a police procedural, a methodical following up of leads and clues via observation and tails. All until the link in the chain gets broken pretty spectacularly due to a headlong exit from a 12th floor window. After that, the focus shifts and our hero puts himself directly in the line of fire by going undercover and posing as a flash hood looking for a way into the racket.

Southside 1-1000 was directed by Boris Ingster, a man with a tiny list of directing credits (3) but one of which, Stranger on the Third Floor, is frequently referenced as the first film noir. That’s not a bad association to have, although he does deserve mention too for his significant body of work as associate producer and producer on a number of high-profile TV shows, especially Wagon Train and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Southside 1-1000 is a brisk picture that doesn’t waste much time, coming in at just under 80 minutes, yet it does lose some of its impetus in the middle when the undercover sting is being set up. Still, the opening section is strong and then the latter stages sees the pace pick up again and the atmosphere is highlighted through the moody cinematography of Russell Harlan and the editing of Christian Nyby.

Southside 1-1000 doesn’t have any big names in the cast, but there are plenty of familiar faces for movie fans to enjoy. Don DeFore takes the lead and he’s a man I know mainly from a couple of excellent pictures, Ramrod and Too Late for Tears. There’s an easy-going quality to the man which makes him appear comfortable on the screen and he’s the type you find yourself rooting for almost automatically. Nearly everybody else is a shady character of varying degrees of importance, with George Tobias, Morris Ankrum and Barry Kelley all making memorable contributions. The only woman with anything much to do in the cast is Andrea King and she has a part that is both meaty and interesting. While she seems to have had a long, active and varied career, I think the only movies I can say I remember her from are The Lemon Drop Kid and Dial 1119.

The film is available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive range, and it looks quite decent for the most part, perhaps a little soft in places but there’s really not much to complain about. I don’t imagine this is an especially well-known movie – it only came to my attention a year or so ago and I don’t think I ever saw it pop up in the TV schedules back in the day. Overall, I have to say I liked it – I guess the less familiar cast and its relative obscurity helped pique my interest and then the talent behind the camera, not to mention the location work around Los Angeles and San Quentin, kept me watching. All told, this is by no means a bad little film and it’s worth a look  if you can track down a copy.

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The Naked Jungle

Some films can be difficult to classify satisfactorily, not there’s really any need for us to do so or for the film to accommodate our often arbitrary categories for that matter. Nevertheless, many of us do like  to be able to point to a given slot and pronounce that Film X has its natural home there. The Naked Jungle (1954) is one of those rarities where it’s hard to say with any degree of confidence what genre it belongs to. I guess the nearest is the broad and malleable section known as adventure. Still, that’s only part of it – it’s adventurous for sure, but there’s romance in there, some elements of fantasy, an early stab at the disaster movie, melodrama and, lurking just beneath the surface, a liberal dash of parody. Anyway, however one chooses to label it, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The opening credits inform us that the time is the beginning of the 20th century, 1901 to be precise, and the location is South America, which covers a fair bit of ground. A boat chugging its way downriver is carrying one Joanna Leiningen (Eleanor Parker), a new bride married by proxy and on her way to meet her husband for the first time. An unusual arrangement, but then the entire first act is chock full of oddness and peculiarity. Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is a cocoa plantation owner and, as we are informed, lord and master of all he surveys in the virtual kingdom he has carved out of the jungle. He came to this far-flung place still a teenager and has spent the last 15 years working, building and fighting the ever encroaching jungle. It’s clear he has wealth, luxury and near absolute power, but he lacks a woman. What could be more natural then for such a man than to send for one. What arrives though is something of a surprise to him, not least for her evident beauty and accomplishment. If Leiningen believes there must therefore be something wrong with his newly acquired bride, it also becomes clear he has some failings himself. In his own words he knows nothing of women. Nothing at all. This is the basis for a good deal of overheated melodramatics, but only the forerunner  to the real consuming passion of the movie – the vast army of soldier ants swarming its way across a continent and devouring every living organism in its path.

