Floods of Fear

There’s drama to be found in extremes, which may be of the economic, political, social or emotional variety. The latter is, of course, the most engaging and involving from the viewer’s perspective and gains from being combined with some other highly charged circumstance. In Floods of Fear (1958) we’re presented with our extreme situation in the form of an environmental catastrophe, the floods of the title. In contrast to the big budget, disaster epics that would become popular in the years ahead, this modest British noir places the focus firmly on a handful of central relationships and this limited scale and scope is one of its great strengths.

It all begins with the aftermath of severe and prolonged rainfall and storms, the adverse weather having raised water levels in the Humboldt River to dangerous levels. The opening sees preparations underway to try to shore up flood defenses and prevent, or at least attempt to hold in check, a catastrophic inundation. With resources strained to breaking point, the state has taken to using convicts to assist in the repairs and fortification. When the elements flex their muscles though and sweep aside the levee another threat, a criminal one, is unleashed along with the flood waters. As a result, Elizabeth Matthews (Anne Heywood), who has been rescued from her stranded vehicle by convicted murderer Donavan (Howard Keel), finds herself holed up in her rapidly disintegrating home with the lecherous and cunning Peebles (Cyril Cusack) and injured prison guard Sharkey (Harry H Corbett). The tension among this disparate group is palpable while the desire to get away is rising as rapidly as the rank and freezing waters outside. Although all these characters have their own reasons for wanting to leave, the most pressing and intriguing seems to be that of Donavan, who appears to have a private score to settle.

Floods of Fear is an unusual British noir, not only adopting the look and feel of the classic Hollywood variety but going a step further and setting its story in the US. That story was adapted from a Saturday Evening Post serial (later published in novel form) by John & Ward Hawkins called simply A Girl, a Man and a River. And it is a fairly simple and straightforward story, using the framework of the disaster as a background for the various human dramas taking place within. The main thrust is provided by Donavan’s quest for justice, or a reckoning, but it’s the smaller and more personal conflicts among the core cast members that account for the emotional punch the picture carries.

Aside from the fact there is a solid noir/thriller plot involving some interesting characters with credible motivation, the movie benefits enormously from the cinematography of Christopher Challis. Sure there is some stock footage cut in to allow the studio shot material to breathe a little, but that set bound work looks extraordinarily good for the most part, and it’s largely down to how well Challis photographed it. There are a number of terrific nighttime sequences with the characters struggling through treacherous tides, silhouetted against lowering and leaden skies just beyond the clawing branches of half-submerged trees and vegetation.  The direction by Ealing comedy specialist Charles Crichton is strong and maintains the pace and toughness that a movie like this depends on.

Personally, I’m not entirely convinced the film needed to be set in the US, nor am I sure the consequent necessity of getting the majority of the actors to adopt (with varying degrees of success) fake accents adds much value. Anyway, that’s the way the producers decided to go. Howard Keel had made his debut as a screen actor in a British thriller The Small Voice a decade before, and I found him quietly impressive in that role. Floods of Fear saw him back in British films, once again outside his more natural home in musicals and once again turning in a solid performance. It’s a physical role and Keel provides a very powerful presence which is essential under the circumstances. Apart from battles against the tides, he gets to take part in a tough and well choreographed fight with fellow US actor John Crawford at the climax. Anne Heywood is both attractive and credible as the girl trapped by the environmental and human dangers, and demonstrates some welcome range and character development as the story unfolds. One of the standout performances comes from Irish actor Cyril Cusack – creepy, shifty, emotionally unstable and wholly untrustworthy, he steals nearly every scene he appears in. I want to add a word of praise for Harry H Corbett too, an actor whose dramatic roles have not always made a particularly positive impression on me. This is one occasion where I felt he was fine though and there was none of the broadness that I feel he allowed to creep into some of his straight parts.

Floods of Fear is a film I had first stumbled upon on TV decades ago and it always stuck in my mind. As is often the case, the movie proved a bit difficult to track down for viewing during all those years and so it was a pleasure to discover it had been released on DVD  in the UK by Strawberry Media. The disc uses a fairly good print and the movie looks good overall. However, a 1958 production would surely have been shot in some kind of widescreen ratio (1.75:1 or 1.66:1 I’d have thought) and is presented 1.33:1 on the DVD. It doesn’t look cropped so I suppose we’re talking about an open-matte presentation – something which is obviously not ideal but is not terrible either. All told, I’m glad the film is available commercially and I think it’s one that should win over a few new fans.

