Since I'm often asked about my favourite crime movies, here is a list of my top twenty:
- Hell’s Highway. 1932. Directed by Rowland Brown, An exposé of convict camps that preempted I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Brown made only two other films, Quick Millions (1931) and Blood Money (1933). Hailed as a true original, his demise was hastened by his politics (leftwing) and stormy relationships with producers (he punched a studio executive on the set of Quick Millions). Brown was set to direct and adapt Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. He’d bought the rights for a mere $500 for the rights, and had written the screenplay, the film, just prior to going into production, was cancelled by RKO. Brown’s career would be briefly resuscitated by tabloid director Phil Karlson who hired him to write Kansas City Confidential. Nevertheless, Hell’s Highway remains a rarely seen classic, which, along with his two other films and the likes of Wellman’s Wild Boy’s of the Road, effectively captured the era.
- Detour. 1945. Directed by Edgar Ulmer. The king of the B’s, Ulmer shot the film in six days at the poverty row studio PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), and edited it in three and a half days. The film looks like a series of black and white Edward Hopper paintings. Ulmer also made films in Ukrainian and Hebrew, and was a protege of F.W. Murnau. Tom Neal is perfectly cast as a dumb East coast musician whose girlfriend leaves to become a Hollywood star. When she phones to say she’s only managed to become a waitress, he takes to the road in pursuit of her. He gets a ride with a man who tells him that a female hitch-hiker has recently attacked him. Finding that the driver has suddenly died, Neal, thinking the police will never believe his story, hides the body and takes the car. He picks up the woman, played by Ann Savage, not realising it’s the very same that the driver had spoken about. She doesn’t believe his story, but says she’ll stay silent if he does as she says. He finds that his girlfriend is a waitress. The murder by telephone cord- murder by long-distance- is inspired. Ulmer was the model for the director in Theodore Rozak’s novel Flickers.
- The Gangster. 1947. Directed by Gordon Wiles. Produced by the King Brothers, the most industrious of poverty row studios (Southside 1-1000, Suspense, When Strangers Meet, The Gangster). The Gangster is poetic, if self-conscious film noir with a script by the precocious Daniel Fuchs. Based on the latter’s novel, Low Company, about Jewish life in Brooklyn, it stars Barry Sullivan as the gangster, Shubunka. Also featuring a host of other well know actors- Akim Tamiroff to Henry Morgan, Charles McGraw, Sheldon Leonard and John Ireland- this is a rare slice of immigrant working-class life. Its poetic style- Fuchs might be likened to a 1940s Jerome Charyn- might be overly theatrical (aided perhaps by Dalton Trumbo’s uncredited contribution), but it somehow works. Unlike any other gangster movie. Turning on a single event, the fall of Shubunka is inevitable and painful to behold.
- The Killers. 1946. Directed by Robert Siodmak and produced by Mark Hellinger, who, prior to his early death, was also responsible for Brute Force, High Sierra and The Naked City. The Killers stars Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmund O’Brien. It takes Siodmak a mere fifteen minutes to get rid of the Hemingway story which then turns into the back story of the film. Enter O’Brien, from which point the noir complications begin. Lancaster plays the ignorant Swede, his first and, until Atlantic City, perhaps his best role. Siodmak, along with his brother, Curt, came from Germany and his expressionistic style, aided by Woody Bredell’s cinematography (responsible for the camerawork on Lady on a Train and Phantom Lady) is a perfect illustration of how film noir was often filtered through a European sensibility. The use of separate flashbacks and overlapping time recalls Citizen Kane. Eighteen years later Don Siegel would remake the film- it would be Ronald Reagan’s last celluloid appearance- shifting the emphasis from the femme fatale to discovering why the victim faced his death with such resignation.
- The Devil Thumbs a Ride. 1947. Directed by Felix Feist at RKO. Starring Lawrence Tierney and Ted North. Based on a novel by Robert C. DuSoe. One of only two decent movies made by Feist. Lawrence Tierney (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Dillinger, Reservoir Dogs) at his most maniacal. After robbing a theatre and murdering its manager, he cadges a lift with Ted North. At a gas station, they pick up two women- an innocent one and a typical film noir bad girl. After running into a roadblock, Tierney runs down a cop as he’s putting on his sun glasses (it’s the middle of the night, but one assumes a highway cop must always wear sun glasses). Tierney ends up dragging the happily married middle class North down into his own personal hell. When the cops come to get Tierney, he steals North’s wallet and i.d., and, with the bad girl, almost gets away. At just over an hour long, Feist’s film is scarier than Lupino’s Hitch-Hiker, and more warped but less artificial than Gun Crazy.
