Sunday, April 21, 2024

Outside the Wall (1950)

Directed by Crane Wilbur; produced by Aaron Rosenberg

After 15 years as a convict, Larry Nelson (Richard Basehart) has been pardoned. All he knows about life outside his prison’s walls is what other inmates have told him. He finds knowing who to trust, how to behave and where to go, puzzling and unnerving, though his intelligence and instincts guide him. But when it comes to criminals trying to involve him in their desperate schemes, Nelson may not have as many options.

Outside the Wall features another very good performance by Basehart, a solid leading man from the late 1940s and ‘50s. The writing and direction are not quite up to his level but nonetheless contribute to an entertaining and thoughtful movie.

The concept is interesting. Nelson, in and out of reform schools as a boy, was convicted of manslaughter at fourteen: defending himself against an abusive guard, he accidentally killed the man. Transferred to an adult prison, he seems to have grown into an easy-going, model prisoner, well-liked by the other inmates as well as by the guards and the warden. This is reflected in his character once released: he is adequately friendly but aloof, unwilling to make trouble but ready to fight back if necessary.

Such a character takes both good acting and persuasive writing. Very telling is the contrast between the uneasy manner in which Nelson behaves among the ordinary citizens of the outside world, and the way he acts when confronted by crooks or former prisoners. Meeting an acquaintance from prison (now escaped and running from the law), Nelson immediately becomes self-assured and strong; with this sort, he knows exactly what’s up.

The story initially features Nelson’s apprehensive and conflicting involvement in the world at large, but then shifts into a more routine crime story. This isn’t a bad change, and the tale that follows it has both satisfying action and suspense. Even so, the story is less interesting than the script itself. There are one or two unexplained aspects that are not very important to the movie, such as why Nelson is pardoned, rather than paroled.

The direction is admirably subtle at times. There is an amusing scene when Nelson obtains a job at a sanitarium; room and board are included. He paces across his new bedroom and then smiles. Nothing refers to that sequence again, but one can guess that his new quarters are about the size of a jail-cell. At another moment, he stumbles upon a robbery, and notes how he’s met would-be crooks like these before, and how they are always scared; he is meanwhile hugging himself, scared on his own account, yet ready for a fight.

Outside the Wall is weighed down a little by a fairly average crime-plot in its later two thirds but Basehart carries the film, assisted admirably by good directing, decent writing, and capable supporting players (On that subject, Joe Besser, one of the later Three Stooges, plays a cook.)

Sunday, April 14, 2024

No Name on the Bullet (1959)

Directed by Jack Arnold; produced by Jack Arnold and Howard Christie

The residents of a prosperous western town are startled by the arrival of John Gant (Audie Murphy). Gant is a hired killer who shoots down men for the money paid to him by his victims’ enemies. Refusing to fight won’t save a man, as Gant has a knack of galling a victim into drawing a weapon first, then successfully claiming self-defence. Now, everyone is wondering for whom Gant has come, and who hired him. Soon, the townspeople find that their worst enemy isn’t Gant, it’s their own guilty consciences.

Probably the best of Murphy’s movies, No Name on the Bullet is as much a psychological drama with a western setting as a straight western. There is gun-play, but the real action is in the attitudes of the supporting characters.

Gant is like the Angel of Death; no one knows whom he will touch, and everyone starts searching their past, trying to determine who would want them dead. Those with clean consciences, such as the local doctor and his father, the blacksmith (played by Charles Drake and R.G. Armstrong, respectively, even though they were the same age) are worried only about the effects of Gant on the town.

Though the identity of Gant’s next victim will probably be no mystery to many viewers, there is nonetheless tension throughout the movie, as the townsfolk look askance at each other, and the doctor tries to talk Gant out of his mission and simultaneously to understand the young killer. The writing is very good in this respect, but also in terms of individual scenes.

There is a strong philosophical flavour to the dialogue, whether indirectly, in what the townspeople argue about, or directly, in the conversations between the doctor and Gant. There is a scene in which the two of them play chess, an intriguing variation of the scene between the knight and Death in The Seventh Seal, released two years before.

