The Turning Point

Organized crime, corruption and graft became increasingly common features of film noir as it moved into the 1950s. Those unattractive yet perennial problems seemed even less savory in a world just beginning to find its equilibrium again after the trauma and devastation of the war years. The desire to root out such rottenness, particularly after so many had sacrificed so much in pursuit of something finer, had the potential to provide powerful drama. Still, alongside this, it has to be acknowledged that there was a correspondingly strong chance of any movie going down this route declining into a dry, or even pompous, affair. The surest way to combat that unwelcome effect was to ramp up the human interest, to emphasize the personal angle while holding the preaching in check as far as possible. The Turning Point (1952) represents a broadly successful attempt to ensure this balance is achieved.

There is an especially nasty flavor to organized crime. It dresses itself up in a sneer, celebrates its own conceit and smirks at its own soullessness. It’s a crime without passion, an offense keen to court glamor yet one which leaves behind huge numbers of victims as it swaggers nonchalantly towards the next big score.  The Turning Point clearly acknowledges this as it follows prosecutor John Conroy (Edmond O’Brien) on his crusade against the mob in an unidentified Mid-West city (despite the fact the location work makes it abundantly clear the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Superficially, there’s nothing new here and one might be forgiven for expecting another straightforward racket-busters yarn. However, there are elements introduced that muddy the ethical waters somewhat and thus raise the bar a few notches. To begin, there’s Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), the newspaperman whose friendship with Conroy will be tested both by his own inherent cynicism and his growing attraction to his friend’s girl (Alexis Smith). There’s the makings of an interesting moral dilemma shaping up there, but all this is somewhat overshadowed (although one could argue it’s also complemented) by the fact Conroy’s policeman father (Tom Tully) has secretly been in the pocket of the mob boss for some time.

As I alluded to above, films based around the mob and/or those tasked with taking them down can become wearisome in their predictability. There’s a tendency perhaps to focus on the  tough cool of the knowing gangster, the high-living wiseguy who’s got society’s number and plays it mercilessly. Either that or the audience is placed in the shoes of the straight arrow agents of the law, and all the grey sanctimony that inevitably follows in the wake of that approach. There’s something refreshing about the way The Turning Point enthusiastically embraces the flaws in human nature – the use of the source material by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) can’t have hurt.  Nor can the smooth and sensitive direction of William Dieterle, yet another of those who brought their European filmmaking sensibility with them and thus enriched Hollywood in the studio era.

Good casting goes a long way, in my opinion. Both Holden and O’Brien play to their strengths, the latter projecting businesslike  solidity, while the former exudes worldly (indeed world-weary) charm. Crucially, neither one overcooks it or allows it to slide towards parody. Alexis Smith was both capable and beautiful, working on a number of good movies over the years but maybe too many middling ones kept her star from rising as high as it could have. Tom Tully had the pivotal of the compromised cop, one that needed to  be written and performed well if the story was to retain its credibility. Happily, both the actor and the writers seem to have grasped this fact and the emotional core holds up as a result. Good villains are also essential in such tales, and small but memorable appearances from Ted de Corsia, Neville Brand and Carolyn Jones help things along. Ed Begley, a champion of bluster and indignation, does well as the crime boss; the scene where he calmly orders the firebombing of an entire building just to protect his interests is chilling in its calculation, and also heartbreaking in the dispassionately filmed aftermath.

A fair bit time has been taken up on this site bemoaning the lack of attention given to certain Universal-International tiles. The same can certainly be said of Paramount material – while a fair bit has leaked out over the years, plenty more remains either unavailable for viewing or  only exists in inferior form. This is true of The Turning Point, a film which was once announced for release on Blu-ray but then pulled as the elements were said to be sub-standard. At present, there are DVDs to be had from Spain and Italy but the transfers are pretty weak by all accounts, and I have a hunch they may not advance much, if anything, on what can be found quite easily online. A pity really, and it would be great if a more visually appealing version could be found and put on the market.

Silver City

Watching movies again after a long gap can alternate between the rewarding and the disappointing. Any conclusions reached are, of course, entirely subjective as it’s we who represent the variable here, the ones who change, and not the movies themselves. And it’s a curious phenomenon, one whose mechanics I’ve never wholly understood beyond vague allusions to the mood one happens to be in on any given occasion. For what it’s worth, I find that my feelings towards most films don’t shift all that radically, and when I do perceive a change it’s a positive one as often as not. Still, when I recently had another look at Byron Haskin’s Silver City (1951) I experienced the opposite effect – a certain disappointment, as though the film I remembered were subtly different.

