Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Girls on the Loose
(Jewell Enterprises, Inc., 1958)

A man-eater with a ravenous appetite.

Girl Gangs That Stop at Nothing!

Just the Facts
A band of masked criminals stage an expertly planned, deftly executed raid on the Brantford Payroll Service and abscond with a cool $200,000 in cash. As they make their getaway in a stolen laundry van, the masks come off and, in a neat twist on the standard heist picture, reveal the perpetrators to be women. After ditching the van, they bury the booty near a remote cabin out in the sticks, where they plan to leave it for two years until the heat dies down. It’s the perfect crime—who would suspect four attractive women of conceiving and pulling off such a daring robbery? But the girls turn out to be imperfect criminals, falling prey to the same internal divisions, ungovernable greed and combustible rivalries as their male counterparts.

The unquestioned leader of the pack is Vera Parkinson, a tough and sexy nightclub owner played by B movie queen Mara Corday. Vera rules with an iron fist in a velvet glove. What Vera wants, Vera usually gets, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. Rounding out the crew is Joyce (Joyce Barker), a blonde, butch masseuse; Marie (Lita Milan), an alcoholic beautician with a penchant for shoplifting and picking pockets; and Agnes (Abby Dalton), the inside woman who works at the payroll firm. Also in the mix is Vera’s younger, not-so-innocent sister Helen (played by Barbara Bostock); the two live in a swank apartment atop the nightspot, modestly called Club Vera.

Things begin to unravel on the day following the heist, when Agnes calls Vera in a panic, worried that she won’t be able to hold up under police questioning of the payroll service employees. Vera wastes no time paying Agnes a visit, giving her some sleeping pills, then turning on the gas to ensure that she slumbers undisturbed for eternity. Vera sets it up to look like suicide, an explanation quickly embraced by the investigating officer, Lt. Bill Hanley (Mark Richman), who seems less interested in solving the robbery than in macking on Helen, especially when he catches her act at Club Vera, singing torch songs and performing sexy little dance numbers.

Girls will be boys.

Joyce, however, doesn’t buy the idea that Agnes killed herself. “How did you do it, Vera?” she taunts, causing the normally unflappable queen bee to lose her cool: “How did I do it? I said it was suicide, you pig! If you ever say it again, if you even think it, I’ll ram these scissors right through you, you sick, ugly slob!” There’s more bad blood brewing when Marie starts adding up numbers and suspects that Vera plans to gradually reduce their ranks to increase her share of the payout. She subsequently tells Vera that she’s quitting the gang and demands her money up front. The three women repair to the cabin, where a drunken Marie starts digging up the buried loot, seemingly unaware that the others view this move in lethally disapproving terms. With Vera’s implicit assent, Joyce dispatches the errant homegirl by viciously burying a switchblade in her back. Two down and two to go.

While all this infighting is going down, Helen and Lt. Hanley are fervently carrying on behind Vera’s back. The budding romance is viewed with alarm both by big sister and the conniving Joyce, who does her best to terminate the relationship via attempted vehicular homicide. Further complications ensue and more fur flies as the surviving gang members circle each other like hungry sharks. During the full-bore hellcat showdown, their psychotic impulses and implacable killer instincts ignite with predictable yet satisfying results.

Felonious and fashionable.

Summary Judgment
Girls on the Loose is a wicked slice of cinematic subversion that totally inverts the masculine-dominated universe of the typical crime film. Men are marginalized to the extent that they exist only to satisfy the sexual demands of women like Vera. The sole police officer in the film, Lt. Hanley, plays no role whatsoever in bringing the girl gang to justice. In fact, he’s completely unaware of their identities until Helen confesses all while recovering in hospital from the aforementioned automotive assault. Nor does he participate in the violent denouement. Feminists would doubtless have a field day with the empowerment theme being played out, while exploitation connoisseurs will simply enjoy the pervasive atmosphere of sleazy sexuality.

Corday, a former Playmate of the Month and star of such sci-fi epics as Tarantula (1955) and The Black Scorpion (1957), dominates the film as Vera, making her a stunning combination of virago and vixen. Vera is all woman, but she’s as tough as any man. She pistol whips a payroll guard into a coma during the robbery, and doesn’t hesitate to slap the girls around when they step out of line. She even smacks dear little Helen when the latter tries to assert her independence. Vera will stop at nothing to protect her interests and maintain her authority, including murder. She’s one of the purest embodiments of feminine evil in fifties films, and a constant joy to watch.

“Here, honey, try this propane gas inhaler.”

With her swept-back hair and take-no-prisoners bosom, Vera takes her pleasure as she finds it, and she finds it most often with those who take orders from her. One such fellow is Joe, the bartender at her club, whom she greets the morning after the robbery with a lingering kiss that leaves no doubt as to the other services he renders. Vera is also a cougar in the making, with a decided yen for the young men who deliver food from the local market. Five minutes after playing tongue tag with Joe, she’s making a call in the kitchen when in walks the newest delivery boy, Danny. Vera sizes up this latest piece of meat with a critical eye, as if considering where to take her first bite. Within moments, she’s entwined herself around him and locked her lips firmly to his. Fade to black, with the clear implication that Vera is immediately going to find out whether Danny measures up to his predecessors.

Helen is also something of a sexual adventuress, although cut from a less predatory cloth than her older sister. She firmly dictates the course and tempo of her relationship with Lt. Hanley, and the script implies that he’s far from being her first lover. Marie and Joyce’s sexuality is ambiguous, although there’s a late-night massage scene that implies they might be occasional lovers. And when Marie makes a drunken pass at Hanley at Club Vera, Joyce pulls her away with the possessive fervor of a jealous woman.

Calling all fetishists.