The acting is very good as well, especially on the part of Murphy, who plays a very restrained character, unnaturally calm, someone who knows well how people will act and react, perhaps because he has seen so many in extremis. He knows that he can defeat or face down any individual, and knows that a mob, threatened as individuals, won’t have the courage to do anything. He is also a content man, having no remorse for what he does, whether because he is truly amoral or because he is truly moral - though his morals would not be shared by the majority.

The direction is good, as well. Arnold is known more these days for his work in the science fiction genre (eg. The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man) of the 1950s, though he eventually went to work almost exclusively in television. It is less the pace or blocking of scenes that provides the tension as the mannerisms and attitudes of the characters, more typical of psychological films than westerns.

No Name on the Bullet is a western that viewers who don’t care for westerns might like, a thoughtful examination of what impending death - or, rather, impending punishment - does to people, and whether or not they deserve what results.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Two O'Clock Courage (1945)

Directed by Anthony Mann; produced by Ben Stoloff

A man (Tom Conway) stumbles through a foggy night and is nearly struck by a cab driven by Patty Mitchell (Ann Rutherford). Unable to recall his name, anything about himself, or recent events, the amnesiac begins to suspect that he is involved in a murder. With Patty’s help, he wends his way through crime scenes, night-clubs and hotel rooms, coming closer to the truth with each hour - and coming closer to being the next murder victim, as well.

Tom Conway, George Sanders’s look-a-like brother, did not achieve the stardom that came to his sibling, though Sanders - except for his role in the Falcon movie series - was usually seen as secondary characters, and villains at that. Conway, at least, thanks perhaps to his more approachable persona, played more protagonists - including taking over as the Falcon from his brother. Such parts, however, were usually found in B-movies, of which Two O’Clock Courage is an example. And while b-movie it may be, it nonetheless falls into the higher end of the spectrum.

This is largely because of the performances and the direction. The latter is in the very capable hands of Anthony Mann, who would go on to make his name in film noir and, especially, westerns. Here, though, he guides the movie through a number of good scenes, nothing spectacular, but most interesting, and keeps the pace moving at a good clip.

The script is not first-rate, but it suits the movie well enough. There are no great revelations when the amnesia victim remembers who he is and what he went through, and the amnesia itself is induced and cured in the crude manner of blows to the head. B-movies tend to view loss of memory as determined almost by a switch that can be turned off and on. This issue aside, there are a number of plot-holes (eg. why was Conway’s character wearing a hat with someone else’s initials in it?) The police investigation is the standard sloppy procedure of b-movies, in which scene-of-crime investigation and expertise is nil.

On the other hand, the writing creates a milieu of high-class night-clubs, the theatre and their various denizens, into which a character played naturally by Conway fits very well. The actor’s Oxford English and seemingly inherent sophistication would not have been served by every setting, so this one’s choice is successful. Also, there are a number of good lines, such as when someone apologises to Conway’s amnesiac for a past insult, to which Conway good naturedly replies, “Forget it. I have.”

Conway’s character and Rutherford’s, despite coming from different social strata, work well together, thanks to the stars. Richard Lane, as a persistent reporter, is annoying, but then, he’s meant to be. Jane Greer (billed as “Bettejane Greer”) has her first credited role, a not insubstantial one.

Two O’Clock Courage is a good, small-budgeted, short (68 minutes) film, a lean mystery with few surprises but advantages that make it worth viewing.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; produced by Warren Duff

On a train to New York, Dr Hunt Bailey (George Brent) meets Clarissa Bedereaux (Olive Blakeney), a mature lady who tells him of her family, hinting at certain fears she had about going home. By chance, he hears the next day that Clarissa had died the previous evening, due to a bad heart - which her doctor, so she had claimed on the train, said she did not have. This begins Bailey’s involvement with Nick and Allida Bedereaux (Paul Lukas and Hedy Lamarr), their strained relationship, and the air of danger that pervades their palatial townhouse.