Mention the name of producer George Pal to a film fan and most will automatically think of Sci-Fi, add in director Byron Haskin and The War of the Worlds should almost certainly spring to mind. Well The Naked Jungle isn’t Sci-Fi but the Man vs Nature plot does make  it a type of proto-disaster movie. And yet that element, while alluded to in the background with various dark mutterings about the unusual behavior of the native wildlife and the feeling that “something” is coming, only reaches fruition in fairly spectacular fashion in the last half hour or so. Until then, we get plenty of the melodrama referred to above. This kind of thing can be difficult to manage successfully, especially the prim Edwardian variety presented here, and exacerbated by the casting of that symbol of virility that was Charlton Heston as a virginal type bewildered by the earthiness of Eleanor Parker. Perhaps wisely, the script by Ranald MacDougall and Philip Yordan (fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow) takes a sidelong view of it all and offers up the kind of ripe and arch dialogue that is hugely enjoyable.

While Heston and Parker must surely have had a  fine old time trading wisecracks about the desirability of a well-played piano and the  like, there’s also ample opportunity for them to  literally get their hands dirty in the mud and, in Heston’s case, a very close encounter with the billions of hungry ants. You’ll never hear me complain about anything where William Conrad makes an appearance and it’s good to see him in a strong supporting role as a sympathetic government official. Familiar character actor John Dierkes is also a welcome sight as a villainous rival planter, and clearly enjoys the chance to make the most of the pulpy material.

So there you have it, The Naked Jungle is one of those films we could call a “guilty pleasure”, much as I dislike that term – if one enjoys something, I can never see what there is to feel guilty about. Frankly, I think it’s a grand piece of entertainment and while the old DVD looks mostly fine, I’d like to see how it looks in Hi-Def. Either way, it’s a fun movie that’s well worth checking out.

The Gunfight at Dodge City

If any decade can be said to offer the finest representation of the strengths of the western, then the 1950s has to be it. And if any one year is to be regarded as providing the purest distillation of the themes and motifs of that genre, then 1959 has to be the prime contender. Whether the effort was conscious or not is of little importance; what matters the way everything built upon foundations already laid earlier, gaining depth and gravitas as the decade wore on, to culminate in the cinematic riches of that peak year. The Gunfight at Dodge City is a fine film, a beautifully shot piece of wistfulness, a mature film for a mature star in a genre which had become a master of its own conscience.

There are certain names which have a habit of cropping up time and again in westerns – lawmen like Wyatt Earp and outlaws such as William Bonney. Bat Masterson may not be quite as well-known but it would be a close run thing and he can’t be far off most people’s radar either. The movie isn’t what you could call a biopic, it just uses a familiar western figure and weaves a story around his legend. We first encounter Masterson (Joel McCrea) as he’s about to return to civilization after a spell hunting buffalo. First though, there’s a visit from an old acquaintance Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson), warning him of the threat posed by a jealous and belligerent soldier. Right away we come face  to face with the theme that dominates the movie, violence and its consequences. Masterson tries to explain to his young and naive companion how the fear and anxiety that walk hand in hand with violence gnaw at the soul, and how the cold brutality of the consequences haunt one thereafter. We get to see it too, in order to drive home the point and the rest of the film employs the oft-used town tamer motif as a vehicle for its parable about loneliness and renewal.

The  previous year had seen director Joseph M Newman explore the ambiguities in McCrea’s character in Fort Massacre. There’s less of that quality on display here, instead we get to see more of the personal integrity typically associated with the star, and an implacability that both commands and demands respect. McCrea was then in his mid-50s, confident enough to project a cool self-awareness and accomplished in the craft of dominating the screen. If the film goes places the western had been before, it’s McCrea’s honesty and directness that keep it feeling fresh. Still, it’s a role that is uncompromising and could become almost too harsh were it not for one character player in particular. John McIntire was a marvelously versatile figure and could add a twinkle to his eye when necessary to lighten even the grimmest  situation. Julie Adams and Nancy Gates are the two women competing for McCrea’s affections, and adding subtle shades to the usual good girl/bad girl scenario.

The Gunfight at Dodge City isn’t a western of the plains or the wide open spaces, remaining confined to the back lot and interiors throughout. However, Newman’s pacy direction and careful use of angles ensures this is never a drawback. If anything, the shot selection in combination with the atmospheric lighting choices of cameraman Carl E Guthrie are used to the greatest possible effect. And then there’s the finely staged climactic duel. It’s a terrific piece of work, as McCrea hears his own words from the film’s first scene echoing in his ears, fatalistically pointing out the folly and fear of the gunman’s path. He reluctantly strides out onto a deserted street to confront an equally unwilling foe, two men fully aware of what they are undertaking yet apparently powerless to break free of the deadly code that binds them. After the iconic face-off the guns will crash and one of them will crumple in the dust, and the whole affair is executed clinically and without any veneer of glamor. This is what the western was building up to – a frank acknowledgment of the grubbiness of violence. The myth  of the west was not built on a celebration of gun play but a celebration of the quest for accommodation with one’s own soul and conscience.

