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: His Kind of Woman (1951)

Also known as: Smiler with a Gun (working title)
Release Date: August 15th, 1951 (Philadelphia premiere)
Directed by: John Farrow, Richard Fleischer
Written by: Frank Fenton, Jack Leonard, Gerald Drayson Adams
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price, Tim Holt, Charles McGraw, Marjorie Reynolds, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus, Philip Van Zandt, Mamie Van Doren (uncredited)

A John Farrow Production, RKO Radio Pictures, 120 Minutes

Review:

“This place is dangerous. The time right deadly. The drinks are on me, my bucko!” – Mark Cardigan

This has been in my queue for awhile, as I’ve spent a significant amount of time watching and reviewing just about every film-noir picture under the sun. It didn’t have a great rating on most of the websites I checked but it looked to be better than average.

Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know what the hell most people were thinking. This film is absolutely great! I loved it but I also have a strong bias towards Robert Mitchum, Vincent Price, Raymond Burr and Charles McGraw. I also love Jane Russell, even if she didn’t star in films within the genres I watch the most.

His Kind of Woman is a stupendous motion picture and it really took me by surprise.

This is just a whole lot of fun, the cast is incredible and bias aside, I thought that Vincent Price really stole every single scene that he was in. I’ve seen Price in nearly everything he’s ever done and this might be the one role, outside of horror, that I enjoy most. He starts out as a bit of a Hollywood dandy, shows how eccentric he is as the film rolls on and then shows us that in spite of all that, he’s a friggin’ badass, ready to go out in a blaze of glory just to save the day.

I also love that this is set at a resort in Mexico, as it has a good tropical and nautical feel, which should make Tikiphiles happy. But really, the picture has great style in every regard.

I love the sets, I love the cinematography, the superb lighting and how things were shot. There are some key scenes shot at interesting and obscure angles that give the film a different sort of life than just capturing these fantastic performances in a more straightforward manner. One scene in particular shows Mitchum talking to a heavy and it’s shot from a low angle with shadows projected onto a very low ceiling. It sort of makes you understand that something potentially dreadful is closing in on Mitchum.

Out of all the film-noir pictures I’ve watched over the last year or so, this is definitely one that I will revisit on a semi regular basis.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures starring Robert Mitchum, Vincent Price, Raymond Burr or Charles McGraw.

Film Review: The Threat (1949)

Also known as: Terror
Release Date: December 1st, 1949
Directed by: Felix E. Feist
Written by: Dick Irving Hyland, Hugh King
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Michael O’Shea, Virginia Grey, Charles McGraw

RKO Radio Pictures, 66 Minutes

Review:

“Remember, I have to live with my conscience.” – Detective Ray Williams

The Threat isn’t a well known film-noir but anything made by RKO in the noir style is always worth a look.

It’s a quick 66 minute film that moves at a rapid pace and is fairly high octane for the era. It really doesn’t relent, due to it’s scant running time and it felt like it was over in the blink of an eye.

The story is about a homicidal maniac who breaks out of prison and starts kidnapping those he deemed responsible for his imprisonment: a cop, a district attorney and a nightclub singer who is believed to be the rat.

The film has a lot of angles and the narrative plays out nicely even if it felt somewhat underwhelming by the end.

As far as the production, it is fairly pedestrian. The acting, directing and cinematography are all pretty average. And even though the setup was really good and got me hooked, that first act of the film is really the high point.

Now I did enjoy Paul Sawtell’s score. But he always provided good music for the films he worked on.

The Threat isn’t very memorable but it isn’t a bad way to spend 66 minutes.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: any crime thriller film-noir from RKO that feels more like a B-movie than a big studio production. That’s not a diss, as some of these films are great.

Trailer located here, as it’s only available on TCM and I can’t embed those videos here. You should fix that, TCM.

Film Review: The Gangster (1947)

Also known as: Low Company (reissue title)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Gordon Wiles
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Music by: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Shelley Winters

King Brothers Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“Your wife called. What should I tell her?” – Shorty, “Tell her I dropped dead.” – Nick Jammey

The Gangster came out at a time when Hollywood was over gangster pictures. Even though it defied the big studio trends and was also put out by a studio on Poverty Row, it was still a pretty solid success and very much taps into the film-noir style.

What’s most interesting about this film is it’s production value. King Brothers didn’t believe in building expensive or elaborate sets. They also didn’t want to waste money on location shoots. Almost everything was built with light wood and cardboard on the cheap. This gives the film an otherworldly look though. It feels more like a dream sequence or a stage show production with confined sets. It’s sort of magical in this way and even with these frugal tactics, it still looks good.

