Monday, October 28, 2019

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

Directed by John H Auer (also created as associate producer)

Patrolman John Kelly Jr (Gig Young), a youthful but nonetheless veteran member of the Chicago Police Department, has had enough. Feeling suffocated at home with a loving wife - whose job pays more than his - and a nagging mother-in-law, he is also fed up with the ungrateful, often foolish people he must protect. Given a new, albeit temporary, partner (Chill Wills), Kelly starts his last shift, a night-shift that will be more eventful than he could imagine - or want.

A more interesting film than it starts out being, City That Never Sleeps is the only one I know that is narrated by Chicago (the city, not the music group). That, and the circumstances of Kelly’s new partner, are a bit odd, but the rest of the movie is down to earth and, though overly dramatic at times, entertaining.

Young is the centre of the story, not in every scene but the figure that connects all the others. His character is well-written: though he complains and ridicules the residents of the city, he reveals his true feelings in his actions, subtly, as when he complains that a colleague isn’t holding an infant - whom Kelly just helped birth in a vacant lot - in the correct way, or when he arrests a con-man whose habits he knows very well. The viewer is given a real sense that Kelly has patrolled the district for a long time and is very familiar with its occupants and topography.

Also giving a good performance is Wills, as Kelly’s new partner, someone who nowadays would be called ‘laid-back’, insightful but easy-going. Edward Arnold creates a character who, while clearly criminal is some ways, is also rather sympathetic, even likeable. He had a history of filling such roles. The minor actors who play the other policemen are very natural in their parts. Tom Poston, credited here as “Thomas” Poston, has a small role as a detective.

The script is good, and interesting, giving a picture of police work in a major American city of the early 1950s. Along with the shockingly slack procedures (at least to modern sensibilities), there is much to learn incidentally. (Several policemen call someone a ‘hood’ but pronounce it with a long “oo” sound, to rhyme with food.) The writing ties everything up satisfactorily at the end.

An involving story - with a rare focus on a uniformed patrolman performing his routine duties, rather than the usual plainclothes detective - and capable performances make City That Never Sleeps an above average addition to the category of crime movies worth watching.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Whispering Smith (1948)

Directed by Leslie Fenton; produced by Mel Epstein (associate producer)

Luke Smith (Alan Ladd), the Nebraska and Pacific Railroad’s champion investigator, is on the trail of a trio of murderous brothers. Quiet and diffident - hence his nickname - Smith’s inquiries lead him to a conspiracy of train wreckers, and he fears his old friend (Robert Preston) may be involved. It will take more than one shoot-out to rid the railroad of the villains Smith finds at work.

If there is one actor who fit the role of someone nicknamed ‘Whispering’, it’s Alan Ladd. The character is noted for his low and quiet manner of speech, and his diffidence; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film in which Ladd raised his voice, and his manner was always self-effacing, despite the fact that his handsome looks made him stand out. He does a good job here, though the performance is not exceptional.

The same may be said for most of the actors, all of whom give competent performances. One I found rather annoying was the female lead (Brenda Marshall); her character is at one point called ‘mopey’, which is a good description of her. True, her circumstances are rather disheartening, but they are not enhanced by the gloomy characterisation.

The story was initially interesting. Despite how large the railway loomed in the settlement of the American west - and here in Canada, it was one of the principal elements of unification - there have not been too many westerns that revolved around trains and their technical aspects. The first half of Whispering Smith deals centres on the railway, its management and the handling of wrecks. The salvaging scene is especially involving. But then, that aspect of the film is left behind; it’s true that the second half is about a gang of saboteurs, but it’s little different than many other stories featuring a lawman after an outlaw gang.

Another feature of the first half is the potential of a particularly wicked, squint-eyed villain (Frank Faylen, very different from his role as Ernie the taxi-driver in It’s a Wonderful Life). I expected an exciting duel of some sort between him and Ladd, but it never materialized, and Faylen’s conclusion is almost anti-climactic.

Though in attractive and relatively early colour, Whispering Smith does not take sustained advantage of its better elements and, though from 1948, has more in common with some of Ladd’s lesser efforts from the next decade.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Runaround (1946)

Directed by Charles Lamont; produced by Joseph Gershenson

The Continental Detective Agency’s star investigator, Eddie Kildane (Rod Cameron), has had enough of his thoughtless, heartless, dictatorial chief, Prentiss (Broderick Crawford), so he and partner, Wally Quayle (Frank McHugh) quit and establish their own business. Clients are hard to come by when you’re starting out, though, so they steal one from their old boss. The assignment: find the client’s run-away daughter. It won’t be easy, with the woman in question (Ella Raines) doing her best to evade capture, and a rival trying to steal his case back.

