Jul 192014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BORDER INCIDENT. MGM, 1949. Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Charles McGraw. Director: Anthony Mann.

   Border Incident is a film noir/crime film directed by Anthony Mann. It stars Ricardo Montalban as Pablo Rodriquez, a Mexican federal policeman, and George Murphy as Jack Bearnes, an American immigration agent. Set on the California-Mexico border, the movie follows the two government agents’ collaborative efforts to investigate the murder, and robbery, of Mexican farmworkers.

   Unlike many movies categorized as films noir, there are no femme fatales, snappy bits of dialogue, or urbane gangsters in suits and fedoras.

   There are, however, numerous moments of claustrophobic disorientation, including one stunningly effective sequence filmed on a water tower. There’s also a seedy neon-lit bar glimmering in the desert night and the harrowing murder scene of a helpless man. In Border Incident, nature is as noir as the city, with a desert canyon and quicksand proving that they can be just as deadly as a dame with a gun.

   The film begins in a semi-documentary style, leading the viewer to believe he is about to watch a standard crime drama in which the good guys defeat the bad guys, everyone will slap each other on the back, and go out for drinks. When we first meet Pablo Rodriquez (Montalban) and Bearnes (Murphy), they are both clean, well dressed, and in good spirits.

   It soon becomes apparent, however, that they’re not about to face anything typical. From the moment that Rodriquez goes undercover and befriends Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), a Mexican farm worker who wants to cross illegally, we get the sense that things aren’t going to go smoothly after all.

   Anthony Mann sets the mood perfectly. The Mexican side of the border is chaotic, disorienting, and filled with sketchy characters that come out at night. Among them are the Teutonic-looking Hugo Wolfgang Ulrich (Sig Ruman), the proprietor of a lowlife bar, and his two thugs, Cuchillo (Alfonso Bedoya) and Zipilote (Arnold Moss). Although we never learn what a gruff German bar owner is doing in a border town, we do soon learn that he’s knee-deep in crime and is willing to utilize brute force against his perceived enemies.

   As it turns out, Hugo is working with with an American farm owner on the other side of the border, a creepy looking guy by the name of Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) who treats his land like a plantation, and his workers like pawns on a chessboard. Parkson, along with his chief henchman, Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw), are true villains. There’s nothing remotely amusing, let alone redeemable, about these two guys. Da Silva and McGraw may not have had star billing, but they are very effective in portraying criminals indifferent to human life and suffering.

   Rodriquez and Bearnes succeed in infiltrating Parkson’s estate, but nothing goes according to plan. Both men face dangers that seem to come out of nowhere, or at least take them by surprise. It’s as if both men never expected to face such adversity in their current assignment. There are some very tense moments, almost all of which take place at night.

   Border Incident isn’t a particularly well-known film noir, but it’s a very good one. The film successfully encapsulates many aspects of the noir genre, from the focus on the dark side of human nature to Mann’s skillful use of shadow and lighting to convey meaning. It’s a dark film, both metaphorically, and in its cinematography. Although it wasn’t a box office success, it is nevertheless a good example of what a talented director can do on a meager budget. Highly recommended.

 Posted by at 2:49 pm
Jul 182014

THE GREAT ST LOUIS BANK ROBBERY. United Artists, 1959. Steve McQueen, Crahanm Denton, David Clarke, Molly McCarthy. Screenplay by Richard T. Hefron. Directors: Charles Guggenheim & John Stix.

   The title on the film itself is simply The St. Louis Bank Robbery, so you see how art gets corrupted. The only name in the whole cast and credits you’d recognize is Steve McQueen, which is a shame because this is written, played and directed with unusual insight by all concerned.

   And I mean they do a really credible job of bringing out what Chandler used to talk about in terms of a crime and its effect on the characters. It’s as if a bunch of real people were plunked down into a caper film and left to sort out their aspirations and disappointments in the film’s brief running time.