Director Paul Henried was, of course, better known for his acting, particularly his role as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (1942). But beginning in the fifties, he directed a half-dozen feature films and nearly 100 television episodes. He seemed to gravitate to pulpy thriller material like Girls on the Loose and Live Fast, Die Young, also made in 1958. Henreid brought a journeyman’s craft to his work behind the camera. He rarely attempted any camera virtuosity, and concentrated on moving the narrative along and eliciting competent performances from his actors.

Where Henreid really shines, and where he reveals his inner Elmer Batters, is in the inordinate number of shots devoted to the women dressing and undressing. If the visual evidence in this film is anything to go by, Henreid was a dyed-in-the-wool leg man and foot fetishist. He first indulges himself when Vera returns home after the robbery. As the nightgown-clad Helen lounges in the living room, Vera strips down to a sexy camisole and slowly, sensually peels off her stockings, her movements imbued with maximum resonance through Henreid’s framing. This is followed by a shot of Vera luxuriating in the bathtub, one leg thrust straight up in almost orgasmic satisfaction. Also on frequent display are pulse-quickening peignoirs, bottom-hugging pajamas, form-fitting girdles, man-eating bras and endless d├ęcolletage. The ultimate money shot is a stunning image of Helen’s beautiful feet superbly contained in sexy stiletto heels. Have mercy.

The girls settle a little disagreement.

Every so often Henreid remembers that he’s directing a crime film and includes some decently stylized violence. Vera’s clubbing of the payroll service guard has a nice visceral edge, and her gassing of the unfortunate Agnes is staged with chilling aplomb. Joyce’s simmering hostility also boils over several times in rather spectacular fashion. Henreid privileges these moments with nicely timed close-ups that accentuate her latent psychosis. Finally, and fittingly, the climactic confrontation between Vera and Joyce takes place in the bleak surroundings where the money lies buried. It’s played out with bullet and blade and no quarter expected or given.

Fingering the Fifties
• Couples necking in parked cars
• Hot older women sleeping with delivery boys
• Bullet bras that leave broken men in their wake

What’s a little rubdown between friends?

VERA: “What’s your name?”
DANNY: “Danny.”
VERA: “Well, Danny boy. I hope your deliveries are as dependable as the other boys.”
DANNY: “I’m very dependable. You’ll see....You want to check this, ma’am? Just to make sure?”
VERA: “Let’s check everything, just to be sure.”

AGNES: “The radio just now said he might die. That’s murder, Vera. I get sick just thinking of it.”
VERA: “Thinking takes brains. Just forget you’ve got them.”

VERA: “Helen has lived with me since she was born. There’s plenty of me in that girl.
MARIE: “She ought to sue you for defamation of character.”

JOYCE: “Someday, I’m gonna twist your spine till it snaps. See you in my dreams.”
VERA: “Have a good nightmare.”

Contemporaneous Reviews

Director: Paul Henreid; screenplay: Alan Friedman, Dorothy Raison, Allen Rivkin; producers: Edward B. Barison, Richard Kay, Harry Rybnick; music: Irving Gertz, Henry Vars, Stanley Wilson (uncredited); cinematography: Philip Lathrop; format: black and white, 77 minutes

Mara Corday (Vera Parkinson); Barbara Bostock (Helen Parkinson); Mark Richman (Lt. Bill Hanley); Joyce Barker (Joyce); Lita Milan (Marie Williams); Abby Dalton (Agnes Clark); Paul Lambert (Joe); Ronald Green (Danny); Fred Kruger (Mr. Grant); Monica Elizabeth Henreid (Lili); Jon Lormer (doctor)

Lt. Hanley is no match for this girl on the loose.

Get It Here

Monday, August 9, 2010

Miscellaneous Mayhem #1
FBI Girl (1951)

Raymond Burr doesn't like the dress Audrey Totter is wearing.

Somehow, one can’t imagine such a publicity still being used to promote a movie today. But back in fifties filmdom, dames had to be tough enough to put up with all kinds of abuse from assorted hoodlums, killers and cops, and Audrey Totter was one of the toughest. Here she takes it on the chin from an underworld fixer played by Raymond Burr, one of a long line of villainous roles he essayed before crossing to the other side of the law in his television series Perry Mason. Totter plays an FBI clerk who’s pressured to steal a file detailing the criminal past of a governor planning to run for the U.S. Senate. Not only does Audrey’s platinum perm get messed up, she also meets an untimely end at the hands of Burr’s henchman in this tight little programmer from Lippert Pictures.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bonnie Parker Story
(American International Pictures, 1958)

Bonnie with her preferred phallic symbol.

• Cigar Smoking Hellcat of the Roaring Thirties
• She Lived Like A Woman, And Killed Like An Animal!

Just the Facts
The Bonnie Parker Story appeared amidst a spate of late-50s gangster biographies. The cycle began with Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson (1957) and centered on notable historical criminals of the 1930s. None of these movies were entirely faithful to the actual lives of their subjects (surprise!), and this one was no exception. The real Bonnie Parker apparently never killed anyone or smoked cigars; her character does plenty of both in this 1958 AIP production. The actual Clyde Barrow was a hard-bitten criminal and unrepentant murderer, aspects that are belied somewhat by Jack Hogan’s wisecracking portrayal. (For some reason, the film also changes Clyde Barrow’s name to Guy Darrow.) But The Bonny Parker Story gets closer to the truth than most films about the famous pair, notably in its refusal to soft soap their callousness, and boasts a harder edge to boot.

The action begins in 1932 in Oklahoma City, where Bonnie (Dorothy Provine) is doing time in a greasy spoon while hubby Duke Jefferson (Richard Bakalyan) serves out his life sentence in prison. Enter Guy, a small-time thief with big-time delusions. Bonnie can take him or leave him, but senses his potential, especially when he shows her his machine gun. (There’s B movie thematics for you!) They hook up and start knocking over bars and gas stations across Texas, but while Guy is content with penny ante jobs, Bonnie longs for bigger scores. Meanwhile, Bob Steel (Douglas Kennedy), the Texas Ranger tasked with their arrest, arranges for Guy’s brother to get parole and then tails him to the gang’s hideout in a Missouri farmhouse. Before Guy can say, “Holy cow! There’s somebody out there holding National Guard maneuvers in the front yard,” the law has rolled out the welcome wagon with tear gas shells and a fusillade of bullets. The gang briefly returns fire before piling into a getaway car and making a hasty escape as Bonnie fills a couple of sheriff’s deputies full of lead.

