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1930s            Top

 

HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932, RKO)     Dir:  Rowland Brown

Sc:   S Ornitz, R Tasker, Rowland Brown        Cast:  Richard Dix, Rochelle Hudson, Tom Brown

Ratings: Maltin **½     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell *         Imdb  6.8  (42 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

A convict on a brutal chain gang plans an escape, but the situation changes when his callow brother is sentenced to the same prison. Rowland Brown has three movies to his credit as director (he also wrote them and others). All three are terrific; apparently he lost his job after he socked a producer.  Quick Millions is a classic gangster picture which didn’t have the abruptness to remain as famous as Public Enemy or Little Caesar. Blood Money is a notorious pre-code melodrama populated by racketeers,  debutantes and nymphos. Hell’s Highway is often given short shrift, but remains a stunning example of early talkie grittiness, excellent no-nonsense writing and eye-catching camera work. The sharply-etched characters and impressive array of reliable actors who play them, such as C Henry Gordon and Charles Middleton, add weight to the proceedings, as does the chorus of black prisoners (including Clarence Muse).

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

PRISON TRAIN  (1938, Equity)         Dir:  Gordon Wiles

Sc:   L Bercovici,  S Traube       Cast:  Fred Keating, Clarence Muse, Dorothy Comingore

Ratings: Maltin **½     Scheuer **½      Halliwell n/a         Imdb 6.0 (10 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

Considering its lowly production origins, this is a surprisingly tight, absorbing action picture with good comic asides. Director Wiles was a set designer by trade (e.g., Fritz Lang’s You and Me) and much later helmed the highly intelligent noir The Gangster. He milks the premise for all it’s worth, maintaining a rapid pace and adding flashy camera work without sacrificing character nuance. The ending is abrupt but nifty. Clarence Muse does an excellent turn with the little material provided in his pivotal part. Would make a fine double bill with The Narrow Margin, The Tall Target or Hell’s Highway.

 

Availability: Released on DVD by Image Entertainment in a double-feature with The Sin of Nora Moran, a radically-structured melodrama which was years ahead of its time. .

 

HUNTED MEN (1938, Para)          Dir:  Louis King

Sc: Horace McCoy, William Lipman      Cast: Lloyd Nolan, Buster Crabbe, Anthony Quinn, JC Naish

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell *         Imdb  n/a       Our Rating    n/a

 

A hunted killer is given a ride by an inebriated suburbanite, and takes refuge at his home. This premise has spawned many a noteworthy programmer, particularly the groundbreaking Blind Alley. This one comes from the fine Paramount Studios B-movie mill, which employed the always-reliable directors Louis King and Robert Florey. The credits all around are impressive, particularly the writers.  The same personnel appeared in a whole series of action pics for the studio, including the equally well-praised Prison Farm and King of Alcatraz.

 

Availability: Darker Image, possibly other dealers.

 

LADY IN THE MORGUE  (1938, Univ)          Dir:  Otis Garrett

Sc:  E Taylor, R White; Jonathan Latimer (orig)       Cast:   Preston Foster, Frank Jenks

Ratings: Maltin **     Scheuer ***      Halliwell *         Imdb  n/a       Our Rating    n/a

 

By all accounts, a nifty little mystery with comic asides, concerning a disappearing corpse, with good dialogue and editing tricks. Part of the Crime Club series, most entries of which were directed by the unjustly obscure Garrett (who died young). This one is often cited as a model B-pic. Others well-regarded in the series include The Witness Vanishes and Mystery in the White Room. Latimer went on to be a highly successful screenwriter, of course.

 

Availability: Movie Classics, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

TELL NO TALES   (1938, MGM)         Dir: Leslie Fenton

Sc:  Lionel Houser       Cast:  Melvyn Douglas, Gene Lockhart, Louise Platt

Ratings: Maltin **½     Scheuer **½      Halliwell **         Imdb  6.3  (17 votes)       Our Rating    n/a

 

Its great resources allowed MGM to use its shorts and second features unit as a training ground for up-and-coming personnel and newly arrived emigres. Many of the resulting Bs were as professional-looking as the A product of other studios. This picture is cited by most experts as an exemplary programmer. Viewers today will be impressed by its modern attitudes and realism. The plot concerns the editor of a failing newspaper who on his own initiative tracks a kidnapper in order to score an exclusive story. The dramatic vignettes, linked by a clever plot hook, and the great attention to detail show the skill that went into to the production. And, rare for the time, black performers are given dignified roles. Fenton, a former actor, directed several other above-average Bs, but never ascended to the top ranks