The Gunfight at Dodge City has been readily available on DVD for years now, and there’s also a Blu-ray on the market. I still have the old US DVD, which presents the film quite handsomely in anamorphic ‘Scope. I imagine the Hi-Def version will show off Newman and Guthrie’s imagery to great effect but the old SD copy isn’t bad. I think this is a very strong film, a good example of the quality of work in the genre by this time – an excellent film from a year filled with highlights.

Face of a Fugitive

A race against the clock is usually a solid and bankable  hook upon which to hang a story; there’s that built-in  element of suspense that grows naturally from the diminishing time, and then of course there are a fair few variations to exploit. Face of a Fugitive (1959), one of the last times Fred MacMurray would feature in a western role, sees the net drawing ever tighter around a wanted man, and the complications and obstacles lying in wait.

Jim Larsen (MacMurray) starts out as a prisoner, traveling a train on his way to serve time for robbery. Down but not quite out, he’s just got the jump on his amiable if slow-witted escort when his impulsive brother shows up ready to set him loose. The result of this unsolicited “help” is an exchange of gunfire that sees the lawman killed and the brother fatally wounded. This leaves Larsen running in earnest, now with a murder rap hanging over him and no way to prove his innocence. His only chance is to disappear before the law seal up all the escape routes. A bluff on another train buys a little time but even a name change and a touch of bare-faced audacity may not be enough to allow him to slip away from a small town in time. With all exits patrolled, Larsen’s only chance is to brass it out and hope he can find a way out before the wanted posters bearing his likeness arrive the following morning.

Face of a Fugitive sits comfortably among other late 50s westerns. Its theme of an individual striving to stay one step ahead of the guilty shadows cast by his own past and his somewhat reluctant path towards redemption had been thoroughly explored by this time, but that’s not to say the film is worth any less as a result. It benefits from the weary and fatalistic lead and the frequently inventive and evocative use of studio interiors by cameraman Wilfred M Cline and director Paul Wendkos. I tend to think of the latter as primarily a television name and I think there is, on occasion, a little of that sensibility on show  – the overall pacing and some of the shot selections. He would go on to take charge of a number of noir-tinged episodes of The Untouchables and I see some of that aesthetic at work here. Jerry Goldsmith earns one of his early screen credits for the score although I’m not convinced that a tight little production such as this is the best vehicle for his  more expansive style.

As I understand it, Fred MacMurray wasn’t overly keen on his western films, but he made some impressive ones: At Gunpoint would make for an interesting double bill paired up with High Noon, and Quantez is something of a low budget masterpiece. Face of a Fugitive offered him another worthy part, of the type that sat well with his inherent ambivalence and mock cynicism. I think he was well suited to roles like this, where he never appears fully comfortable with the image of himself he projects – that shallow insolence always feels like a veil to conceal the fragility of his  supposed self-confidence.

If MacMurray was nearing the end of his western career, James Coburn was just setting out on his. Within a year he and six others would head south of the border with John Sturges and never look back. His part here is a small but showy one as the villain’s principal henchman, and he stalks and prowls around the screen with wonderful menace. It’s just as well too as the villain of the piece, Alan Baxter, is just about passable, but lacks that authoritative presence his role calls for. Dorothy Green and Lin McCarthy play the other main characters and are fine without being especially remarkable.

I’m not sure how widely available Face of a Fugitive is for  home viewing – I have  an Italian DVD which is perfectly adequate in my opinion. The widescreen print used is generally clean and the transfer is acceptably sharp. If I had any complaint, it would be that the sound can be a little  weak or muffled from time to time but it remains audible. All in all, this is a good western, pacy and made on a tight budget, it represents a nice showcase for the contrasting talents of MacMurray and Coburn.

The Tattered Dress

Ever wondered how films end up neglected? I was almost going to say “lost” but that’s an entirely different category; I mean movies which are viewable, accessible with a bit of effort, but neither commercially available nor presented in optimum condition. By the way, I’m not offering any answers here. I’m very bit as mystified as the next guy, and I’m really only indulging in a bit of idle musing after watching a less than perfect version of The Tattered Dress (1957). You could argue that the cast is largely peopled with actors who have drifted a little too far out of the public consciousness, although I’m not wholly convinced by that one myself. Regardless of that, the film was directed by Jack Arnold, a cult favorite if ever there was one, and yet this work remains (apparently) unrestored and stubbornly unreleased.

