If you’re a B-movie fan like me, youtube is a wonderful thing. Tons of old obscure movies reside there – many of ’em in the public domain, many more in what I like to refer to as “copyright defensive indifference,” since whatever level of piracy exists in their free access is something no obscure rights holder knows and/or cares about.
This summer, I’ve binged on two categories of films you can’t really find anywhere else – minor noirs too obscure for TCM and the like, and old 1970s era TV movies of the week, which I’ll review in some upcoming posts.
Let’s start with some noir, ranging from the very good to the, well, merely okay.
Pushover (1954) features Fred MacMurray as a cop assigned to woo gangster moll Kim Novak (in her film debut), enough to find out where her bank robbin’ boyfriend and the stolen money is. Borrowing a lot from Double Indemnity, MacMurray plays a guy bored & stuck in his own life, this time a cop and not an insurance salesman. While he and his partners set up a peeping tom stakeout of Novak’s apartment, MacMurray plots with Novak to trap her gangster boyfriend and run off with the money themselves. Philip Carey plays his bachelor-for-life partner who then peeps on neighbor Dorothy Malone, back in her brunette good girl days, and his subsequent flirting with her drives other elements of the plot. This one wasn’t bad – if not for MacMurray’s casting, I doubt I’d’ve made the Double Indemnity comparisons. He always plays a good sullen weasel, and Novak makes a good femme fatale. Usually in any sort of plot-counterplot crime or caper films, the degree of believability in either the plan or the way in which the plan inevitably collapses is key to the success of the film. In something like Kubrick’s The Killing, the mechanics of the plan make up the entire film, and it’s all undone by the wrong choice of a cheap suitcase. The Killing still works despite the character making that mistake – unlike what happens in Plunder Road or The Chase, which I’ll discuss later. In Pushover, the unraveling of MacMurray’s game is handled very well, without any feelings of movies that are forced simply to wrap up the plot. So, this one is pretty good.
Since I just brought it up: Plunder Road (1957) – this one is a very quick robbery heist film – a bunch of guys hijack a train of gold, load up some trucks with it and try to make their way out of the country. This one works very well throughout, much like The Killing without the character development or the complexity of the scheme (and both with Elisha Cook as the little nervous guy). But much like Sterling Hayden’s choice of baggage in The Killing, the gang’s final choice of a supposedly foolproof escape plan falls apart due to circumstances that seemed a tad forced, but still manages to work within the genre. Gene Raymond plays the mastermind very well, and the no-dialogue opening sequence in the rainstorm of the heist itself, while no Rififi (what is?), is really well done. Definitely worth it for fans of the genre.
The Chase (1946) is more along the lines of the “Gilda” wing of noir – our drifter hero falls for the wrong gal, since she belongs to the mob boss. And unlike Kim Novak in Pushover, she’s the wife and the mob boss just hired our drifter hero. This time, Bob Cummings plays the drifter who gets hired as the chauffeur after returning the mobster’s lost wallet, and winds up falling for abused wife Michele Morgan. They plan a Havana getaway, and then things get complicated. Peter Lorre is along for the ride as mob boss Steve Cochran’s right hand weasel. It’s not bad, a tad slow at times. The ending is telegraphed for veterans of movies like this, but it’s shot well, nicely atmospheric, and Cummings always makes for likable whitebread. One of my problems with this one was how easy it was to call the ending, in all honesty. But Cochran is very good as the gangster – he plays it similar to the charming bastard motifs of Kirk Douglas in similar roles, and becomes menacing without seeming physically or gun-totingly overpowering.
The Scarlet Hour (1956), a late entry for Michael Curtiz, with Carol Ohmart getting a major league start as the blonde femme fatale, with future novelist Tom Tryon has her lover and patsy. A decent central idea for the plot – Ohmart cheats on her old rich husband (James Gregory, who makes me think it’s Inspector Lugar every time I see him) with Tryon one night on some secluded road. Some cars show up to meet each other in secret, and it’s some erudite criminal (David Lewis in his film debut) plotting a jewel robbery of a nearby mansion when its owners go out of town in a week. Eventually, Ohmert convinces Tryon to get the jump on the robbers and steal the jewels from them, use the money to run away from Gregory…but then things all get out of hand. It’s not bad, it’s got Nat King Cole singing in it, even… but the payoff just kinda lies there, and it winds up being a tad anticlimactic. The plot provides surprises throughout (unless you’re me and you outguess nearly all of them, thank you VERY much), but in the end, I could only give this maybe a 6/10.
