Crossfire (1947)

When it’s on: Thursday, 3 March (7.10 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

Edward Dmytrk’s 1947 B-movie, Crossfire, is about as ‘Film Noir’ as cinema can get. Forget for a moment the plot. The action focuses on a group of men, two of whom are played by Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. They’re ex-servicemen, recently returned from the war. We catch them playing card games, loitering in bars, drifting through their days. They’re bored, dealing badly with feelings of frustration and resentment, whether it’s Mitchell (George Cooper) wondering how he can possibly go home to his wife and lead a normal life, or Montgomery (Ryan), spilling over into hatred and bigotry. Those who have attempted to define the appeal and rise of the ‘Noir’ style suggest that it’s all down to men coming back home after serving in World War Two, struggling to readjust after their horrific experiences whilst on duty, and few films convey that sentiment quite as succinctly as Crossfire.

Ostensibly, it’s about a murder investigation. A Jewish man is killed in the opening act and the trail leads directly to a group of soldiers who joined him for a drink in his apartment. Initially, the finger of suspicion falls on Mitchell who’s gone missing. His room mate Keeley (Mitchum) catches up with him and hears his version of events – sozzled and morose, Mitchell left the man’s place and walked out into the night, eventually coming across a barfly (Gloria Grahame) with whom he shared a ‘moment’ before she handed him the keys to her flat and he fell asleep there. The key fact from his account is told almost as a side note – as he was exiting the Jew’s place, Montgomery was already getting handy with the man, slapping him around and calling him names. So clearly the imposing Montgomery is the killer, but how to link him to the crime?

That isn’t a a spoiler. Montgomery’s guilt is made clear fairly early, the rest of the plot centering on Detective Finlay’s (Robert Young) efforts to unravel the mystery and catch his man. Young leads a brilliant cast, one of those happy circumstances when even relatively minor roles happen to fall into the laps of great performers. By this stage in his career, Young was taking on more challenging parts than the comedies in which he’d appeared countless times, and Finlay is an excellent example – endlessly patient and possessing a cool intellect. He can also identify the murder for the hate crime it is and gets a fantastic soliloquy when discussing the fate of his Irish immigrant grandfather who came across prejudice when he arrived in America. The speech transforms his character from a smart detective and into a sort of crusader, bent on rooting out bigotry, which gives his task of finding the killer a personal dimension. Cooper is good as the innocent Mitchell, clearly damaged emotionally as a consequence of his experiences and representative of the mixed up messes many of the men in similar situations must have found themselves in. By his usual standards, Mitchum turns out to be a bit on the wasted side, playing the main link to Mitchell and coming to help Finlay in his search for answers. In truth, he was still on his way to the top but added enough layers of ‘seen it all’ cynicism to his performance to be memorable in a support role.

The film is stolen by Ryan’s Montgomery, a hulking psychopath who kills from senseless hate and then kills again to cover up his crime. The scenes where he’s delivering alibis to Finlay are cool, too cool, which add a chilling edge to his character. He’s beautifully shot also, especially in his moments with Leroy (William Phipps), another serviceman who’s from Tennessee and like others has clearly been the subject of Montgomery’s bullying ways. Ryan is photographed as though constantly towering over Phipps; a perspective shot when the two men are shaving cast him as a giant compared with the much slighter Leroy.

But then, there’s even time in Crossfire’s slim running time to explore its minor characters. Grahame is a revelation as the good time girl who takes pity on Mitchell, in turns gutsy, jaded and vulnerable in the part of a ruined woman who still has enough room in her broken heart for his sob story. The appearance of her ex-husband (Paul Kelly) offers a fascinating insight into their dysfunctional relationship, which clearly goes on long after the action has moved elsewhere. His exhortations to help Finlay with his investigation, which doesn’t merit a response, indicate just another ruined and pathetic life, which has no more use to anybody.