   The result compares with the best of the French New Wave films that were coming from the likes of Godard and Truffaut at that time and getting a lot more critical attention. St. Louis languished in oblivion but it’s well worth the few dollars and ninety minutes’ investment it takes.

   By the way, in researching this, I found that director Charles Guggenheim, also produced a TV series I’ve never heard of, back in the early 1950s — Fearless Fosdick!

 Posted by at 11:50 pm
Jul 122014

GIRL ON THE RUN. Astor Pictures, 1953. Richard Coogan, Rosemary Pettit, Frank Albertson, Harry Bannister, Edith King, Charles Bolender, Renee De Milo. Directors: Arthur J. Beckhard & Joseph Lee.

   I didn’t mention him in the credits above, since he was onscreen all of five to ten seconds, but one of the reasons this film may even have survived today is that Girl on the Run is known to be the first screen appearance of Steve McQueen. He’s a guy trying to show off his strength to his girl friend, trying to ring the bell at a carnival game. (I’ll have to watch the movie again. I’m told that he appears again later, again very briefly, walking around the midway with his arm around the girl.)

   But the star of the film, Richard Coogan, is almost as well known, but only if you grew up watching Captain Video in the late 1940s — Coogan being the first actor to play the title role. And please note, title of the film to the contrary, he’s the one who’s actually on the run. He’s a reporter accused of the murder he didn’t commit, that of his boss, the newspaper editor who was getting too close to a vice ring working in and around a local carnival.

   Not to say that the title is completely wrong. Coogan’s girl friend, played by Rosemary Pettit, is on the run with him — she’s a witness who could clear him. Their refuge is at the carnival where the entire movie takes place, where they also hope to find the person really responsible for the editor’s death.

   So we get to see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes, in the dark passageways between and behind the concession booths and the various games of chance. And the hootchy-kootchy tent. Every carnival in the 1950s had one, including the one that came to my small town in upper Michigan every fall when I was a lad.

   What wonders lay behind the curtained gateway I (and my friends) could only imagine.

   I learned a new word watching Jeopardy, the TV game show, this week. It’s “Rubenesque,” which is a polite way (I think) of saying that what hidden delights lay behind that curtained door in Michigan are (I suspect) the same as are revealed in Girl on the Run.

   I will not pursue this thought further — you may, of course, use your own imagination — but one exception to the rest of the ladies and their tired and somewhat weary dance routines is the presence of Renee De Milo, whose first and last film appearance this was. I hope to add a photo of the lady. (And I have, as you can plainly see, below.)

   The movie is surprisingly fun to watch, much better than it had any right to be. Shot on a low budget and in an exceedingly cramped location, the production values are on a par of what passed for TV drama in 1953. Nonetheless, what’s also seen is the best of what noir films can display, in pure black and white imagery, with a cast of semi-stars (at best) and extras that fit one’s concepts of carney life to perfection.

   The story itself isn’t much. It is little more than a tease and an excuse. Maybe if you enter hoping only to see the dancing girls will you get your money’s worth, but once inside, you’ll see more than you expect, and no, that isn’t what I mean.

   While the link lasts, you may watch the entire movie online here.

 Posted by at 4:48 am
Jul 042014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

GIRLS ON PROBATION. Warner Brothers, 1938. Jane Bryan, Ronald Reagan, Anthony Averill, Sheila Bromley, Henry O’Neill, Elisabeth Risdon, Sig Rumann, Dorothy Peterson, Susan Hayward. Director: William C. McGann.

   Girls on Probation stars Jane Bryan and Ronald Reagan. Although the title suggests that the film will be some form of woman’s prison drama, jail plays only a minor role in this altogether good, albeit uneven, crime film.

   Although it’s not a film noir, Girls on Probation is still very much product of the late 1930s and does have several characteristics of what would later be considered film noir. These include a (somewhat) doomed protagonist, a series of events that spin out of control, and a mise-en-scène with a foggy night and a cheap boarding hotel.