Cinema sometimes feels like the theater of the senses, or maybe a more sensual version of the theater. If we lose the immediacy of the live performance, we also gain something in extreme intimacy, and then in an instant we can also achieve the cool distance of an observer in a gallery. And all the while our senses are targeted and stimulated, particularly our vision and hearing. I’ve come to think that film sequences without dialogue – not silent film, just with the dialogue stripped out – come closest to pure cinema, storytelling predominantly through visuals, music and ambient sound. The Tattered Dress opens like this: with a torn frock, a breathtaking blond racing through a desert night in an open top convertible, a tense meeting with her husband, another ride and then a cool and clinical killing. And not a word spoken.

That’s the setup, a late night killing, a crime of passion by a shooter who needs a sharp lawyer to do the defending. That lawyer is James Blane (Jeff Chandler), famed for his ability to defend the indefensible and the bane of district attorneys everywhere. Blane is blunt, cocksure and beholden to one creed only, the need to win, to succeed and feed the legend of his own ego. His courtroom wizardry has seen him scale the peaks of his profession while he’s sacrificed his personal satisfaction to attain it. If his wife maintains an arm’s length relationship and his children are rarely seen, well so be it. He gets his clients off, and he gets this latest one an acquittal too, shredding the reputation of a small town sheriff on the way. However, this is only part of the story, and Blane’s moment of triumph is an imposter, disguising a comedown that will shake his faith in himself to the core. Yet perhaps he’ll learn something about himself in the process.

Jack Arnold is held in high esteem, and rightly so, for the Sci-Fi films he made in the 1950s. Those films, such as It Came from Outer Space and the excitingly cerebral The Incredible Shrinking Man, were landmarks not only for that genre but for genre filmmaking as a whole. Still, it would be a mistake, and a disservice to the man, if one were to classify him on those terms alone. Tucked in among his credits, one can find a brace of what I’m happy to assert are classy and superior examples of tight and economical western cinema – No Name on the Bullet and Red Sundown. Also, around the same time, Arnold was making (along with Jeff Chandler as it happens) Man in the Shadow where he took aim at small town corruption and racism. Here, under the guise of a slick legal thriller, he cast a sideways glance at the American Dream.

I’d like to think the desert setting, which Arnold seemed drawn to on a number of occasions, has some significance. Is it too much of a stretch to view that harsh and bleak backdrop as a kind of blank canvas upon which he felt greater freedom to explore his themes? Because he does dig under the surface of the glossy 50s American success story – the hotshot lawyer stirs urban/rural and western/eastern hostilities right from the beginning, and his idealized family unit (not to mention that of his smooth and wealthy clients) is shown to be anything but ideal. In short, there’s a nasty bit of corrosion creeping in beneath the chrome trim. The broken home and tarnished ideals of the man are the price he has paid in his ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune, elbowing such trifles as truth and justice aside in his dash for a questionable prize. So, at this point, let me make a proposal – that Arnold was every bit as concerned, all through his Sci-Fi, western and thriller work, with a critical examination of the flaws and  barely suppressed crises of the post-war American soul as the more critically acclaimed Douglas Sirk. While this is something I’ve pondered before, I’ll freely admit that this George Zuckerman scripted production hauled it all front and center for me – Zuckerman also wrote a number of screenplays for Sirk, including the perennially underrated The Tarnished Angels.

Now, a brief word on the performances. Jeff Chandler’s early death robbed the cinema of one of the most promising talents of the era. It has also led to an under-appreciation of his talents and abilities, but a look at any of his best roles quickly highlights his powerful screen presence. Plenty of actors, especially leading men in their prime,  are and were loath to accept what might be perceived as unsympathetic roles. Chandler, however, seemed comfortable enough taking on less than wholesome parts. The lawyer here is not a nice man, he’s a grasping and ruthless type who has lost his way, and yet Chandler embraces this negativity and offers a welcome three-dimensional portrait of ambition colliding with a hunger for personal fulfillment. Facing off against him is Jack Carson, the butt of plenty of jokes as a character player. His bulky joviality is nicely subverted here and his cool undermining of Chandler is very memorable. Jeanne Crain is the estranged wife, still in love with Chandler but proud enough to hold herself back until he rediscovers his humanity. And finally, there’s Gail Russell, that fragile beauty in the middle of a temporary comeback that was destined to be short-lived.