Crossfire is fine and clever film making, which thanks to its subject matter was nominated for five Academy Awards, including supporting acting nods for Ryan (who was so effective that he would try desperately to steer clear of similar roles) and Grahame. Dmytryk was close to being ostracised by Hollywood for refusing to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, at around the same time as he was Oscar nominated for directing Crossfire. I watch the film now and think that it was just a waste of sheer talent. It’s a title bristling with invention and ideas, and to think of a career that was stifled when he was capable of producing work of this calibre seems very wrong.

Crossfire: ****

The Big Steal (1949)

When it’s on: Friday, 16 October (2.05 pm)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

Universal’s Film Noir Collection, which is a nine-disc set that I’ve never seen on sale at Amazon for anything over £20, is a marvellous introduction to the Noir style. It’s a bit ‘bare bones’ and some of the transfers aren’t fantastic, but the films are, with a couple of outright classics slipped in there, like Double Indemnity and Build My Gallows High. Unless they’ve changed the packaging, it comes in a fake cigarette packet, featuring a smoking gun on the cover, the smoke deliciously curling to form the outline of a Veronica Lake femme fatale. Fantastic.

If there’s an anomaly on the set, then it’s The Big Steal, a film that quite simply doesn’t seem very noirish. What makes it so is the cast, and the fact that the plot does actually fit the genre, only it’s told by director Don Siegel in a light fashion, almost a caper with crime elements that is framed around a lengthy car chase across the Mexican countryside. In someone else’s hands, perhaps the material’s darker elements might have been emphasised. Maybe Jane Greer’s character, for example, would become damaged beyond repair at the way she’s been mistreated and seek vengeance. And yet The Big Steal is no less for how it’s presented. It’s a lot of fun, a romp, and at 72 minutes in length it never slows down.

What it most certainly isn’t is Build My Gallows High, which is of course one of the absolute highlights of Film Noir. In contrast, The Big Steal can only come off poorly, its lightheartedness making it seem a poor cousin to the devastating emotional melodrama of Tourneur’s classic. In many ways, it’s a product of some late casting changes. Robert Mitchum at the time was about to serve a jail sentence for marijuana possession, which for anyone else might have spelled career suicide, though naturally the conviction only played up to Mitchum’s image and added to his mythos. All the same, RKO was nervous about this project. Lizabeth Scott’s agent withdrew her from the picture for fear the association would damage her future prospects, and Greer was called up as a last minute replacement. The trouble was her pregnancy, which became more obvious during the filming, though the film was shot in such a way to hide the fact from viewers. Similarly, Siegel and his crew had to work around Mitchum’s time in jail. Serving only sixty days of his year-long conviction before being released on probation, the film was nevertheless shot around him whilst the actor returned to the set noticeably slimmer than beforehand due to the exercise regime he’d undergone during his time behind bars.

Despite the countless issues Siegel experienced with Mitchum during filming, his bad boy lifestyle and frustrating attitude he had towards learning his lines, there was just no doubt the man had star quality written all over him. Whether involved in a dark, moody piece like Build My Gallows High or this, he essentially played the same character – laid back, laconic speech, good in a brawl, an all-round cool dude. Greer meanwhile had a much fuller starring role. Smart and resourceful, her character in The Big Steal can charm men with some well thought out words and it helps that she can speak Spanish fluently, a fact that makes for great comedy between her and Mitchum as his knowledge of the language is at best limited.

The film really boils down to a series of extended chase scenes. Mitchum and Greer are pursuing Patric Knowles’s smooth, handsome grifter, who’s swindled her out of two grand and later stolen much more from him. Every time they catch up with him, he wriggles his way out of their clutches and back onto the road, leading to a further pursuit. On Mitchum’s tail is William Bendix as his army superior, convinced he’s stolen the money for himself. Bendix is great, playing up to his bulk by appearing as a human hurricane, pushing aside people who get in his way on the street, trying to intimidate a herd of goats into shifting by bellowing at them. Overseeing all this is Ramon Navarra’s Mexican police inspector, who has an uncanny knack of placing himself in exactly the right place to follow the action. Indeed, the Mexicans as a whole come across quite well. Whereas there are criticisms of the film as being somewhat patronising to Mexican people, appearing to portray them as slow witted and moving at a pace never more than lumbering, in truth they’re depicted as knowing a good cause when they see one and quite understandably respond badly when a surly American is barking ‘Pronto! Pronto!’ at them, as though this will make them move any faster.