   The plot follows the steps, or should I say, missteps, of a rather naïve twenty-something woman, Connie Heath (Bryan). Her brutish, although well-meaning, father (Sig Rumann) makes her life miserable. Even worse for Connie is her misbegotten friendship with her friend, the scheming Hilda Engstrom (Sheila Bromley), a co-worker who ends up getting Connie mixed up in two criminal acts.

   The first involves the quasi-theft of a dress, which leads to a police record for Connie. The second, and far more serious one, is an armed bank heist pulled off by Hilda’s thuggish boyfriend, Tony. This leads to a stay in the local jail for the two girls. As for Tony, he gets hard time, but later breaks out of prison to join up with Hilda in the girls’ hometown. Since his character is never really developed beyond that of an armed thug, it’s hard to feel bad for the guy when the cops plug him and he plunges off a stairwell.

   Throughout the film, Connie’s just a bit too nice for her own good. Fortunately, local attorney Neil Dillon (Reagan) is around to save the day and make everything right again. He also happens to become Connie’s love interest, employer, and fiancé.

   Interestingly enough, Bryan, who retired from acting early, and Reagan would remain in touch throughout the years. She and her husband, drug store magnate Justin Dart, would form part of Reagan’s inner circle.

   In the pantheon of great crime films from the 1930s and 1940s, Girls on Probation probably really doesn’t really amount to all that much. The film’s ending, in particular, is a bit too sentimental, with Connie needlessly apologizing to the dying Hilda.

   Still, Girls on Probation is an above average film with consistently good acting from Bryan. Reagan’s pretty good in this one too, although he’d reprise the role of a prosecuting attorney to much fuller effect in Storm Warning, which I reviewed here. Both films are worth seeing, although the latter is a much more serious film.

 Posted by at 2:29 am
Jul 022014
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

MY GUN IS QUICK. United Artists, 1957. Robert Bray, Whitney Blake, Richard Garland. Screenplay: Richard Powell and Richard Collins, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane. Directed by George White.

   You’re going to make a movie based on a book by the bestselling writer of the decade, so naturally you totally ignore the plot and instead do a poverty row rehash of The Maltese Falcon only with Mike Hammer instead of Sam Spade.

   Richard Powell, who wrote the screenplay with Richard Collins, obviously was no Spillane fan. A fine novelist (The Philadelphian) and top notch mystery writer (the Arab and Andy Blake series of screwball mysteries), he scrapped everything save the opening scene where Mike Hammer (Robert Bray) meets the prostitute Red in a late night diner, and sets out to avenge her death when she is brutally murdered.

   We’re in Los Angeles and Mike does have an office, a secretary named Velda, a cop pal named Pat Chambers, and he is a brutal lout, but from that point on you won’t recognize Spillane or Hammer, or the plot of My Gun is Quick the novel.

   Bray was a personable enough actor, most probably remembered as Lassie’s forest ranger owner in the color series, but as Hammer he is brutal, stupid, a slob, and can’t even wear the pork-pie right (neither could Kevin Dobson or Stacy Keach — the crown is not creased, which is why it’s called a pork-pie). Granted Spillane’s Hammer isn’t a barrel of laughs, but he is a snappy dresser, and however brutal and rude, he isn’t stupid.

   The falcon — I mean the Bianchi jewels — are the meaningless McGuffin, and the femme fatale is wholesome Whitney Blake, Mrs. B from Hazel, the television series based on Ted Post’s Saturday Evening Post cartoons about the impossible maid of the same name played by Shirley Booth. She’s about as seductive as coconut cream pie. (Well, okay, she’s nowhere near as seductive as coconut cream pie, but she is as wholesome.)

   The story and direction are all competent, but they are generic fifties private eye 101, which is the one thing Spillane’s Hammer never was. Love him or hate him, he was never just another private eye nor Spillane just another mystery writer. Hammer isn’t really a detective half as much as what Robert Sampson called a Justice figure, an avenger.