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Three Steps to the Gallows

Last summer I spent a long time trawling through a range of British crime movies, and had a most enjoyable time in the process. I can’t promise to devote the same time this year but I do want to look at a few more examples of these B pictures. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to fit in some  cast and crew who have earned passing mentions on this site, and who I do want to draw a little attention to. So with that in mind, I’d like to begin with Three Steps to the Gallows (1953), a pacy and hugely entertaining film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of the “MacGuffin” as a plot device, namely something which is of inordinate and perhaps life-threatening importance to the protagonists of a drama, which motivates them and drives the narrative yet is of little real concern to the viewers. In Three Steps to the Gallows this applies to the diamonds, and I’d be amazed if anyone who watches this movie has the part played by these gemstones in mind by the time the film has come to a close. Nevertheless, diamonds, or should we say the smuggling of diamonds, is vital to the characters on screen. Gregor Stevens (Scott Brady) is an American seaman on shore leave in London, first seen happily disembarking from his ship and off to pay a visit to his brother who is resident in the capital. He’s checked out of his accommodation and a stop at the travel agency where he was employed as a courier reveals he has moved on from there, although a customer (Mary Castle) appears to recognize the name before seeing something that makes her reconsider. To cut to the chase, a few more inquiries lead Stevens to the shocking realization that his brother has not only been arrested for murder but has subsequently been tired, convicted and has a date with the hangman in three days time. And that’s where the diamonds come in; the condemned man seems to have been involved with a smuggling outfit and been framed for a killing as a result. Where does this leave the brother? Well, he has 72 hours to blunder and bludgeon his way around the criminal underworld in an attempt to clear his sibling’s name and, hopefully, nail the true culprits.

As was so often the case, Three Steps to the Gallows imported Hollywood talent to add some more box-office appeal. Both Scott Brady and Mary Castle were the transatlantic stars used, and they do add a touch of noir authenticity, in my opinion. Brady was a reasonably big name at the time, although he has probably been overshadowed somewhat by his more notorious older brother Lawrence Tierney since then. Brady had a few brushes with the law himself and had a tough demeanor too. It’s this aspect, the physicality of the man, that is highlighted most in the movie. His character crashes around London like an impatient and short-tempered bouncer, finding himself framed for a killing even as he tries to clear his brother and frequently resorting to his fists before his brain has had a chance to catch up. On paper, this possibly sounds off-putting but Brady manages to make this bruising lead sympathetic. Rita Hayworth lookalike Mary Castle, whose life took a series of noir turns itself, is fine as the girl who offers him his first opening and moves from potential femme fatale to Girl Friday. The supporting cast is typical of these B features and includes such welcome and well-known faces as Ballard Berkeley, Colin Tapley, Ronan O’Casey, John Blythe and Ferdy Mayne.

Three Steps to the Gallows was a Tempean Films production, meaning that it came from producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker, the former also taking on the cinematography duties here. These two played a significant role in British film and television in the post-war years. Tempean Films was responsible for a number of spare and entertaining crime movies and the Baker-Berman partnership was then instrumental bringing about many of the best ITC TV series, including The Saint with Rober Moore. The direction was handled by the ever reliable and generally stylish John Gilling, who started out as a prolific writer and director of B noir before moving on to bigger budgets, Hammer Films and television work. Here, Gilling moves everything along very snappily and the film perfectly captures the slightly seedy and decaying post-war milieu.

It’s easy to track down a copy of Three Steps to the Gallows, in the UK at least. The film has been released on DVD by Renown Films, that rich source of British B movies. The quality of the print is variable, looking crisp in some shots but dupey and with overdone contrast in others. There is also some print damage or dirt to be seen here and there, but the movie remains perfectly watchable at all times, and I doubt whether better versions are ever likely to surface. Anyone who enjoys British crime and noir movies of the era should find plenty to satisfy them in this one.

This Side of the Law

Years ago, when I took my first tentative steps into the world of blogging, I wanted to find some means of talking about the movies which I found interesting. The thing was those films all to often were of a kind that had, let’s say, a somewhat limited following, material that might be obscure but didn’t have the benefit of carrying the cult label. Ever since, I’ve branched out a bit and I like to mix it up, featuring the better known and more critically celebrated alongside the forgotten and the neglected. Still, I want to return on a fairly regular basis to those movies in the latter category, to focus a light on the overlooked corners of cinema’s past and either remind people of something they once saw or, where possible, introduce it to a potentially new audience. With that in mind, let’s pay a visit to This Side of the Law (1950), a small scale and unheralded piece of mystery/noir.