Viewers of this film may note similarities in the premise and plot with the better known Gaslight, the second film version of which was released in the same year as Experiment Perilous. In both motion pictures, an outsider is acquainted with a couple the woman of which believes there is something wrong, perhaps sinister, with her husband. Experiment Perilous is less ominous in its atmosphere, and has more of the feel of a mystery, rather than a psychological drama. But on its own merits, it is rather less than it could have been.

The acting is good on the part of Brent and Lukas, the latter especially filling his rôle well. Lamar is not up to her co-stars’ standards. It is not a bad performance, just an ordinary one, though, considering her prominence, it is noticeable. Supporting players, such as Albert Dekker and Stephanie Bachelor, do well.

The principal fault, however, lies with the plot. It is an instance of the villain inflicting a disadvantage on himself by involving someone who would not otherwise become a part of the situation. It may be supposed that the reason Bailey is asked to watch Allida Bedereaux’s behaviour is to lend credence to the growing belief that she is losing her mind. But to involve a doctor, someone who has studied genuine cases of derangement, to watch a woman who is not actually going crazy is not going to help anyone’s nefarious scheme.

As well, the villain appears to have murdered at least two other people. Why, then, he chooses the slower and much less certain method of trying to drive a person insane is inexplicable. The motive for such an action may be assumed, but it is not made clear. The climax makes it obvious, though, that the villain would resort to violence eventually.

There are incongruities that have nothing really to do with the plot, but which raise distracting questions. For instance, the Bedereaux family, despite their French name, were long-established in Austria, having an estate near Vienna. This was, it’s possible, to explain Lukas’s recognisable (though easily understood) accent - but the actor himself was Hungarian. Blakeney plays Nick Bedereaux’s sister, also raised on the estate in Austria, yet she has no European accent. Ironically, Lamar, who was Austrian, portrays a woman raised in rural New England, and can’t shed her slight Germanic speech. Her character’s given name, Allida, hardly the usual name for an American farm-girl. I don’t know how much of this originated in the novel from which the producer/screenwriter adapted the script, but it could have been solved by a few judicious and harmless changes.

The story is set in 1903, yet the fashions, for both men and women, appear more true to the 1870s. The Edwardian era, whether in Britain or the United States, produced quite a different style of clothes. Those worn by the actors may have been what the studio had in its wardrobes, and did not want to waste.

While the inconsistencies in plot and background are considerable, Experiment Perilous is still a marginally watchable feature, thanks largely to the two male leads. There is good direction, also. It is, however, a movie that should not be questioned too much for one’s enjoyment.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Elevator to the Gallows (a.k.a. Ascenseur pour l'échafaud) (1958)

Directed by Louis Malle; produced by Jean Thuillier

Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) and Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) have plotted to kill the latter’s husband, a wealthy, amoral industrialist. However, when Julien carries out the deed, murdering the victim in his office, he becomes trapped in the building’s elevator when the security guard shuts down the power and goes home. This is just the start of the couple’s problems, though, as Florence thinks her lover has abandoned her, Julien’s car is stolen, and more murders are committed. Conspirators should realise that, worse than the police or their consciences, random chance is their deadliest enemy.

Neither a mystery nor a detective story, Elevator to the Gallows is a crime-movie, fairly straightforward, despite the complications the plot throws at the characters and the audience. Indeed, the film, stripped of its trappings, is a basic story of a plot gone awry. It is nonetheless a decent tale, competently told, and may provide a moderately entertaining evening for that alone.

What sets Elevator to the Gallows apart from many other films in its genre is the style of the movie, especially its direction. This was the first feature film from Malle, who would go on to direct a wide variety of motion pictures, French and American, and whose body of work included greatly different subjects and settings. He makes his mark here, especially in the use of lighting and make-up. His manner of presenting leading lady Moreau is cinematically revolutionary.