Just a couple of young, carefree killers.

The teed-off Ranger tracks the gang to Iowa and stages a shoot-first ambush during which Guy’s brother Chuck (Joseph Turkel) is killed, although Bonnie and Guy manage to slip away. Bonnie, now firmly in control, engineers Duke’s prison escape so they’ll have the manpower necessary to start robbing banks. Having achieved her objective, however, Bonnie seems to derive more enjoyment from denying both men her sexual favors than separating depositors from their life savings. Following a botched payroll truck heist (during which a jealous Guy “accidentally” kills Duke in the ensuing shootout), he and Bonnie cross the state line into Georgia, where they have a big bank job lined up. Unfortunately for them, the father of one of their new recruits tips off Steel that the wanted couple will be at his house the next morning. Come sunup, the Texas Ranger and assorted lawmen hunker down by the side of the road, guns at the ready, as Bonnie and Guy drive towards their appointment with fate.

Guy likes to practice shooting between the cans.

Summary Judgment
The many films based on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow range from the fanciful Gun Crazy (directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1949) to Arthur Penn’s more literal Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Nestled between these two like a bullet in the chamber is this cheap exploitation biopic. If The Bonnie Parker Story lacks the expressionist power of the former, it avoids the artistic pretensions of the latter.

Director William Witney, veteran of countless serials and B films, was no Joseph H. Lewis. In fact, he never got within shouting distance of an A film. But Witney was shrewd enough to recognize Provine as the film’s biggest asset, and duly makes her the focus of attention from start to finish. That includes the opening titles, in which her mirrored reflection strips down to a form-fitting slip as Ronald Stein’s rockabilly instrumental theme establishes an evocative backroads vibe. As the last title fades, Bonnie pulls a light cord and plunges the screen into darkness, whereupon Witney cuts to a close-up on a machine gun in full fury, deftly introducing and linking the film’s twin themes of sex and violence.

As the camera pulls back, we see that it’s Guy, not Bonnie, doing some target practice. But Stanley Shpetner’s screenplay quickly identifies Bonnie as the dominant player in their relationship. When Guy walks into the sleazy diner where she works and tries out some stale pickup lines on her, she flings a pan of hot grease in his direction with the warning that she might be too hot for him. This is the first indication of Bonnie’s proclivity for violence. She starts out as a frustrated nonentity—going nowhere in particular and taking her time about it—until she discovers the killer inside her. Bonnie embraces violence the way other women embrace marriage and family. Unlike the herd, she’s bored by the prospect of bland domesticity. Stealing money, and killing anyone who tries to stop her, seems a much more exciting career path.

Hotter than the pistol in her hand.

Violence in turn defines Bonnie’s sexuality. After she and Guy rob a gas station—which she needlessly sets ablaze—their car is pulled over by a motorcycle cop who walks directly into Bonnie’s blistering line of fire. As the pair speed away, Bonnie is suddenly consumed with sexual hunger and kisses Guy with such violence that he almost runs the car off the road. Her insistence on taking pleasure when, where and with whom she wants also gives rise to several instances of black humor. One pungent moment occurs after she lures a couple of hayseeds away from the spot where Guy plans to stash guns for Duke’s prison crashout. She’s gone for a considerable length of time, and her defiant response to Guy’s jealous questions holds the clear implication that she’s had sex with both men in the interim. In another scene, she memorably scatters thumbtacks around her bed to ward off the unwelcome attentions of both husband and boyfriend, whom she forces to sleep in another room. The film’s unspoken joke is that Bonnie has the biggest balls in the gang. The phallic implications of this dynamic are visualized in the long cigars she smokes and the frequency with which she whips out her gun.

Crime couture, circa 1930s.

Relatively small in scope—we see only a fraction of the gang’s numerous robberies—The Bonnie Parker Story compensates with its B movie energy, bursts of brutality and subversive sexuality. Witney invests the film with good period atmosphere despite its low budget, and utilizes appropriately grim and nondescript locations. Outside of Provine’s tawdry sex appeal, no attempt is made to glamorize the settings or characters, in marked contrast to the Technicolor sheen applied to the famous 1968 version, in which Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are unable to transcend their star personas.

No such problem exists for Provine, for whom The Bonnie Parker Story was her debut film. (Legend has it that she got the role a mere three days after her arrival in Hollywood. What one would give to see that story brought to the screen.) She followed it with another bad girl role in Riot in Juvenile Prison (1959) before adding other facets to her persona and graduating to mainstream fare. But she’s at her raw, indelible best in this film, burning up the screen with her combustible allure and strong-willed personality. She plays Bonnie with unapologetic amorality, never once trying to enlist audience sympathy. She maintains that intransigence right up to the moment we hear her voice from the grave before the final credits roll: “We got ourselves a one-way ticket. There’s nothing you can do once you get on, but ride right to the end of the line.”

Getting down and dirty while knocking over a payroll truck.

GUY DARROW’S PAL: “That Bonnie Parker’s a real wildcat.”
GUY DARROW: “Wildcats don’t worry me none. I kind of like the way they scratch when they get excited.”

GUY DARROW: “Honey, you team up with me and we’ll just take what we want. You know as well as I do, you’re just gonna wind up on a street corner, and you won’t be sellin’ newspapers.”
BONNIE PARKER: “Shut the door.”

BONNIE PARKER: “I didn’t lose my nerve. I know right where I left it.”