The flashback is a wonderful noir device, offering up someone in a sticky situation and then inviting the audience to step back into the past to see if we can understand exactly how they wound up in trouble. That’s how This Side of the Law opens, with a man quite literally in a hole. David Cummins (Kent Smith) is trapped, bruised and despairing, lying sprawled in the depths of a slimy underground cistern, shut off from the world above and waiting to die. How did he get here? Well, Cummins is a bum, a man who has been picked up and run in on a vagrancy charge. However, instead of doing his time quietly and anonymously, he is spotted by sharp lawyer Philip Cagle (Robert Douglas) who is stunned by Cummins’ resemblance to a former client. And so Cummins sees his life transformed; persuaded by Cagle to take on the identity of a missing millionaire for a brief time, he genuinely goes from rags to riches. The problem is his relatives are less than pleased to see the wanderer return – his weak-willed brother (John Alvin) and adulterous sister-in-law (Janis Paige) are respectively outraged and bemused. And then there is the wife (Viveca Lindfors), unsure of how she feels about the reappearance of a man for whom she held mixed feelings. Of course when a man is as unwelcome as this guy, you have to wonder how long he’ll be allowed to stick around…

Director Richard L Bare spent the majority of his career making Joe McDoakes shorts and then moved on to plenty of television work. His features are few in number but his budget-conscious background seems to have taught him how to get the best out of limited resources. This Side of the Law has a standard plot, one that isn’t going to surprise too many viewers but it’s pretty enjoyable in spite of that. Sure it’s a hoary old yarn and the twists are easy enough to spot in advance. But it looks splendid, one of those productions where the studio sets are a genuine asset. In fairness, much of this is down to the expert cinematography of Carl Guthrie, a man who was something of a genius behind the camera and who created magical and beautifully lit images in countless set-bound films.

Kent Smith never quite made it as a leading man, although he had a long career and was involved in some memorable films along the way. This Side of the Law was a B movie but he did good work in a number of low budget efforts such as this. Tightly made productions don’t give many opportunities for nuance or subtlety but I think Smith managed to convey some in his performance, never overplaying and tapping into the uncertainty and trepidation of his character very credibly. Swedish actress Lindfors is fine as the puzzled wife and also underplays skillfully. On the other hand, Janis Paige vamps successfully and uses her insolent sexuality effectively. I feel John Alvin could have been a bit more restrained as the cuckolded younger brother and would have preferred it if he had reined it in a little. And Robert Douglas, well he was an old pro and very smooth.

This Side of the Law was a Warner Brothers production and has been released on DVD as part of the MOD Archive range in the US and there is also a low-cost DVD available from Italy. The film appears to be in good condition and shows off Guthrie’s photography nicely. Frankly, I like this kind of modest fare, and the moodily expressive cinematography is a big bonus. The film is no world-beater and I have no intention of trying to sell it as such. However, it is enjoyable, good-looking and features a handful of solid performances. If you have the opportunity, give it a try as there are far worse ways of passing an hour and a quarter.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

Graft and gangsters on the waterfront probably evoke thoughts of Brando, Kazan et al, but there was more than one movie to make use of that particular milieu. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), while naturally incorporating  some social commentary, follows the template of a more traditional crime story. To add some further confusion the title is borrowed from Richard Rodgers’ ballet. The film features the composer’s music throughout but it has no direct connection to the on screen events; one could perhaps make a case for both having something to say about the pernicious and tragic effects of crime and poverty on the lives of the underprivileged, but I”m not convinced it’s worth heading too far down that route. No, this is essentially a solid crime/noir exposé that sits comfortably alongside, and actually a few notches above, a number of other 1950s  productions which looked at how deeply the gangs and racketeers had embedded themselves in post-war society.

The opening is businesslike, shot impersonally from above,  as a car purposefully makes its way  through the streets of New York, on its way to a killing. While we don’t get the stentorian narration that frequently accompanied these socially aware noir pictures, there is a matter of fact feel to the way a grubby little hit is treated as just another part of the daily routine, another minor affair to tick off the agenda before the day begins in earnest. As Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) lies, bleeding his guts out on a  tenement staircase, and his distraught wife Madge (Jan Sterling) tries to comfort him, the gunmen responsible melt away as unobtrusively as an early morning mist.

Enter Bill Keating (Richard Egan), an inexperienced assistant D.A. and a two-fisted product of the coal mining country of Pennsylvania. He’s full of vim and vigor, and the kind of righteous faith in justice that the audience must know will be sorely tested before the credits finally roll. His principal police contact is Lieutenant Vosnick (Charles McGraw), an insider in a neighborhood and beat where Keating is most assuredly an outsider, and something of a tarnished knight whose gritty manner acts as a thin veil for the principles to which he remains true. These two form an idealistic bond, the goal of which is to break the power of the mobsters and their corrosive hold over the blue collar dockworkers, and the means will be the prosecution of those who came to visit Solly Pitts in the early morning.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was adapted from Keating’s own autobiography The Man Who Rocked the Boat, and directed by Arnold Laven. It rates as one of this filmmaker’s best efforts – part noir, part social justice picture, part melodrama, and completely human. Crime stories can sometimes distance themselves from the viewer, the plot twists seeming to relate to intangible “others” rather than to people like ourselves. However, the sense of empathy is never lost in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and the characters feel real at all times, the major and minor tragedies touching on their lives perfectly believable.

