Film Review: Border Incident (1949)

Also known as: Border Patrol, Wetbacks (working titles)
Release Date: October 28th, 1949
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: John C. Higgins, George Zuckerman
Music by: Andre Previn
Cast: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Charles McGraw

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 94 Minutes

Review:

“What is cheaper than time, señor? Everybody has the same amount.” – Zopilote

This isn’t my favorite film-noir by Anthony Mann but it is still a quality film that rivals his other ones.

A very young Ricardo Montalban is the star here, and man, he shines like a supernova and really carries this badass movie on his shoulders.

What’s unique about this, is that it takes place on the Mexican border and was mostly filmed in the wilderness in the desert areas of Southern California and the northern portion of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The location shooting made this majestic and added some gravitas to the already heavy and serious proceedings.

The plot is about a gang that smuggles Mexican farm workers across the border into California. The gang ends up killing the immigrants, which leads to federal investigators going undercover to destroy the gang. With typical noir twists, the agents end up having to fight the gang leader for their own survival.

Montalban and George Murphy were both superb as the agents seeking justice, while Howard Da Silva was a perfect, sinister heavy, out for their blood.

The film is certainly intense and it has a gritty realism to it, even for its time, where many big studio motion pictures had a lot of visual luster and prestige. But Mann was perfect at achieving his vision in a time where his stylistic choices weren’t common.

Border Incident has stupendous cinematography and lighting. Mann was a master of mise-en-scène and this motion picture is just further proof of that. The use of natural lighting was especially impressive in the outdoor scenes. Mann knew how to manufacture doom and gloom, visually.

I really liked this film and I believe that is the last of Mann’s noir pictures for me to review. That’s kind of sad and I put this one off for awhile because of that.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Anthony Mann film-noir pictures: T-Men, Desperate, He Walked by Night, Raw Deal and Side Street.

Film Review: Desperate (1947)

Also known as: Desesperado (Brazil, Spain, Portugal)
Release Date: June 20th, 1947
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Harry Essex, Dorothy Atlas, Anthony Mann
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Steve Brodie, Audrey Long, Raymond Burr, Jason Robards Sr.

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Out of every seven guys who go to the chair, six go yelling, “I’m innocent!”” – Det. Lt. Louie Ferrari

I’ve said it before (a lot more than once) and I’ll say it again (and again), I love Raymond Burr. I especially love him when he plays a slimy, evil bastard. Add in Anthony Mann as director and you’ve got a solid film-noir with real gravitas.

This was put out by RKO Radio Pictures, the real house of noir. This is one of those quickly shot, cheaply shot, B-movie pictures but RKO had a real knack for making these pictures work. And while RKO certainly wasn’t a B-studio, they could still be quick, frugal and turn out quality while pinching pennies.

Steve Brodie and Audrey Long are both kind of lovable in this and it sucks seeing them being pulled into Burr’s evil orbit, turning their lives upside down.

The story sees a truck driver get used to haul some illegal goods. The driver (Brodie), isn’t aware of what’s happening and quickly finds himself in a situation where everything goes wrong and a cop ends up dead. Burr plays a heavy that makes the driver and his wife’s life a living hell. At one point, Burr threatens to mutilate her if Brodie doesn’t play ball with him.

This is dark and desperate, pun intended. It’s a film that really show’s America’s darker underbelly in the post-war years. It’s like the big swampy beast crawled out of the muck and rolled over, exposing that underbelly for all to see.

This has good cinematography and an almost enchanting beauty to its darkness. All of this is of course accented by a nice musical score from Paul Sawtell. The film and it’s atmosphere was like a snake as it slowly slithers along but is always ready to strike with a lot of energy.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Anthony Mann film-noir movies: Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, T-Men and Side Street. For Raymond Burr noir pictures: Please Murder Me!, Pitfall, Crime of Passion, The Blue Gardenia and Red Light.

Film Review: He Walked by Night (1948)

Release Date: November 24th, 1948 (Los Angeles)
Directed by: Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Written by: John C. Higgins, Crane Wilbur
Music by: Leonid Raab
Cast: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb, Whit Bissell

Eagle-Lion FIlms, 79 Minutes

Review:

“And so the tedious quest went on. Sergeant Brennan wore out his shoes and his patience going from police station to police station, checking photos until his eyes were blurry. For police work is not all glamour and excitement and glory. There are days and days of routine, of tedious probing, of tireless searching. Fruitless days. Days when nothing goes right, when it seems as if no one could ever think his way through the maze of baffling trails a criminal leaves. But the answer to that is persistence and the hope that sooner or later something will turn up, some tiny lead that can grow into a warm trail and point to the cracking of a case.” – Narrator

This is a really gritty picture and it has a semidocumentary feel to it. For those who have seen T-Men, you probably can’t help making comparisons between the two. While Alfred L. Werker was billed as the director, this feels an awful lot like Anthony Mann’s T-Men. Strangely enough, he also directed this but wasn’t given credit for it. Honestly, it feels like it is wholly his film.