One thing I like is that there is a high chiaoscuro style in a lot of scenes due to how walls and ceilings were painted. There are multiple shots of a black and white checkered or striped background, which make the actors pop off the screen in the foreground. The use of lighting is fantastic and the high contrast look with heavy shadows protects the look of the set, keeping imperfections in the dark.

For a Poverty Row production, this also has some good acting. Not only that but it has small roles for a lot of notable stars. Shelley Winters, Elisha Cook Jr., John Ireland, Charles McGraw and Akim Tamiroff all show up in some form. There are other familiar faces, as well.

The Gangster is a film that wasn’t on my radar until now, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. I was glad to see it and it’s a film that I will have to slide somewhere into my Top 100 Film-Noir list.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: DesperateScene of the Crime and White Heat.

Film Review: Roadblock (1951)

Also known as: Walk a Crooked Mile (working title)
Release Date: September 17th, 1951
Directed by: Harold Daniels
Written by: George Bricker, Steve Fisher, Richard H. Landau, Daniel Mainwaring
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Charles McGraw, Joan Dixon

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“You’re a nice guy, Honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” – Diane

Roadblock stars Charles McGraw and was put out by RKO but it doesn’t seem to be a well known film-noir picture. I discovered it by seeing it featured on TCM’s Noir Alley. Even though I’ve become a fan of McGraw’s work, it’s nice to see something I wasn’t familiar with.

The film also stars Joan Dixon and she is quite the femme fatale. I really liked her in this and I wish she would’ve been in more of these films and grown into a more prolific actress. I don’t know, she was pretty effective at luring me in, as well as McGraw, who is usually a heroic character but falls into the dark depths because of the sultry and seedy touch of Dixon.

The plot involves an insurance scam so it’s impossible to see this picture and not immediately think about Double Indemnity, which did insurance scams first and much better. However, that film really is a classic and it is hard to compete with it. At least this doesn’t try to copy it and tells its own fairly unique tale.

Here, McGraw’s Joe Peters is an insurance investigator that wants to win over Dixon’s Diane. They crossed paths while traveling and Peters discovered that she was into the finer things in life. Not being able to afford the type of lifestyle Diane is attracted to, Peters uses his knowledge about a $1.25 million dollar cash shipment to do some dirt in an effort to give Diane the life she desires.

What’s strange about this film-noir for its time, is that the femme fatale starts to come around when she realizes that she loves Peters more than money. By that point, it is too late. But when all is said and done, Diane walks away from the chaos unscathed. Sure, Peters gets his just desserts but Diane can go on living her life, albeit with a broken heart. Back in the days of classic film-noir, a character like Diane couldn’t go unpunished. But here, she does – defying the Hollywood censors and codes of the era.

Apart from that, there isn’t much here that is all that special or noteworthy. It’s a good movie but far from a great one and there are probably fifty classic noirs I’d put before this one but I enjoyed it, nonetheless.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: Some other lesser known noir movies: The Man Who Cheated Himself, Jealousy, The Underworld Story, The Accused, I Wake Up Screaming and The Threat.

Film Review: Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Also known as: Code 3, Code 3-A (working titles), Criminal Brigade (Portugal)
Release Date: June 8th, 1950
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Gerald Drayson Adams, Earl Felton, Robert Leeds, Robert Angus
Music by: Roy Webb, Paul Sawtell
Cast: Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens, William Talman

RKO Radio Pictures, 67 Minutes

Review:

“You should see her workin’ clothes. Imagine a dish like this married to a mug like Benny McBride… the naked and the dead.” – Ryan

Richard Fleischer would go on to have a heck of a career. However, he first rose to prominence in the late ’40s and early ’50s when he turned his attention towards directing a string of film-noir pictures.

Armored Car Robbery is just one of four really solid noirs that Fleischer did. The other three being The Clay Pigeon, His Kind of Woman (he was uncredited for this one) and The Narrow Margin. I’ve reviewed all of these except for His Kind of Woman but I plan to revisit it soon.

This film teams up two classic noir heavyweights: Charles McGraw and William Talman. It also features Adele Jergens, who isn’t the most alluring femme fatale in noir history but still has a very strong presence and a certain beauty that seems more authentic and real than just some insanely beautiful dame slithering around her prey.

The plot sees a criminal named Purvis (Talman) recruit Benny to help him rob an armored car at Wrigley Field (the old Los Angeles one, not the famous Chicago one). Benny’s wife has been two-timing him and the man she has been sleeping with is Purvis, although Benny doesn’t know this at the time. The robbery goes sideways due to a passing police patrol. A cop is murdered in the getaway and the criminals escape. The dead cop’s partner, Lt. Jim Cordell (McGraw), makes it his personal mission to bring these criminals to justice. With all the pressure, the criminals become paranoid and things start to fall apart.