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

1940s            Top

 

NO HANDS ON THE CLOCK (1941, Para)          Dir: Frank McDonald

Sc:  Maxwell Shane; Daniel Mainwaring (orig)        Cast: Chester Morris, Jean Parker, Astrid Allwyn

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell (fair)         Imdb  n/a       Our Rating    ***

 

A fast-talking, milk-loving detective, who has just solved a kidnapping case and married the lovely, lactose-intolerant victim, finds himself involved in a new case while trying to escape for a honeymoon. This is a rapid-fire, no-holds-barred comedy-mystery, with far too much plot for its running time (not that it matters). As you can surmise from the writers involved, the situations are full of surprises and the repartee highly amusing. Allwyn steals the show as a flirtatious barfly. The title’s great, too.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

AFFAIRS OF JIMMY VALENTINE (1942, Rep)          Dir: Berard Vorhaus

Sc:  Olive Cooper, Rbt Tasker, Paul Armstrong       Cast:  Dennis O'Keefe, Ruth Terry, Gloria Dickson

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  n/a       Our Rating    n/a

 

As a stunt, the producers of a radio show seek out famed safecracker Jimmy Valentine, but one of them has an ulterior motive. Don Miller gives this a rave review, praising the cast, John Alton’s photography, and the sophisticated directing/editing techniques. However, the film was not a success on the market, and was subsequently cut by 15 minutes and released to television as the much weaker Unforgotten Crime. The Valentine character was created by short-story writer O Henry and appeared in several movies as a reformed con who uses his talents for the common good. This film itself was a remake of the earlier Return of Jimmy Valentine. It seems like an excellent candidate for possible restoration.

 

Availability:  Darker Image offers the cut version.

 

DR. BROADWAY (1942, Para)          Dir: Anthony Mann

Sc:  Art Arthur, Borden Chase (orig)       Cast:  Macdonald Carey, Jean Phillips, JC Naish, E Cianelli

Ratings: Maltin **½     Scheuer ***      Halliwell (fair)         Imdb  4.8  (7 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

This is the debut of perhaps the most artistically successful of B directors, Anthony Mann, who went on to greater kudos in the Western genre along with the writer of the original story, Borden Chase. The movie is actually quite uncharacteristic of the auteur, being a brisk, light comedy-mystery about a Times Square doctor and his adventures with crooks, showgirls and other Runyonesque eccentrics. Nonetheless, there are a few striking noirish touches, particularly the iconic opening sequence on a neon-lit building ledge. There’s a fine supporting cast and some very witty dialogue. It was intended as the first of an aborted series.

 

Availability:  Darker Image, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

APOLOGY FOR MURDER (1945, PRC)          Dir: Sam Newfield

Sc:  Fred Myton       Cast:  Hugh Beaumont, Ann Savage, Russell Hicks

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  5.7  (7 votes)       Our Rating    **½

 

Sam Newfield churned out so many minimal-budget programmers at the lowly PRC studios that he was forced to use pseudonyms on many of them. This little noir is a blatant copy of Double Indemnity, not only lifting the plot premise, but also the teasing, staccato dialogue (without the Wilder/Chandler acerbity), the cigar(ette)-lighting motif, and the confessional ending. Along the way, the plot veers into the old “investigator assigned to a crime that he himself committed” theme. If you can ignore this and the usual abrupt PRC scene transitions, it’s a very watchable semi-noir. The acting is fine, with Beaumont deftly portraying a slick womanizing reporter, and Ann Savage, of Detour fame, pulling off another memorable black widow role, this time a much more cool and calculating one.

 

Availability:  Darker Image, Robert's, Cape, possibly other dealers.

 

WOMAN WHO CAME BACK, The (1945, Rep)          Dir: Walter Colmes

Sc:  D Cooper, J Willis, J Kafka       Cast:  Nancy Kelly, John Loder, Otto Kruger

Ratings: Maltin **     Scheuer **      Halliwell *         Imdb  4.9  (16 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

Surprisingly subtle and spooky little thriller, about a woman who returns to a small town, only to be persuaded that she is under a curse. Atmospheric and impressionistic, has elements in common with Carnival of Souls and Lewton’s Cat People movies.

 

Availability:  Has now been released by Image Entertainment on video and DVD.