Also of note is the music-score, dominated by the lone trumpet of Miles Davis. While the work done with Moreau is probably of greater interest to film-makers and students of film history, the music has more of an effect on the viewer, as it creates, right from the start, a feeling of loneliness, even of desperation, later depicted by Florence’s random wanderings through Paris.

The acting is good, though quiet, though the sub-plot featuring a pair of young criminals, necessary to the main story-line even as it is, is distracting and the characters annoying. The narrative’s resolution is adequately satisfying from a dramatic point of view, but would, I think, leave film noir aficionados a little unfulfilled.

I believe that what the director (who co-wrote the screenplay) and producer wanted was to create a movie of atmosphere, more than of story. The acting, the dialogue, the music, all go to make a feeling, much more than a compelling or involving story. In this, Malle and company do what they set out to do. But I believe that Elevator to the Gallows would succeed in generating more discussion of its art than in creating an enjoyable night at the movies.

(A note on the title. The original French title of the film is Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, literally ’Elevator for the Scaffold’. A gallows is associated with hanging, a form of capital punishment not used in France in 1958. A scaffold is, among other things, the raised platform on which a guillotine is set, that instrument being the means of execution in France at the time. The British title of the film, Lift to the Scaffold, is therefore more accurate. In the U.S., the debate was circumvented by calling the movie Frantic.)

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Grand Central Murder (1942)

Directed by S Sylvan Simon; produced by B F Zeidman

A number of people have reason to want Broadway star Mida King (Patricia Dane) dead, and when she is found that way in her private railway carriage, Inspector Gunther (Sam Levene) has his hands full. They start to overflow, however, when high-class - and successful - private investigator ‘Rocky’ Custer (Van Heflin) shows up with his assistant ‘Butch’ (Virginia Grey), who is also his wife. Implicated in what appears to be a murder, Custer has to find the real culprit or possibly end up in jail.

Perhaps another attempt to start a series in the vein of The Thin Man movies, Grand Central Murder benefits from the performances of Heflin and Levene, but not much else.

Van Heflin was a highly capable actor, as good in lead roles - though these were usually restricted to B movies – as in supporting parts in bigger pictures. He has a natural air about him and uses it to good effect in Grand Central Murder, in which he has occasion to be witty, funny, angry and annoyed by turns. He has a good rapport with Levene.

Levene also had a varied career in movies, but had a more successful time on the stage. Here, he is the stereotypical harried detective, irritated by suspects, especially the know-it-all private investigator. He does what he can with what he is given.

Interestingly, the cast includes a number of actors who would become prominent in smaller lead or bigger character roles, including Tom Conway, who stepped into his brother’s former rôle in the Falcon film series immediately after Grand Central Murder; Millard Mitchell; Roman Bohnen, and Stephen McNally, billed as ‘Horace’ McNally.

The script is adequate but unrealistic. Gunther keeps all his suspects together - despite Custer pointing out the logic of questioning them separately - and moves them en masse from one location to another. There is, of course, no logical forensic reason for this, but is meant to keep the story, which comprises mainly the interrogation of the various characters, from becoming static. Attempts at humour are only moderately amusing, though Gunther’s never-ending thirst for cherry cola leads to a few good moments.

The actual mystery is not very clever, and in the path to its solution, the script does not play fair with the audience, declining to give them all the clues Custer finds. As well, the revelation of the method of death doesn’t come as an exciting moment; it’s almost as if that element of the story has become insignificant amid the squabbling and chatter of all the characters.

Grand Central Murder never really had much of a chance with the poor script, bland story-line and pedestrian direction. It would have paid an audience dividends to see Heflin and Levene together in a quality light-hearted crime flick - but this isn’t it.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Vanishing Point (1971)

Directed by Richard C Sarafian; produced by Norman Spencer

Arriving in Denver on a Friday, car-delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) immediately takes up his new assignment, despite the fact that he obviously needs rest. And, though the Dodge Challenger he is taking to San Francisco needs to be there no earlier than Monday, he determines to get it there by Sunday afternoon. This necessitates breaking speed limits, being chased by police and restricting his sleep, being fuelled only by gasoline, Benzedrine and a relentless craving for velocity.

