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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Upturned Glass

The last few entries here have focused firmly on smaller scale, low budget British movies, those with a certain modesty in terms of both production values and artistic aim. Now that’s not meant as a criticism as I feel the films are quite successful judged on the terms which their makers defined for them. Today though, I want to look at The Upturned Glass (1947), which I see as occupying a kind of middle ground – the ambitions of the main movers appear to have been slightly different, although the director is one we have mentioned here in relation to some of the more spare productions he would subsequently be involved in .

The film begins with a lecture, and for most of its 80 minute running time it essentially follows the form of a lecture. That lecture of narration is the work of a doctor, a man who tells his audience he will be recounting the story of one Michael Joyce (James Mason), although we viewers can see clearly from the outset that our narrator and his subject are one and the same. Initially, it appears to be primarily  tale of love which grows out of loneliness and a chance professional encounter. While this early section is vital in setting the scene and establishing motivations, it’s also the stuff of almost impossibly chaste romantic melodrama, painfully strained in its earnestness. However, the tone of the movie shifts all the time as the plot coils and unwinds ceaselessly, and we soon find ourselves firmly entrenched in noir territory, the shadowy world of moral uncertainty and fatalism. Joyce has been lifted out of his well-worn rut and given a glimpse of something unattainable, and now sees even that dream snatched away. The effects will be devastating for him and for those other figures playing their part in the slowly developing tragedy.

Style, theme and structure mark The Upturned Glass out as a genuine film noir – unfulfilled passion, crime in unexpected places, obsessive behavior, and a long flashback with accompanying narration are all active ingredients of this dark drama. The story came from John Monaghan and adapted for the screen by the writer in collaboration with Pamela Kellino, then the wife and ( in this picture) co-star of top-billed James Mason.  The name of director Lawrence Huntington came up in the course of some discussion here the other day and I’ll have to admit I’ve not seen a great deal of his work. That of course is one of the great benefits of the whole blogging business: getting some pointers and encouragement to explore further. I do have a few other movies by this director in my collection and both the recommendations of others and the pretty stylish work on display in The Upturned Glass makes me keen to delve a bit deeper into his catalog.

I believe The Upturned Glass was the last British film James Mason made before heading off to Hollywood and greater fame. I’ve always been a fan of his work, that unique combination of smooth polish and a hint of dangerous unpredictability led to many an interesting performance and it is ideal for the driven and obsessive character he was portraying here. Although Rosamund John played the main love interest, and did so perfectly adequately, Pamela Kellino had the meatier, much more interesting and emotionally involving role. It’s a superb bit of work; arch, shallow and self-serving, yet real enough to avoid caricature and, crucially, capable of eliciting some sympathy from the viewer and therefore adding another layer of complexity.In a small supporting role (and his last of significance before his death) Brefni O’Rorke is terrific as a cynical old GP with a caustic view of humanity in general and doctors in particular, and he gets to deliver some of the film’s sourest and most memorable lines.

The Upturned Glass was released on DVD some 10 years ago by MPI in the US as part of a package of three British thrillers (two early Michael Powell titles were also included) and it looks OK but it could probably be better served. All three films are on the same disc, which is never an ideal state of affairs. As far as I know, this movie hasn’t come out anywhere else since and I feel it is deserving of more critical appraisal and a stronger presentation. Well worth tracking down.