   It’s no accident that Spillane’s roots lie in Carrol John Daly’s Race Williams, Tarzan, Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Spider, Captain America, and the Saint (inspiration for Morgan the Raider). Hammer is closer to d’Artagnan (he’s a huge Dumas fan as well, with The Erection Set and The Long Wait both as inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo as Hammett’s Red Harvest) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo, Hawkeye, than Poe’s Dupin or Doyle’s Holmes.

   Urban hero that he may be, Hammer is last of Rousseau’s ‘noble savages,’ the natural man arriving full blown without history or family, a force of nature, white hot, and consumed by a overarching sense of justice — if not law. The crudity of Spillane’s early work (he became a very good writer as he learned) never-the-less shows a deep seated identification with the post-war psyche and a natural affinity for the written word. You don’t have to like Spillane to recognize his power as a writer.

   To ignore all that, to ignore Spillane for what he is and Hammer as himself, as this film does, negates the whole point of Mickey Spillane’s role in the world of fifties popular literature.

   Bray’s Hammer is just another private eye, with just another case, and just another femme fatale. The plot would have been perfectly suited t,o an episode of 77 Sunset Strip (which did one Spillane plot seven times) or any of its numerous off shoots. Bray’s Hammer is everyman private detective, but he isn’t Mike Hammer though he is the closest physically to Spillane’s concept of the actors who have played the role.

   I can’t say much more. The people you suspect are the ones who did it, the brutality mostly consists of grabbing one small owner of a diner by his shirt, Velda isn’t much of one thing or the other, only another faithful private eye secretary, and Pat Chambers is just another best buddy cop to warn the hero about crossing the lines the hero of these things can’t see anyway. There is no attempt to capture anything of the feel of Spillane and Hammer.

   There’s a half decently shot bit where Hammer watches a murder investigation through the skylight of Blake’s split level beach house, but if that’s the films highlight’, you can guess what the rest is like. The climax and Bray’s version of the ‘I have to turn you in because I’m a detective’ speech are just flat. No one gets gut shot, blown away with a shotgun, or blown up by a gas-filled basement, much less shot by a baby in his crib, and Blake at worst looks like she never really expected to seduce anyone in the first place.

   I won’t say skip it, it is Spillane and Hammer, but watch it on Netflix, don’t buy it, even for $5. It’s just not very good, nor bad enough to be fun. The posters for the film are nice though. And yes, it’s the kind of movie where you review the posters. Watch Kiss Me Deadly, The Girl Hunters, or the Keach or McGavin series, even that little one off made for television movie set in Miami is arguably more interesting than this.

   Skip this, save as a completist, or just to see Hazel’s Mrs B. as a seductress.

 Posted by at 11:15 pm
Jun 302014
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

A FINE PAIR. National General Pictures, 1969. First released in Italy as Ruba al prossimo tuo (1968). Rock Hudson, Claudia Cardinale, Leon Askin, Ellen Corby. Tony Lo Bianco. Score by Ennio Morricone. Directed by Francesco Masselli.

   Taxi driver carrying Esmerelda Marini (Claudia Cardinale) into New York: Over there is the United Nations building.

   Esmerelda: I can see they aren’t getting anything done from here.

   Sadly that is the best line in this rather strained caper comedy that never quite lives up to the jaunty Ennio Morricone score.

   Rock Hudson is dour police Captain Mike Harmon, a pain in everyone’s ass, who was close to Esmerelda’s policeman father with young Esmerelda having a schoolgirl crush on him that has carried over to the present day.

   It’s not a match made in heaven though, Esmerelda is a rebel and jewel thief.

   She wants Hudson to help her return the jewels she stole in Austria from a wealthy American’s villa and he reluctantly agrees (all too easily).

   Of course she is breezy, fun, amoral, smart, sexy, and only half clothed most of the time so it is natural the stiff cold Captain is going to melt — almost literally when he has to get the villa they are robbing to 194 degrees to disable the alarm and she holds the place up in nothing but wet bra and panties.

