Raw Deal (1948)

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Aka Corkscrew Alley. Waiting. Waiting. All my life I’d been waiting. For Joe. Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) has taken the rap for criminal Rick (Raymond Burr) who owes him $50,000 and now double-crosses him into a flawed escape plan from prison.  Joe’s helped by his streetwise girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lovelorn legal caseworker Ann (Marsha Hunt) and their competing love for him complicates things as he goes on the lam and the police are on his tail while he plans to board a ship bound for Panama … Close in on him from every side. Don’t give him a chance. Anthony Mann’s post-war noir is of a different variety from most, with a striking tone. The cinematography by John Alton is delicious, capturing the early morning sea fog as it licks the shore rolling in on tides of impending doom, perfectly complementing Claire Trevor’s mournful voiceover. A tragic noir, wonderfully executed with a complex protagonist whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. The love triangle is unexpectedly moving with the differences between the women well delineated although Trevor’s is the stronger part:  Suddenly I saw that every time he kissed me he would be kissing Ann. The story is by Arnold B. Armstrong and Audrey Ashley, and the screenplay is credited to John C. Higgins and Leopold Atlas.  I never asked for anything safe. All I want is just some decency, that’s all

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The Big Combo (1955)

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First is first. Second is nobody.  Police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde)  comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious mobster Brown (Conte) but his superiors don’t want him to follow the case due to lack of evidence. He is helped by the gangster’s supposedly dead wife Alicia (Helen Walker) who is mentally ill and jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, the suicidal Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), with whom Diamond becomes obsessed and who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe.  In the meantime a gangster presumed still alive turns out to have been murdered and Brown’s cohorts are planning upheaval … An astonishing gangster film, a fetid fever dream of sadism, sexual obsession and suicidal tendencies (moreso than an exploitation flick about the mob). Philip Yordan’s screenplay is as tough as they come and Conte’s incarnation of the vicious Brown is a performance for the ages. But it is a film of striking performances and Wallace (Wilde’s real-life wife) had herself tried to commit suicide a couple of times so this co-production between their company and Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon’s must have hit a number of home truths. The women here are a diverse and fascinating bunch:  Helene Stanton as dancer Rita has a brief appearance but she looks so different from other actresses of the era you won’t forget her. Brown’s handicapped mentor Brian Donlevy’s point of view of experiencing being shot (minus sound) is mesmerising and the cinematography by John Alton is jaw-dropping:  the use of light in the final sequence is historic [you’ll find some of these shots on the covers of film noir studies].  David Raksin’s music sets the scene with his innovative jazz-influenced bursts underscoring the key movements – but the music in the torture scene is from Shorty Rogers and His Giants (with the deafening drum solo by Shelly Manne). Directed with his usual unforgiving pace by Joseph H. Lewis. Extraordinary.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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This was released as the voiceover tells us in Robert Stroud’s 53rd year of incarceration. Burt Lancaster plays the man who became a world-renowned ornithologist after being sentenced to death and then solitary confinement – terminally.  He killed a man over a girl when he was 19, protecting her from the bartender who was attacking her;  and then in Leavenworth killed a prison guard in a scuffle when the guard cancelled his mother’s visit.  His mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads for his death by hanging to be commuted but she becomes proprietorial over him and her true narcissistic exhibitionism (it’s all about her, see? Some of us know this syndrome way too well…) emerges when he becomes an expert in bird diseases after tending and raising sparrows and canaries from the yard. His book is smuggled out and becomes a best seller and he befriends and marries a fellow bird lover on the outside (Betty Field) with whom he starts a business in bird medicine.  His mother then relentlessly campaigns against his parole and he is denied every single year thereafter. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) hates him because of his individuality and refusal to show remorse.  He will never leave solitary confinement. His friendship with fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) is sundered when Gomez is removed to Alcatraz where Shoemaker is then promoted. The new warden Albert Comstock (Hugh Marlowe) is literally insane about Stroud’s dedication to his studies behind bars. His parole hearing comes up again. And suddenly one morning he has to leave everything behind – the birds, his studies, his life in the unprecedented two-rooms he’s been allowed and he leaves for Alcatraz with only the clothes he stands up in. Malden goes bananas when Stroud’s history of the penal system doesn’t recognise his contribution to getting men to manufacture belt buckles.  When there’s a mutiny amongst the prisoners it’s Stroud who helps to quell it. And his reward?  A transfer to another prison. There are scenes with the birds and Lancaster’s care for them that will bring tears to your eyes. And Neville Brand’s playing of prison officer Bull Ransom particularly in their parting scene will unsettle you. The setting should render it claustrophobic instead it’s positively breathtaking in its sometimes deliberate focus on detail (shot by Burnett Guffey with uncredited work by John Alton). This mostly true story of Stroud’s devastating experiences and the utter villainous vengeful viciousness of people is compelling and brilliantly told, with a voiceover by Edmond O’Brien who plays Thomas Gaddis, his biographer, who met him just once on the outside during Stroud’s final prison transfer. Written by Guy Trosper and produced by Lancaster, who delivers an incredibly restrained, unsentimental performance, this was directed by John Frankenheimer after Charles Crichton and Lancaster did not see eye to eye. Stroud died one year after this was released, the day before JFK was assassinated. He never saw life outside prison after the age of 19  in a system of relentless personalised vindictive and pointless punishment. This is what can happen when people decide they dislike you. If you doubt conspiracies exist then watch this. And weep.