TEXAS RANGER TOM STEEL: [to the men waiting to ambush Bonnie and Guy]: “Boys, they’re a mighty tricky pair. No matter how dead they look, don’t stop firing until I tell you!”

“Make sure you kill ’em reeal good!”

Fingering the Fifties
• Although the film is set in the 1930s, Bonnie’s rejection of traditional feminine values and behavior not only transgresses social codes of that decade, but also those of the 1950s.

Contemporaneous Reviews
Variety’s 1958 review managed to simultaneously praise and dismiss the film, describing it as “obviously an exploitation item, but capably constructed and intelligently carried out.”

Director: William Witney; screenplay: Stanley Shpetner; producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson, Stanley Shpetner; music: Ronald Stein; cinematography: Jack Marta; format: black and white, 79 minutes, 2.35:1 aspect ratio

Dorothy Provine (Bonnie Parker); Jack Hogan (Guy Darrow); Richard Bakalyan (Duke Jefferson); Joe Turkel (Chuck Darrow); William Stevens (Paul Baxter); Douglas Kennedy (Texas Ranger Tom Steel); Patricia Huston (Chuck’s girlfriend); Joel Colin (Bobby); Jeff Morris (Marvin); James Beck (Alvin); Carolyn Hughes (contact girl)

The real Bonnie Parker.

Get It Here

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Highway 301
(Warner Bros., 1950)

George Legenza: mean as a snake and twice as deadly.

The whole blazing story of the Tri-state gang!

Just the Facts
Highway 301 is a down and dirty crime picture that evokes in its fierce energy and breakneck pace the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the thirties. Written and directed by Andrew L. Stone, the film charts the extralegal activities of the “Tri-State Gang,” so named because its members ply their trade in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. The five-man crew is led by George Legenza (Steve Cochran), a stone-cold sociopath who doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone he deems a threat—not excluding girlfriends who contemplate ratting out to the police.

Following a brief “crime does not pay” preamble by the actual governors of the aforementioned states, we see it pay very well indeed as the outlaws knock over a Winston-Salem bank with military-like precision. That evening the gang unwinds at a swank nightclub, but George’s squeeze Madeline (Aline Towne) kills his buzz with her incessant worry that the police will soon catch up to them. George smacks her down, but it’s not enough to make her tone down. She eventually splits and cabs back to her hotel, intending to pack and run out for good. Legenza tails her and is on his way up in the hotel elevator as she nervously waits to ride it down. She gets the surprise of her life when the doors open and she finds herself face to face with lover boy. “Goin’ somewhere, sweetie?” he asks calmly, and just as calmly pulls out his piece and guns her down.

Legenza's girlfriend no longer has to worry about the cops.

Their next job, a payroll truck heist, goes just as smoothly as the bank job, but as the men tear into the booty, they discover the money's been cut and was en route to the federal mint to be burned. A bad omen, one the gang ignores at its peril, as its heretofore-profitable program starts to unravel. Even Legenza’s trigger-happy habit can’t prevent the law from closing in. The fast-paced film picks up even more steam as the boys become embroiled in one desperate scrape after another. Following a tense hospital shootout, the remaining gang members end up on the losing end of a fierce police pursuit, which culminates in spectacular fashion as one of them suffers further—and fatal—trauma from the effects of machine gun bullets and a speeding train.

Summary Judgment
Andrew Stone was one of numerous Hollywood directors who labored in relative obscurity while making consistently reliable entertainment. His films are notable for their frequent location shooting, direct sound and naturalistic lighting. He worked hard and he worked fast, but most important, he worked efficiently, turning out a series of taut crime thrillers throughout the fifties: Confidence Girl (1952), The Steel Trap (1952), A Blueprint for Murder (1953), The Night Holds Terror (1953), Julie (1956) and Cry Terror (1958). The no-nonsense approach he brought to his films reflects the character of the man who turned down a lavish MGM contract, stating: “I’d have had to pacify the stars and keep them happy—like a priest who doesn’t believe a word of what he says.” Stone’s contrarian personality can be sensed in the disparity between his handling of the film’s authority figures and those on the other side of the law. The prologue’s gubernatorial trio is presented in static setups that do nothing to mitigate the numbing boredom of their platitudes. Ditto for Detective Sergeant Truscott (Edmon Ryan), who leads the investigation of the Tri-State Gang and is also heard in periodic sanctimonious voiceover.

A new twist on making a withdrawal.

In marked contrast is the beautifully filmed bank robbery sequence that opens the film proper. Stone first gives us a privileged view of the men riding inside the getaway car, introducing them visually before we learn their names. This first brief glimpse of Legenza immediately establishes his low-key yet unquestioned leadership. After the car parks a few yards from the bank entrance, one man gets out and saunters into the building as the voiceover states his criminal resume. In like manner, three more gang members follow suit, one at a time, and take up strategic positions inside. After impersonating customers for several minutes, they suddenly spring into action. The measured pace gives way to fast cutting as one crook disarms the harmless old security guard, another covers the patrons and employees, and two more nimbly leap over the teller windows, a shot given added dynamism through its high-angle perspective. (French director Jean-Pierre Melville must have been a fan of this scene, as he faithfully copied its slow-building rhythm, and many of its shots, in his 1973 neo-noir Un Flic.)

A similar level of unobtrusive craftsmanship enriches many other set pieces: There’s a tense scene in which Legenza and Robert Mais (Wally Cassell) hide in the back of a truck amidst dozens of egg crates while a pair of checkpoint patrolmen peer through the cracks, putting the hoodlums in a cold sweat as they try to make themselves as small as possible. Elsewhere, Stone deftly evokes the threatening atmosphere of the urban jungle when an innocent girl caught up in the gang flees through deserted streets as Legenza tails her from a distance with near-spectral malice.

It's a jungle out there.