 

ESCAPE IN THE FOG (1945, Col)          Dir:  Oscar (Budd) Boetticher

Sc:  Aubrey Wisberg       Cast:  Nina Foch, William Wright, Otto Kruger

Ratings: Maltin **     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell (mediocre)         Imdb  5.2  (10 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

A woman dreams of a man being murdered, and later she experiences the scene in real life. Before he made his name with the Ranown series of Westerns, Boetticher churned out a skein of low-budget programmers for Columbia and Monogram, many of them well above average. This mystery, while no masterpiece, nicely illustrates what Andrew Sarris called “the beatitude of the Bs”. With typical B movie non-logic, the intriguing dream-coming-true angle is taken at face value and never explained. There are a couple of clever escape scenes, and the stylish 40s wardrobe (wide lapels, pin-striped suits, floppy hats) rivals the sartorial splendor of a Hawks movie. Second-string stalwart Nina Foch, more alluring than usual, gives another intelligent performance despite the plot holes. An even finer second-feature from the same director, Behind Locked Doors,  has recently received mainstream release by Kino Video.

 

Availability: Noirfilm; possibly other dealers

 

DECOY  (1946, Mono)          Dir: Jack Bernhard

Sc:  Nedrick Young, Stanley Rubin       Cast:  Jean Gillie, Edward Norris, Rbt Armstrong, Sheldon Leonard

Ratings: Maltin ***     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell (fair)         Imdb  8.3  (11 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

This poverty-row noir vanished for many years before re-surfacing a couple of years ago at a west-coast noir festival, where it greatly impressed the anticipatory crowd. The bizarre tale of a woman who seeks financial gain at all costs, it is duly noted for featuring perhaps the most ruthless and unrepentant femme fatale in genre history, rivalled only by Ann Savage in Detour. British ingenue Jean Gillie gives a marvellous performance in the role, and the plot stretches credulity as only a B movie can. Great fade-out.

Bernhard directed some other low-budget noirs of note, including Blonde Ice and Violence.

 

Availability:   At the moment, only a ragged, Croatian-subtitled tv copy is in video circulation, from Darker Image, Robert's, Cape, and a few other outlets. Hopefully, some company like All-Day will eventually transfer the celluloid print to DVD.

 

FEAR  (1946, Mono)          Dir: Alfred Zeisler

Sc:  Dennis Cooper, Alfred Zeisler       Cast:  Peter Cookson, Warren William, Anne Gwynn

Ratings: Maltin *½     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell (fair)         Imdb  5.5  (23 votes)       Our Rating    **½

 

This updating of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” to a modern American university town setting is very watchable, if a bit drab. The frugal sets perfectly reflect the desperation of the characters. Former Warners headliner Warren William, whose star had by now descended to poverty row, lends professionalism as the detective. Would make a fine double feature with PRC’s noir remake of “Hamlet”, Strange Illusion. The novel was successfully filmed much earlier by Josef von Sternberg under its actual title, and later by the Sanders Brothers as Crime and Punishment USA. Zeisler never escaped poverty row, but made a few other interesting titles, including a film about Josef Goebbels’ love life, Enemy of Women.

 

Availability:   Darker Image, NoirFilms, Robert's, Cape, possibly other dealers.

 

NIGHT EDITOR  (1946, Col)          Dir:  Henry Levin

Sc:  S Littleton, H Burdick, Hal Smith       Cast: William Gargan, Janis Carter

Ratings: Maltin **     Scheuer ***      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  n/a       Our Rating    ***

 

A married cop and his married paramour witness a brutal murder while parked in a secluded place, and complications mount. This lurid premise often leads to intriguing thrillers (e.g., What Have They Done to Solange?), and this is no exception, especially given the ruthless but fascinating femme fatale played by Carter. Like many B mysteries of the 40s, it was based on a radio series. Levin wasn’t too stylish, and this unadorned thriller remains one of his few winners.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

BURY ME DEAD   (1947, E-L)                   Dir: Bernhard Vorhaus

Sc:  K deWolf, D Babcock; Irene Winston (orig)       Cast: June Lockhart, Hugh Beaumont, C O’Donnell

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell *         Imdb  6.5  (5 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

The film opens with a young woman showing up at her own funeral. Unfortunately, this great premise (reminiscent of DOA) is not fully taken advantage of…it’s all played far too lightly. Nonetheless, below the surface hide interlocking relationships of lust among the characters, with Cathy O'Donnell's scheming nympho teen a standout (reminiscent of Martha Vickers in the Big Sleep). There's also a more exotic temptress in a smaller role, as well as a muscular deadhead boxer to lure the posh ladies of the cast. But the real lure for the film buff is John Alton’s luminous and experimental expressionist photography. He combined with director Vorhaus on two other hidden gems, The Amazing Dr X (aka The Spiritualist) and The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine.