The show opens with a robbery and pitches us right into what promises to be a pacy adventure. The bright start and then the following sequence that establishes Larkin Moffatt (Edmond O’Brien) as a man fated to be dogged by a tarnished past has the potential to develop into something really meaty and satisfying. We follow Moffatt from one rejection to another as he trudges along the path of weary disillusionment trodden by legions of noir anti-heroes. This was the image I’d been carrying around in my mind – that of the pugnacious, tight-lipped guy slouching his way through a hard-boiled western in search of some form of personal redemption. But that’s only part of the story, and not necessarily a fair representation of it either. Moffatt is thrown a moral lifeline of sorts when Candace Surrency (Yvonne De Carlo) and her miner father Dutch (Edgar Buchanan) persuade him to take on the role of foreman when they’ve made a big silver strike. There’s trouble looming though in the shape of a grasping rival, Jarboe (Barry Fitzgerald), as well as the reappearance of  figures from Moffatt’s past who refuse to let him move on.

On paper, this all sounds quite good – and the fact it’s derived from a Luke Short story attests to its pedigree – but the fact is it plods along where it needs to zip, and the tone tends to vary in a way I didn’t find especially successful. Moffatt is for the most part portrayed as terse, tough and two-fisted but there are a few occasions where he’s involved in some knockabout antics which didn’t blend in naturally for me – there’s a manufactured saloon brawl that feels altogether too broad, in my opinion. Aside from that, I’m of the opinion that there’s almost too much going on in the script – jealousy, romantic subplots which crisscross feel somewhat repetitive, rivalries that spill over from relationships into business, and consequent grudges and bad feeling nursed by others. In short, there’s always something going on but the crowded nature of it all actually serves to slacken the pace rather than quicken it.

On the plus side, there is a fine cast here, led by the ever watchable O’Brien, bringing that natural noir sensibility he had to his role. Yvonne De Carlo always had that earthy allure and photographs wonderfully in Technicolor. I think she generally excelled in westerns and made quite a few, her blend of sexuality and toughness finding a natural home in the genre. Laura Elliott (AKA Kasey Rogers), who had a pivotal role in Strangers on a Train around this time, is fine too as De Carlo’s competition for O’Brien’s attentions. Moving on to the villainous roles, I ‘d argue there are too many of them for their own good. The great Barry Fitzgerald could never be less than enjoyable and he seemed to be having a high time with his malignant Irish pixie act. John Dierkes is good too as a murderous and vindictive drunkard but he’s underused, while neither Richard Arlen nor Michael Moore amount to a big enough threat to provide a solid core to the drama.

I think director Byron Haskin had a great visual sense and this film looks very attractive most of the time. Westerns tends to be at their best when the locations are used to good advantage and while this film has some good outdoor work, it has to be said that the director really made the most of the interiors, and there’s no doubt cameraman Ray Rennahan’s beautifully understated lighting played an important part in this too. Haskin made a trio of westerns around this time with Edmond O’Brien and I’m keen to see the most elusive of them, Warpath.  That title has only had a release in Spain as far as I can tell and I can’t find any reviews to throw light on its quality. Even so, I may well end up taking a chance on this myself in order to satisfy my curiosity.

Silver City has been out in the US on DVD and Blu-ray via Olive  for a few years now, and I think there are European versions on the market too. The movie looks reasonable, if not startling, and passes the time agreeably. However, I still feel there are the ingredients for something better in the mix, and I remain somewhat disappointed that my latest viewing had me noticing more of the flaws than the strengths. Anyway, that’s just my current take and, as ever, other opinions are available.

Backfire

poster29_zpswrioo9gw

All right. What’s certain? Two things… death and taxes…

There aren’t too many films noir set in and around the holiday season, Christmas Holiday and Lady in the Lake probably being the best known, as it’s clearly more marketable to focus on the upbeat and cheerful rather than the dark or cynical side of life. Backfire (1950) isn’t strictly speaking a seasonal noir but a number of its key events do play out over the festive period. As such, I thought it would be an appropriate choice for what ought to be my last full review piece for this year.

