Suddenly (1954) Lewis Allen

SUDDENLY, Nancy Gates, Sterling Hayden, Frank Sinatra, 1954

SUDDENLY, Nancy Gates, Sterling Hayden, Frank Sinatra, 1954

It was a strange choice for a follow-up to his big comeback Academy Award winning role as Maggio in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, but Frank Sinatra was never one to do what was expected. Released in 1954 by United Artists, Suddenly is a tale about three hired killers who come to the small California town of Suddenly with plans to assassinate the President. Written by Richard Sale, arguably best known today as the director of an early film, Let’s Make it Legal, that had a young Marilyn Monroe in its cast, Suddenly is a tight little thriller with a surprisingly nasty performance from its star. Continue reading

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Short Takes: The Gangster and Crime Wave

Crime in the streets is this week’s theme. Two low budget flicks that came and went from the screen in the final blink of a dead man’s eye.

The Gangster (1947) Gordon Wiles

Unconventional gangster flick with Barry Sullivan as a hardened, self made, top dog gangster who becomes obsessed with a beautiful dame (Belita). Meanwhile he soon finds himself being squeezed out of his territory by another outfit headed up by the snarly Sheldon Leonard. Each of his weaknesses are slowly exposed, the politicians once in his pocket are no longer there, and other hoods are no longer willing to back him up. His downfall is inevitable.

Sullivan’s character is obsessive and paranoid when it come to his girl and bitter, cold-hearted and cynical toward everyone else.  Despite being a low-budget production director Gordon Wiles paints the sets with a shadowed noirish light. And the sets, though obviously backlot, are very stylized, the shadowy ironwork on the elevated train, the rain soaked streets, the details in the soda fountain shop add an engaging arty flavor. The look and detail most likely stems from director Gordon Wiles background as an art director. There is also a winning melodramatic score by Louis Gruenberg.  Yet for all these nice touches there is something about the film that does not crystallize. All these nice pieces yet the whole does not ring true and leaves you unfilled.

The film represented a reteaming of Barry Sullivan and Belita one year after they appeared in the 1946 oddity, “Suspense.” Supporting cast include Charles McGraw, John Ireland, Virginia Christine, Harry Morgan, Akim Tariroff, Elisha Cook Jr. and Leif Erickson. Also look for Shelley Winters in a small role. The script was co-written by the soon to be blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Continue reading

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston

Note: There are spoilers in the article.

Everyone has a weakness, and if you let it consume you it just might do you in:  young girls, high living, horses, it does not matter, they can all become vices and destroy you. That what happens to the various characters in John Huston’s classic caper film “The Asphalt Jungle.” Written by Huston and Ben Maddow, based a  novel by W.R. Burnett whose tough yet effortless style is responsible for such other memorable films like “Little Caesar” and “High Sierra.”

“The Asphalt Jungle” is the first caper movie to detail in a realistic, gritty style, a step by step process on how to pull off a heist job.  It definitely set the standards for future heist films to come like  “Rififi,” “The Killing,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Reservoir Dogs”  and even a lesser film like “Ocean’s 11” all of which owe a debt of gratitude to this film. The characters that we are now familiar with in so many other heist films are all there, the brains behind the plan,  the brawn,  the safecracker, the getaway guy, the stoolie, and the double-crosser who wants everything for himself. The women are there too, Doll (Jean Hagen) and Angela (Marilyn Monroe) whose biggest weaknesses are they love their men too much.

Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is just out of prison and wants to pull a big heist, one he had planned long before being sent away. He hooks up with a small-time bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence) who brings in the money man, a slimy lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who is in debt up to his neck. Despite being married, Emmerich has a beautiful and very young mistress named Angela (Marilyn Monroe), a woman with expensive taste. Emmerich and his thug partner Bannerman (Brad Dexter) convince Cobby to put up the front money; you see they have plans to steal the jewels from Doc and company and fence it on their own. Doc brings in Dix (Sterling Hayden) as strong arm, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) as the pro safecracker and Gus (James Whitmore), as the getaway guy. The heist goes well except during the getaway, Louis is critically wounded. This is the first of a series of actions that unravel their “perfect plan.” Gus is soon picked up by the police, Cobby turns stoolie after being beaten up by a former friendly corrupt cop. Dix will kill Bannerman when he and Emmerich try to take the jewels; however, Dix has been wounded himself from a shot Bannerman got off before dying. When the cops come to pick up Emmerich at his house, he commits suicide. Doc decides to get out of town heading for Cleveland but is picked up by two police officers at a pit stop when he waited a few minutes too long drooling over a young teenage girl dancing to music on a jukebox. Dix plan is to head back to his home in Kentucky. He and his girl Doll (Jean Hagen) take off but that wound is still bleeding, and as he reaches the ranch he collapses and dies in his field of dreams.