- Force of Evil. 1948. Directed by Abraham Polansky. Starring John Garfield and Thomas Gomez. The soon to be blacklisted Polansky adapted this classic from Ira Wolpert’s novel Tucker’s People. About brotherly love/hate, and the forces that create corruption. While most examples of film noir might sound like they were written in blank verse, this one was actually was. A socially conscious indictment of organised crime, in which Polansky’s politics fit Garfield’s visage perfectly. Semi-documentary in style (Polansky gave a book of Hopper’s Third Avenue Paintings to cinematographer George Barnes and said, “That’s what I want.”), Force of Evil views racketeering as capitalism in its purest form. Garfield plays a lawyer who insists that he’s working for organised crime because he wants to see the numbers racket turn into a legal state lottery. This, of course, would not only remove him from his job, but turn all concerned into legitimate criminals. It’s only after the death of his brother that the Garfield character becomes politicised. However, to get the film, with its radical message, past the censors, Polansky had to alter the story, making it clear that Garfield was on his way to the DA’s office, to offer his cooperation. Garfield, who had been responsible for hiring Polansky, hated the ending, but it has been interpreted by some as a sign of his own willingness to testify in front of the HUAC three years later.
-The Pitfall. 1948. Directed by Andre de Toth. Starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr, Jane Wyatt. A portrait of the souring of the American Dream. Powell plays an insurance agent and perfect husband whose life hasn’t lived up to his expectations. When his firm hires investigator Raymond Burr- genuinely frightening in pre-Perry Mason mode- to investigate some stolen goods from a robbery that Powell’s company has paid out on, the items are traced back to Lizabeth Scott, a femme fatal who is about to turn Powell’s life every which way but loose. Exposing the contradictions in the ideals behind the utopian vision of middle class suburbia, The Pitfall is a precursor to films like The Big Heat, Bigger Than Life and No Down Payment. Surprisingly, deToth would only make one other film noir, Crime Wave (1954).
-They Live By Night. 1948. Directed by Nick Ray. Starring Cathy O’Connell and Farley Granger. Adapted from Edward Anderson’s evocative depression novel Thieves Like Us. Unlike the book, Ray’s film romanticises the era and the young couple, touchingly played by O’Connell and Granger. Ray sought to depoliticise the novel in order to convince studio head Howard Hughes, who had always hated the project, that the film was really a love story, and was therefore harmless. They Live By Night would never have been made had it not been for the intervention of John Houseman and then Dore Schary, who, still in his twenties, had had just been hired as head of production at RKO. Even after it was finished, the film would not be released for a number of months because the director and studio executives could not agree as to its title. In 1974 Robert Altman remade Ray’s film, reverting back to the novel in name and mood. Starring Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall, Thieves Like Us is a more realistic view of the era and the young couple. While neither film is entirely successful, Ray’s fairy-tale version, for me, remains the better of the two. Unfortunately, Anderson would make next to nothing from either version. Instead, he would grow increasingly eccentric, eking out a living working for various small-town Texas newspapers.
- Gun Crazy- 1950. Directed by Joseph A. Lewis for the King Brothers. Uncredited screenplay by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Young love, gangster style, Gun Crazy is a companion piece to They Live By Night, released a year earlier, Lang’s You Only Live Once and Bonnie and Clyde. Peggy Cummins and John Dall are perfect as the young couple who, through their love of guns, move from innocence to culpability. “We go together like gun and ammunition,” says Dall, whom Lewis chose because he was gay and so projected a certain amount of vulnerability. Unlike They Live By Night, there are no scenes of domesticity in this film. Here, as usual for Lewis, it’s about guns, sex and violence. The single-take bank robbery scene is a classic moment in film noir history. Gun Crazy was a big influence on French New Wave films, particularly Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. Interesting that Gordon Wiles, who directed The Gangster three years earlier was demoted to mere production designer on Gun Crazy. The underrated 1992 remake, directed by Tamra Davis and starring Drew Barrymore and James LeGros is also well worth seeing.
