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: ****

Build my Gallows High (1947)

When it’s on: Monday, 27 August (12.40 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.

If you have never seen Build my Gallows High (or, to give it its US title, Out of the Past), then do yourself a favour – stop reading this, set everything you were going to do to one side for 96 minutes, and watch it. Do yourself a second favour and record it also, because one viewing isn’t enough. Build my Gallows High is darn near a perfect film where this site is concerned, a taut and gripping thriller filled with heart and emotions so powerful they dribble from the screen, one in which barely a moment is wasted and where every shot counts.

Director Jacques Tourneur already had a fair old body of work to his name before taking on the project. Best known for a series of lean horror films made on a shoestring and produced by Val Lewton, he brought a reputation for lean storytelling to Build my Gallows High, packing meaning and imagery into just about anything the camera pointed at. It was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who adapted his own book, whilst Tourneur was fortunate enough to call on a dream central cast. Kirk Douglas was loaned to RKO from Paramount, combining with Jane Greer and relative newcomer Robert Mitchum to incredible effect.

The film’s plot actually starts in the middle of the story. Mitchum is Jeff Bailey, a gas station owner in quiet Bridgeport, California. He’s assisted by a deaf and dumb kid, played by Dickie Moore, and has a local sweetheart, Ann (Virginia Huston). All seems well until a man arrives in town who recognises Jeff from the past and makes him take a trip to meet rich Whit Sterling (Douglas). Before leaving, Jeff fills Ann in on the background. He’s not called Bailey at all, but Markham. He used to be a detective and some years ago he was hired by Whit to find a girl who’d shot him and run away with $40,000. Jeff’s trail leads him south into Mexico, and ultimately to Acapulco, where he not only finds Kathie (Jane Greer) but falls heads over heels for her. For a time, the pair dream about leaving their past lives behind and staying together, but eventually they’re discovered by Jeff’s old partner, who has been hired by Whit in turn and demands money from them. Kathie kills him, flees, and Jess winds up forging his new life in Bridgeport.

But it’s a temporary reprieve, and whilst Jeff tries to get on with things, there’s a sense of fatality about his return to Whit that suggests he knows it. Mitchum is a nigh on perfect fit for the character, expressing naturally his laconic manner, his submission to the whims of fate. His scenes alongside Douglas are just brilliant. They should be natural enemies, especially once it transpires they’ve both been with the same woman, but the film doesn’t go for obvious stereotyping and allows room for Whit’s charisma and gregariousness to shine. Best of all perhaps is Greer. Within the film noir genre, I struggle to think of a femme fatale who has been quite so angel-faced. The film proffers a mysterious energy upon her, dressing her in white when she first appears and making her subsequent dresses get darker throughout until she’s all in black by the end. It’s also worth noting that most of her appearances find her walking out of the shadows and into the light, a stark contrast with Mitchum who oscillates between being bathed in extremes of light and darkness.

The rest is atmosphere. Build my Gallows High develops a sombre mood of impending doom, like all the characters are in a mutually driven spiral of doom. Better still, they all come across as real human beings, ones with deep flaws. For all her badness, Kathie’s basically a survivor, but one who can make mistakes, such as hedging her bets on Jeff. Whit never appears to be the film’s villain; he’s all smiles and easy company, though Douglas gives the impression of steel beneath the grins and the way he blows his cigarette smoke at his opponents surrounds him in unease. And then there’s Jeff himself, the almost maddening way he throws himself to the fates and hopes for the best. But aren’t we all guilty of that sometimes?

In terms of the quintessential film noir experience, it’s at the top of the pile for me, and I imagine most fans would have it on at least the last one hundred metres. There’s a lovely passage in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy in which he almost leaps out of the body of his protagonist to lavish praise on the film, particularly the very last scene. It’s sublime, yet there’s little within its running time that’s anything less. It even has an influence that lasts in far more recent film making. The lesser remake, Against all Odds, from the 1980s is forgettable, but strong shades of it exist in one of the best films of the last decade, A History of Violence, and that’s no mean achievement. An essential afternoon’s entertainment.