 

Availability: Cinema Classics and other dealers.

 

GUILTY, The   (1947, Mono)                    Dir:John Reinhardt

Sc:  R Presnell, Cornell Woolrich (orig)       Cast: Bonita Granville, Don Castle, Regis Toomey

Ratings: Maltin **½     Scheuer **½      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  6.9  (7 votes)       Our Rating    **½

 

Monogram’s cheap sets were a perfect match for Woolrich’s urban decay and paranoia. This tale of war-buddy roommates, one affected by a head injury, who are dating good-and-bad twin sisters is typical of the author’s clever/precious plot premises and ironic denouements. The cast and crew don’t really get the juice out of the story, although the doomed atmosphere is well-rendered. The (verbal) description of the central murder seems quite nasty for the time.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, Cape, possibly other dealers.

 

BLIND SPOT   (1947, Col)                    Dir: Robert Gordon

Sc:  Martin Goldsmith, Harry Perowne       Cast: Chester Morris, Steven Geray, Constance Dowling

Ratings: Maltin ***     Scheuer ***      Halliwell *         Imdb  8.0  (7 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

Like Decoy, this distinctive low-budget noir has fallen through the cracks and deserves resurrection. It’s another masterly essay in irony from the pen of Martin Goldsmith of Detour fame. The plot involves a desperate, alcoholic writer who sarcastically pitches a “locked room” murder mystery to his publisher, then sees the plot occur in real life (with himself as chief suspect, of course). Despite the lack of his presence in the credits, Cornell Woolrich’s novels are an obvious influence here – themes of urban paranoia, loss of memory, disconnected characters, etc, were his stock-in-trade. The ripe dialogue borders on self-parody, and the entire exercise could have easily been directed as a satire of the genre. Instead, it becomes a doubly dense noir. Morris and Geray are rather miscast, but peek-a-boo blonde Dowling is striking (particularly visually) as a potential femme fatale. The moody cinematography is engagingly oppressive, lingering over beads of sweat and trapping us in confined spaces. Robert Gordon worked mainly in TV and never had much success in film. The “locked room” murder case, a staple of the detective novel genre, was most memorably committed to celluloid in the early talkie classic The Kennel Murder Case.

 

Availability: Darker Image, NoirFilms, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

PRETENDER, The   (1947, Rep)                    Dir: W Lee Wilder

Sc:  Don Martin, Doris Miller       Cast: Albert Dekker, Catherine Craig, Tom Kennedy

Ratings: Maltin **½     Scheuer ***      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  5.5  (5 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

Billy Wilder’s less-talented elder brother William (Billy’s real name was Samuel) is best known for the notoriously awful sci-fi Killers From Space. But don’t let that deter you from this dark little gem. Albert Dekker plays a failing investment broker who plots to marry his wealthy young ward for her money. When he finds she is about to be engaged to a doctor, he hires a gangster acquaintance to rub out the rival, but things go awfully awry. The twisty plot, John Alton’s magnificently oppressive lighting, the near-Gothic settings and the spooky theremin score make this an absorbing, if melodramatic, portrait in paranoia. Two other noirs from Wilder are of note –The Glass Alibi and The Vicious Circle. Scripter Don Martin had an interesting career churning out low budget thrillers and westerns.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Cape, possibly other dealers.

 

BLONDE ICE   (1948, Film Classics)              Dir:  Jack Bernhard

Sc:  K Gamet, Edgar Ulmer (uncr); W Chambers (orig)       Cast:  Leslie Brooks, Rbt Paige

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer **      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  5.3  (10 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

A female reporter marries rich and powerful men, then disposes of them, all the while carrying on flirtatiously with a male colleague. Another fine “black widow” femme fatale, played neatly by Leslie Brooks. Not quite a gem, but worth a look.

 

Availability: Movies Unlimited and other dealers.