From the first shots where we pick up Dix roaming the dark, deserted city streets trying to avoid the police to the approximately 10 minutes heist scene, to the final scenes where Doc and then Dix meet their fate Huston films it all with  a commanding  intensity and strong atmospheric camerawork, extracting a series of excellent performances from the cast.

Their perfect plan is done in by the weaknesses of the men. Doc would have escaped from the city had his weakness for young girls not held him back a few extra minutes. He had to watch the young teen girl boogie to the tunes on the jukebox. Emmerich was simply done in by greed, a common theme in Huston films (Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon). Even Dix had to try to make it back to his old Kentucky home and the horses he loved only to die trying.

Huston cast the film with an excellent group of actors. For Sterling Hayden, this was his first leading role in a major film. Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and Jean Hagen were known entities but lacked marquee strength. Marilyn Monroe was still a starlet in what was essentially her first substantial part in a major film. She was not even Huston’s first choice for the role; he originally wanted Lola Albright. Monroe does not have much screen time as the young plaything to the sleazeball lawyer but she manages to make a big impression with her limited exposure, and she looks great.

In 1958, a western called “The Badlanders” (available via Warners Archive Collection) starring Alan Ladd was a loose remake. An even looser version was tried as a TV show in 1961. Basically, they used the title and changed everything else turning it into a standard cops and robbers series.  Needless to say, the show did not last long.  Other remakes include a 1963 film called “Cairo,” with George Sanders, and in 1972, a blaxploitation version called “Cool Breeze” was released with a cast that included Pam Grier.

The film received four Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.  Interesting enough MGM had two other films they pushed for best picture that year, “Father of the Bride” and unbelievably “King Solomon’s Mines” were both nominated.

“The Asphalt Jungle” holds up very well retaining a sense of realism, three-dimensional characters, darkly lit noir lighting, and claustrophobic close-ups. The film is more visually representative of Warner’s ripped from the front pages of newspapers 1930’s style than the glossy films you would expect from MGM.

Watch this film, and you will see everything that is missing in the unrealistic thrill seeking super acrobatic capers that today’s stars like Tom Cruise and others attempt to entertain us within multiplexes.

The Killing (1956) Stanley Kubrick

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    The plot of Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film, the 1956 heist thriller, “The Killing” seems old hat. A criminal just out of prison after serving five years wants to do one more job before settling down and marrying his girl (Colleen Gray). There have been some great heist films prior to this one. In 1950, “The Asphalt Jungle”, in 1955, Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 classic “Bob le flambeur.”  Among these films, made by experienced filmmakers, Kubrick’s third feature film stands tall, though at the time of its release, the film was not warmly received. The New York Times critic A.H .Weiler, was reserved in his response calling it “a fairly diverting melodrama.”

    Since its release, “The Killing” has come to be recognized as one of the most influential crime films of all time. Quentin Tarantino admits the influence Kubrick’s film had on the filming of “Reservoir Dogs.”

    For the first time Kubrick had professional financial backing for a project.  The budget was $320,000 dollars. Yes, still small but compared to the forty thousand he had to film “Killer’s Kiss”, this was astronomical. Additionally, for the first time Kubrick could afford to use experienced actors, including Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle , Johnny Guitar), Elisha Cook (The Maltese Falcon, Phantom Lady),  Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin), Jay C. Flippen (The Live By Night)and Vince Edwards (Murder by Contract).

  screen02  Kubrick engaged a professional co-writer, in this case Jim Thompson, whose hard-boiled novels were the basis for films like “The Grifters”, “The Getaway”, “The Killer Inside Me” and “After Dark, My Sweet.” Though Thompson wrote most of the screenplay, adapted from a novel called “Clean Break” by Lionel White, Kubrick took most of the credit with Thompson receiving only an additional dialogue credit. Unperturbed, or in need of the money, Thompson would continue to work with Kubrick on his next film, “Paths of Glory” and even on a third script that never was made.