Build me Gallows High: *****

El Dorado (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 2 June (6.30 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

No Bond today, ITV focusing instead on the French Open and and an England friendly match. With Euro 2012 starting on Friday, one wonders whether 007 will be kicked around the schedules for several weeks to come – heaven knows what Q Branch would make of that…

Still, there’s plenty within the schedule elsewhere to chew upon. 5USA – a channel that remains relatively virgin territory where this site is concerned – serves up El Dorado as its early evening offering. A film made in 1966 but held back for the best part of a year (unless you were lucky enough to live in Japan) to give Nevada Smith a clean tilt at the box office and again to accommodate The War Wagon, it now feels like something from the previous decade. By the time it was released to American audiences, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had been unleashed onto the States after a successful European run and the clash of styles was a jarring of old and new perspectives. Leone approached Fistful with a mind to deliver something fresh, vital, visceral and separate from the oft-stagnant production line of American Westerns. El Dorado remained true to its classical roots. The latter, while no slouch in terms of ticket sales, couldn’t compete culturally and has become a footnote in the careers of its stars (John Wayne, Robert Mitchum) and famed director Howard Hawks. The unavoidable impression that it’s a retread of Hawks’s own Rio Bravo didn’t help its critical summation as personifying a genre that had run out of gas.

In 2012, El Dorado can be enjoyed thoroughly on its own merits, of course, without needing to place it within the context of its initial release. And it is, at heart, a perfectly watchable picture that plays right into the affections of Wayne fans. The Duke plays Cole Thornton, a gunslinger for hire who rejects a contract with rancher Bart Jason (Edward Asner) when he realises it would pitch him against an old friend and the Sheriff of El Dorado, JP Harrah (Mitchum). The months pass. Thornton has teamed up with a young greenhorn named Mississippi (James Caan) and via him learns that a slick gunfighter has taken up Jason’s offer of work. Figuring the danger this spells for Harrah, he returns to El Dorado with Mississippi, who’s freshly armed with a fearsome shotgun, only to find JP in his cups and utterly unable to help himself, let alone anyone else, as the villains close in.

From here, El Dorado effectively becomes Rio Bravo, the three unlikely buddies holed up in the sheriff’s building alongside Harrah’s wisecracking deputy, Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), and facing huge odds. As in Hawks’s previous film, it celebrates the diverse ‘family’ that’s been pitched together, and whilst it’s an idealised version of the Western it’s an altogether winning one. Wayne plays Wayne, naturally, but Mitchum is a more effective soak than Dean Martin and Caan wipes all memories of Ricky Nelson off the screen. Fortunately, the latter quotes Poe’s poetry rather than sing and is on hand largely for his comic asides. Apart from one utterly awful and dated gag (providing 5USA doesn’t cut it – which would be understandable – you really can’t miss it), he’s very good in the part.

The downside of the film is that it’s little more than comfort viewing. It says nothing new about the genre, simply retreading old ground and filling in the gaps with comedy (a fight between Wayne and a pissed Mitchum is played entirely for pratfalls). Most of the hard edges from Harry Brown’s source novel were smoothed out by Hawks and Leigh Brackett, only an early tragedy retained to showcase Wayne’s nobility and to remind us the Old West was a tough place. Not that there’s anything so wrong with its attempt to show us more of the same. Its ideals and values – really those of Rio Bravo – have been copied many times, showing there’s always life in this old dog. Speaking of which, Pauline Kael might have criticised Wayne and Mitchum for their ‘exhausted’, middle-aged performances, and she might even have had a point, but they seem entirely relaxed in their roles, at ease with the world their characters live in, which only adds to the film’s overall charm. And I think it’s with affection for Hawks’s old world vision that El Dorado should be viewed.

El Dorado: ***