 

REIGN OF TERROR [aka BLACK BOOK, The]   (1949,  E-L)         Dir:  Anthony Mann

Sc:  Philip Yordan, A Mackenzie        Cast: Richard Basehart, Rbt Cummings, Arlene Dahl, Arnold Moss

Ratings: Maltin ***     Scheuer ***      Halliwell *         Imdb  7.6  (73 votes)       Our Rating    ****

 

This incredible work depicts the French Revolution as a film-noir gangster epic. It is the most formally stylized of the collaborations between Mann and cinematographer John Alton – many compositions are no less than breathtaking. The performances are mannered, but it’s a hardboiled manner rather than a costume-piece one. The action is swift, and Mann’s favourite gravelly-voiced heavy, Charles McGraw, adds to the suspense as one of the thugs. Mann was for many years considered a paragon within the Western genre. However, with the increasing availability of his early works, his reputation for consistently achieving artistic heights, and (especially with Alton) experimental coups-de-grace, despite minimal budgets and within the boundaries of populist genres, is assured.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, Hollywood’s Attic, possibly other dealers.

 

BORDER INCIDENT   (1949,  MGM)          Dir:  Anthony Mann

Sc:  John C Higgins, G Zuckerman        Cast:  R Montalban, George Murphy, C McGraw, H Da Silva

Ratings: Maltin ***     Scheuer **½      Halliwell (fair)         Imdb  6.8  (52 votes)       Our Rating    ****

 

Federal agents go undercover in a border town to break up a gang dealing in illegal farm workers. This unjustly neglected work was Mann’s first at MGM, and uses the same tense narrative ploy of an undercover agent, and his partner working on the outside, that graced T-Men. The supporting cast is fine, the lighting by John Alton outstanding, and the skillful use of threatening exteriors foreshadows the director’s style in his classic Westerns. His fascination with gruesome murder methods (most notably the death-by-antler scene in Mann’s Raw Deal) culminates here in the film’s tensest sequence (later quoted in Michael Ritchie’s bizarre Prime Cut). Similar obsessions would haunt the German krimis (see Dead Eyes of London), the Italian giallos, and Michael and Roberta Findlay’s sleazy “roughies”.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, NoirFilms, Cape, possibly other dealers.

 

SIDE STREET   (1949,  MGM)          Dir:  Anthony Mann

Sc:  Sydney Boehm        Cast:  Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, Jean Hagen

Ratings: Maltin ***     Scheuer **½      Halliwell (fair)         Imdb  6.9  (81 votes)       Our Rating    ***

 

This was Mann’s last true noir, although his next film (and first Western), The Devil’s Doorway, exudes a strong noir atmosphere. The plot concerns a desperate courier with a pregnant wife, who in a moment of weakness, steals some money which belongs to a criminal gang. After a string of incomparably imaginative thrillers, this is a slight comedown for Mann, albeit still a superior action picture. The look is more naturalistic (reflecting the dominant style of the 50s), and the routine plot hearkens back to his earlier Railroaded and Desperate. Nevertheless, the action is tense, the camera angles creative, and the car chase finale through deserted early morning streets in the concrete canyon of Wall Street completely breathtaking. The leads were repeating their successful teaming in Ray’s They Live by Night.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, NoirFilms, Cape, possibly other dealers.

 

1950s            Top

 

I, THE JURY (1953, Parklane - UA)               Dir:  Harry Essex

Sc:   Harry Essex;  Mickey Spillane (orig)       Cast:  Biff Elliott, Preston Foster, Peggie Castle, E Cook Jr

Ratings: Maltin **     Scheuer **      Halliwell (poor)         Imdb  5.8  (17 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

The first filming of the famous hardboiled novel may not please Mike Hammer buffs (Biff Elliott is miscast), but fans of grungy film noir should be enthralled by the stark photography (by master John Alton) and oppressive atmosphere. The opening, featuring Elisha Cook Jr as a murdered Santa Claus, is riveting, and the famous coda of the book is intact. It was originally shot in 3-D (the mind boggles!). Good score by Franz Waxman, and several very familiar faces (Alan Reed, John Qualen, Joe Besser) in the supporting cast. Produced by Victor Saville, who was responsible for several classic British films earlier in his career, and was involved in two other notable Spillanes, The Long Wait (as director) and Kiss Me Deadly. The 1982 remake with Armand Assante is also worth a look.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Noirfilms, Robert's, possibly other dealers.