To finish this piece, which has ended up running slightly longer than my other recent postings, let me just reiterate that The Tattered Dress is a classy melodrama/thriller with a fine cast and on-form director. That it remains unreleased on any current home video format is something I struggle to understand. There are many films we can safely say are deserving of a high quality digital release – this is most assuredly one of them. I can only hope someone sets about rectifying this oversight soon.

The Halliday Brand

When I started this blog a good many years ago my motivation was to talk about movies, in particular westerns. At the time I felt the genre was somewhat neglected in comparison to others, and that what we might refer to as the medium efforts were passed over with depressing regularity. Films such as The Halliday Brand (1957) were what I had in mind, where a strong cast and crew worked on a project that only a smattering of people seemed to be aware of. This is a movie where the final result isn’t quite up to the level of the filmmakers’ ambition, where you have to admire the stylish execution even as you experience a touch of regret for a promising scenario which doesn’t quite gel.

The opening makes it clear that the Halliday family is a troubled one, Clay (Bill Williams) attempting to coax his brother Daniel (Joseph Cotten) back to the homestead at the point of a gun. The reason is Dan senior (Ward Bond), local lawman and hardheaded pioneer, is on his deathbed and keen to see his estranged son while he still has time. Now this is an especially dark tale of familial strife, bordering on film noir in its intensity and tragedy, and it’s therefore only appropriate that its telling should be largely undertaken via flashback. It’s here that we learn how the elder Halliday is so consumed with an unpleasant combination of racial prejudice and stubborn pride that he’s prepared to ignore the advice of his sons and his own inner voice. His inflexibility leads to a lynching that breaks his daughter’s heart, and then a pointless confrontation which drives a powerful wedge between himself and the son who bears his name. And at the center of this emotional maelstrom sits the mystically serene enigma that is Aleta (Viveca Lindfors), the half-Indian girl who has captured the hearts of both Halliday brothers.

I have to say I really like the films of Joseph H Lewis; they may not always be wholly successful but there is an artistic drive and strong visual sensibility at their heart which is hard to resist. The Halliday Brand sets itself up as a classical tragedy played out against a frontier backdrop, which is a noble enough intention and one which has paid off in other productions. Here I think it works only up to a point as it feels as though there are too many themes (or too many facets of themes) competing for the viewer’s attention over its reasonably brief running time. The essence of it all is the Halliday brand of the title – the literal one is the symbol of the buried tomahawk, of conflicts resolved through strength, while the figurative one is the harsh implacability represented by Halliday senior and the barely acknowledged version of the same to be found in the younger generation. One could draw inferences from the casting of arch-conservative Ward Bond as the in such a role but it’s (in my opinion) an optional exercise and the movie still works without doing so – it’s the human drama at the center of it all that counts for more but the layered structure facilitates different levels of appreciation if desired.

Bond is as impressive as ever in his role here, mean and manipulative to the end and an imposing, authentic physical presence. Joseph Cotten is less effective I feel, his natural reserve fits the quieter and more introspective side of his character but his performance feels somewhat mannered at times and could have used a bit more raw passion. Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors sounds like an odd choice to play a half-Indian girl but her striking beauty, photographed with superb skill by Ray Rennahan, works in her favor and I found her credible in the role. In support there is good solid work done by Bill Williams, Jay C Flippen and a virtually unrecognizable Jeanette Nolan.

The Halliday Brand is available on DVD from the US via the MGM Manufacture on demand line. It looks like an older television master was utilized, meaning an acceptable if unspectacular image in terms of clarity and contrast. However, bearing in mind this is a 1957 production, it’s almost impossible to see how the Academy ratio presented on the disc could be correct. That aside, the film is a moderately successful example of western noir – the classical aspirations don’t all hit the mark but the attempt remains a stylish and entertaining one.