This was an early film in Siegel’s long directorial career. While this would find its ultimate expression in the much later Dirty Harry, there isn’t in truth a great deal of difference between Eastwood’s Callahan and Mitchum’s Halliday in the way they’re both men of action, preferring to do rather than think, and making for a picture that moves at pace and doesn’t let up. It’s very entertaining.

Having checked the Movies4Men listings, I can’t tell whether they will be screening The Big Steal in its original black and white or the ‘colorized’ version. It does seem that those of us with Region 2 discs only have the latter to watch, and I can’t say I’m a fan of the process – the colour looks washed out, there’s plenty of bleeding, suggesting a painstaking effort for very little gain. A shame.

The Big Steal: ****

The Thing from Another World (1951)

When it’s on: Monday, 8 June (9.30 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

‘Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!’

BBC2 has a lot to answer for when it comes to my love of classic science fiction. Back in 1983, when I was eleven years old and a mere cineasteling, the channel screened a series of flicks over thirteen weeks in its early evening slot. I was hooked, my family no doubt grateful as hell for my insistence that the household’s single television set was taken over by paranoia-fuelled thrills from years ago. Alongside newer entries like Silent Running and the rarely scheduled The Forbin Project (the latter’s a really interesting story about two supercomputers, one American and the other Soviet, which insist on being linked and then together take charge of the world), the bulk of the schedule was 1950s Sci-Fi. It was a golden age for the genre, these films playing on the public’s real life fears of invasion from a largely unknown enemy by replacing the forces of the USSR with alien attackers. From those set on the straight destruction of humanity (The War of the Worlds), to invasion by more insidious means (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and those that were more interested in teaching us a lesson about our troublesome ways than killing us (The Day the Earth Stood Still), these films were a brilliant formative experience, and I try to cover them here whenever they put in a reappearance.

I’m entirely unapologetic about the pleasure I receive from watching these movies. They’re real documents of the contemporary mood, and very entertaining to boot. I should add that feelings weren’t so very different in the 1980s, as Reagan’s USA administration jacked up the level of antagonism against the Russians, albeit artificially as all the intelligence was suggesting that the superpower behind its iron curtain was by now crumbling. That didn’t stop a new slew of entertainments from chilling us all over again, though the focus then was more on the terrors of a nuclear strike, as seen in such films as When the Wind Blows and the terrifying TV movie, Threads. Both are recommended, especially the animated former, with its lovely old couple voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, trying to prepare themselves against the horrors of the bomb. Great title track also by David Bowie.

The Thing from Another World wasn’t shown as part of the BBC series, but it might well have been, and by 1983 it had already been remade by John Carpenter. The updated version diversified from the original in a number of fascinating ways, indeed it’s probably in my personal list of top horror movies, but its basic premise remains the same. A group of people are stuck in a research base near the North Pole and find themselves coming into contact with an alien visitor that is far from friendly. It was made by Howard Hawks’s production company, Winchester Pictures, which added genuine credibility to the title as science fiction was seen by many at the time as a childish, derided genre, one not to be taken seriously. The Thing from Another World is an intelligent piece of work. Its focus is on air force crew and scientists collaborating (most of the time) against the threat; there’s humour, banter and good-natured teasing going on, but mostly practical discussion about the decisions they need to make in resolving the crisis they face.