 

LONG WAIT, The   (1954, Parklane - UA)          Dir: Victor Saville

Sc:  A Green, L Samuels, Mickey Spillane (orig)       Cast: Anthony Quinn, Peggy       Castle, Charles Coburn

Ratings: Maltin **     Scheuer **      Halliwell (poor)         Imdb  6.2  (10 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

Another of the Victor Saville-produced Mickey Spillane thrillers, this one lacks the Mike Hammer character, but evinces all the hardboiled, misogynist earmarks of Spillane’s alter-ego. The plot dredges up the always-intriguing chestnut of an amnesiac who is framed for murder and must clear himself, an oft-visited device in films noirs, especially those from the pen of Cornell Woolrich (e.g., Fall Guy, Street of Chance). The chief selling point here is the mesmerizingly stylized photography of Franz Planer, which resembles the earlier experimental work of John Alton in The Big Combo. The paranoia and dehumanization underlying the conformist 50s is a major theme of this and many of the decade’s Bs.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, Noirfilms, possibly other dealers

 

TIMETABLE   (1955, UA)          Dir:  Mark Stevens

Sc:  A Kandel, R Angus       Cast: Mark Stevens, Felicia Farr, King Calder

Ratings: Maltin **     Scheuer ***      Halliwell *         Imdb  n/a       Our Rating    ***

 

This is a neat, no-frills thriller about an intricately planned train heist, the turbulent insurance investigator assigned to the case, and his hard-nosed boss whose motto is “There’s no such thing as a perfect crime.” Filmed in the flat, greyish TV style of the 50s with occasional expressionist touches, it is rife with plot twists and intriguing characters, and features a supporting cast of familiar faces (Alan Reed, Jack Klugman, etc). It should appeal to those who prefer story over stylishness. Tough-guy Stevens starred in several top-notch noirs of the 40s, and directed a couple of good second-feature thrillers in the 50s, including Cry Danger with Dick Powell.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's, NoirFilms, Cape, possibly other dealers

 

1960s             Top

 

BLAST OF SILENCE   (1961, U-I)          Dir: Allen Baron

Sc:  Allen Baron       Cast: Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  7.6  (72 votes)       Our Rating    ****

 

Coming at the very end of the original noir cycle, this edgy tale of a hit-man in crisis in NYC is a minor masterpiece of the form. It shares with many latter-day noirs (Touch of Evil, Kiss Me Deadly, The Long Wait) an overblown paranoia, with inescapable corruption and violence at the edge of every scene, and self-consciously arty chiaroscuro lighting to match. The sardonic, doom-laden narration is totally unique, and the jaw-dropping opening sequence is justifiably famous among connoisseurs. Baron toiled mainly on tv series apart from this idiosyncratic gem.

 

Availability: Shocking Video, Robert's, Video Search of Miami, Cape, possibly other dealers

 

DEAD EYES OF LONDON  (1961, Germany - Rialto)          Dir:  Alfred Vohrer

Sc:  E Eis; Edgar Wallace (orig)       Cast:  Joachim Fuchsberger, Klaus Kinski, Karin Baal, Eddi Arent

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  5.4  (57 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

The mystery novels of Edgar Wallace spawned two low-budget series of thrillers, one in Britain and one in Germany. As several astute critics (especially Tim Lucas) have convincingly argued,  the German films, known as krimis, were a direct influence on Italian giallo mysteries of the 70s and consequently also the American slasher films that dominated the market in the 80s. They also had clear links to the Man From UNCLE school of espionage films. The krimis were usually set in a shadowy recreation of  London’s Soho district, among rain-soaked docks and sleazy cabarets. Most were populated by some mastermind criminal with oddball henchmen, who employed bizarre, creative methods of murder. There were also a stalwart Scotland Yard detective with a grouchy boss and a handy comic-relief aide,  a nubile woman involved in the case; and plenty of red herrings. Filmic trademarks included an introductory voice-over, allegedly of Wallace himself,  superimposed onto a shot of his name being spelled out in bullet holes. Also, bizarre editing tricks and camera angles (particularly the impossible-point-of-view camera shot, commonly used later in giallos), and an “Ende” title card which the camera finds cleverly concealed somewhere in the last scene. Obviously the mystery plot itself was nothing more than a McGuffin.