It’s November of 1948, the war’s been over a few years now but the scars haven’t fully healed. In a veterans hospital in California Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) is still recuperating from his wounds, a serious back injury which has required thirteen operations. Still, he’s on the road to recovery and has hopes of going into the ranching business with his old army pal Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien), and also of marrying the nurse, Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo), who’s tended him. The holidays are rapidly approaching and Bob is growing anxious that his buddy hasn’t been around of late. Then, late on Christmas Eve as his medication is just kicking in, he has a visit from an unknown woman, a foreigner whom none of the hospital staff can subsequently recall seeing. As he lies in a narcotic haze, she tells him that Steve is in serious trouble, laid up with a shattered spine and desperately in need of help. What’s a guy to do when he learns his best buddy is in such dire straits? As soon as his discharge comes through in the New Year, he resolves to track down the mystery woman and, by extension, Steve. In the world of noir nothing’s quite that simple though, and he finds himself picked up by a squad car upon leaving the hospital. Ferried to the homicide department, our bewildered hero fears the worst, but instead discovers that Steve is top of the police wanted list for the murder of a prominent gambler. And so begins a twisting quest for the truth which dips in and out of the past, a winding path that’s driven by gambling and jealousy, and has death as its final stop.

The problems faced by returning veterans, particularly the difficulty of establishing one’s place back in civilized society, was a recurring theme (perhaps one of the most prominent in truth) in film noir and was arguably the factor which gave greatest momentum to the post-war boom in that genre. Backfire comes at this on three fronts, focusing on the physical, social and psychological barriers to be overcome. While the latter aspect is the one which acts as the catalyst for the violence and tragedy in the plot, its causes are hinted at rather than fully explored – although it does at least make an effort to acknowledge the matter and avoids going down the road that led to such an unsatisfactory conclusion to The Blue Dahlia a few years before. Speaking of which, I have a hunch the coda of the movie here was tacked on as a softening touch – I hasten to add I have no evidence to suggest this is so beyond a feeling that the fade out preceding it may have been deemed a bit too much of a downer.

Vincent Sherman was one of those studio directors who made mainly professional if not wholly memorable pictures. Generally, I’d say I enjoy his work well enough  – Lone Star was quite disappointing but I think Nora Prentiss, The Garment Jungle, The Unfaithful and The Damned Don’t Cry all have worth. The plot does become pretty complicated as it goes along but Sherman uses the flashbacks intelligently and keeps the pace up. There’s some good use of the Los Angeles locations and Carl Guthrie lights the interiors nicely to create the requisite atmosphere.

The poster art is a little misleading, although understandably so in the wake of White Heat. It gives the impression that Virginia Mayo is playing the kind of vampish femme fatale so beloved of noir. The fact is, however, that she’s cast as that other staple of the form, the Girl Friday who lends support to the hero. She’s fine in this role and I think it’s a pity she didn’t get to feature a bit more. Gordon MacRae is the everyman figure who leads us through the complexities – he was primarily a musical star and seems an odd choice at first for this type of film but actually works out OK as the innocent cast into a world which is clearly alien to him. Edmond O’Brien, on the other hand, was very much at home in film noir and does great work (tough, weary but fundamentally decent) in his flashback scenes. While the presence of a femme fatale  – and that doesn’t have to be a “bad girl”, just one whose sexuality leads men into danger – isn’t always necessary, it never hurts either. Viveca Lindfors fits the bill in Backfire, positively smouldering at times and always convincing as a woman unconsciously capable of tempting men to risk it all for. Dane Clark was always busy as an actor but never seemed to really make it as a star; he was excellent in Borzage’s Moonrise and I thought he did well in a number of crime/noir films he made in Britain. His role here is a vital one and he handled it very capably in my opinion. Notable support is provided by the always reliable Ed Begley and John Dehner pops up in an uncredited bit part.

A Warner Brothers production, Backfire is available on DVD as part of that studio’s Film Noir Classics Collection Vol. 5. It’s paired up on disc with Deadline at Dawn and looks good throughout. The transfer is mostly clean with very little damage visible and a nice level of detail. There are no extra features offered. Although this isn’t one of the better known films noir it’s a solid movie with some good performances. The script maybe tries to be a tad too clever at times and I did notice one plot hole which irritated me somewhat (I won’t go into it here as I don’t want to get into spoiler territory) but it remains enjoyable overall. A reasonably entertaining thriller then with a tangential connection to the holidays.

 

 

Rio Conchos

Poster

I’ve always enjoyed looking at the way the western evolved over the years. There’s a, fairly common, misconception that the spaghetti western just kind of exploded onto the scene in a genre busting blaze of immorality and violence. However, that’s a superficial reading of things; the foundations were being laid a decade before and the progression isn’t that hard to follow. Anyway, the consensus seems to hold that the spaghettis gave the traditional western a much needed jolt to shake it out of the doldrums it was in danger of slipping into. That’s hard to argue with, but I’m not sure the Hollywood western wasn’t heading in more or less the same direction of its own accord regardless of outside pressure. When you look at some examples of genre pieces from the mid-60s there are already indications of their straddling the two, seemingly irreconcilable, eras. Rio Conchos (1964) makes for interesting viewing in this context, having the trappings and look of the traditional oater but displaying an attitude and sensibility closer to the emerging European westerns.