   Nor does he suspect he returned paste jewels while she stole the real ones — again.

   By the time he finds out she has to return more jewels in Rome, he is hooked on her and crime, and they have a big row when she decides to turn hones,t so Mike pulls off the heist and frames her having her own uncle arrest her so she can’t leave.

   After a narrow squeak the two end up happily together.

   And it just ends.

   One thing, with Rock in black framed glasses you now know how he would look as Clark Kent or Rip Kirby.

   This light film would like to be something along the lines of A Man and A Woman, with an infectious score, flashy photography, and a naturalistic look. The problem is Francesco Masselli is a heavy-handed and unimaginative director, Hudson doesn’t seem comfortable with his character for the first half of the film, and while Cardinale is gorgeous and fun, she makes no sense as a character.

   Had they done this a few years earlier as one of those slick Universal films Hudson was so ubiquitous in from the late fifties through the mid-sixties, it might have been the light playful romantic comedy caper it was meant to be, but this is just a bore.

   Cardinale is beautiful, funny, sexy, and screwball, the scenery is lovely, and the two actors have some chemistry once Hudson is able to move into a more familiar mode, but it’s a highly unsatisfying film otherwise.

   I missed it the on its initial release and it has taken until now to see it. I wish now I had waited another couple of decades.

   Not bad so much as ho, hum.

 Posted by at 5:38 pm
Jun 102014

NIGHT KEY. Universal Pictures, 1937. Boris Karloff, Warren Hull, Jean Rogers, Alan Baxter, Hobart Cavanaugh, Samuel Hinds, Ward Bond. Director: Lloyd Corrigan.

   This film, as I understand it, was unavailable in the non-bootleg market for some time, but it finally made an official appearance in a nicely done Boris Karloff box set that came out about eight years ago. I think it safe to say that if Mr. Karloff were not in this film, this would be yet one more orphaned film never to see the light of day on DVD, much less one as clear and crisp as this one is.

   Night Key, though, might disappoint those fans of Mr. Karloff who think of him as only a villain or a mad scientist (often both at the same time). He plays an elderly old inventor named Dave Mallory in this one, a bumbling old fellow who got cheated out of the royalties for his earlier invention, one that has made thousands if not millions for the owner of a security firm who has used his electronic locking device for several years now, installed in hundreds if not thousands of businesses, both large conglomerates and small mom-and-pop’s.

   So much a bumbling old fellow that when he comes up with a new invention, one that improves on the old one by a huge factor, where does he go with it? To the very same guy who cheated him once before. Even using a lawyer to draw up the contract does not avail – the lawyer himself is crooked.

   To avenge himself upon these miscreants, the near-sighted Dave Mallory recruits a fellow in small crime (Hobart Cavanaugh, as “Petty Louie”) to break into firms that use the old security device, not to steal or thieve, but to rummage around, rearrange things, and simply let the bad publicity take its toll.

   There are two distinct parts to this movie, split right down the middle at the halfway point. The first is nearly a comedy-type adventure as well as it is a set-up for the second half – it turns out that Petty Louie was the lucky 10,000th victim nabbed in the act by the security company’s first device, only to be snatched out the lockup by Mallory and the skillful use of the new one – and Mr. Karloff’s version of an elderly old man shuffling around in a constant state of bewilderment is right on – body language and all. (He was 50 at the time. His character seems to be nearing his eighties.)

   But the second half, which begins the minute a gang of real crooks gets wind of Mallory’s new device, is as straightforward as a line drawn from this point to the next. Lots of cars speeding their way down streets, sirens wailing; kidnapping and other threats at gun point, and subsequent shootouts – there’s not much funny stuff going on here, especially not when one the primary participants ends up dead, to the notice of very few. Mr. Karloff’s skill in creating the wonderful character which he did is all but wasted.