The enjoyable aspect of how I choose movies to watch - usually based on a one- or two-sentence synopsis of the plot and a few viewer reviews – is that I sometimes find rarely-seen gems, small-scale epics or under-rated entertainments, such as The Runaround. The plot is more than a little reminiscent of It Happened One Night, with a determined man trying to deliver an escaped daughter to her parents. But The Runaround stands well on its own merits, one of the chief advantages being the sub-plot (or, rather, co-plot) of Broderick constantly on Cameron’s trail, one step behind here, one step ahead there. This is while Cameron has his hands full with Raines’s attempts to elude him.

The dialogue is good, though the script is better when it comes to action, both in terms of dramatic action and of physical movement. Cameron’s character is quick-witted and clever, with a hundred tricks up his sleeve: stealing cars, framing competitors, planting decoys and get-aways in the night are all part of the story. The protagonist can also handle himself in a fist-fight, of which there are several, though he is no super-hero; he takes more than one beating.

Rod Cameron had to have been one of the busiest actors in the 1940s and ‘50s (eleven movies released in 1941; five in 1955, while also filming a television series). A Canadian (born just two hours away from where I live), he has a casual and easy manner about him in The Runaround, and he and Raines have an excellent chemistry. Raines herself manages comedy and light drama well. McHugh was often a film’s comic relief, usually of the clownish or broad type. Here, his character provides the common sense against Cameron’s adventurous, though not reckless, impetuosity.

Like It Happened One Night, filmed twelve years previously, The Runaround provides a series of vignettes of the United States of the time, with uniformed moving-men, roadside hamburger stalls and airports where security didn’t need to be considered. Though these elements were hardly included as a conscious acknowledgement of future nostalgia, they are entertaining nonetheless. Added to the cast, the writing and the acting, The Runaround is a movie worth seeing.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

Directed by Jean Negulesco; produced by Henry Blanke

While on holiday in Istanbul, a writer (Peter Lorre) learns from a Turkish police chief (Kurt Katch) about the death of a master criminal (Zachary Scott). Intrigued, the author researches the villain’s life, meeting a variety of his acquaintances, some who were allies but all, due to the treacherous nature of the man, ultimately his victims. As the exploration deepens, however, the danger the criminal poses becomes more and more real, no matter that his body has now been buried.

Based on an Eric Ambler novel, The Mask of Dimitrios is less a drama or mystery than a study of one man’s villainy, and its effect on his associates. Disguised as a thriller, the movie is nonetheless compelling, for a number of reasons. The story, despite not having much of a plot, is interesting, telling how Dimitrios moved from place to place, crime to crime. Uninterested in building an empire or organisation, ready to betray or use anyone, he makes evil look effortless. A weakness is that Dimitrios’s motivation is never divulged, or even discussed; it was perhaps better understood in the 1940s that malice is simply natural in some people.

A benefit, especially for an history fan such as myself, is the use of real countries and situations. Often, fictional countries will be substituted for genuine nations or, worse, unnamed locations will be used. This was especially prevalent in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the Soviet Union was meant but disguised as an ‘eastern power’ or ‘our strong neighbour’. In The Mask of Dimitrios, an assassination is planned in Bulgaria, tensions are mentioned between Yugoslavia and Italy over the Adriatic Sea; these citations lend verisimilitude that cannot be synthesised.

The acting is very good, very natural. Though Sydney Greenstreet is given top billing for his memorable performance as a vengeful but charming smuggler, Peter Lorre is the lead, and does very well. He is an ordinary man, curious, timid but, despite his fascination with Dimitrios, possessed of strong morals. A scene when, overcome by righteous indignation, he physically attacks a villain, is credible, despite Lorre’s unprepossessing stature.

Scott is also good as the criminal though, as mentioned above, the origins of his evil are never known. Scott is appropriately smooth and companionable when it suits him, contemptuous of life and reputation at other times; very believable. Smaller roles are filled with competent performers; for instance, Faye Emerson, as a former girlfriend of Scott’s, and Katch, as the ruthless but dedicated Turk. (His character, Colonel Haki, appears, played by Orson Welles, in another adaptation of an Ambler book, Journey into Fear, released the year before The Mask of Dimitrios.)

If the viewer is seeking an intricate storyline, a mystery scattered with clues, or an action film, The Mask of Dimitrios will not satisfy. But as a character study, a believable slice of inter-war intrigue and crime, the movie is highly recommended.