I mentioned the brisk, no nonsense beginning already, and the courtroom scenes in the second half are also of note, never overcooked as can sometimes be the case. Then there is the ending, which has the courage and imagination to avoid any anti-climactic reaction from the principals. Instead, this is extraordinarily well realized, with the camera soaring in tandem with Rodgers’ music, panning out to reveal a now deserted dock as a bruised and disheveled Nick Dennis, the radio announcer’s news of the verdict still ringing in his ears, stumbles off towards a hopefully better future. In one hand he’s clutching a bottle of hooch, in the other the lawyer’s crammed briefcase; truth and justice side by side, as always.

One of the first things to grab the attention about Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is the cast – it’s deep and rich, a movie lover’s dream. Egan is top-billed, and he was very much a star property at this stage. He had the right kind of quiet brawn to suit the part of the white collar guy who still hasn’t put too much distance between himself and his working class roots. Julie Adams, who only recently passed away, makes the most of her limited role as his wife who sticks faithfully by him despite the growing pressures from friends and enemies alike. She has a couple of subtle yet telling scenes with sparse dialogue, not the least of which is the aftermath of the dockside brawl when she tenderly caresses Egan’s livid bruises. She doesn’t say a word but those simple gestures and looks convey all the character, and we the viewers, needs to know. It’s little things such as this that I find very cinematic, very discreet, and very effective. Charles McGraw is typically gruff, although atypically white-haired, and offers a reassuringly pugnacious presence.

Jan Sterling was highly skilled at playing the kind of slightly shop worn dames that were the staple of many a film noir, and she brings  that world weary quality to the part of the tough waterfront wife. One becomes accustomed to seeing Dan Duryea in either villainous or slippery roles. He only shows up after the hour mark and, while he is on the side of the villains here as the lead defense lawyer, he gets to play an essentially straight up figure who may wheedle but balks at outright cheating. The real bad egg is Walter Matthau, ruthless and malicious in his determination to  maintain control over the longshoremen. It’s a masterclass in the art of mean and a fine portrayal of the ugly side of corruption.

Sadly, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is yet another of those Universal-International films that nobody seems willing or able to release on disc. At the moment, one has to rely on catching the movie if it happens to show up on TV. I feel there is enough depth and quality in the story, direction and cast to warrant wider availability. Lesser works than this have been shown to have an audience so let’s hope somebody somewhere gets around to this neglected movie before too long.

Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison

I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me “Bloody Folsom.” And I earned the name. I’ve been standing here in California since 1878. My own prisoners built me, shutting themselves off from the free world. Every block of my granite is cemented by their tears, their pain, and the blood of many men.

The above is from the opening voiceover of Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), and it immediately conjures a grim, forbidding and uncompromising mood. Prison movies are, for the most part, an acquired taste, which is entirely understandable given the sense of confinement and despair, not to mention the fact it’s hard to find many characters to sympathize with. That notwithstanding, it’s also undeniable that those same aspects combine very well if one happens to be looking for a solid film noir setup.

That narration sets the tone right from the start, and the first act follows it up in hard-hitting fashion. The majority of the main figures are introduced, standing in line in the yard before the admin building and apparently waiting patiently to receive whatever disciplinary action is to be meted out for various instances of rule-breaking. The truth is though that these men have planned a breakout using this as cover. The illusion of order and acquiescence is suddenly shattered as  violence and pandemonium take their place. It’s tough, gritty stuff with guards and inmates alike setting upon each other, but the outcome can never really be in doubt and the bid for freedom comes to nothing. Actually, what it does serve to illustrate is the iron inflexibility of Warden Rickey (Ted de Corsia) and the desperation of the prisoners. The regime run by Rickey is a brutal one and the consequences of challenging his authority are shown to be savage indeed. One man who pulled out of the initial botched escape is Chuck Daniels (Steve Cochran), but he’s the type prepared to bide his time till he figures the odds are stacked a little more in his favor. However, the movie is not relentlessly downbeat; there is the seed of something more positive at its heart, and that’s represented on screen by the arrival of Benson (David Brian), the new captain of the guard and a man who believes in more than just the mailed fist approach of his superior.