Armored Car Robbery is very typical of the RKO visual style in regards to their crime pictures. It feels like a gritty and edgy RKO picture, which for fans of classic film-noir, should be a very strong positive.

One problem with the film is that there was a better armored truck robbery a year earlier called Criss Cross. The stories themselves are different but it is hard to not review this film without citing the earlier one. That one was a Robert Siodmak picture and starred Burt Lancaster and Dan Duryea. While that film shouldn’t take anything away from this one, if you’ve seen Criss Cross first, this movie can’t help but feel a bit derivative.

The things that make this film work though are the talented cast, the direction of Fleischer and the crisp, high contrast visual style.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Richard Fleischer’s The Clay Pigeon, His Kind of Woman and The Narrow Margin.

Film Review: The Narrow Margin (1952)

Also known as: The Target (working title)
Release Date: April 25th, 1952 (Cincinnati premiere)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Earl Felton, Martin Goldsmith, Jack Leonard
Music by: uncredited stock music
Cast: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White

RKO Radio Pictures, 71 Minutes

Review:

“[opening her compartment door in the morning and seeing Brown strap on his gun] What’re you gonna do, go out and shoot us some breakfast?” – Mrs. Neall

When talking about film-noir with others, The Narrow Margin has always been highly recommended as something worth watching. I finally got around to checking it out and it exceeded any expectations I had for it.

To start, it’s a short movie at just 71 minutes but that’s fairly common with classic noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. Also, it mostly all takes place in a confined space: the interior of a train.

The plot is about a cop that has to transport the wife of a mob boss on a train to the where she is going in an effort to testify against her vile husband. The cop must protect her from the possibility of mob hitmen who could be gunning for her. Well, they are gunning for her and they also try to bribe him into stepping out of their way.

This film is a real nail biter and incredibly suspenseful. It does a lot for its scant running time and it makes great use of its environment.

Frankly, this may be one of, if not the best, suspenseful train movie ever made. Everything feels cramped and the film even goes as far as including a fat character to make its point. The fat guy isn’t used in a disrespectful way but just to show that there isn’t a lot of room for moving around. Since this picture moves around in the confines of the train a lot, there had to be some natural roadblocks.

This is well shot, well directed, well executed and features maybe the best performance that Charles McGraw ever gave. He was stellar in this, as the cop trying his damnedest to protect himself and the woman he’s guarding while doing things by the book and not succumbing to the lucrative offers made by the mob.

I loved this movie and it is definitely something I’ll revisit again.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir pictures like On Dangerous GroundCrossfireThe Set-Up and Angel Face.

Film Review: Brute Force (1947)

Release Date: June 30th, 1947
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Richard Brooks, Robert Patterson
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, Ella Raines, Charles McGraw (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 98 Minutes

Review:

“[to Captain Munsey] That’s why you’d never resign from this prison. Where else whould you find so many helpless flies to stick pins into?” – Dr. Walters

Brute Force was directed by Jules Dassin, who did a hamdful of noir pictures, all of them pretty interesting in their own regard. He always brought a sense of authenticity and realism to his pictures. This one is unusual, as it takes place in a prison and the only time we really leave the confines of the cold walls and steel bars is through flashbacks of life before incarceration.

The film starts off with a bang, as we are treated to ominous shots of the prison and a pounding yet beautiful score by Miklós Rózsa. The whole vibe in the first few shots reminds me a lot of the experience of playing the first Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, except shown in a film-noir visual style.

Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn both star in this and both actors are absolutely magnificent. Lancaster plays a prisoner that wants to escape, as his wife is dying of cancer. Cronyn plays the head prison guard and truly is the embodiment of evil, as he is a power hungry maniac ruling over the men in the penitentiary with a strong arm and a heavy club.

Ultimately, I thought that this film would defy the morality censors of the time but the old adage that crime doesn’t pay is still made very apparent in this picture. I wouldn’t say that the film has a predictable ending and for something from the 1940s it has a much harder edge than  you might expect. The big finale is especially satisfying for those wanting a film-noir with serious gravitas and without fear of pushing the envelope too far.

The characters are well written with diverse personalities that make each one stand out in their own way. The camaraderie between the prisoners feels genuine and you care about Lancaster’s criminal crew more intimately than you would background players in other films from this era.

The movie is well shot with nice cinematography by William Daniels, who also worked on the underrated Lured, as well as Naked City, which was also directed by Jules Dassin. He gave the prison life, even if it felt dead, cold and overbearing.

Brute Force was a surprise for me. I expected something fairly decent with Dassin at the helm and with Lancaster and Cronyn in front of the camera. What I experienced was something much better than the norm with bigger balls than the 1940s typically allowed on the silver screen.

Rating: 8/10

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, June Lockhart

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