The film also benefits from the cinematography of John Alton, who worked on several pictures with Mann, most notably, the aforementioned T-Men, as well as his stupendous work in Raw Deal.

Also like T-Men, the story is based off of real life events. In the case of this picture, it is a fictional retelling of the story of Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker, a former cop and war veteran that started a crime spree in Los Angeles that included burglaries, robberies and shootouts. In this film, names have been changed and so have some of the details. The criminal is named Roy and he is most wanted fro being a cop killer.

Richard Basehart was believable as the criminal and he carried this picture on his back. The actors who played the cops were also good and so was the shop owner who had an association with Basehart’s Roy. Basehart just takes over the screen whenever he is present. He’s clever, ruthless and calculated. Basehart conveys these qualities with ease and his presence is like a dark and intimidating cloud over the proceedings, ready to rain down hell.

The action in this film is stupendous and displays more energy than what was the norm in the 1940s. The final chase scene through the Los Angeles sewers is beautiful and draws parallels to the finale of the 1949 film The Third Man. The moment where Roy slides on his belly across the asphalt, escaping into a storm drain is amazing and unlike anything I’ve seen before this picture’s time of release. The moment where the dying cop uses his car to smash into Roy’s, to prevent his escape, is another great action shot unlike anything from this era or before. This is a rather violent film for its time but nothing is really downplayed or understated.

He Walked by Night is one of the best classic film-noir movies ever made. It is short and quick but it doesn’t need to be anything more than what it was. It made its point, gave us something that truly felt real and was unapologetic about it in an era where censors had a tight grip on the film industry.

Rating: 9.75/10

Film Review: Raw Deal (1948)

Release Date: May 26th, 1948
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Leopold Atlas, John C. Higgins, Arnold B. Armstrong, Audrey Ashley
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr

Edward Small Productions, Reliance Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“What do you know about anything? You probably had your bread buttered on both sides since the day you were born. Safe. Safe on first, second, third, and home.” – Joseph Emmett Sullivan

I checked out Raw Deal on TCM’s Noir Alley. However, I’ve known about it for a little while. It was covered and discussed in several books I’ve read about film-noir and every writer that mentioned it gave it a lot of praise. I was glad to see it in the Noir Alley lineup, as I wanted to check it out myself.

The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt. The three find themselves in a love triangle, as the two women are on the lam with O’Keefe’s Joseph. Trevor plays Pat while Hunt plays Ann. Pat helps Sullivan escape prison. However, unbeknownst to her, at the time, he doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. Instead, his heart is with a social worker, Ann. Sullivan escapes in an effort to get revenge on the brutish mobster Rick Coyle (played by Raymond Burr). However, Coyle has his own plans for Sullivan.

Burr’s Coyle is exceptionally brutal, as the film’s heavy. In one scene, he throws a flaming bowl into the face of a woman. The scene was edited to show the flaming bowl flying into the face of the audience from a first-person point-of-view, which was quite savage for a 1940s picture. After seeing this movie, I have a newfound respect for Burr, as he can play an evil mob boss just as well as a nice, do-gooder lawyer.

O’Keefe and Trevor put in good performances but the sweet and innocent Hunt really pulls you in. When she has to commit an unspeakable act, your heart goes out to her, as she’s a good person pulled into a dark web and forced to participate in the proceedings that seem so much larger than her and more barbarous than anything she should have to experience.

The thing that really brings this motion picture to the next level is the cinematography by John Alton. The man did some superb work with this film and it is the best looking film-noir I have seen. I wouldn’t say that it surpasses Citizen Kane, which isn’t really a noir, but it gets close to that level. In fact, it surpasses The Third Man, which I never thought another film from this era could do, as that film is so visually satisfying.

The film has several spectacular looking scenes. The one, for me, that really stands out is when Joseph and Pat are on the ship, about to escape the country, when Pat finally confesses a dark secret. The scene shows a side profile of Pat’s face, close-up, as it is layered over the backdrop of a plain wall and a plain clock. It is how this moment is captured that truly shows the difference between a great cinematographer and an average one. The shadows, the stark contrast, the chiaroscuro effect pushed to the extreme – it creates a real sense of darkness, despair and a small glimmer of hope that Pat will overcome whatever wickedness is in her heart and do the right thing. It is one of the best looking scenes ever shot on celluloid. Not to take anything away from Claire Trevor but this is an example of great cinematography backing up an actor’s performance and making it grander than it would have otherwise been.

There are so many great scenes like the one I just described but that one stood out the most. The film makes great use of fog and environment to enhance the effect of the noir visual style. This is a near masterpiece, overall, but it is a true masterpiece in regards to the cinematography.

Raw Deal isn’t the best film-noir but it could very well be the best looking true noir. It is certainly the best looking out of all the films I have seen in the style. That doesn’t mean that I won’t delve deeper into the noir barrel and eventually pull out something better. But out of the few dozen of these pictures I’ve seen, this one takes the cinematography cake.