When I hear about prison movies I find myself automatically thinking of 1930s films, and people like James Cagney, George Raft and Pat O’Brien spring to mind. Subconsciously, they seem to exist for me primarily as an adjunct to the classic gangster pictures. I guess something similar could be said of Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, particularly if one views film noir as a kind of maladjusted and disillusioned descendant of the gangster cycle. The cream of those 30s movies were produced by Warner Brothers, the studio that best represented the social conscience of Hollywood in the classic era. That same sensibility from the studio is apparent here, using a hard-edged genre movie to raise questions about and provoke discussion of how society deals with its lawbreakers. It was both written and directed by Crane Wilbur, a man who is probably better known for his work in the former category – aside from The Bat, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything else he directed – and he did seem to be drawn to what might be termed “issue” films.

The issue at stake here is one which cannot have gone unnoticed by audiences in 1951, and it reaches beyond the notion of prison reform. Ted de Corsia’s warden is a neatly drawn portrait of a domestic fascist – mean, cruel and contemptuous of anyone but himself, an authoritarian driven by his own insecurity and weakness. Perhaps it’s all a bit one-dimensional, but it’s hard to complain when an actor as accomplished at playing callous, self-serving types as De Corsia was is on such good form. David Brian is an effective foil, confident of and comfortable with his innate compassion. And drifting somewhere in the middle, occupying those grey shadows that are too murky for the stark blacks and whites of De Corsia and Brian, is Steve Cochran. He has the brooding insolence down pat as he slouches around like some overgrown teenager with murderous tendencies. In addition to those three at the top of the bill, there’s fine support provided by the likes of Phil Carey, Paul Picerni and William Campbell.

Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison is available as part of the Warner Archive and it’s been given a strong transfer to DVD. The print used is in very good shape and the clarity and contrast combine to make the noir visuals  particularly attractive. I had a good time with this movie,  appreciating the pace, the toughness and the credible performances. I reckon it’s a well-made and engrossing crime picture which is certainly worth checking out, even for those who might not normally be drawn to either the setting or characters involved.

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.

The Price of Fear

Hybrid movies, or those which blend and mix genres, can be fascinating when done well. When the recipe is a winner the results can be stimulating, the unexpected seasoning adding  freshness to even the most familiar servings. On the other hand, a poor choice of ingredients tends to produce something stodgy and rather bland. Sadly, I think that’s what happened with The Price of Fear (1956), a movie whose frankly generic title hoped to combine the fatalism of film noir and the soulfulness of melodrama, but it doesn’t really come off and, in spite of a few neat touches and smooth visuals, I came away from it feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

It opens in suitably noir fashion with dog track owner Dave Barrett (Lex Barker) finding out that his partner has sold his share in the business to mobster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), leading to the usual threats and recriminations. At about the same time financier Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon) is just leaving a night spot after an evening out. So, we have two strangers, the kind whose paths are unlikely to cross in the normal course of events. This is all about to change though for both when, to borrow a well-worn phrase, fate decides to put its finger upon them. In short, carelessness at the wheel sees Jessica run over an old gent out walking his dog, while Barrett has the misfortune not only to fall victim to a frame-up for the murder  of his ex-partner but then doubles up by stealing the hit and run vehicle while trying to duck out on a tail. Superficially, it’s  bad break for Barrett but an apparent stroke of luck for Jessica yet this is before their alibis get entangled with their passions, not to mention the relentless external pressure being applied by both the mob and the police.

Abner Biberman started out as an actor, playing parts ranging from comic hoodlums to a whole raft of east Asian types, before graduating to the director’s chair. The bulk of his work was in television, working on a host of well-known shows including The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive, but he also took charge of a number of cinema features. I found his handling of Gun for a Coward, for example, to be solid if fairly unremarkable. I think the same could be said of The Price of Fear, where it all looks attractive enough with a the kind of glossy patina one would expect of a mid-50s Universal-International picture. Still, it never really grips or fully engages you; the script is altogether too languidly paced for my liking and expends far too much time and energy on a not very interesting romance while simultaneously failing to exploit the underlying tensions and also skimming over the potentially absorbing ethical conundrums at the core of the tale.