The military is led by Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), who’s dispatched from Anchorage to the Arctic in order to help uncover a mysterious crash landing in the ice. He’s joined by a news reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), who’s there to cover the story. At the base, Hendry comes across Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), a former love interest who is on hand to assist the scientists, led by Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). They arrive at the crash site and realise a saucer-shaped object is buried in the ice. Their efforts to blast it out result in the vessel being destroyed, but not its pilot (James Arness), an eight foot tall humanoid that is returned to the base trapped in ice. With communications with Anchorage disrupted, the idea is to keep the being contained until they can receive advice, but thanks to the ill-judged use of an electric blanket it’s thawed out, comes to life and begins making attacks against the people. Carrington, coming to the conclusion that the ‘Thing’ is an intelligent life form, indeed far cleverer than human beings, believes it can and must be reasoned with. Hendry sees it differently. As the assaults continue, the Thing apparently using its victims’ blood to create offspring, he decides that they must fight back, even though bullets appear to have little effect and fire causes no lasting damage. Then the Thing destroys the base’s generator, robbing it of heat, and the fight becomes a ‘do or die’ situation.

This being the 1950s, the Thing isn’t the shape shifting, obviously alien being that rampaged through the Carpenter remake, but rather a tall man wearing make-up that leaves him looking a bit like Frankenstein’s next monster. Arness, who played it, would go on to be better known as the strong-jawed hero in countless episodes of Gunsmoke, yet here he’s certainly imposing, very strong and undeniably dangerous. A good impression of its strength comes early, when an early tussle with the team of dogs leaves it with a severed arm, a grisly souvenir for the scientists to investigate. Not only does the arm grow back, but Carrington finds that the body part has no nerve endings, making it more like a plant sample than a humanoid appendage. At that point, a collective ‘what the hell?’ is the untold question on everyone in the room’s lips.

Despite the credited director being Christian Nyby, rumour had it that Hawks did a lot of the daily work himself and indeed the film bears many Hawks trademarks, notably the scenes with characters working under considerable pressure. There are things happening here that you don’t normally see in a film from 1951, mundane things like characters speaking over each other, the spark of chemistry between Hendry and Nikki that ensures the talk of their ‘previous’ makes sense. The tension, of which there is plenty, comes as this group of natural professionals begins to break down into sides, one led by Hendry, which is all for destruction, the other Carrington, who thinks the Thing can be reasoned with. No prizes for guessing which of the two factions is correct. Commendable is the systematic, trial and error method they have of working out how to kill it, after bullets, axes and fire don’t work. The solution is reached in a logical and intelligent way, and crucially at a point when all looks doomed. A word on the North Pole setting, which is great, RKO’s soundstage and Ranch with fake snow creating an authentic looking set. It’s very claustrophobic, this feeling of being cut off from the world, miles from anywhere and needing to work together in order to survive.

The story is told more or less from the perspective of journalist, Scotty, who is on hand to make a string of pithy remarks as the team go about their business. At the end of the film, contact with Anchorage is restored and Scotty takes to the mic in order to tell the world about the exploits he’s witnessed and increasingly become a part of, ending with the iconic lines that form the quote at the top of this piece.

The Thing from Another World is now very old and has been remade a couple of times (I’m yet to see the most recent version, from 2011). The 1982 update ramps up the paranoia as the largely co-operative team of people from the original film is overhauled with a dissolute group of selfish losers for the most part, ready to turn on each other at a moment’s notice regardless of the Thing’s presence among them. It’s uncomfortable to watch and very frightening, based more closely on the source material (John W Campbell’s short novel, Who Goes There?) by turning the Thing into a shape shifter that can blend in by taking on the identity of a dog or one of the people. But that isn’t to say this 1951 film isn’t worth it. At less than 90 minutes’ running time, the story moves fast and keeps piling on the tension, and its influence on later genre entries is transparent. It’s difficult to watch a modern classic like Alien and not see many shades from this film, particularly its emphasis on people in an isolated setting as they attempt to deal with a malevolent presence.

I like The Thing from Another World a great deal, mostly its optimistic message about humanity banding together when it needs to. Even Carrington – who almost dooms everyone due to his efforts to understand the Thing and ensure its survival – is cast ultimately not as a villain but as a valid scientific mind. He doesn’t get his comeuppance by paying for his errors with his life, neither is he derided as an idiot, which is a nice way of making sure that all opinions among the team matter. It’s a great film.