The Spiritualist (1948)

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Aka The Amazing Mr XAlexis, do you think I’d make a good celestial companion? The wonderful Carole Landis committed suicide in the most horrendous way a couple of days before shooting began on this;  she was replaced by the estimable Lynn Bari, no mean actress in her own right. She’s widowed Christine Faber, haunted by the ghost of her late husband (Donald Curtis) rising from the surf, but a tall dark stranger (Turhan Bey) materialises who knows more about her than he ought, faking his way as a medium, and luring her into a dangerous game … With Cathy O’Donnell as her sister Janet and my sci fi heart-throb Richard Carlson as a lawyer, Harry Mendoza and Virginia Gregg rounding out the ensemble, we are taken into truly villainous territory with Bey making for an alluring bad guy who gets in way too deep.  In his eyes, the threat of terror! In his hands, the power to destroy! Crane Wilbur’s story was written for the screen by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter and directed by Bernard Vorhaus. This film noir is gilt-edged thanks to the luminous cinematography by John Alton and good use is made of Chopin’s Prelude for Piano, opus 28 no. 4 in E minor. A special experience and one of my new favourite Forties movies! PS:  Wilbur was first cousin to Tyrone Power and he said of his work, I‘m going to give people what they want. Sensation, horror, shock. Send them out into the streets to tel their friends how wonderful it is to be scared to death.

The Black Book (1949)

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Also known as Reign of Terror, this is an incredibly exciting tale of the French Revolution. For those more familiar with his 50s Westerns and 60s epics, it may come as a surprise that this noir film, which is widely seen as an allegory for the HUAC blacklisting, is from director Anthony Mann. Not so much when you learn one of the writers is Philip Yordan, beefing up the original script by Aeneas Mackenzie and you realise this is no ordinary action flick. (Yordan spent the blacklist era outside the USA, churning out his own work and fronting for others for whom his home served as a refuge.) Stunningly shot by John Alton, Robert Cummings is a serviceable hero opposite villainous Robespierre (Richard Basehart) and Arlene Dahl was never lovelier as the seemingly duplicitous Madelon. Arnold Moss is terrifying as Fouche, the police enforcer. William Cameron Menzies constructed the sets from the leftovers of Joan of Arc (1948) and the tension in the hunt for the eponymous list of Robespierre’s enemies is palpable. Masterful filmmaking.

T-Men (1947)

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The semi-documentary approach was in vogue in the immediate post-World War 2 era. Partly due to the war itself, the economics and the fashion for Italian neo-realist approaches. Director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton revelled in this pacy story about treasury agents going after a counterfeiting ring. What is lacking in star power and what irritates about the ‘official’ voiceover narration is made up for in action and tension. It’s also good to see Los Angeles in full flow in 1947. Alton’s work was truly extraordinary here and his book Painting With Light appeared two years later, explaining his aesthetic.  He and Mann made the beautiful The Black Book/Reign of Terror in 1949, a political allegory set around the French Revolution: that’s a film you simply have to see. They also collaborated on Raw Deal (again with Dennis O’Keeffe) in 1948 and Mann also worked uncredited that year with Alton on He Walked By Night, with some of the best cinematography you will ever see:  truly these men achieved great visuals together. Alton would move onto colour with An American In Paris; Mann would of course go on to direct some of the best westerns of the 1950s and he spent most of the 1960s working on epics like El Cid before dying aged just 60 in 1967.

Father of the Bride (1950)

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If ever there were a case to be made for the classic Hollywood film, this is it. A shrewdly observed yet sentimental observation of a middle class Californian family imploding when their sweet daughter (the startlingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor) announces her forthcoming nuptials. Father (Spencer Tracy) has conniptions over the cost of everything, Mom (Joan Bennett) is in her element and the hapless groom Buckley is at everyone’s mercy. Great fun, gruff voiceover from Tracy and Taylor’s glistening violet eyes (even in monochrome) and great pace in the Goodrich/Hackett screenplay (adapted from Edward Streeter’s novel) really show director Minnelli’s sharp directorial hand at its best. Taylor’s real-life wedding to hotel heir Nicky Hilton helped make this the biggest grosser of the year. This had a sequel, Father’s Little Dividend and Nancy Meyers updated the franchise in the 1990s. Made in Hollywood, USA.