The Big Combo (1955) Joseph H. Lewis

Sexually and sadistically charged “The Big Combo,” is a paradigm for what can be accomplished with spare change filmmaking. This film, and the earlier work, “Gun Crazy” (1950) are director Joseph H. Lewis’ masterpieces.  While on the surface, a straight forward cops and gangster film, Lewis created a world of brutally bold, off beat characters filled with dark shadows and high contrast lighting, courtesy of the brilliance of the master noir cinematographer John Alton (T-Men, He Walked By Night, Raw Deal and The Crooked Way).

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Call Northside 777 (1948) Henry Hathaway

20th Century Fox produced a series of semi-documentary film noirs in the late 1940′s including “Boomerang!,” “Kiss of Death,” “House on 92nd Street” and “Call Northside 777,” the last three directed by perennial hard ass Henry Hathaway. Hathaway was a studio director, a craftsman whose work was devoid of complexity, straightforward and took no crap from anyone (see my interview with Dennis Hopper biographer Peter L. Winkler who talks about Hathaway’s battle with young know it all Hopper and how he single handedly blackballed Hopper from Hollywood films.). Despite any lack of pretension in his work Hathaway directed some fine film noirs. In addition to those previously mentioned he made “The Dark Corner” and “Niagara.”

Based on a true story, “Call Northside 777″ tells the tale of Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), a Polish-American falsely accused of murdering a police officer. (1) After spending 11 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, his story is assigned to Chicago Times news reporter Mickey McNeal (Jimmy Stewart) when it comes to the attention of his editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb). Kelly had spotted a notice in the classified ad column, a $5,000 reward for information leading to the killer of a police officer back in 1932, 11 years ago, during the height of the prohibition era. McNeal follows up on the story and discovers it is Frank Wiecek’s mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazeski) a scrub woman in a office building who put up the reward saving her paltry salary ever since her son’s conviction. McNeal follows up with a visit to the Illinois State Pen where he talks to Frank only to find his story full of dead ends that cannot be proven. Frank though seems resigned to his fate, he will be spending the rest of his life in prison. Frank even told his wife Helen (Joanne De Berg) to divorce him and marry someone else so their son will have a full and happy family and not be haunted by his father’s past. After McNeal writes about the family, exposing their current lives, an incensed Frank demands they be left alone and wants the entire investigation stopped accusing McNeal of writing his story only for the newspapers’ circulation gains. He rather spend the rest of his life in prison than subject his kid and ex-wife to public scrutiny. Continue reading

Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin

Revenge, money and corruption drive Jules Dassin’s terrific 1949 noirish trucking drama. Written by A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly), based on his own novel, “Thieves Market,” this was Dassin’s last film made in the United States before he was blacklisted. Richard Conte is Nick Garcos, a returning Navel World War Two vet who sets out to avenge his father’s crippling accident caused by crooked produce dealer Mike Figlia played by a vicious Lee J. Cobb.  Much of the film was made on location in San Francisco’s produce and waterfront areas. Dark and gritty, Dassin is set on exposing the dark corrupt side of the produce business where people, mostly immigrants here represented by Italians, Greeks and Poles, are used for cheap labor and then as now, tossed away when no longer needed.  It’s an exploration of the unpleasant greedy side of capitalism, filled with despair and disillusionment where everyone is interested in making a dollar no matter at what cost. Everyone is out for a buck, even Nick’s “nice” fiancée Polly (Barbara Lawrence) reveals herself to driven by the almighty dollar.

Nick arrives home where he is greeted by his soon to be bride, Polly, who is clearly disappointed by the small china doll gift he brings her, that is until she finds the expensive engagement ring hanging on the doll. He then sees his father in a wheelchair, legless due to an “accident,” a result of carelessness by big shot Mike Figlia. Nick boils with rage and swears revenge. He hooks up with Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), a trucker. Using his father’s truck, they become partners. When Ed attempts to cheat some Polish Apple growers, Nick makes him honest paying a fair value. They load their valuable but fragile Apple cargo and head for San Francisco to deliver the freshly picked produce along with a little payback to Big Mike. From here on, the film becomes a dark claustrophobic nightmare filled with speed, treacherous turns, threats and violence.  In the end, Nick, an ex-G.I. happy to be home has turned into battle weary cynic who views life as nothing but an opportunity to make a buck. Money is the driving force.

Visually the film is stunning, thanks to Dassin’s working of the camera and some sharp editing. One highlight is a nicely edited series of shots, close ups inside the truck’s cab when Ed realizes the breaks on the beat up vehicle are gone and he cannot slow down. In between, we cut to two of Ed’s buddies in a second truck driving behind him, who helplessly realize he is in trouble.  A hard turn, suddenly Ed’s truck is going off the road and rolling down a hill exploding into a ball of fire. From the bottom of the hill the camera eyes the turned over truck at the lower part of the frame, apple boxes spread out all over, scattered apples still rolling down the steep hill.

In San Francisco, Nick is beaten up by Figlia’s goons. Rica (Valentina Cortese), a prostitute and Figlia associate helps mend Nick’s wounds. As Nick recuperates in Rica’s small bedroom apartment the two are constantly eyeing each other, verbally and physically sparring between mistrust and sensual desire. At times Rica is playful, other times defiant, then suddenly turning playful again. She becomes openly lustful toward Nick, surprisingly so for a film of this period. 