Stone’s screenplay is on par with his direction. It’s tight as a drum and peppered with dark humor. While hiding out after one of their outfit has been killed, Legenza and Mais must prevent the girlfriend of the dead man from escaping and informing on them. Legenza locks her in a room, leaving Mais to watch her while he grabs a bite to eat. As he exits, Mais asks, “What are you gonna do with her?” Legenza stares at him for several seconds and then says, “That’s right.” As Mais closes the door behind Legenza, he glances balefully towards the girl’s room and turns out the light.

Cochran is solid gold as career criminal George Legenza. Beginning his film career in 1945, he contributed memorable turns in The Chase and The Best Years of Our Lives (both released in 1946), earned additional notice by holding his own against scene-stealer James Cagney in White Heat (1949), and showed further range as a high-class hood who falls for Joan Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Highway 301 was his first starring role, and Cochran took full advantage of the opportunity, creating one of the most bone-chilling characters in the crime film canon. He underplays his role nicely, wearing a heavy-lidded expression that evokes a snake waiting for the right moment to strike. His character also has an interesting kink in that he likes to have sex after pulling a big job (a characteristic shared by Richard Stark’s main character in the Parker novels). The dialog hints at this when Legenza is dancing with a reluctant Madeline after the bank job. “C’mon, sweetie, brighten up. You know what I like after a big deal. I gotta soak up a little fun.” “I don’t feel like fun,” she replies. “Well, try it for size,” he snarls.

Stone cold.

Fingering the Fifties
• People smoking in hospitals.
• Uniformed elevator operators.
• Pleasant bank tellers.

ROBERT MAIS [reading article on the gang’s exploits]: “Truscott says this and Truscott says that. He’s making a career out of us.”
GEORGE LEGENZA: “Well, it’ll be a long career.”
ROBERT MAIS: “Don’t sell the guy short. I heard he’s plenty smart.”
GEORGE LEGENZA: “Just like all the rest. A stupid cop.”
MARY SIMMS: “Would you like a little background music to that? It’s called a swan song.”

OLD MOTORIST [after almost being run off the road by the gang]: “Why, ya crazy galoots!”

All aboard!

Contemporaneous Reviews
The New York Times, December 9, 1950 (Bosley Crowther)
The most disturbing and depressing of the many depressing things about the Strand’s current Warner Brothers’ shocker, “Highway 301,” is the fact that governors in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina endorse this cheap gangster melodrama as an effective deterrent to crime. In forewords which are personally delivered by Maryland’s lame-duck Governor Lane and by Virginia’s and North Carolinas Governors Battle and Scott, respectively, these eminent and honorable officials convey the solemn idea that what you are about to see is something that will prove to you how profitless crime is. And what you see is a conventional modern-day cops-and-robbers film, based on the dismal depredations of the so-called Tri-State gang, in which robbing and shooting and violence are exhibited for pure sensation’s sake, with the gangsters annihilated in a juicy blood-bath at the end.

Opening with the supposed robbery of a bank in Winston-Salem, N.C., by a gang of five sinister hoodlums, not one of whom would win a brain-test prize, this picture recounts their adventures in their escapes, their other crimes and with their “molls” through a series of ticklish moments, until the cops finally give them the works. Steve Cochran plays the gang leader, so he’s the most arrogant of the mob, and Gaby Andre as a naive French-Canadian is the most sympathetic of the “molls.” As other gangsters, Robert Webber, Richard Egan and Wally Cassell are standard muggs, and Virginia Grey is acerbic as a “moll” who tries to play the game. However, the whole thing, concocted and directed by Andrew Stone, is a straight exercise in low sadism. And the reactions at the Strand yesterday among the early audience, made up mainly of muscular youths, might have shocked and considerably embarrassed the governors mentioned above.

(As Pauline Kael noted in 1964, one could invariably rely on Crowther’s “reverse acumen” to determine a film’s true merit.)

Director: Andrew L. Stone; screenplay: Andrew L. Stone; producer: Bryan Foy; music: William Lava; cinematography: Carl Guthrie; format: black and white, 83 minutes, 1:37:1 aspect ratio

Steve Cochran (George Legenza); Virginia Grey (Mary Simms); Gaby Andre (Lee Fontaine); Edmon Ryan (Detective Sgt. Truscott); Robert Webber (Bill Phillips); Wally Cassell (Robert Mais); Aline Towne (Madeline Welton); Richard Egan (Herbie Brooks); Edward Norris (Noyes Hinton)

Who's the boss?

Get It Here

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.
(Warner Bros., 1951)

Matt Cvetic—man in the shadows.

I had to sell out my own girl—so would you!

Just the Facts
I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. was loosely based on the Saturday Evening Post memoirs of Matt Cvetic, who was recruited by Hoover’s organization in 1941 to infiltrate the Pittsburgh branch of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Cvetic, one of many such plants, was granted party membership in 1943 and subsequently spent years living a dangerous double life. The constant fear of discovery, plus the contempt of family and friends for his political “disloyalty,” seems to have contributed to the hard-drinking informant’s already unstable personality. The FBI eventually considered him more of a liability than an asset, and cut him loose in 1950. Nonplussed, Cvetic emerged from the shadows that year to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He named some 300 Soviet agents and American communists, and his evidence led to the conviction of Pittsburgh party leader Steve Nelson. The brief celebrity resulting from Cvetic’s appearance and magazine articles led to this Warner Bros. production and, later, a radio series starring Dana Andrews.

The film opens with communist big shot Gerhardt Eisler arriving in Pittsburgh to monitor the local cell’s activity. (Eisler was an actual figure, although his greatest influence on the CPUSA is said to have occurred during the 1930s.) We then see Cvetic en route to his mother’s house to help celebrate her birthday. His presence, however, casts a pall over the festivities; his brothers regard him with loathing, and his son Dick won’t even look him in the eye. Only Mama Cvetic dispenses familial affection, but before they cut the cake Matt is called to a meeting with Eisler by local party chief Jim Blandon.