    It is in this film that Kubrick’s visual brilliance shines through for the first time. There were traces of it before in earlier works but here it is turned on full throttle for the first time. True it is not a complex story, but Kubrick’s structure of the entire film is expertly realized.

    Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) gang are not made up of your usual criminal types. Each man is in if for his own reasons. There is the meekish racetrack window teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook) who is desperate to win some respect from his trampy wife Sherry (Marie Winsor). Then there is Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a bartender at the track,  who  needs the money to pay for the medical bills of his bed-ridden wife. A corrupt policeman, Randy Corsain (Ted DeCorsia) who is the getaway guy. Finally, there is Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) an older man who is financing the upfront money.  If all goes well, the gang will get away with two million dollars.

The Killing- Stilla    Unfortunately, a good plan is only as good as its weakest link, and here the weak link is George Peatty.  George’s insecurity, and as we find out he has reason to be insecure about his wife, ignites the fuel that will blow the plan apart. George tells Sherry more than he should about the heist plans and Sherry shares it with her small-time hood boyfriend Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) who has ideas of his own.

    The cinematography, credited to Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch, Will Penny) reflects the hand held style Kubrick favored many times during his extraordinary career. This is displayed during the blood bath toward the end of the film when George surveys the outcome of his violent massacre. Noirish high contrast lighting is also well used in various scenes where a single lamp sometimes is the only light source.

The killing Poster416109.1020.A    Kubrick’s most original element here is his use of a nonlinear timeline, jumping back and forth, as we watch each of the gang members’ movements before and leading up to the moment of the heist.  Kubrick was encouraged to abandon this structure during the editing of the film and go for a straighter direct storyline approach, however, after trying various other approaches he wisely decided to leave the film as it is. Finally, there is the ending with Johnny and Fay (Colleen Gray) trying to escape from the airport. There are two plainclothesmen coming toward him. Fay tells him to run and Johnny, looking tired and beat says, “What’s the use?”   

    Seemingly overshadowed by his later works, “The Killing” appears to be looked at as a minor work in the Kubrick filmography.  Certainly not as provoking or intellectually stimulating as his better-known films, “The Killing” remains a visual blueprint on how to make a great crime thriller, the nonlinear storyline, the pacing, and the characters.

    Kubrick spends more time on character development here than he would in later works.  Johnny’s relationship with Unger (Jay C. Flippin), the scenes with the Russian, Maurice are all exceptional. The highlight though is loser George Peatty, who Kubrick films various times from behind bars (ticket window at the track and through the bars of a bed), and is locked up in a loveless marriage to his cheap sultry wife. They are a perfect mismatched married couple, the little emasculated  man with big dreams, and his money hungry two timing wife who is tired of waiting for those dreams to come true. After Kubrick saw Windsor in “The Narrow Margin”, he wanted her for the role. Marie Windsor is sensationally evil in her role.

The Killing Still C    Kubrick incorporates some interesting minor touches in the film that add color and depth to the characters. There is Johnny’s attempt to seduce Sherry, the unexpected explosion from Nickki (Timothy Carey), the shooter hired to assassinate the horse, Red Lightening, during the seventh race, who verbally attacks the black racetrack parking attendant with a racial slur.  Finally, the unexpected homosexual insinuation in Marvin Unger’ s suggestion that he and Johnny leave town together, so Johnny would avoid the trappings of marriage.

    There are problems with the film, the use of voice-over, becomes annoying and unnecessary at times. The voice over seems to pander to the audience as if the assumption is we are not bright enough follow what is going on.  This may have been forced upon Kubrick by the studio that may have been nervous about the nonlinear storyline.  Kubrick did use a narrator in his previous film, “Killer’s Kiss” which I found less troublesome. Also, unconvincing the infamous cheap suitcase, Johnny uses and loses the money with. As precisely planned as the heist was you would think Johnny would have purchased a stronger and more secure suitcase.  

    Overall, “The Killing” is an excellent heist film with fine performances by Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook. Personally, this is one of my favorite Kubrick films.