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.

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Blu News – More Prime Noir

One of the great names among film noir directors has to be Robert Siodmak, a man who made a series of hugely impressive pieces of dark cinema throughout the 1940s. The first of those stylish and influential works was Phantom Lady, which I wrote about here some years ago. It’s satisfying to see this film now getting a very attractive release on Blu-ray in the UK via Arrow Academy.

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, an insightful archival documentary featuring contributions from Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk, Dennis Hopper and more
  • Rare, hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, starring Alan Curtis and Ella Raines
  • Gallery of original stills and promotional materials
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork options


FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Alan K. Rode

Blu News – More Lang on the way!

I’m delighted to see listings appearing online for a new Blu-ray/DVD combo release for Fritz Lang’s 1954 film Human Desire.  I reckon this is an underrated movie and am pleased to see UK boutique label Eureka including it in their Masters of Cinema line in February. It’s a welcome follow up to their January slate of Laura and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

#446: Spoiler Warning 8 – Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen — The Invisible Event

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to pay our respects to the detective fiction novel Halfway House (1936) written by Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay under their Ellery Queen nom de plume. As the title suggest, there will be spoilers — lots and lots of spoilers, so only proceed if you’ve done the necessary pre-reading…

via #446: Spoiler Warning 8 – Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen — The Invisible Event

Coming Soon – something a little different…

Yes, things have been a little quiet here of late, mainly due to a rather packed work schedule and other tedious matters. Hopefully, I’ll get back to at least semi-regular posting when things feel a little less hectic. In the meantime though, I want to take the time to flag up a collaborative effort my blogging buddy JJ of The Invisible Event invited me to take part in. Read on…

As part of his ongoing investigations into the wonders, intricacies and delights of classic detective fiction, JJ has hosted a number of spoiler heavy discussions on a range of notable works. I’ve enjoyed reading along and adding the odd comment when I thought I could sneak one in as unobtrusively as possible amid a lot of well-informed contributions from people who are far better read than I,  and so it was very flattering to be asked to participate in one myself!

Anyway, to cut to the chase, next Saturday, if all goes well, should see JJ posting the chat he and I had about the 1936 Ellery Queen novel Halfway House, as announced here. I’ll put up a link here when it goes live, but wanted to flag it up in advance for anyone interested in perusing our back and forth.

So, see you soon…

 

I Walk Alone – coming soon

A recent viewing and post on Kiss the Blood Off My Hands reminded me that the only major Burt Lancaster noir title still unavailable in a decent edition was 1948’s I Walk Alone. Happily though, Kino Lorber in the US have just posted on Facebook that the title is due out on DVD and Blu-ray in the summer:

• Coming this Summer!
• First Time on DVD and Blu-ray!
• Brand New HD Master – From a 4K Scan of the 35mm Safety Dupe Negative by Paramount Pictures Archive!
• First Film Co-starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (The Gunfight at O.K. Corral, The Devil’s Advocate, Seven Days in May, Tough Guys)

I Walk Alone (1947) Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, Kristine Miller, Marc Lawrence and Mike Mazurki – Shot by Leo Tover (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dead Reckoning) – Music by Victor Young (Johnny Guitar, Around the World in Eighty Days) – Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt (Sunset Boulevard, The Blue Dahlia) – Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) – Screenplay by Charles Schnee (The Bad and the Beautiful, They Live by Night) – Adaptation by Robert Smith (Sudden Fear, Quicksand) and John Bright (Public Enemy, She Done Him Wrong) – Directed by Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, Too Late for Tears)

Ranown in Hi-Def

FIVE TALL TALES: BUDD BOETTICHER & RANDOLPH SCOTT AT COLUMBIA, 1957-1960

THE TALL T (1957)
DECISION AT SUNDOWN (1957)
BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (1958)
RIDE LONESOME (1959)
COMANCHE STATION (1960)

Release date: 21 May 2018
Limited Blu-ray Edition (Blu-ray premieres)

Five classic, iconic and slyly subversive westerns collected on Blu-ray for the very first time. Containing a selection of new and archival extras – including interviews with director Budd Boetticher and an appreciation by film critic Kim Newman – this collectable five-disc box set also contains an 80-page book with newly commissioned essays, archival interviews and full credits, and is strictly limited to 6,000 units.