Comrade Stalin and comrade...Lincoln?

Over glasses of champagne, Eisler informs Matt of his promotion to chief district party organizer in recognition of his loyal service. (Cvetic works in the personnel office of the North American Steel Company, where he hires party members and fires non-members.) At a party rally later that evening Blandon plays the race card before a predominantly black audience in an attempt to stir up racial discord and labor unrest. (The Communist Party’s playing of racial politics in the film eerily foreshadows the Republican Party’s frequent use of the same tactic throughout the 1980s.)

When not attending such functions or reporting to his FBI handlers, Cvetic finds himself faced with Dick’s increasing hostility; the sudden attentions of Dick’s teacher Eve Merrick, who confesses herself a fellow party member; and his suspicion (later proved correct) that Eve has been assigned to spy on him. A number of other plot threads ratchet up Matt’s fear and foreboding until he’s nearly at the breaking point. Matters come to a head during a party-instigated strike at the steel plant during which union leaders are beaten by lead-pipe-wielding CP agitators. Eve, whose loyalty has begun to waver after accidentally learning the truth about Matt, is repulsed by such open brutality and renounces her membership. Blandon immediately orders her liquidation, which sets off a dizzying chain of events: Matt intervenes in the attempt to kill Eve, undergoes a savage beating after his cover is blown, reestablishes his cover with the help of the FBI and, finally, delivers the knockout punch to the party leaders with his surprise testimony before HUAC.

Cvetic faces the question every fifties father fears.

Summary Judgment
McCarthyism was riding high when this film was released, Senator Joe and other opportunists finding it easy to fan the flames of political paranoia in light of recent history: 1949 saw the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union’s first nuclear weapons test; 1950 marked the beginning of the Korean War and the conviction of Klaus Fuchs for selling British and American atomic secrets to the USSR. Hollywood jumped on the patriotic bandwagon following the 1947 HUAC hearings on communist influence in the film industry. The major studios responded with the infamous blacklist and a spate of hyperbolic red menace films, including The Red Menace (1949), Guilty of Treason (194), I Married a Communist (1949), Walk a Crooked Mile (1949), Big Jim McClain (1952) and, of course, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.

Viewed today, it’s easy to laugh off the strident flag-waving and fear-mongering of such films. It’s likely that film audiences at the time were a bit more credulous. Ironically, membership in the CPUSA reached its peak of approximately 80,000 in 1944, when America and Russia were still allies working together to finish off the Third Reich. By the mid-fifties, though, membership had dropped to about 5,000, of which 1,500 were FBI informants. That didn’t stop McCarthy and Hoover from playing the scare game. Among the more damaging fallout from films like I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. was the implication that labor unrest was the result of communist agitation, a prejudice that lingers even today.

Matt and G-man Crowley (Richard Webb) listen to an FBI wiretap recording.

Interestingly, the political implications of Crane Wilbur’s script don’t seem of particular concern to director Gordon Douglas, who treats the film more like noir than propaganda. The cinematography is full of chiaroscuro, the dialog is hard-boiled (even at its most deranged), and the acting is tough and terse. Even Max Steiner’s music is suitably minatory. Moreover, the communist party as portrayed is virtually indistinguishable from the mafia. Its leaders drink champagne and eat caviar while the foot soldiers do the dirty work; its security personnel are nothing more than paid assassins. When the party leadership is called before HUAC at the end of the film, their smugness and pleading of the Fifth Amendment directly evokes the Kefauver hearings (1950-51) and the testimony of mobsters like Frank Costello.

Douglas is one of those underrated American directors long overdue for critical reevaluation, and this film provides plenty of reasons why. It showcases his dramatic sense of pace, his frequently brilliant staging, and his ability to delineate character and advance narrative through expressive camerawork. I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. features several set pieces that stand comparison with those of more celebrated directors like Anthony Mann and Don Siegel.

Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart) finds herself trapped amidst the haters.

Consider the scene in which Matt is summoned home with his mother on her deathbed. Upon his arrival, his brother Joe tells him he can go upstairs to see her if he likes, hiding the fact that she’s already gone. Father Novak (the only person outside the FBI who knows Matt is working for them) intercepts Matt on the stairs and tells him the truth. Matt absorbs the blow, then turns to leave, pausing for a moment to glare wordlessly at Joe before stalking out. Douglas holds the shot for several seconds, just long enough to register their mutual antipathy but not too long to let the scene slip into bathos. Even more impressive is the steel plant strike scene, in which Douglas evokes Eve Merrick’s horror at the roughhouse tactics of the party goons and the visceral hate directed at their victims by the fellow travelers surrounding her. To the unrelenting din of their verbal frenzy (which vividly evokes Orwell’s “two-minute hate”), Douglas isolates her in a fluid tracking shot as she works her way through the mob, every face except hers a portrait in vitriol.

Finally, an extended sequence near the end of the film proves that Douglas also had few peers as an action director. It begins at Eve’s apartment when Matt helps her evade the hit men sent to execute her, continues with the cold-blooded murder of an FBI agent, transitions to a speeding train from which Eve is almost tossed, and climaxes with a desperate foot chase and gun battle in a dark train yard. The violence is sharp and swift, imaged in dynamic camera angles and claustrophobic lighting. Particularly memorable is a killer’s fall down a flight of stairs onto train tracks directly in the path of an oncoming express, and an exchange of gunshots between Cvetic and another communist thug, who suddenly pirouettes towards the camera with a small, neat hole in his forehead. Frissons like these fully reveal the film’s thriller bias.

A highly charged composition from director Gordon Douglas.

The casting of Frank Lovejoy, who played similarly hard-bitten characters in numerous crime films, felicitously plays into Douglas’ treatment. Few actors did tight-lipped intensity as well as Lovejoy, who could suggest through the subtlest of means a simmering cauldron of emotions. The actor convincingly essays the pressures of Cvetic’s undercover existence, as well as the psychic pain of estrangement from his loved ones. One can practically feel him flinch when Dick asks him point blank: “Dad, tell me the truth, will ya? Are you a red or not?” Lovejoy’s conviction in this scene easily overcomes the risibility of the dialog.