Home to Danger

Somehow, without consciously having planned to do so, I’ve seen myself on a British thriller kick this summer and therefore embarked on this series of short pieces to log my thoughts and impressions as I’ve been going along. There hasn’t been any particular pattern followed but I have permitted certain films to lead me on to others, linking them up in a vague and loose form that probably makes little sense to anyone apart from myself. I appreciated Guy Rolfe in You Can’t Escape, had a fine time with Lance Comfort’s Tomorrow at Ten, and just recently enjoyed Terence Fisher’s direction of The Last Man to Hang. Those titles and the others I’ve been highlighting are all either films noir or crime/mystery pictures of one kind or another. All of this leads me to Home to Danger (1951), a film noir/whodunit hybrid starring Guy Rolfe, produced by Lance Comfort and directed by Terence Fisher.

Barbara Cummings (Rona Anderson) is the one coming home and the danger referred to lies in the stately pile she has just inherited from her late father. She’d been in Singapore and had left England under something of a cloud and so she feels a certain reticence about her arrival back in the family residence, particularly when she learns the inquest into her father’s death recorded a verdict of suicide. There’s a touch of guilt there but not too much – she knows she wasn’t responsible and no=one seems keen to attach any blame in that direction. However, it’s also clear that late changes to the old man’s will meant Barbara comes into everything of value, while some others who might have had what could be termed expectations have been either cut out at the last minute or not had the chance to be included. Although Barbara has an ally and someone to look out for her in the shape of debonair author Robert Irving (Guy Rolfe), there is a very real sense of menace following a botched attempt on her life. The question is who is behind it all, and what’s their motive?

Home to Danger is one of those slightly unusual amalgams of the country house whodunit and an urban film noir. The former characteristics are to the fore in the earlier stages following the new heiress’ return home. Terence Fisher gets good mileage from the manor house surroundings, and moves his camera around atmospherically, also creating some memorable and noteworthy visuals during the shooting of the exteriors. The action then switches back to town for a time in the course of the investigation into extremely dubious shooting. Again, Fisher is to be commended for altering the style appropriately and presenting different, but equally effective, imagery. The plot is entertaining and engaging enough and the director ensures, with the aid of those shifts back and forth in location, that the hour or so running time is full of incident.

Rona Anderson and Guy Rolf make for an attractive leading couple. Anderson has vigor and guts, and a quality which makes one want to root for her. Alongside her is the suave and assured Rolfe, winning viewer sympathy every bit as effortlessly. The likes of Francis Lister and Alan Wheatley drift in and out of the shadows and keep us guessing as to their real aims. A little further down the cast list is a young Stanley Baker, making the most of his smallish but vital role as a faithful and simple servant, hinting at the great things still to come later in his career.

Home to Danger should be easy enough to locate. It is available on DVD as part of a double bill with Montgomery Tully’s Master Spy in the UK via Renown. As far as I know, it’s also been released in the US as part of a set of British thrillers from a few years back. The transfer is mostly OK; although there is some weird shimmering effect that I noticed early on, it seems to settle down as the film progresses. The movie itself is a modest enough affair which, nevertheless, manages to pull off all it sets out to do. It tells a good crime story efficiently in a little over an hour, with an attractive cast and professional and stylish direction by Terence Fisher.

 

The Last Man to Hang

The whole notion of justice is a marvelously complex area. The entire history of civilization could be seen as an attempt to define exactly what that word means, what it is and how it is applied in practical terms. It underpins our understanding of the law and its purpose, and of course the law in all its forms is integral to many a piece of drama. Within this is the sub-genre of the legal or courtroom thriller, which brings me to The Last Man to Hang (1956). The title alludes to contemporary shifts in attitude in relation to the death penalty but that aspect, while mentioned and acknowledged, is very much subordinated to the central question of whether the man referenced is to be found guilty or not.

The plot revolves around Sir Roderick Strood (Tom Conway), a music critic who is arrested and charged with the murder of his wife Daphne (Elizabeth Sellars). A good deal of the story is recounted via flashback as Strood  briefs his QC (David Horne) on the events leading up to the fateful evening. Essentially, the film is constructed of three parts – the preparation for the trial, the trial itself, and then the deliberations and verdict reached by the jury. The first section sees the accumulation of a significant amount of circumstantial evidence not helped by the damaging fact that Strood was conducting an extramarital affair with a singer (Eunice Gayson) and building up a lot of ill-will from his wife’s vindictive maid (Freda Jackson).

Then comes the trial at the Old Bailey, where counsel for the defense and the prosecution elegantly present the facts, and interpretations, they hope will swing the case their way. And finally, it’s passed on to the jury, the dozen men and women handed the responsibility for sifting these facts and ultimately deciding whether the man before them is to live or die.