Overall, I’d say the performances could also be categorized similarly – fair to middling. I can’t say I’ve ever been all that excited by Merle Oberon, frequently finding her a little too distant and emotionally detached. Former Tarzan Lex Barker is another who I find perfectly watchable but not a major draw. I think he does better, at least as his part is written, but the fact remains there’s not a lot of chemistry between the two stars and the central relationship, upon which so much of the drama depends, feels rather flat as a consequence. Charles Drake is usually worth watching in those third-billed roles he made his own and he doesn’t disappoint as the cop in charge of the investigation and Barker’s friend. Unfortunately though, his is essentially a supporting part and the film needed more punch from above. The tragic Gia Scala does catch the eye in her first credited role but it’s underwritten and represents something of a missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned. Warren Stevens is generally a good bet as oily types of questionable morality and provides good value – of course he was doing some interesting work around this time in various genres, taking one of the major roles in the fabulous Forbidden Planet that same year.

The Price of Fear is easy enough to track down for viewing. It was released in the US some years ago as part of a box set of noir-lite thrillers and then as (I think) a stand alone MOD disc. Additionally, there are Spanish and German DVDs available and there’s usually a very good quality online version to be found too. It’s an OK film, but hardly essential and, as I’ve mentioned on this site many times now, there are far better Universal titles that could be released yet remain frustratingly out of reach. All in all, it’s not an unpleasant way to pass an hour and quarter or thereabouts but don’t expect to be bowled over.

The Glass Web

There’s something interesting about looking at the shape of a filmmaker’s career, what they were doing at certain points, whether there were overlaps or complementary features to be discerned, or perhaps exploratory forays into entirely different areas. It’s educational too to note how the extraordinary can cozy up comfortably next to the ordinary. This is something that struck me while looking at some early work by Jack Arnold. In the same year he made the quite extraordinary It Came from Outer Space, he also directed the much more conventional noir/mystery The Glass Web (1953), although that’s not to say this latter title is without interest.

I tend to think of the desert when a Jack Arnold film comes to mind, and The Glass Web opens with a car coming to a stop in just that location. A couple get out and move into the foreground, the wife briefly bemoaning the isolation and discomfort before her husband does away with her and drops her body down an abandoned shaft. Stark and dramatic stuff, but as the camera pulls back it’s also apparent that it’s a studio set, a mock-up used in the shooting of an episode of a TV show. The actors dust themselves off and the all-important advertising message takes over. The actress who has just been swallowed up by the  desert sands is Paula Ranier (Kathleen Hughes), and in some ways this can be seen as a dry run for her  eventual fate. Without getting into too many details here, and the consequent risk of spoiling things for those unfamiliar with the film, we’re looking at a solid whodunit (although the actual “who” isn’t that difficult to work out) with a dark noir heart beating at the center. Everything hinges on a classic triangle involving Ranier, writer Don Newell (John Forsythe) and consultant Henry Hayes (Edward G Robinson), and it’s gradually revealed as a complex affair encompassing jealousy, betrayal, blackmail, guilt and humiliation.

As arguably befits a movie concerning itself with entertainment industry figures, the bulk of the action is shot on sets and in the studio, where the characters themselves spent most of their own lives. There are a handful of occasions where events do move outside on location, something I think Jack Arnold usually made good use of, but seeing as the whole story is an insular one centered on a fairly tight group of individuals the internalized feel works quite well. In terms of noir, the movie doesn’t break any new ground, focusing on those themes that had become staples of the form by then. I suppose the 3-D shooting was still innovative at the time but I’m not sure it would have brought a lot to proceedings here. Now I’ve only seen it flat but it doesn’t seem like one of those movies where the extra depth would have added much, and the fact there is a short sequence – as Forsythe roams the streets in a despairing mood at the thought of the hole he’s dug for himself – where a series of objects are essentially flung at the camera gives the impression the producer felt it necessary to artificially highlight this aspect.

On the other hand, the setting is of interest. The fact TV was very much in competition with, and indeed seen as a threat to, the movies at this stage is of note. Hollywood has always indulged in some inward-looking self-criticism and some of that approach is adopted. There is a particularly cynical view of the role of advertising in TV production – in fact it’s rather scornful, with characters commenting how the ads are the most important part of the finished show. Then again, there is also an implied acknowledgment of the power and immediacy of the new medium in the climactic scenes, the culprit carelessly making a confession on a deserted sound stage while the cameras surreptitiously roll and pick it all up. Just as TV  in reality could claim to show the viewers events as they happen, so we the audience (and the on screen cops too) get to view this drama unfold via a live feed.

I tend to think of John Forsythe mainly in terms of his television roles, where he was both a familiar face and voice for many years. Having said that, he made a number of memorable big screen appearances too, getting important roles in films by John Sturges and Alfred Hitchcock. His role in The Glass Web has enough complexity to make it satisfyingly unsympathetic and he plays well against the ever impressive Edward G Robinson. By all accounts, Robinson was a cultured man, an trait that often appears at odds with the kind of heavies he was often cast as in the early part of his career, and it’s enjoyable to see him as a character with a passion for art and the finer things.