- The Set Up- 1949. Directed by Robert Wise, with Robert Ryan as the washed-up boxer and existential hero, and Audrey Totter as his concerned but frustrated girlfriend. Percy Helton (from Kiss Me Deadly) plays Ryan’s ringside second. Adapted by Wise (who, eight years earlier, had edited Citizen Kane), with a script by Art Cohn from Joseph Moncure March’s epic narrative poem, The Set Up takes place in real time and entirely at night. The camera movement from hotel to boxing arena gives the film an enclosed feeling, from which there is no escape. This is a grim and gritty world, with the boxers as just so much meat. Having done some boxing in his pre-acting days, Ryan is convincing as the washed-up fighter. While Totter has always been underrated, despite some fine performances, not only here, but in Lady in the Lake, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Tension and The High Wall.
- Thieves Highway. 1949. Directed by Jules Dassin. Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortesa and Lee J. Cobb. Adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from his novel, Thieves Market. About Salinas Valley truckers who drive to the Oakland/San Francisco market to sell their produce, only to be a caught in a series of bad deals and rip-offs. Bezzerides was dissatisfied with the changes made to his script (in the novel the father is dead, but Zanuck wanted to portray the father as a cripple) and casting (Bezzerides wanted Shelly Winters rather than Cortesa- apparently Dassin’s girlfriend- to play the whore). Still, it remains one of the best examples of proletariat film noir, and based on Bezzerides experiences in the trucking business.
-Tension. 1950. Directed by John Berry at MGM. Starring Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter and Cyd Charisse. Screenplay by Allen Rivkin (Dead Reckoning, The Strip). Like a number of other directors and writers of film noir, Berry would, a few years later, be blacklisted. Basehart plays a drug-store attendant whose life is nearly destroyed when his wife leaves him. Because he wants to kill his wife and her sleazy boyfriend, he decides to assume a new identity. Having become a different person, he falls in love with his new neighbour and photographer Cyd Charisse. He goes to the beach house of his wife’s lover only to find he has been killed by someone else. Basehart’s wife, played by Totter, is a classic femme fatale. The husband’s obsession over his wife’s infidelity pushes him over the edge, while the image of a taut rubber band represents the tension faced by just about everyone in the film.
- On Dangerous Ground. 1952. Directed by Nick Ray film. Screenplay by Bezzerides. Also produced by Houseman, who, along with Ray, botched-up the ending. Still, it remains a great film. Essentially, a movie of two halves, the first with Robert Ryan as a tough sadistic NY cop on the edge of a breakdown, who hates the world in which he lives and works, reacts violently in every situation, and is on the verge of meltdown. “Why do you punks make me do it,” he says before he beats up some secondrate crook in a seedy hotel. In the second half Ryan, having been sent up state to investigate a murder of a girl, meets the blind woman, Ida Lupino. He has to trudge through the snow-covered countryside in pursuit of Lupino’s young brother who has apparently killed the girl. The contrast between the urban landscape and the snow covered ground is a bit obvious, but it’s all well-acted, psychologically interesting, and beautifully photographed by the noir master George Diskant (Narrow Margin, Beware My Lovely, They Live By Night, Kansas City Confidential). With music by Hitchcock’s favourite Bernard Herrmann.
- The Big Heat. 1953. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. Arguably Lang’s most successful film noir. Based on William McGivern’s novel, the plot revolves around a cop, Dave Bannion, played by Ford, and the destruction of his cozy post-war middle class existence. After gangsters kill his wife, Ford sets out to bring the big heat down on organised crime and corrupt politicians. In pursuing his personal vendetta, he continues to jeopardise the lives of those close to him, including even that of his daughter. Notable for the moment when Lee Marvin throws scalding coffee in Grahame’s face, an action which draws her to Ford. When he meets her, Grahame- probably the only sympathetic person in the film- won’t show her face to Ford, who strikes back at Marvin, throwing scalding coffee in his face. Clearly, not even suburbia can protect us from crime and corruption.
- The Big Combo. 1955. Directed by Joseph Lewis for another poverty row studio, Security-Theodora. Starring Cornell Wilde, Jean Wallace, Brian Donleavy, Richard Conte and Lee Van Cleef. Another Lewis classic made on the cheap. But the beauty of the film is in the way it was shot. Script by the ubiquitous Philip Yordan (the man who, for a substantial sum, allowed his name to be used by blacklisted writers). The Big Combo has it all: gay henchmen, nymphomania, obsessional fetishes. But the real star of this film is cinematographer John Alton (T-Men, Border Incident, Slightly Scarlet). His camera and lighting techniques are enough to make this the quintessential film noir. Says Wilde upon hearing that Conte has been arrested a dozen times and always acquitted, “It’s unnatural to be so innocent.”
