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: ****

Farewell my Lovely (1944)

When it’s on: Thursday, 23 August (12.40 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s great to see BBC2 plundering their cupboard of RKO classics over the summer, in particular the crime section and some of the earlier entries from the budding film noir genre. Next week, we’re getting the sublime Build my Gallows High, but today’s offering is no one’s idea of a slouch.

Whether Farewell my Lovely can even be classed as noir at all is a matter of some contention. It’s certainly no Build my Gallows High, almost the prototype example of the genre. Sure, Philip Marlowe might find himself mixed up with a gorgeous blonde dame who’s clearly no good, but unlike many noir ‘heroes’ he never falls for her charms. Indeed, Dick Powell’s Marlowe is almost too clever for the plot he’s involved in, always an intellectual step ahead and ready with a quip that suggests he’s taking none of it seriously. Well, most of the time anyway…

Farewell my Lovely is based on the Raymond Chandler novel. It’s naturally well worth a read (I’ve got a battered old Penguin edition on my shelf), if not for a typically labyrinthine plot that at times appears to have tied even the author inn knots, then definitely for the great use of language and the cynical tone of Marlowe, its narrator. Not a book that flew off the shelves upon its initial run, Chandler sold the film rights to RKO for a pittance as the studio used it as the plot of The Falcon Takes Over. As his work grew in popularity, it was rolled out once again for an adaptation, this time following the novel much more closely and introducing Marlowe to the screen. Powell seemed like an odd choice to play the story’s protagonist, better known before the film for light-hearted musicals but yearning for roles with dramatic heft and insisting on bagging this part before signing a contract. Good for all concerned that he did. Whilst Humphrey Bogart is generally considered the definitive Marlowe, there’s nothing wrong with Powell’s playing. He’s sardonic, world weary, capable and restless, and he gets the character pretty much from the start.

By RKO’s standards, Farewell my Lovely received the star treatment, healthily budgeted, directed with panache by Edward Dmytryk and padding out any concerns over Powell’s ability to carry the film with an ensemble cast. Floozy’s floozy Claire Trevor plays the femme fatale. Anne Shirley (in her last role at the too-soon age of 26) is the good girl Marlowe really falls for whilst pretending to woo Trevor. Otto Kruger pops up as an especially smooth and sinister villain, whilst Mike Mazurki is ideally cast as the lunkish Moose Malloy.

There’s one astonishing five-minute stretch in the middle of the film where Marlowe is drugged and kept in a state of nightmarish paranoia. It’s visual imagination goes into overdrive, producing one surreal image after the next and a filter over the camera to suggest cobwebs, reflecting the web Marlowe feels he’s caught in. Beyond that, it’s a more straightforward thriller than it might at first appear; Powell and Shirley are presented as the heroes, and almost disappointingly remain so throughout. But no matter. The spirit of Chandler’s acerbic prose is to be savoured. Here’s a few of the film’s many gems:

She had more than a figure too. Not a beautiful face, but a good face. She had a face like a Sunday School picnic.

He was doubled up on his face in that bag-of-old-clothes position that always means the same thing: he had been killed by an amateur. Or, by somebody who wanted it to look like an amateur job. Nobody else would hit a man that many times with a sap.

‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.’

Farewell my Lovely: ****

NB. Whilst in Britain the film was released under its original title and that of the novel, in America this had to be altered to Murder my Sweet in case audiences felt they were seeing Powell in one of his frothy musicals. 

Warlock (1959)

When it’s on: Monday, 16 July (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s Western released at the tail-end of the genre’s golden age, turns out to be a complicated affair. Characters are morally obscure, and with a lengthier running time than normal for the 1950s, back stories and motives are expanded upon. It also has a foot in both camps – complex plotting and characterisation versus an old-fashioned set-up and trappings of 1950s cinema, which makes it difficult to pin Warlock down. The two hours of film serves up some sag, but it’s never less than intriguing and, best of all, when the climax arrives (in Warlock’s case, the finish turns into finishes as a series of resolutions are reached) it’s never clear who will emerge standing.

Warlock refers to a small town, which plays unwilling guest to a gang of rowdies. The law quickly emerges as inadequate. Sheriffs are picked off with each visit of the villains; a wall on the gaol features a list of names, each of which has been chillingly crossed out. In desperation, the townsfolk put their money on the line and call in the services of Marshall Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a Wyatt Earp type with a history of clearing just the sort of trouble they’re experiencing. Accompanying him is Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), his constant shadow. The pair don’t come cheap, but they quickly see off the thugs, and by their deed even convince one of their number, the conflicted Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), to turn his back on lawlessness and become Warlock’s Deputy Sheriff.

All straightforward enough, but as the story progresses so the characters unravel. Blaisedell starts as the ultimate vigilante solution, quick on the draw and effortlessly authoritative. Yet his ‘super human’ status is undermined. The Marshall’s tangled relationship with his right-hand man runs deeper when we discover Morgan goaded him into killing someone years ago, earning him the endless resentment of Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), who subsequently takes up with Johnny. Even more critical is Blaisedell’s sense of hubris. There comes a point in the film where his belief in his own godly status takes hold of him, which becomes dangerous when it’s clear he needs to leave Warlock in order for it to have a chance of settling down.

It’s a brilliant performance from Fonda, some years away from Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, yet already hinting at the cold ruthlessness in those blue eyes. But if he isn’t exactly a good guy, then Quinn’s Morgan is greyer still. The devotion he displays to Blaisedell is touching enough, and has led to suggestions of a latent sexual subtext, something Dmytryk denied. I guess that angle’s there if you want it to be, but I prefer to see him as simply clinging on to the better man, perpetually ‘owing’ the Marshall for his gunfight with Miss Dollar’s lover (which happened because of Morgan’s love of Lily and his jealous obsession with seeing off her man, indeed it’s a fatal character flaw that’s seen him stick with Blaisedell). One thing Morgan most certainly happens to be is corrupt. When Johnny goes out to meet the gang on Warlock’s streets, Blaisedell should be by his side, only Morgan holds him at gunpoint, leaving him to stare at the ensuing action impotently from his window.

And then there’s Widmark, Dmytryk’s frequent collaborator and earning top billing in Warlock despite Fonda’s presence. For me, he’s quickly becoming one of the more interesting actors I’ve written about on these pages, and after being offered the part of Blaisedell initially, he’s more powerful as Gannon, seeking atonement and trying to steer his gun-happy brother away from harm. He features in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, where he visits the gang in their hideout and tells them to stay away from Warlock. It sounds like a fool’s errand, and that’s just what it becomes as he’s brutally attacked by the thugs and has his shooting hand stabbed. Only the timely intervention of Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley) spares him from further harm.

Warlock isn’t perfect. The last half hour is a series of climaxes as the various issues dominating the narrative come to a head, and each loses weight while another comes around the bend. The best turns out to be Johnny’s showdown with McQuown’s men, partly for the switching of sides by one of the gang but also because it marks Gannon’s moment of redemption. Morgan’s end feels like it goes on for a very long time, though Quinn does a good job of keeping his character’s pain hidden beneath drunken bravado.

I’ve chosen the poster used in this blog because I think it sums up Warlock nicely as a film of interlocking lives and the events leading them to this point. It’s certainly an interesting piece of work and I love its move away from characters who are either GOOD or BAD, rather real people with legacies that are part explained but mainly stay with them on the screen, motivating everything they do.

Warlock: ***