 

This entry in the series, which borders on straight horror,  is actually a remake of the British Dark Eyes of London. The latter was a significantly chilling and extremely nasty (for the time) programmer with Bela Lugosi starring. The German version is just as weird and creepy. The plot concerns a serial killer who leaves  notes in braille and mysterious goings-on in a home for the blind. There’s a hulking retarded blind henchman doing the dirty work, a young Klaus Kinski (who enlivened most of the entries in the series) skulking about, and the usual fine comic work by Eddie Arent (and his English dubber). For more information on the krimi series, see “The Video Watchdog Book” and the Latarnia web site.

 

Availability:  Sinister Cinema offers this one and several more from both Britain and Germany; Something Weird has a few others. Recommended titles are The Phantom of Soho, The Squeaker, The Sinister Monk, The College Girl Murders (aka The Monk with the Whip, The Prussic Factor).

 

MAN IN THE BACK SEAT   (1961, British)          Dir:  Vernon Sewell

Sc:  M Hulke, E Paice;  Edgar Wallace (orig)       Cast:  Derren Nesbitt, Keith Faulkner, Carol White

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell *         Imdb  n/a       Our Rating    ***

 

Two young thugs, one more innocent than the other, beat and rob a bookie, then try to dump his unconscious body near a hospital. This is a taut, gritty and unusual British thriller, with a couple of well-calculated scares. Because it runs only an hour, a lot of background and important points are revealed verbally rather than visually, but the relationships of the characters are cleverly implicit. It’s recommended that you catch this one without knowing too much about it in advance. Sewell was responsible for several other striking genre pieces, such as Uneasy Terms and Latin Quarter.

 

Availability: Darker Image, Robert's.

 

STATION SIX SAHARA   (1964, UK - British Lion)          Dir:  Seth Holt

Sc: Bryan Forbes, Brian Clemens, J Martet (orig)       Cast: Carroll Baker, P Van Eyck, Ian Bannen, D Elliott

Ratings: Maltin *½     Scheuer ***      Halliwell (fair)         Imdb  5.4  (16 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

In this throwback of a potboiler, five men working at an isolated desert oil station play macho games and test each other’s nerves. The heat intensifies when out of the darkness, a wanton blonde crashes (literally) their pad. The film kicks off with a tense, sweat-drenched poker game, brilliantly constructed by Holt. Martin Scorsese admits he was influenced by this sequence. The story degenerates into melodramatic mind games which will fascinate some viewers and alienate others. Excellent score, and van Eyck is incisive as usual. Holt, an outstanding editor by trade (e.g., Mandy), directed two other above-average thrillers, Taste of Fear and Nowhere to Go. The writers went on to greater fame.

 

Availability: Given mainstream VHS release in 1997, Video Vault and other dealers offer it.

 

BRANDED TO KILL   (1967, Jap - Nikkatsu)          Dir:  Seijun Suzuki

Sc:  several       Cast:  Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari

Ratings: Maltin n/a     Scheuer n/a      Halliwell n/a         Imdb  7.3  (395 votes)       Our Rating    ***½

 

Post-modern film noir and b-movies arguably began with the over-the-top masterpieces of the 50s, Touch of Evil and Kiss Me Deadly, which played with noir conventions as much as participated in them. Godard’s A Bout de Souffle [Breathless] was a watershed, as it was explicitly dedicated to Monogram Studios; his futuristic Alphaville may be the ne-plus-ultra hommage to the style. However, the West has recently discovered Seijun Suzuki, who worked at a legitimate B studio in Japan, churning out incredible genre pieces throughout the 60s. This is his masterpiece, and photographically may be the blackest-on-black noir of all time. Like the equally revisionist Italian spaghetti westerns and giallo thrillers, Suzuki’s films jettison narrative coherence to revel in rapidly-shifting points of view, absurdly stylized violence, posturing protagonists, and lurid eroticism. The most indelible image in this opus is a fleeing nude gangster, on fire, silhouetted against the desolate inky darkness. The assassination stratagems of the hit-man hero are so convoluted that one gasps in disbelief. At one point, he misses his target due to the flitting of a butterfly across his sights. The final showdown in a pitch-black boxing arena surpasses the bizarre, starkly lit interiors of  Franz Planer in The Long Wait. Suzuki similarly played with colour in another existential yakuza piece, Tokyo Drifter. The haunting jazz score is a tremendous counterpoint to the visual mood. Certainly an important predecessor to Ichi the Killer and other current Japanese gore-fests.

 

Availability: Part of the Criterion Collection; readily available. They have also released several other outré films by Suzuki.

 

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