- Kiss Me Deadly. 1955. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Ralph Meeker. Script by A.I. Bezzerides. Fortunately, Alrdich’s film is vastly different from Spillane’s novel, thanks to Bezzerides’ script. Meeker’s Hammer appears to be a character who has just stepped out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. An automaton who drives an MG, has an apartment filled with gadgets, yet cannot deal with the world around him. Bezzerides and Aldrich set their film in LA rather than New York, and turn the MacGuffin into the great atomic “whatsit” rather drugs. One of Truffaut’s favourite films, one of his favourite directors and one of his favourite screenwriters.
- The Killing. 1956. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Script by Jim Thompson after Lionel White’s novel, Clean Slate. Starring Sterling Hayden, Vince Edwards, Colleen Gray, Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook Jr and the irrepressible Timothy Carey. Great performances in a well-constructed crime caper film. Despite all their planning, the robbery of the race track eventually falls to pieces. About the greed that accompanies quick wealth and warped relationships, The Killing bears similarities to Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Kubrick uses flashbacks to great effect, building the tension of the story as well as adding substance to the plot. Filled with memorable scenes, such as the first meeting of the various individuals, Cook’s domestic life, and, of course, the robbery, and Carey’s assassination of the race horse.
- Touch of Evil. 1958. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge and Akim Tamiroff. Heston, as Mexican cop on a honeymoon with his American wife, has never been better. The film becomes a battle of wits between Heston and Welles. The former trying to expose the latter (Welles should have played Thompson’s Lou Ford) as a corrupt cop, who wants Heston out of the way. The opening shot is magnificent, particularly with the original soundtrack in the recently re-edited format. Choreographed to perfection, with great camera angles and lighting. The eccentric Mercedes McCambridge is hilarious as a lesbian Mexican hoodlum whose gang, in the hotel room, comes down hard on the gringa Leigh, turning her on to some “mary jane.” The scenes featuring Dietrich and Welles are particularly memorable. As Dietrich says of Welles, “He was a bad cop, but he was some kind of man.”
-The Naked Kiss. 1964. Directed by Samuel Fuller. Starring Constance Towers. About a prostitute who tries to become a respectable citizen. She meets a wealthy and seemingly intelligent man to whom she relates her past. He asks her to marry him. But, just prior to their marriage, she sees him in the act of molesting a young girl. When he tells her they belong together because of their shared perversions, she kills him. The town turns against her, unable to believe that a respectable citizen could be a pervert. But she convinces a friend to find the young girl. Fuller doesn’t hold anything back in this film. If Shock Corridor portrayed post- war America as a mad house, The Naked Kiss, concentrating on prostitution, perversions and physical disabilities, takes an even bleaker and more nightmarish view of America. Told in a series of startling images all of which are filmed superbly by cameraman Stanley Cortez. Constance Towers, in the lead role, takes on all the attributes normally associated with male film noir leads. She’s tough, cynical, violent and unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth.
- Chinatown. 1974. Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston. Screenplay by Robert Towne. Exquisitely shot by John A. Alonzo. Cited by many as the film that kick-started the neo-noir era, and one of the few screenplays that can still be read like a novel. Set in 1937, in the midst of a long drought, water becomes the key to the film and to the history of L.A.. Like Karlson’s Phenix City Story or Hammett’s Red Harvest, Chinatown details a legacy of corruption. With Nicholson investigating a case involving the diversion of water to make land available for redevelopment, the title becomes a state of mind as much as a spiritual landscape, synonymous with whatever is hidden. Polanski and Towne disagreed over the ending. Towne wanted the Dunaway character to kill her father, a robber baron played by John Huston, and be whisked away to Mexico by Nicholson. Polanski opted for an even bleaker ending in which a handcuffed Nicholson watches helplessly as Dunaway is shot, and Huston comforts his granddaughter who, in fact, is his daughter.
Justice Times Two, Part 1 - Los Angeles has been home to some of the wiliest and most wicked criminals in the world. And where there are criminals there are attorneys to defend them....
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