The synopsis makes Vanishing Point sound like a forerunner of Smokey and the Bandit and all the other simple-minded, immature chase films of the 1970s. In fact, it is quite different. Vanishing Point is hard to categorise. Some have called it pointless, others thought it is an existential essay. I consider it the story of a self-destructive man who lives only for the thrill of speed. And I found it compelling.

Newman came to prominence in 1970’s The Lawyer, a courtroom drama based on the Sam Sheppard case. His character in the movie was used in the later television series Petrocelli. After this, Newman was found mainly in supporting rôles, though they were often strong, such as that in the recently-reviewed The Limey. In Vanishing Point, he is required to act minimally, though not ineffectively. That he was a lesser known actor helps in his interpretation of Kowalski, a man who gives away nothing about himself. Gene Hackman was originally envisioned for the part, and this would have altered the presentation of the character, and thus of the movie, considerably.

The other actors are an interesting lot. Veteran Dean Jagger appears as an old man collecting snakes in the desert. Anthony James, Robert Donner and John Amos have small parts, while Cleavon Little has a major contribution as Super Soul, a disc-jockey who becomes Kowalski’s spiritual supporter. Charlotte Rampling appears as a woman seemingly waiting for Kowalski by the side of the road. Severn Darden, one of the founders of the Second City comedy troupe, portrays a cultish clergyman, with Rita Coolidge as one of the singers in his congregation and David Gates (of the group Bread) as a pianist. As may be seen, the cast is most eclectic, and all fulfill their parts well. (Kim Carnes sings a song at the film’s end, and wrote one of the many tunes on the soundtrack.)

The direction by Sarafian is surprisingly ordinary. One might think, given the subject and the context, that more imagination might be shown. Yet, in this case, it is as well that it is not. Though there are strange aspects to the film, which involves the counter-culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the story itself is grounded in a hard reality, the solidity of asphalt and dirt roads.

The writing is the most enigmatic element of the movie, as it makes the atmosphere that some find pointless and others meaningful. At no time is Kowalski’s motive for driving to San Francisco at such speeds given, though the brief flashbacks in the narrative, showing the crashes he was involved in during his professional racing career, give clues. Also shown are his relationships with women, including one – also apparently self-destructive – whose death clearly affected Kowalski deeply. Several of the women look alike.

Kowalski is written as a decent man. His short stint as a policeman ended when he forcefully stopped a colleague from molesting a girl. When his speeding causes crashes, he stops to determine if the other drivers are hurt. He appears to want nothing more than to be left alone to go as swiftly as possible; his personality might be summed up in Super Soul’s claim that to Kowalski ‘speed means freedom…’. Certainly he cares little at this point about his job: the damage he inadvertently inflicts on his car would surely get him fired.

Super Soul’s interaction with the protagonist is an interesting one. He provides a narration for Kowalski’s journey, encouraging him and telling him where police are waiting for him. Yet the two also seem to be able to communicate through the radio, and the moment Kowalski no longer listens to the dj is pivotal. Their relationship is another aspect that seems otherworldly.

These rather surreal features – the quest for speed, the isolated world Kowalski lives in, the ethereal voice of the radio, Rampling’s part – are ingredients of the counter-culture that Vanishing Point appears to embrace. Hippies, drugs, free love are seen as good, and authority – in the form of the police – as bad. Yet, I viewed this as window-dressing; it was the world through which Kowalski moved but did not join. And the self-nihilism he exhibits speaks for itself.

While it may be dismissed as self-important and pretentious, I think Vanishing Point is more than that. A depiction of a loner whose personality and goals are violently self-effacing, but only when they are expressed in the context of the real world – and how could they be expressed otherwise? – Vanishing Point is best viewed without asking too many questions at the time, and then thought about later.