The film’s emotional climax is also grounded in the personal rather than the political. As Matt reveals to HUAC that he’s been an FBI informant for the past nine years, he’s speaking as much to Joe and Dick sitting in the courtroom as to the American people listening to the radio. The film closes with a heartfelt father-son embrace as Matt says, “Even when you hated me, I loved you for it.”

Fingering the Fifties
• Nominated for an Oscar as “Best Documentary.”
• Josef Stalin’s portrait prominently displayed during a communist rally.
• Record shops with listening booths.

MATT CVETIC: “Yes, as Gerhardt Eisler said, Pittsburgh was too quiet, too peaceful, so they cooked up a hell-brew of hate from a recipe written in the Kremlin.”

GERHARDT EISLER: “A very enjoyable evening....Blandon, you did exceedingly well.”
JIM BLANDON: “Thanks. Those n*****s ate it up, didn’t they?”
MATT CVETIC: “You mean negroes, don’t you, Jim?”
JIM BLANDON: “Only when I’m trying to sell ’em the party line.”

MATT CVETIC: [to his FBI handlers]: “You know, you guys have a home and a family. When your day’s work is done, you go home to them, they’re glad to see you. I’ve got nothing but a bunch of slimy commies who’d cut my throat and throw me in the river when they’re through with me.”

Matt's moment of truth.

Contemporaneous Reviews
Variety, Jan. 1, 1951
From the real life experiences of Matt Cvetic [published in the Saturday Evening Post as I Posed as a Communist for the F.B.I], scripter Crane Wilbur has fashioned an exciting film. Direction of Gordon Douglas plays up suspense and pace strongly, and the cast, headed by Frank Lovejoy in the title role, punches over the expose of the Communist menace.

Cvetic's story is that of a man who, for nine years, was a member of the Commie party so he could gather information for the FBI. His informer role was made all the harder because his patriotic brothers and young son hated him for the Red taint. Picture picks up the double life as Gerhardt Eisler comes to Pittsburgh to ready the Red cell for strike violence and racial hatred.

Excitement and suspense are set up in the many near-escapes from exposure that Lovejoy goes through before he completes his job by revealing Commies and their activities before the Un-American Activities Committee. There's a brief touch of romance, too, in the person of Dorothy Hart, a card-carrying schoolteacher who finally sees the light and is saved from Commie reprisal by Lovejoy.

Matt on the receiving end of his brother's hate.

Director: Gordon Douglas; screenplay: Crane Wilbur; producer: Bryan Foy; music: Max Steiner; cinematography: Edwin DuPar; format: black and white, 83 minutes, 1:37:1 aspect ratio

Frank Lovejoy (Matt Cvetic); Dorothy Hart (Eve Merrick); Philip Carey (Mason); James Millican (Jim Blandon); Richard Webb: (Ken Crowley); Konstantin Shayne (Gerhardt Eisler); Paul Picerni (Joe Cvetic); Edward Norris (Harmon); Roy Roberts (Father Novak); Ron Hagerthy (Dick Cvetic); Hugh Sanders (Clyde Garson); Hope Kramer (Ruth Cvetic)

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Big House, U.S.A.
(United Artists, 1955)

Ralph Meeker about to be pistol-whipped into next week by William Talman under the
approving eye of Broderick Crawford.

5 Killer Convicts Break Out!

Just the Facts
Howard W. Koch (not to be confused with Howard Koch, who co-wrote Casablanca) was a prolific producer/director who made a number of harder-than-hard-boiled films during the 1950s, notably Shield for Murder (1954), with Edmond O’Brien as a mad dog killer cop; and Violent Road (1958), a highly entertaining low-budget rip-off of Henri George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1954). But Koch’s masterpiece, his crime Casablanca, if you will, was this brutal tale of a callous kidnapper played by Ralph Meeker, whose intense, tight-lipped portrayal seems like a warm-up for his blistering turn as anti-hero Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly released the same year. In fact, Big House, U.S.A. is a contender for the most mean-spirited crime film of the decade, peopled with barely human characters and bursting with primal fifties brutality, including death by scalding and bludgeoning, unrestrained pistol-whipping, blowtorch corpse-disfiguring, and convict-killing policemen.

The tough and unrelenting narrative gets underway when asthmatic weakling Danny Lambert (Peter J. Votrian) crashes out of a summer camp at Colorado’s Royal Gorge Park before a needle-wielding nurse can inject him with an allergy shot. Unfortunately, he runs straight into the not-so-tender mercies of a fisherman named Jerry Barker (Meeker), who promises to return Danny to his father. Feigning concern over the boy’s condition, he parks him in an abandoned fire tower while he “goes for help.” Instead, he phones Mr. Lambert (Willis Bouchey) and demands a $200,000 ransom.

Meanwhile, the increasingly agitated Danny attempts to climb down the tower, but inadvertently falls to his death just as Barker returns. Barker, a true sociopath, expresses not a shred of remorse over the boy’s demise as he tosses the body into a deep gorge as if he were throwing out the trash. He calmly collects the ransom money, but is caught trying to leave the park when rangers discover his un-permitted pistol. Confronted by FBI Special Agent James Madden (Reed Hadley) and the boy’s father, it’s obvious that Barker is guilty of kidnapping, but since the body can’t be found, Barker is convicted only of extortion and sentenced to five years in Cascabel Island Prison.

Meeker cools his heels while being guarded by Nazi, park rangers.