Not for the first time, I  find myself writing about a Universal-International movie which remains commercially unavailable, and it pains me particularly to note yet another Jack Arnold title languishing in this fashion. The Glass Web pops up from time to time online, but it’s in the usual weak and compromised form. One can only hope that the movie, not to mention a number of others from the same studio, will eventually be afforded a release that allows more people to see it and form their own opinions about its merits.

Roadblock

Someday you’re going to want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary.

Like what?

Like me.

I like the look of film noir, and I’m also fond of its narrative twists and switches, the way fairly regular people find themselves locked into a destructive cycle just because of a stupid or rash decision – that feeling that life can never be fully trusted or depended on, that you are never more than a heartbeat away from having the rug yanked out from under you. And of course there’s the  snappy, sassy dialogue. Roadblock (1951) is an ultra-low budget effort that contains all these elements, and races home in just a little under an hour and a quarter.

“Be careful what you wish for…” a cautionary phrase we’ve all heard and probably used too, and it could be said to sum up the moral of the tale here. After a deliciously teasing opening where we, and one of the characters, are treated to a fine piece of misdirection, we get to meet Joe Peters (Charles McGraw). This solidly named guy is presented to us as morally solid too, a sound and upstanding insurance investigator who’s relatively happy with his lot. A bit of innocent flirting in an airport departure lounge sees him make the acquaintance of one Diane Morley (Joan Dixon), a self-confessed chiseller who is aiming to hit the big league and live in style in Los Angeles. Both of these people will be bitten by the same bug, the one promising something alluring and apparently unattainable just the other side of life’s rainbow. Joe succumbs first, losing his heart and then his head as he brushes aside a lifetime of honesty for a shot at wooing an amoral temptress. And that same temptress then sees her own priorities flipped as the mink-draped luxury she yearns for brings an unexpected chill. For a brief moment, it looks like something positive may come of this. But this is film noir folks, and it’s only a matter of time before those louvered blinds get tilted just so and the shadows grow deeper.

There are a limited number of films noir which make reference to Christmas, and I do like to find one, where possible, to flag up at this time of year. I think I’ve covered a fair few others in the past, though I’m still hoping to source a decent copy of Beware, My Lovely at some point. Roadblock isn’t a Christmas movie of course, the holiday season just happens to feature in the early stages, and I suppose at a push one could draw some inference from the characters dreaming of glittering riches. On a more serious note though, the whole thing really is based around that old staple of dissatisfied people striving for that which is always just a little beyond their reach, and then discovering that what they desired so strongly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

If the director of Roadblock isn’t a name I can claim to know well – Harold Daniels – then there’s plenty of others involved in the production that are very familiar. Seeing Steve Fisher featured among the writers usually interests me as the man behind I Wake Up Screaming is sure to grab my attention. In addition, knowing that Nicholas Musuraca was behind the camera and in charge of lighting the whole business is encouraging. Perhaps the presence of the latter is a little disappointing here – you kind of expect the whole movie to be drenched in inky shadows with this man – as quite a bit of the production has a flat, even overlit appearance. That said, the cinematographers trademark darkness does show up from time to time  – the opening sequence is particularly atmospheric – and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him go about his work.

There are actors who were essentially born to play in film noir, and Charles McGraw has to be one of them. He didn’t get the lead all that often – this film and Richard Fleischer’s stone cold classic The Narrow Margin being notable exceptions though – but gave plenty of value in memorable supporting roles for the likes of Robert Siodmak and Anthony Mann. McGraw looked tough and sounded tough, and had the presence to hold your attention every time he appeared on screen. I think the switches his character undergoes in Roadblock are maybe too abrupt and too convenient to be wholly convincing, but that’s not the fault of the actor. The same could be said for the writing of Joan Dixon’s siren. She starts out as a brazen noir dame, a femme fatale in training and then she’s suddenly not. I can understand that the script wanted to exploit the irony of two people getting what they think they want only to find out that they themselves have changed in the meantime. So no, the character shifts don’t quite work for me. Nevertheless, I still had a good time watching McGraw and Dixon wind their way along the path fate has laid out for them. In support it’s nice to see Louis Jean Heydt handed a much larger role than was normally the case.

Roadblock is available on DVD in the US via the Warner Archive, and it looks about OK. There is some softness and moments of indifference but it still entertains. This may not be the best known example of film noir and I’d not seen it myself until quite recently but I reckon it’s worth a viewing.