The Thing from Another World: ****

What a Carve Up! (1961)

When it’s on: Sunday, 5 April (6.00 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

The best novel I’ve ever read is What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. It’s a tale about the horrible people who benefited most from Thatcher’s Britain, all condensed into one deliciously odious family, and chronicled by the man who’s writing a book about them. The story parallels, to an extent, a film the writer remembers from his childhood, the broad British comedy What a Carve Up! (or No Place Like Homicide! as it was oddly titled in the USA, though it’s nice to see the exclamation mark was retained) and it’s for that reason I tracked down the DVD some years ago and have watched it numerous times since.

The film has none of the book’s depth and meaning and is, as the novel’s narrator understands, nothing more than a light farce. The fact that the events in the book start to echo those in the film just adds to the dramatic irony, and of course have just as much of a mixed fortune at the end. But just because 1961’s What a Carve Up! is an easy sub-ninety minutes of pseudo-Carry On comedy doesn’t make it bad. It turns out to be very good fun, albeit containing absolutely no substance and played entirely for laughs.

It started life as a crime novel by 1928 British pulp fiction writer, Frank King, called The Ghoul, which was filmed five years later in a Boris Karloff feature. Made as a horror feature, when it came to be redone in 1961 it was converted into a broad comedy starring Sidney James and Kenneth Connor, with even less of the source material’s contents retained.

Connor is Ernie Broughton, a proof reader of mystery paperbacks. He finds out from a mysterious solicitor, Everett Sloane (Donald Pleasence), that his rich uncle has died and he’s to go to Yorkshire in order to be present for the reading of the will, so off he travels with his friend Syd (James) in tow. When he arrives, he finds the entire family assembled, and a grotesque, greedy bunch they are. Dennis Price plays his hard drinking cousin, Guy, and Michael Gwynn the demented Malcolm. Esma Cannon is Aunt Emily, whose mind is stuck in 1914. There’s also Shirley Eaton, who takes on the role of Uncle Gabriel’s former nurse, Linda. Hearing the will reading, they learn that they’ve been left precisely nothing, with the exception of Linda who has bequeathed some medical supplies. And then one of them is found dead.

Ernie is warned by the house butler (Michael Gough) that it’s just the beginning, and sure enough further family members are dispatched over the course of a night during which they’re all trapped in the house during a typically stormy night, all methods of communication down and the village unreachable due to all the nearby bogs. Ernie is suspected, then he isn’t. The house is discovered to be riddled with secret passages. Doubts emerge over whether Gabriel is dead at all, and if he isn’t then one of the characters is working with him to perform the murders.

The actors all play up to the stereotypes they developed over the course of their careers. No one did nervousness for comic effect like Kenneth Connor and he brings all his jumpy, gibbering shtick to the film as the anxious Ernie, getting steadily more frantic throughout. As his more hard-headed friend, James gets the best gags and reins in the lewdness that would define him more in later years. Price plays the posh gentleman that he did so well, and then there’s Shirley Eaton, undeniably lovely as Ernie’s unrequited love interest and in the picture for no better reason than to provide one (an uncredited Adam Faith pops up right at the end as her boyfriend). The film’s ominous overtones are provided by Donald Pleasence, of course, leaving me to wonder if there was ever a time when he didn’t come across in his roles as creepy, middle aged and softly spoken. He’s introduced as he walks up the stairs to Ernie and Syd’s flat, moving very slowly, deliberately and in complete silence, staring straight at the camera, which sets the uneasy tone for his character instantly.

What a Carve Up! is an easy film to enjoy, briskly weaving its story and doing a great job of setting up the house as a place of suspense and mystery, filled with dark recesses and bookshelves that can be opened to reveal a passage to surprise locations. The sinister air it generates is subservient always to the laughs, blowing apart the atmosphere in favour of pratfalls and funny likes, which usually hit the mark.

What a Carve Up!: ***