   There is also a small romance going on throughout the film, between one of the security guards (Warren Hull, in a silly uniform throughout) and Jean Rogers (Dale Arden, once upon a time), which serves largely as a time-filler. It does make one wonder, though, how old bumbling scientists and inventors obsessed with their work ever find the time and opportunity be sire such beautiful daughters as they do in movies such as this one.

 Posted by at 2:28 am
May 282014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1950. Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens, William Talman, Douglas Fowley, Steve Brodie, Don McGuire, Don Haggerty. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Armored Car Robbery is a heist film/film noir directed by Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, The Vikings). Filmed on location in Los Angeles, the film stars Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin, Spartacus) as Lt. Jim Cordell. He’s tasked with tracking down a gang of four criminals responsible for a fatal armored car robbery. While the film’s acting isn’t particularly memorable, it benefits considerably from a solid plot, believable criminal characters, and its postwar Los Angeles setting.

   William Talman (Perry Mason) portrays Dave Purvis, a greedy and ruthless piece of work who isn’t above murdering anyone who gets in his way. Early in the film, Purvis convinces the down on his luck Benny McBride (Douglas Fowley) to join him in an armored car job. McBride is still very much in love with his burlesque dancer wife, Yvonne LeDoux (Adele Jergens). Problem is: she’s not in love with him. In fact, she’s carrying on a dalliance with Purvis.

   Purvis and McBride, along with two other men, Al Mapes (Steve Brodie) and William “Ace” Foster (Gene Evans) hold up an armored car outside Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field, a baseball stadium. Of course, things don’t go as planned. The timing of the operation is off and the cops arrive on the scene too soon. Lt. Cordell’s partner is killed and McBride is wounded.

   The four ill-fated criminals flee the scene by automobile, driving past the Los Angeles oil fields and toward the harbor. Tensions between the men reach a boiling point. Funny thing: newly, and illicitly, acquired cash seems to do that to a certain class of criminals. Unsurprisingly, Purvis ends up shooting and killing the already wounded McBride. After all, Purvis not only after McBride’s share of the loot; he’s after his cheating wife.

   Soon after, Lt. Cordell and the police arrive at the harbor and begin their extensive manhunt for the criminals responsible for the heist. For a good portion of the rest of the film, we see Cordell and his new rookie partner in pursuit of an increasingly reckless Purvis. This cat-and-mouse chase culminates in an impressive, tension filled showdown at an airfield where the doomed ringleader forgets to look both ways before he runs across a runway.

   Although it’s a relatively short film, running just over an hour, there’s more than enough action and suspense to keep one engaged throughout the film. The Los Angeles settings are spectacular. From the ballpark to the oil fields, from the harbor near the San Pedro to a motor lodge, one feels transported back in time to 1950 Southern California.

   The weakest part of the film is the dialogue. There just aren’t all that many memorable lines in the film, at least none that will stay with you for any considerable amount of time. But then again, one does not watch movies such as Armored Car Robbery primarily for the acting or for the dialogue.

   In conclusion, though, Armored Car Robbery is a real gem. If you haven’t seen it already, it’s definitely worth consideration. If you’ve seen it long ago, it’s worth a second look. It’s definitely a lesser-known film, but it’s one that stands up to the test of time. Armored Car Robbery may not be a classic, but it’s still a perfectly good heist film and one of Fleischer’s earlier works that doesn’t get nearly as much appreciation as it deserves.

 Posted by at 6:26 pm
May 202014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LINEUP. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, William Leslie, Emile Meyer, Marshall Reed, Raymond Bailey, Vaughn Taylor, Warner Anderson. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant. Director: Don Siegel.

   The Lineup is a visually captivating thriller set in the historic buildings and on the daytime streets and roadways of San Francisco. It stars Eli Wallach (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), in one of his earliest big screen roles, as a Brooklyn-accented sociopathic hired gun for an international heroin smuggling operation.

   Directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), The Lineup is best interpreted as two distinct films wrapped together in one package. Indeed, the film, based on both a CBS radio show (1950-1953) and television show (1954-1960) of the same name, is two movies in one: a formulaic, somewhat forgettable, police procedural and a very good, albeit under-appreciated, film noir. It’s the story of a disturbingly violent, and somewhat pathetic, criminal on the margins of polite society, a man whose own unbridled rage propels him to his inevitable doom.

   The film begins as a standard police procedural, opening with a fast-paced action sequence near the San Francisco docks. A porter throws a suitcase into a cab that promptly, and recklessly, speeds away, ramming into a truck and killing a police officer in the process. Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson, reprising his role in the TV show) and his partner, Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer) are called on to investigate.

   Neither of the characters come across as particularly devoted to the task at hand, although Anderson’s portrayal of a detective is far more engaging than is Quine’s. But the movie isn’t really about them — more on that in a minute.

   The two San Francisco cops discover that the cab driver was part of a heroin smuggling operation and that an international cartel is utilizing unsuspecting passengers from East Asia to smuggle heroin into the United States. One such passenger is Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey), a prominent member of San Francisco society employed at the architecturally impressive San Francisco Opera House. Dressler is called into the police station to witness a lineup, but he doesn’t recognize the porter who yanked his suitcase from his arms and threw it into the cab. Still, it’s not long until the porter shows up dead.

   The film quickly shifts gears from a police procedural to a film noir about two hit men tasked with finding — and killing — other passengers who inadvertently smuggled heroin into the United States and to deliver the dope to a criminal known only as The Man (Vaughn Taylor), a real piece of work who only appears on the screen for a several minutes.

   We first see the film’s protagonist/anti-hero, the brutal hired gun Dancer (Wallach) sitting on an airplane with his partner and mentor, the incredibly creepy Julian (Robert Keith). Dancer is reading a book of English grammar in an attempt to learn how to properly use the subjunctive tense so as to sound less like a New York gangster. This, of course, was Julian’s idea. Somewhere along the way, Julian made Dancer his pet project and clearly wants to smooth over the killer’s rough edges.

   The men arrive in San Francisco and are quickly greeted by their driver, Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel). The three men, all losers each in their own way, successfully track down the first two carriers. It’s when they are tasked with retrieving the heroin from a woman, Dorothy Bradshaw, and her daughter Cindy that things, in classic noir fashion, all fall apart. The turning point in the film occurs when Dancer wants to kill Bradshaw and is stopped from doing so by Julian.

   Wallach is simply excellent in this film. He portrays Dancer, a man born of rage and without a relationship with his father, convincingly. Watch throughout for his Dancer’s eye, and facial, expressions, particularly during his showdown with The Man in Sutro’s Museum.

   Keith is equally convincing in his portrayal of Julian, a bizarre man who enjoys jotting down the last words people say before they die. In a one remarkably unsettling scene that shows characterization, Julian, upon seeing his female hostage weep, bursts out with his own self-serving pseudo-intellectual rhetoric. It’s not so much his misogyny that’s appalling; rather, it’s that he actually seems to believe his own nonsense:

   “See, you cry. That’s why women have no place in society. Women are weak. Crime’s aggressive and so is the law. Ordinary people of your class—you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.”

   She replies (how else could she reply?): “You’re sick.”

   But as The Lineup shows us, that type of criminal sickness has real consequences. By the time the movie ends with a dramatic car chase on the unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, both Julian and Dancer, not to mention The Man, are dead, with their own character flaws playing significant roles in their not particularly tragic demises. Although the film takes place during the day rather than at night, it’s noir at its very best.

May 172014
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

WELCOME TO THE PUNCH. IFC Films, 2013. James MacAvoy, Mark Strong , Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris, David Morrissey. Written and directed by Eran Creevy.

   This Brit neo-noir bristles with violence, moral ambiguity, hard driving atmosphere, shadows, and edgy camera work, but like the best of the British crime films it is driven by character. The people are not violent cartoons, but human beings. The heroes are flawed and the villains all too human.