Unfortunately, the hand of producer Darryl F. Zanuck softened the previous ninety minutes.  Thinking the film to0 downbeat, a quickly manufactured happy ending was filmed including Nick and Rica riding off into the sunset filmed without Dassin’s involvement corrupting the hard realities of what came before. Still, “Thieves’ Highway” remains engrosing, one of Dassin’s darkest and finest films.

Note: this is a revised review that originally appeared in the now defunct Halo-17.

Classic Film Alert on May 2nd

On May 2nd two must see films will be making rare appearances on the Fox Movie Channel and TCM.  First up is Jules Dassin’s classic film noir “Thieves Highway” on Saturday May 2nd at 11:30AM and again on May 13th at 9:45AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection “Thieves Highway” is Dassin right in the middle of his best period with “The Naked City” and “Brute Force” behind him and “Night and the City” and “Riffifi” still to come. This was Dassin final American film until his rare 1968 film “Up Tight”,  a black cast remake of  “The Informer.”

Here’s a review I wrote for Halo-17.

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Later that same day, TCM will broadcast the 1932 classic prison drama, Mervyn LeRoy’s  “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” at 8PM. A repeat broadcast is scheduled for June 20th at 7:15AM.  Based on a true story this is one of Warner Brothers classic social dramas that they did so well back then.

Here’s a quick link to the review I wrote a short while back.

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Don’t miss the chance to see this two classic works.

Cry of the City (1848) Robert Siodmak

    The story of two men from the same neighborhood who go off in different directions in life, one on the right side of the law, and the other on the wrong side of the law.  We have seen this so many times in films such as “Angels with Dirty Faces” with Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan and Pat O’Brien’s Father Jerry Connelly, two Irish kids who grew up together in the slums of New York and took opposite paths in life.  In the 1948 film noir “Cry of the City”, we get the Italian-American version. Marty Roman (Richard Conte) and Candella (Victor Mature) grew up together in New York’s Little Italy. Candella became a cop and Roman a cop killer, a charismatic loser who defies death’s odds.

    Rome escapes from a prison hospital and is pursued by Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and his partner Lt. Collins played wonderfully by Fred Clark. Rome wants to clear his young girlfriend Teena (a young Debra Paget) of any involvement in a jewel robbery of a Mrs. DeGrazia, an elderly woman who was tortured and murdered. Niles (Berry Kroger), a crooked lawyer threatens to implicate Teena in the crime if Rome does not admit to the jewel robbery and murder to clear the lawyer’s innocent client. What difference does it matter anyway, the lawyer Niles says since he is getting the chair for the cop killing and has nothing to lose.

    Teena is in hiding, however, Rome still fears that Niles will still find and implicate her.  After his escape, Rome heads to Niles office where he finds the stolen jewels in secret compartment in the lawyer’s safe. Niles gives Marty the name of his accomplice, Rose Givens, before he pulls a gun and tries to kill Rome. Marty sticks a switchblade knife through the lawyer’s leather chair stabbing him to death.

    Rome meets up with Rose Givens (Hope Emerson) a sadistic masseuse who is willing to trade for the jewelry by giving Rome money and a way out of the city in exchange. The trade will be made at a subway station where Rome has the jewels secured in a locker. Rome notifies Candella where Givens will be for the pickup, his plan was not to be there but Givens wants Rome at the station fearing a setup. As Givens opens the locker, the police close in on her. There’s a struggle. Givens pulls a gun and a wild bullet hits Candella as he was jumping over a turnstile t assist with the arrest. As the police arrest Givens, Rome manages to escapes and meets Teena in a church where he tries to persuade her to run away with him. Candella, still wounded shows up at the church and tells Teena how everyone who has ever helped Marty has been hurt. That he’s left a trail of physically or emotionally wounded souls. Teena decides not to go with him. As Candella and Rome leave the church, Rome tries to escape but Candella shoots him dead.

    The film is loaded with sleazy low life’s from the sadistic masseuse to the creepy abortionist, to Niles, the crooked lawyer. Directed by Robert Siodmak, the film is well paced maintaining a tense dark moody atmosphere. While not quite on par with some of Siodmak’s other noirish works such as “Crossfire” or “The Killers”. “Cry of the City” provides a realistic look at the squalor of the inner city.

   Richard Conte was riding high in his career when this film was made. He had just completed “Call Northside 777″ and also had under his belt “Somewhere in the Night”, “A Bell for Adano” and “A Walk in the Sun.” Conte was a staple in some of the best noir films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “Thieves Highway”, “Whirlpool” and “The Big Combo.” Billed second to Victor Mature in this film Conte not only has the larger part but also steals the show as Marty Roman, a magnetic, woman chasing cop killer.

Victor Mature, an actor of limited talent actually gives a good performance as Candella, the tough yet sensitive cop. The rest of the cast is loaded with many familiar faces including Shelley Winters, as an ex-girlfriend, the previously mentioned Fred Clark, Debra Paget and Hope Emerson who is especially memorable as the sadistic masseuse who almost strangles Rome with ecstatic pleasure.