At the heart of Rio Conchos lies revenge – there’s essentially no nobility on show, nor very much in the way of finer feelings of any kind. The main character is Lassiter (Richard Boone), a former confederate Major who’s almost totally consumed with a killing rage sparked by the torture and murder of his wife and child by the Apache. This man hunts down and disposes of his enemy with a ruthless precision. The opening shots are of Lassiter calmly massacring an Apache burial party, before heading back to the ruins of his former home to get drunk amid the personal and physical devastation. He would appear content to spend the remainder of his existence extracting his pound of flesh every time the opportunity arose. But that’s not to be, as he finds himself coerced into participating in an army plan to recover a shipment of stolen rifles thought to be over the border in Mexico and soon to be sold to an eager Apache warlord, Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta). Lassiter’s motivation, apart from a desire to get out of the army guardhouse, is the chance to even his personal score with Bloodshirt and he has no particular sympathy for the two cavalrymen, Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sergeant Franklyn (Jim Brown), that he’s guiding. Haven’s on a mission of vengeance too, being the man in charge of the original arms shipment that’s gone missing. His quest may be dressed up in the guise of duty, but there’s no hiding the fact that he too is seeking some form of recompense for the slight to his reputation. The party is completed by a Mexican rogue, Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), whose involvement is quite simple: he’s out to avoid the hangman’s rope and hopefully line his pockets in the process. In the more traditional scenario, this ill-assorted group bound together by a common objective would include at least one member driven by some higher moral sense. Not in this case though; all (with the possible exception of the cipher-like Franklyn) are pandering to their own base instincts. Everything builds towards a surreal climax on the banks of the titular river, where a demented Colonel (Edmond O’Brien) twisted by the bitterness of defeat in the Civil War plots merciless retribution for his conquerors.

Stuart Whitman & Richard Boone in Rio Conchos.

Director Gordon Douglas made a lot of so-so films but he had it in him to produce something of real quality when the conditions were right. Rio Conchos is among his best movies (and Only the Valiant is another little dark gem tucked away in his filmography) due largely to the tough and cynical script and an uncompromising performance by Richard Boone. To Douglas’ credit, the action scenes are extremely well staged and, along with cameraman Joe MacDonald, he really makes the most of the rugged Utah locations. Still, it’s Boone that carries it all along, playing a mere shell of a man subsisting on hatred and bitterness. His craggy, lived-in features were ideal for westerns, from his iconic Paladin in TV’s Have Gun – Will Travel to a couple of memorable appearances as the villain in two John Wayne pictures, to name just a few. I’ve seen it written that his performance is a bit one note, but I don’t think that’s being entirely fair. One sequence in particular has him showing two vastly different sides to his character within minutes. I’m referring to the scene where the travellers come upon a burned out house containing what one assumes is a tortured and/or violated woman, moaning in agony on her deathbed, while her infant lies neglected in a cot alongside. We can see a series of emotions playing across Boone’s face, but the predominant one is a deep hurt as the terrible vision obviously brings back memories of the fate of his own wife and child. As he puts the woman out of her misery he is close to breaking down totally, the mask of toughness slipping momentarily in the now deserted room. When the raiding party returns to harry the trapped men though, Boone reverts to type almost instantaneously. There is something terrible in his primal joy, the gales of malicious laughter he expels when watching a downed Apache burning to death before his eyes. It could be argued that Lassiter undergoes a change of heart as the quest progresses, seeing that the army mission has some worth in itself that supersedes his own desire for vengeance. Again, I don’t read it that way. The confrontation with Rodriguez seems to me not so much a realization that there are higher issues at stake but more a necessary way of ensuring that his own ambitions are not thwarted.

By the time the climax rolls round, the obsessive nature of Lassiter’s rage seems tame and reasonable when compared to the schemes of the deluded Colonel played by Edmond O’Brien. He only appears late on in the film but he makes a deep and lasting impression. At the outset, O’Brien’s character seems merely eccentric. However, when he opens the door to his reproduction plantation mansion and invites Lassiter to step inside the full extent of his madness is revealed. This castle in the desert is little more than a facade, a half-constructed monument to a world that’s passed away yet he struts around like he’s entertaining company back in Virginia. O’Brien wisely tones down the histrionics and lets his words and outlandish surroundings convey the imbalance of his mind instead. The ending, though it might be termed abrupt and somewhat inconclusive, is a wonderful exercise in nihilism. It’s this, rather than the violent tone of the movie, that persuades me that the Hollywood western was already moving in the direction of the spaghettis. The classic era of the Hollywood western told stories that invariably held out the promise of redemption for one or more of the lead characters. What sets the likes of Rio Conchos apart is the total lack of concern for any kind spiritual salvation. In the end, nobody really triumphs and no higher purpose is achieved – none of the characters, whether living or dead by this point, have advanced much from the stage they were at when we saw them initially.