   The film opens with hard-driven London detective Max Lewinsky (James MacAvoy) catching a high end heist. Against orders he pursues the gas-masked villains on motorbikes even though he is unarmed. That ends badly with Max knee-capped by the leader or the team, Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong).

   Years later Lewinsky is in constant pain and addicted to pain killers, but still a cop, working with his partner and lover Sarah (Andrea Risenborough) on a case involving arms smuggled into England, assigned by his friend Metropolitan Police Commander Thomas Geiger (David Morrissey). When a low level street hood, Ruan Sternwood (Elyes Gabel), is killed in relation to the case, Max knows it will bring his long-since-missing father back for revenge, and his chance to bring him down.

   Sternwood shows up wanting revenge, and with the help of his old friend Roy Stewart (Peter Mullan) sets himself up with the men who killed Ruan. Soon he and Max find themselves alone against para-military killers with powerful connections and Max finds he was assigned to the case to fail.

   When Dean Warns (Johnny Harris), one of the para-military killers, murders Sarah because she is onto something, Max and Sternwood find themselves allied with one goal: vengeance.

   Welcome to the Punch moves quickly, and depends on strong performances with MacAvoy and Sternwood sketching in their relationship without a lot of extraneous dialogue. Nothing is spelled out in long-winded speeches, but is shown instead in their faces and actions. MacAvoy in particular brings a great deal of nuance to his wounded, angry, but honest policeman. Neither he, nor Strong are playing supermen for all their skills, and the shootouts have actual suspense because they are very human targets. The “Punch” of the title is a loading dock where the final odds against survival shootout takes place.

   They do survive bullet wounds that in real life would throw them into instant shock and likely kill them, but at least they are more than the famous flesh wound of a million cowboy pictures, and you can just buy that adrenalin might get them through to the end in the real world. If you truly did one of these realistically, the film would be a one-reeler, mostly watching the hero bleed out in ten minutes or less, if shock didn’t kill him first, while he lay on the ground in a semi-conscious stupor.

   These kinds of action films are no more realistic than comic book, fantasy, western, and science fiction films, and it is equally pointless to hold them to the standards of realism (or any film for that matter). This is no more the real world than a Fred Astaire musical is. At best film and literature create an illusion of reality, and you buy it or not.

   The complex plot behind all the violence hardly matters, but is filled in enough to cover the action and provide a suitably large conspiracy for the two loners to confront. There is enough at stake to make the conspiracy seem plausible, yet not so much it is improbable two violent men couldn’t bring it down once they know who the key players for.

   This is no cop-buddy film, not a British 48 Hours, or anything like. Max and Sternwood are drawn together by their loss, rage, and desire for revenge, but though they might respect each other, there aren’t going to be any hugs at the end of the film. There may be a brief moment when they recognize uncomfortably that they are more alike than not, but they are far from bosom buddies.

   I don’t want to oversell this, you are likely better off to catch it on cable, Red Box, or Netflix it than pay through the nose to see it in a theater, but it is a well thought out and acted action film. It’s no Lock Stock and Smoking Barrel, Get Carter (the Michael Caine original), Long Friday Night, Mona Lisa, or even the belly laugh cop buddy send up Hot Fuzz, but it is fast paced, stylishly shot, and it won’t insult your intelligence.

   There are no surprises, it is all predictable, but it is also marked by the good acting, script, direction, and action, all handled with nary a hitch, and you won’t come away from it with your seat numb because it ran on forever.

   There is something to be said for a film that does what it sets out to with success whether it is innovative and new or not, and the cinematography by Harry Escott is sharply done.

   If you watch it and like these kind of movies you will likely enjoy Welcome to the Punch quite a bit. It’s a well done gritty action film that has more brains and heart than many films like it with bigger stars, credits, and budgets.

 Posted by at 12:52 am