INDICATOR LIMITED BLU-RAY EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES:
• 2K restoration of Ride Lonesome
• HD restorations of The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone and Comanche Station
• Original mono audio
The John Player Lecture with Budd Boetticher (1969): archival audio interview conducted by Horizons West author Jim Kitses at the National Film Theatre, London
The Guardian Interview with Budd Boetticher (1994): an extensive filmed interview conducted by film historian David Meeker at the National Film Theatre, London
Budd Boetticher on the Ranown Cycle (1999): excerpts from Eckhart Schmidt’s documentary Visiting… Budd Boetticher
• Kim Newman on the Ranown Cycle (2018): an appreciation and analysis by the critic and author of Wild West Movies
The Guardian Interview with Elmore Leonard (1997): the celebrated author, and writer of the short story upon which The Tall T is based, in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre
• Original theatrical trailers
Ride Lonesome trailer commentary (2013): a short critical appreciation by filmmaker John Sayles
Comanche Station trailer commentary (2014): a short critical appreciation by screenwriter Sam Hamm
• Image galleries: extensive promotional and on-set photography, poster art and marketing materials
• Limited Edition exclusive 80-page book containing newly commissioned essays by Pamela Hutchinson, Glenn Kenny, James Oliver, Neil Sinyard and Farran Smith Nehme, archival interviews with director Budd Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, a critical anthology, and full film credits
• World Blu-ray premieres of The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone and Ride Lonesome
• UK Blu-ray premiere of Comanche Station
• Limited Edition Box Set of 6,000 numbered copies
• …AND MORE TBC
• All extras subject to change

Wonderful news about some films which cannot be praised highly enough! This set can be ordered direct from the distributor here. If anyone is unfamiliar with the films and wants a quick overview, here are some pieces I wrote after the DVD release some years ago:

The Tall T

Ride Lonesome

Comanche Station

Buchanan Rides Alone

Decision at Sundown

The Specialty of the House

No, I haven’t decided to transform this place into a restaurant review site. The “house” I’m referring to here is the Hollywood studio, and the question is which one, or ones, we are most partial to.

While all of the major studios, and most of the minor ones too, made movies in every conceivable genre in their heyday, they tended to have their own characteristic or in-house style, not to mention the films they either specialized in or seemed to do more successfully. Warner Brothers gave us the better gangster films of the 30s and retained that grit and social awareness even as time moved on and the range of output expanded. MGM was gloss, glitz and musical spectaculars. And although RKO had Astaire & Rogers, it also turned out some of the most memorable films noir. Of course different decades brought different directions and developments, and 20th Century Fox with its pioneering of the Scope format, took the production of the epic to a whole new level in the 50s.

For me though, my favorite of the classic era studios is possibly Universal; this is something I’ve lately settled on though, and I’m well aware that my preferences may shift again in the future. Anyway, for now at least, Universal is the one. Why? Well, there is the wonderful horror cycle running from the 30s through to the mid-40s, and then the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies that borrowed those old sets and a touch of the macabre sensibility too. Then there were the budget-conscious noir and crime movies that were so common in the 40s and 50s, so many of which are now neglected and half-forgotten. And let’s not forget the Universal-International period, those marvelous years when some of the most visually attractive and thematically rich westerns seemed to be constantly on tap.

So there it is. Do you have a studio you’re happiest visiting? Is there one whose output appeals more, or does it vary from decade to decade?

Scorsese, Republic & MoMA

Just been made aware of this event  in February (with a follow-up scheduled for the summer) which highlights the restoration of the Republic Pictures library. Some of the names featured, and indeed the studio itself, will be well known and equally well regarded by regular visitors to this site. For instance, there’s Frank Borzage, George Sherman, Allan Dwan, Joe Kane, William Witney and others. Sounds great – more here.

Blu News – Duel at Diablo

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It’s just come to my attention that Ralph Nelson’s gritty 1966 western Duel at Diablo is being released on Blu-ray by Koch Media in Germany at the end of March. It’s already had a US release but this is welcome news for those of us in Europe looking for a Region B version.

I remember writing about the film almost a decade ago (!) and I was ambivalent about it at the time. It’s grown on me some since then and I feel better about it now, and that Neal Hefti score.