The Prowler

Film noir is a look and an attitude as much as anything else. There’s the darkness, both visually and thematically, and the fatalistic tone which creeps ever nearer the doomed characters treading the fine line dividing shadow and light, hope and despair, in this cinematic moral maze. If it grew out of the bitterness nurtured by the economic hardship of the 1930s, the wounds inflicted on society were then cauterized and desensitized by the horrors experienced in WWII. And the end result? A feeling of jaded weariness, of disenchantment when the post-war promise of a brighter future for all remained tantalizingly and agonizingly just beyond the reach of some. The Prowler (1951) is a film about disappointment and dissatisfaction, and the lengths people will go to, either consciously or unwittingly, in an effort to conquer this.

The opening sees Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) reacting with shock on realizing that someone has been observing her through her unshaded bathroom window. Naturally, she calls the police to report the incident and has a visit from a squad car containing an old pro on the eve of retirement, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), and another younger man, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). It’s the latter who takes the keener interest, not so much in the case itself as the lady at the center of it. You see, Garwood is a dissatisfied soul, a man whose youth was taken up with dreams of wealth and success as a professional athlete. When circumstances didn’t allow this to come to fruition Garwood became a cop, a second-rate job in his opinion and he began to brood. Here’s a man who feels life has cheated him out of what ought to have been his due, and his nocturnal visit to the luxurious Spanish home with the vulnerable and alluring woman inside has just added to his ethical itch. While our disgruntled cop readies himself to scratch while he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, a similar sensation is beginning to come over the woman, just not quite so obviously. She’s not happy either, and you read it in her demeanor, drifting listlessly around her well-appointed but empty home, as her husband (notably absent at least in visual terms until the fateful moment) is an older, less exciting man – and it’s later revealed that he is leaving her unsatisfied in more than one way. The scene is set therefore for a drama built around betrayal, deceit and ultimately murder.

I guess what I’ve written above gives a fair indication of how the tale develops. However, I’ve deliberately left it there – what I mentioned essentially occurs in the first act, and most of it quite early on – as I think it actually moves in slightly unexpected directions, due to some good writing and a pair of strong central performances. The version of the film I watched comes with supplemental contribution from such noir experts as Eddie Muller, James Ellroy and Alan Rode who make the point of how the film is a critique of corrupt authority and how dangerous it is to put too much trust in this. I certainly don’t dispute that reading and I think it’s a major element of Dalton Trumbo’s script. Nevertheless, I found certain other elements, namely the disenchantment and disillusionment with hand dealt by life, every bit as noticeable and important. The character of Garwood has been warped and turned in upon itself by a sense of thwarted entitlement; it’s there in his words when he speaks of his lousy breaks and it’s also writ large on his face as he surveys the comfortable home occupied by Susan and her elusive husband, a marked contrast to the cramped and mean room he lives in. That post-war American Dream wasn’t delivering for Garwood.

As I said, the script was from Dalton Trumbo but this was the era of HUAC and the blacklist and so his name wouldn’t appear on the credits. Originally,  the story (by Robert Thoeren & Hans Wilhelm) was titled The Cost of Living, a phrase repeated by Susan’s husband during his radio broadcasts (voiced by Trumbo incidentally) and I reckon it’s a more apt one than the admittedly catchy The Prowler. The lead is driven by his materialism and his hunger for social status, and the constant refrain of how the cost of living is going down takes on a decidedly pointed meaning when we think how cheap life becomes in his eyes. Still and all, this isn’t some dull socioeconomic diatribe, it’s a pacy and not entirely predictable thriller, and director Joseph Losey moves his camera around with a calm fluidity – it’s never showy or self-conscious but effortlessly artistic. And the climax had me thinking of Anthony Mann and his penchant for driving his characters towards heights they struggle to scale.

Some years ago I wrote a piece on Act of Violence and remarked then on the way Van Heflin was cast somewhat against type. The Prowler takes that a step further by almost entirely subverting the typical dependability of Heflin’s persona. Having him play a policeman, a figure one associates with protection and security, serves to further heighten the shock value of seeing him as a cold and manipulative schemer. Evelyn Keyes is very good too as the suburban wife bored by her everyday isolation, flattered by the attention yet also horrified by the increasingly chaotic turn of events. While there is some interesting support work, most particularly from an earnest and likeable John Maxwell, this is very much a two-hander and a fine showcase for the talents of the leads.

The Prowler came out on DVD first via VCI in the US and that’s the edition I picked up. I was happy enough with the quality at the time and the attractive extra features I referred to earlier were welcome too. A few years later the same company put out a Blu-ray version of the movie but I it sound like a significant upgrade so I just stuck with my older SD copy, and i can’t say I’m displeased. Frankly, I feel this is a fine film noir, well cast, well shot, well written, and well worth ninety minutes of anyone’s time.