The German DVD of Rio Conchos from Koch Media treats the film very well. There’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer with rich colours, especially evident in the red clay of the locations. There is no damage worth mentioning present on the print used and detail is again strong. The English soundtrack (with subs that are removable via the main menu) is a nice stereo mix that does justice to the frequent heavy gunshots, and also to Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful, driving score. The disc is nicely packaged in an attractive digibook format with notes (in German) and supplements the trailer and gallery that are provided as extras. The film may not qualify as one of the true greats of the genre, but it’s still a high quality production that marks an important stage in the evolution of the western. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend seeking it out.

The Killers

Poster

I did something wrong…once.

So says the Swede (Burt Lancaster) as he lies in bed bereft of all hope, and calmly awaits his end. I love that scene near the beginning of the 1946 version of The Killers. It is one of the great moments of film noir and says so much about the genre – if you can even call it a genre. A good deal of its bleak power comes from the fact that it seems to run contrary to all normal human instincts. If someone were to burst into your room and breathlessly inform you that a couple of mean-looking hitmen had just rolled into town with the express aim of rubbing you out, most people would take the opportunity to make tracks fast. But Lancaster just remains prone in the shadows and delivers that line in the detached tone of a man already dead; when fate pays that last call there’s no ducking out. 

Robert Siodmak’s film takes Ernest Hemingway’s short story (and it’s a very short story) and uses it merely as the jumping off point. The rest of the movie follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tries to find out why the Swede ended up in a small New Jersey town waiting passively to greet a hail of bullets. The story is revealed by a succession of characters who had known the Swede, and a number of flashbacks gradually piece together all the events that brought about his demise. The Swede starts off as a medium grade fighter who, after breaking his hand and ending his career, begins the slow descent into the criminal underworld. This culminates in a payroll heist, the aftermath of which leads to the eventual downfall of just about everybody involved. The character of the Swede is basically a good-natured oaf whose desire for easy money allows him to be dazzled and duped by the grasping and predatory Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). In a sense the whole film is as much about Kitty as anyone else; as we see her manipulations provide the catalyst for the betrayals that litter the story.

An eternal triangle - she's lookin' at him, lookin' at her.

The Killers marked the screen debut of Burt Lancaster and his tough vulnerability is shown to good effect in the movie. There’s enough innocence in the Swede for you to genuinely sympathise with him and despair at the big lug’s stupidity as Kitty plays him for the ultimate sucker. Ava Gardner’s Kitty gets the classic femme fatale intro; we first see her as the Swede does – seductively clad in black satin and vamping for all she’s worth in a night club. Her character is rotten all the way through – effortlessly hooking the smitten Swede, playing the gang off against each other, and finally, tearfully begging a dying man to save her neck by damning himself. The role of Edmond O’Brien is to offer perspective and lead the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit; he’s really the linking device between all the small episodes that make up the whole. O’Brien’s own guide along the way is police lieutenant Lubinsky (Sam Levene from the Thin Man movies) and there is good support from gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey. However, two of the most memorable turns come from William Conrad and Charles McGraw as Max and Al, the killers of the title. Their roles don’t extend much beyond the first ten minutes of the film, but those are ten truly magical minutes. They get some of the choicest dialogue (and deliver it perfectly) as they simultaneously mock and menace the occupants of the Brentwood lunch counter.  

We're killing him for a friend. William Conrad & Charles McGraw.

Robert Siodmak made some of the best noirs of the forties and I feel The Killers is his standout work. This is one of those films where plot, direction, characterization and photography all seem to come together harmoniously. Deep, dark shadows are everywhere and only the policeman’s terrace, where the ideal wife serves lemonade on a hot day, seems to rise above the murkiness. I should also say a word about the powerful score by Miklos Rozsa which is especially effective whenever Messrs Conrad and McGraw make an appearance.

The Killers is out on DVD from Criterion in R1 and from Universal in R2. I can’t comment on the presentation on the R2 disc as I haven’t seen it but bitter experience has taught that Universal’s UK releases are a hit and miss affair, with a high proportion of misses. The Criterion is everything you would expect from them with a beautiful, clean transfer to show off those deep, black shadows. As you would expect, the film comes packed with useful and informative extras – and, best of all, it is paired with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film version). All in all, this represents the definitive presentation of what is probably my favorite film noir.