Things go from bad to worse for Barker when the warden assigns him to a cell inhabited by a quartet of lifers led by Rollo Lamar (Broderick Crawford), a bank job strategist and the most ruthless man in the joint. Barker, whom the press dubs “Iceman” for his cool demeanor, is hated on sight by his new playmates, as well as the entire prison population, which brands him a child killer. Lamar, however, is quick to recognize Barker’s market value, sardonically telling his fellow cons, “I’m gonna kidnap a kidnapper for the money he kidnapped for.” The Iceman is thus co-opted against his will in an ingenious breakout utilizing the prison boiler room, improvised scuba suits and a fast getaway boat. But the convicts’ initial success soon evaporates in the face of overpowering greed and murderous impulses. Things come to an appropriately bloody conclusion back in the park where Barker has buried the ransom money—and a small boy named Danny.

Summary Judgment
Koch contextualizes the ferocious goings-on in a workmanlike, quasi-documentary style, with many of the grislier moments occurring off-camera (which, ironically, makes them all the more horrific). The flat, stripped-down images from cinematographer Gordon Avil also complement the harshness of the story and characters. Koch doesn’t attempt any of the stylistic flourishes of noir films, but he does conjure a few startling images that linger in memory. The film's opening shot reveals a cloudless sky into which a tightly gripped pistol suddenly thrusts into view and is immediately fired. It turns out to be merely a starter’s pistol for a children’s footrace at the summer camp, but it effectively presages the impending violence and death in store for several of the characters. Later in the film, FBI Agent Madden and the park’s chief ranger are engaged in a low-key conference in the latter’s office, but Koch adds a disquieting note through the foreground inclusion of a carbine rifle that visually dominates the frame. These and similar visual frissons shotgunned throughout the film effectively evoke the era’s pervasive gun culture.

Yeah, this is how we roll.

Koch also excels at conveying the loathing that both the police and the prison inmates have for Barker, notably in the scene where Robertson Lambert pleads with an unresponsive Barker for his son’s life, not realizing that he’s already dead. The FBI man and park rangers intuit it, however, and stare daggers at the stone-faced kidnapper. Barker’s introduction to his cellmates is similarly effective, where he’s greeted with a sardonic “Well, the Iceman cometh” from Lamar and cold shoulders all around. Equally commendable is Koch and screenwriter John C. Higgins’ refusal to indulge in the usual prison movie clich├ęs: There are no stern lectures from the warden, no beat-downs administered by the guards, and no one gets thrown into the hole. The harshness of the environment is conveyed through visual emphasis on the cramped quarters of the cell and the hellish working conditions in the boiler room, which Avil utilizes to evoke Dantesque images of toiling, sweating men.

Higgins’ terse and unsentimental dialog recalls his screenplay contributions to earlier crime classics Raw Deal (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948). The overall tone is serious and matter of fact during the early section of the film detailing the kidnapping and manhunt, then takes on black comic undertones in the prison scenes. There’s some nice banter between Lamar and Alamo Smith (Lon Chaney, Jr.), in addition to a number of barbed exchanges between Lamar and Barker. Even the warden gets to deliver some droll observations on Barker’s cellmates, including this priceless nugget: “Alamo Smith—border killer, narcotic runner, wetback smuggler. You know, he’s not a bad guy, if he’s kept locked up.”

But the best lines are mainly reserved for the bad guys, who are much more compelling and charismatic than the bland, impersonal representatives of law and order. This contrast is just one of many narrative subversions that elevate Big House, U.S.A. to the highest level of fifties crime filmdom.

Bronson and Crawford compete for the sexiest chest. William Talman tries to contain
his excitement.

Fingering the Fifties
Park rangers on horseback.
Benny Kelly (Charles Bronson) reading a muscle magazine in his cell.
• Unintentionally humorous voiceover.
• Prevalence of high-profile kidnappings.
• Gas chamber retribution.

ROLLO LAMAR: “I got news for you. What you saw, forget it. If you don’t, I’m gonna step on ya and squash ya.”
JERRY “ICEMAN” BARKER: “Look, you. Top dog, big wheel, boss con, or whatever you rate around this iron lung. You don’t scare me. Okay, so all the pimps and perverts and potlickers got no time for me. Fine! But nobody around this joint calls me a squealer.”

ROLLO LAMAR: “Any of you geniuses know what apparently means?”
LEONARD “ALAMO” SMITH: “Apparently?”
BENNY KELLY: “Yeah, it means that something that ain’t, looks like it is.”

Contemporaneous Reviews
Engand’s Monthly Film Bulletin was properly appalled: “The characters here depicted are so brutal as to anesthetize all sympathy, and their savagery is minutely explored by the director, Howard W. Koch, in a manner that leaves one shocked yet disinterested.”

The New York Times also saw fit to cock a snook at the film: “Although they supposedly have based the script on a real unsolved case, both director Howard W. Koch and John C. Higgins, the scenarist, have kept the sleuthing methodical and on the sidelines. They clear the decks for some graphic but standard bloodiness on the part of Mr. Meeker and his snarling kind. At one point, for instance, one convict scalds to death inside a boiler. Another one, a corpse this time, is rendered unrecognizable by a blowtorch. And where, during all this, are the anguished parents of the missing child? Don't ask us.”

"Did anyone remember to lock the cell door before we escaped?"

Director: Howard W. Koch; screenplay: John C. Higgins, George F. Slavin (story), George W. George (story); producer: Aubrey Schenck; music: Paul Dunlap; cinematography: Gordon Avil; format: black and white, 83 minutes, 1.75:1 aspect ratio

Ralph Meeker (Geraldo “Jerry” Barker, aka Iceman); Broderick Crawford (Rollo Lamar); Reed Hadley (FBI Special Agent James Madden); William Talman (William “Machine gun” Mason); Lon Chaney Jr. (Leonard “Alamo” Smith); Charles Bronson (Benny Kelly); Felicia Farr (Emily Euridice Evans); Roy Roberts (Chief Ranger Will Erickson); Willis Bouchey (Robertson Lambert); Peter J. Votrian (Danny Lambert)

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