Let’s move on to a couple of the really good ones, shall we?
Scandal Sheet (1952) with Broderick Crawford as the tough-talkin’ (well, come on, it’s Broderick Crawford) editor of a NY Post-style tabloid, building up its circulation with sleazy crime stories and exclusives gotten from all sorts of ethical violations. John Derek plays the investigative reporter, Donna Reed (!) plays the ethical journalist ready to quit the yellow sheet rag, Harry Morgan is the photographer, and the dialogue is GREAT. Phil Karlson, who made a lot of great B-movie noirs like Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street and The Phenix City Story, takes an old Sam Fuller novel and does well with it here. Crawford accidentally kills his estranged wife, and then has to watch “The Big Clock” style, as Derek and his own journalists investigate the crime, slowly closing in on him. I had a feeling the closing scene got dictated by the Hays code rules, but I could forgive it. Crawford is great here, with a lot of darkly cynical dialogue and newspaper room fast-talk. They keep trying to make movies, most recently The Post, where newspaper reporters are the big heroes, but nowadays the culture certainly doesn’t view them that way. Everyone across the entire political spectrum despises the media. The readership of the 1950s might have thought of newspaper people as :”do anything to sell papers!” types who lacked ethics, but it was still possible to develop characters who the audience could relate to within that dynamic. Older movies about newspapers also reveal the cultural change that’s happened since the ’50s within the newsrooms – look at the reporters in Scandal Sheet, or Deadline USA with Bogart as the crusading editor, or Citizen Kane or -30- or any of ’em – and ask yourself how many of those characters are college edjumacated white wine and chablis partiers who live and breathe politics 24/7 – as opposed to the usual gritty working class I live on coffee and ciggies except for the occasional greasy spoon diner where my tipsters are and I’m gonna do anything to get out this STORY types. The class associations of the profession have been flipped since these old movies. Would anyone believe a newspaper movie with characters like Derek or Crawford or Bogart set in 2018? Try to imagine Hildy Johnson in the modern newsroom posting fact-anemic clickbait on Twitter. Great movie, huh? It’s all CRAP! Give me the newspaper crusaders of black and white world any day. Even if they accidentally kill their annoying estranged wives and try to cover it up.
End of rant. Check out Scandal Sheet, it really is good.
And Deadline USA isn’t too bad either, even if it follows the “newspaper editor as hero” formula a little too much to the letter. How can you not like it when it has Jim Backus in it?
Finally, a great noir on youtube in not-the-greatest-of-prints form is Woman On The Run (1950), directed by Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto vet Norman Foster. An artist with a rocky relationship with his wife witnesses a gang slaying and goes on the run – but is he on the run from the gangsters or his wife? Ann Sheridan plays the wife, who pursues him to find the answer, but the cops (led by a wonderful Robert Keith) follow her, as well as newspaper reporter (!) Dennis O’Keefe, who wants the exclusive. And clearly, the killer is following her too…. and although his identity is revealed WAY too early in this one, the build up to the ending still works pretty well. The climactic scene at an amusement park is very well staged and mapped out, and only left me with one rather substantial complaint against an otherwise excellent film – up until the very end, Sheridan’s character is strong and quick-witted – she gets some acid dialogue and is smarter than any of the cops and people pursuing & trying to play her. The set-up of the climax puts her in a totally passive position, and makes the mistake her leaving her no way out of it using that cleverness we’ve seen established. Big, big mistake – she winds up chasing after the action that resolves everything instead of being central to it via her wits. I kept thinking about how easily this one could be remake while watching it, and an overhaul of the payoff putting Sheridan’s character in a much more active role would work so, so much better if it ever happened. But, the dialogue is great, the story moves quickly, and everyone in it is good. Still worthwhile.
Up next: some made-for-tv 1970s fun.