Rating: 9.25/10

Film Review: T-Men (1947)

Release Date: December 15th, 1947
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: John C. Higgins, Virginia Kellogg
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Charles McGraw

Edward Small Productions, Bryan Foy Productions, Eagle-Lion Films, 92 Minutes

Review:

“At last they were ready. They met on Belle Isle to quiz each other for the most important examination of their lives. They had to know all the answers. Failure to do so would mean a bad grade later on in the shape of a bullet or an ice pick.” – Narrator

This is the third out of the four Anthony Mann film-noir pictures that I’ve watched in the last month or so. T-Men is the most unique out of Mann’s noir thrillers and it is also the first movie he directed.

This is a pretty fine effort for a directorial debut. It is raw, gritty and its semidocumentary style makes it feel as real as fiction could get in the 1940s. The films sort of just lingers over you, like a brooding storm cloud where suspense builds and is waiting for that perfect moment to strike like lightning.

John Alton handled the cinematography on this film and he has always been noted for having a very strong visual style, especially in regards to noir. He would go on to work with Mann again in Raw Deal, which is one of the most visually stunning film-noir pictures of all-time. Alton took a similar approach in this film but it doesn’t have the extreme chiaroscuro look as Raw Deal. It does dabble in chiaroscuro but I think he wanted this to match up with the semidocumentary vibe and kept things pretty real looking and less fantastical.

Dennis O’Keefe really carried this picture on his back and he did a fine job with it, which is also probably why he continued to work with Anthony Mann. He was also a major part of Raw Deal. And really, without Mann establishing the relationships he did with O’Keefe and Alton, on this film, Raw Deal might not have been the  exceptional film that it turned out to be.

T-Men is not Raw Deal and it doesn’t shine quite as brightly but it still shines.

It follows two men who work for the Treasury Department. They go undercover in Detroit and Los Angeles in an attempt to stop a major counterfeiting ring. The agents infiltrate the gang but one has to stand idly by, as his partner is killed by gang members.

This is a pretty intense film and it has a very serious tone, even compared to other noir movies. It isn’t real but it just feels genuine in ways that other noir pictures don’t.

T-Men is a very good picture and a great directorial debut. It isn’t my favorite film-noir or even my favorite film by Anthony Mann, however, but it definitely deserves to be recognized for being unique and for paving the way for Mann and his great career.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Side Street (1950)

Release Date: March 23rd, 1950
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Sydney Boehm
Music by: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell, James Craig, Jean Hagen, Charles McGraw

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 83 Minutes

Review:

“New York City: an architectural jungle where fabulous wealth and the deepest squalor live side by side. New York is the busiest, the loneliest, the kindest, and the cruelest of cities – a murder a day, every day of the year and each murder will wind up on my desk.” – Captain Walter Anderson

This wasn’t the first time that Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell played a couple. They first worked together in 1948’s They Live by Night, which had a similar plot, as Granger in both of these films, is a fairly decent guy that makes a bad decision that gets him in over his head, while O’Donnell just wants to live a simple life with her man.

In this film, Granger plays Joe Norson. O’Donnell is his wife Ellen. Joe is a father-to-be and he and his wife are struggling financially. Unfortunately, Joe gives in to temptation and steals money from a lawyer’s office. The lawyer and the money has ties to the seedy underground, which puts Joe in a lot of danger, as he is on the run from gangsters and the law.

The film is directed by Anthony Mann. While he would be most remembered for the westerns he directed in the 1950s, his 1940s film-noir pictures were also pretty good. Before this, he directed T-MenRaw Deal and Border Incident. One thing that you get with a Mann picture is a profound understanding and execution of mise en scène. His films, even in the early days, featured breathtaking cinematography. He knew how to capture mood, tone and real grittiness. He was also innovative in shooting action, something that Side Street has a good amount of, especially the car chase during the grand finale of the movie.

Farley Granger is perfect as these sort of kindhearted but foolish noir heroes. And maybe “hero” isn’t the right word, due to his early actions, but his end game is always something virtuous and he puts himself out there in an effort to get justice or to provide for those he loves. He’s not a selfish thug or a morally driven “by the book” sort of guy. Granger seems to like these roles where he is in the middle, where he isn’t innocent but his intentions are noble.

Cathy O’Donnell is always believable and perfect alongside Granger. She isn’t what one would consider film-noir gorgeous, she is just young and pretty and more like the girl next door. She always feels frail and innocent but somehow musters up genuine courage and stands by her man in the worst of situations.

The cast also includes Jean Hagen, who isn’t around long but made a big impact in this. In fact, her performance here, led to being cast in another classic noir, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.

Side Street is a bit underrated, in my opinion, as it offers up some great scenes, great acting and pulls you into this world emotionally. You want to see Joe succeed and to get out of his perilous situation, even if it was his own fault. The film is also magnificently shot and presented. The chase scene through real city streets was definitely a high point and set this film on a different level in regards to how it achieved its dynamic action.

Rating: 8/10