The Last Man to Hang was adapted from The Jury, a novel by Gerald Bullett. I recently picked up a copy of that book, heavily influenced by the great looking cover art of Pan books of that era, and although I have yet to read it I was keen to see how the movie version was. Actually, I wonder now whether the book tells its story in exactly the same way – the film presents the viewer with a vital fact early on (which I’m not revealing here) and I’m not quite sure if that was the best approach or whether it serves to increase or reduce the tension. In my mind, the jury is still out (apologies for that dreadful pun) on that score but it may concern others less. The director for this film was Terence Fisher, and while The Last Man to Hang wasn’t a Hammer production  it’s difficult not to think of him as the studio’s principal shot caller now and therefore unconsciously make comparisons. With that in mind, I think it’s fair to say Fisher’s direct and economical shooting style is apparent all the way through.

Top-billed Tom Conway was an actor whose career was on the downward curve by this stage. In the 1940s, even if he never reached quite as high as his bother George Sanders, he had done good things in three of the best Val Lewton films, a handful of nifty films noir (including one for Anthony Mann),  and had also taken the lead in the long running The Falcon series of B mysteries. He was making a number of movies in the UK at around this time – the other two or three I’ve seen being reasonably entertaining – and about to move towards more television work. His role as the adulterous and conscience-stricken defendant is a large one, giving him plenty of screen time and he is his usual suave self. There’s a restraint there (some might say too much) but I think it works and suits the self-critical reserve of his character.

Aside from Conway, the cast of The Last Man to Hang is deep and impressive. The three major female roles are all well handled. Elizabeth Sellars gets the moody obsessiveness of her character spot on and you can clearly see the frustration she inspires both in her husband and in herself. Freda Jackson, a familiar face in British cinema, is wonderfully malicious and spiteful as the maid whose twisted devotion plays such a pivotal part in the plot. And future Bond girl Eunice Gayson, who just recently passed away, is quietly effective and indeed affecting in her small but vital role. In the courtroom scenes, David Horne and Raymond Huntley battle with distinction while judge Walter Hudd looks on. Of the jury members, Victor Maddern stands out as the stubborn type who could have given Henry Fonda a run for his money in 12 Angry Men.

Sadly, The Last Man to Hang has yet to be released on DVD anywhere. However, it does turn up on TV, in what is probably a cropped 4:3 version, and has done so recently, which is how I managed to catch up with it. The movie was distributed theatrically by Columbia so the rights may still reside with the studio. This is an absorbing courtroom tale, examining the concept of justice in both  criminal and personal terms and is well enough made with a memorable cast to attract an audience still. I’d hope some company might find a way to get this on the market at some stage.

Paid to Kill

Previously I made the assertion that instances of bad luck and, let’s say, poor choices when it comes to decision-making were major ingredients of film noir. I suppose rash decisions can and often do count as poor, so this fatal combination makes another appearance in Paid to Kill (1954), an early Hammer production which followed the formula adhered to by the studio back then of using a slightly faded US star in the lead to add greater marketing appeal outside of the UK.

Jim Nevill (Dane Clark) is a businessman and the head of Amalgamated Industries – I’m not sure if the exact nature of the industries is ever mentioned and if it is, I’ve no memory of it. Anyway, the point is that, despite surface indications, Nevill and his company is in trouble. A deal he had been depending on seems to have fallen through and he’s faced with the prospect of professional and personal ruin. This is an unattractive prospect but it’s made even more unpalatable by the fact that Nevill is desperate to ensure his wife, Andrea (Thea Gregory), is not dragged down with him. This is where we come to the rash decision referred to above – he hires (blackmails actually) an old acquaintance with a shady past to kill him so his wife will benefit from a generous insurance payout. Quite aside from the matter of pushing nobility and altruism to the extreme, Nevill has miscalculated badly. What happens when a man who convinced himself he had nothing to live for then discovers that the opposite is the case after those grinding wheels of fate have been set in relentless motion? What do you do when the man you’ve paid to take your life looks like he’s not only determined to fulfill his side of the bargain but has also dropped completely out of sight?

