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, 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.

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.

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.

Film Review: The Birds (1963)

Release Date: March 28th, 1963
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Evan Hunter
Based on: The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
Cast: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright, Charles McGraw

Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, Universal Pictures, 119 Minutes

the_birdsReview:

I don’t really know what it is about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds but it has captivated me since I was a little kid. While Psycho is the superior picture out of his horror offerings, I still enjoy The Birds more. But like Psycho, it is pretty close to perfect.

The Birds also features Tippi Hedren who did a more than satisfactory job with this being her first big acting gig. She is also glamorous in that old school Hollywood sort of way. She almost feels like the second-coming of Grace Kelly, who mesmerized audiences in some of Hitchcock’s previous work. It is easy to see how the director became infatuated with her behind the scenes.

Hedren’s character Melanie Daniels is one of my favorite female characters from any Hitchcock picture. She is witty, smart, funny, enjoyable and very determined. She is a really strong character that is enhanced by her charm and also benefits from her great chemistry with Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner. Man, Taylor is so solid in this too.

Jessica Tandy and a young Veronica Cartwright round out the Brenner family and both actresses do a fine job. Tandy plays Mitch’s mother. Her character’s struggle to accept the women in her son’s life is a really good plot thread that ends on a beautiful note.

I also really enjoyed Suzanne Pleshette as the school teacher and former love interest of Mitch. She was an alluring brunette in contrast to the blonde Hedren. She was also heroic and a strong female character that probably deserved a much better fate.

The Birds is unique in that it doesn’t employ any music, unless you count the song the children can be heard singing in the schoolhouse. Instead, it relies on silence and the unsettling sounds of the birds themselves. The lack of music creates an intense sense of dread that feels very natural. Everything in the film feels so organic that the use of music would probably have made the really important scenes a lot less effective.

For instance, the scene where Hedren is sitting on the bench outside of the school in silence, where the birds quietly amass on the jungle gym directly behind her, wouldn’t have been as terrifying had there been music. It’s the surprise, the shock and awe of Hedren turning around, seeing this army of birds behind her that wasn’t there a minute earlier, that makes the film’s threat work. The stealth-like nature of the birds is more frightening than the attacks themselves.

The special effects in this film are so good, even for the time, that it still looks much better than the CGI-loaded pictures of today. You know that most of the birds on the screen aren’t actually in the scene but it looks as real as it possibly can. Never does it distract from the film or take the viewer out of the experience. I can’t say as much about some of the modern special effects techniques.

The Birds is a magnificent motion picture. Many creature features have come and gone for several decades but none, other than the original Jaws, have had as strong of an effect.