The Hammer name is best known for the horror movies the studio specialized in from the last 1950s onward but the studio was making a lot of these modest little crime movies in the earlier part of the decade. When it came to marketing them for DVD release some years ago they were labeled as noir, although that didn’t really fit in all cases. Having said that, Paid to Kill does live up to the billing and the whole premise of the movie, along with the tone and look, is pure noir. The focus of this site has remained firmly on British crime of late and certain directors have almost inevitably been featured. Montgomery Tully hasn’t been included until now but his output during the 50s and 60s was such that it would be difficult to run through any short series of articles on this theme without coming to him eventually. His work on Paid to Kill is quietly impressive, maintaining a good pace and an attractively dark look.

Overall, I like this film – the story is melodramatic but in a good way, and the direction has a smooth efficiency – but it would be remiss of me if I were to gloss over the deficiencies. To begin with the positive, I feel Dane Clark did well as the lead, hunted and subdued for the most part but also bouncy and pugnacious when the twists of the plot required it. While he’s not an actor I’ve ever warmed to in particular, I’m happy to acknowledge how important he is to the production here. Yet that’s about it as far as the praise for the acting goes. With the notable and laudable exception of Clark, we’re treated to a succession of overly broad, flat or, in a few cases, outright wooden performances. Disappointing.

Paid to Kill was released on DVD by VCI, paired up on the same disc with another Montgomery Tully effort The Glass Tomb. There’s some print damage to be seen throughout and it’s clear that no restoration was attempted. Still, the image isn’t displeasing and that damage isn’t too distracting. OK, I’ve been quite dismissive of many of the performances but Clark is fine and his work, alongside Tully’s direction and the fatalistic plot, more or less compensates. It’s a neat and compact British noir and a good example of early Hammer.

You Can’t Escape

Aside from the visual motifs, film noir leans heavily on the presence of certain thematic elements. Betrayal and suspicion figure strongly, and crime of some form is usually involved, but perhaps the most important ingredient of all is the product of the ill-starred marriage of bad luck and stupid decision-making. It’s difficult to get away from the fact that many (maybe even all) of the hopeless predicaments the characters in the noir world seem to blunder into time and again are essentially situations which could and indeed should have been avoided with the application of a little rational thought. You Can’t Escape (1957) offers a convenient illustration of this very point.

Peter Darwin (Robert Urquhart) is a successful author and a man with a quiet and easy charm. The beginning of the film suggests he’s a lucky guy too, happening to be on the scene to rescue  wealthy and eligible heiress Kay March (Noelle Middleton) and thus embarking on a relationship. Still, Darwin’s smoothness is of the superficial variety, and a late night call from another woman, one who is still in love with him initiates our noir-tinged series of events. Things are looking bad for Darwin – the girl is pregnant and wants him back, so his dreams of marriage and a comfortable future begin to recede rapidly. From here the situation turns increasingly grim as that poor luck results in an accident which sees the girl dead, and then the rotten decisions start to kick in – so begins the descent that is integral to film noir.

You Can’t Escape has no especially big names to draw an audience, at least no names that modern audiences will be all that familiar with. Robert Urquhart,  in the same year as he was starring in The Curse of Frankenstein for Hammer, was and remains probably the most recognizable face for most. He turns in a pretty solid and increasingly repugnant performance as the grasping writer who has plenty of charm but uses it to conceal a hard yet brittle core. He does very good work gradually revealing just how venal and manipulative his character is, a fine piece of villainy. Noelle Middleton is fine too as the woman who covers up for him at first and then slowly sees the error she has made, the monster she has been protecting and appalling way in which her love and loyalty has been misplaced. A good noir should have some kind of triangle and in You Can’t Escape the third arm is provided by the upright and self-effacing Guy Rolfe. Maybe he’s a little too upstanding and noble, and then again maybe he just appears so in relation to Urquhart’s craven chancer. And heading up the supporting cast is a sly Peter Reynolds as a grating journalist with an eye for a story and a penchant for blackmail.

You Can’t Escape has a strong noir look with some very well-lit shots and setups, the kind of thing many a Hollywood major would have been proud of a few years earlier. The man who directed this was one Wilfred Eades. His list f credits as director is a short one and I don’t believe I’ve seen anything else he shot. Mind you, I have seen one picture where he is credited as the writer, the 1958 swashbuckler The Moonraker, and that’s quite an entertaining little movie.

For a fairly obscure slice of Brit noir, Network made a welcome effort with the DVD presentation of You Can’t Escape. The film is offered in both widescreen and Academy ratios, the former is surely the correct one and the print used is in pleasing condition too. As for supplements, we get a trailer and also a gallery. All told, this is a neat example of British film noir and it’s certainly worth a look.