Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

I Walk Alone

4 Movies Starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had remarkably parallel careers. They both made their first film in 1946, quickly became huge international stars, and maintained their cinematic dominance for decades. Both were handsome, athletic men who were also intelligent enough to play parts with nuance and depth. Both ultimately broke away from the studio system to become independent producers. And last but not least, they made seven films together, the first of which is the 1948 crime melodrama I Walk Alone.

The story commences with Frankie Madison (Lancaster) getting out of the joint after a 14 year stretch. He was arrested for bootlegging with Noll “Dink” Taylor (Douglas), but Taylor eluded the cops, never did any hard time and indeed never even bothered to visit Frankie in prison. Frankie’s old friend Dave (Wendell Corey, in a quietly effective performance), who has stayed true to him, is under Dink’s thumb as the bookkeeper of his swanky nightclub. Frankie feels entitled to half of the club, but Dink isn’t feeling generous. Dink sends his moll, a singer in the club (Lizabeth Scott) to sweet-talk Frankie; he’s lost interest in her anyway because he wants to marry a blue blood (a sultry and perfectly bitchy Kristine Miller) who will secure his place among the posh people.

The emotional power of the film comes from the conflict between Frankie and Dink. Lancaster’s Frankie is a pacing, rough cut ex-con who would like nothing better than to slug it out. Douglas’ Dink is all suaveness and reassurance, an oleaginous modern businessman who claims to have left the world of guns and fists. This contrast produces the best scene in the movie, in which Lancaster shows up with some thugs to take over the club by force, and Douglas humiliates him by explaining that because of multiple holding companies and escrow agreements, there is nothing to take over (without a vote of the board and amendment of the by laws of course). As Dink himself says, Frankie is a dinosaur, unable to cope with the realities of the modern world. But Dink still fears him enough to commit a terrible crime and frame his former pal as the culprit.

There are some flaws in this film. It was Byron Haskin’s first directorial outing, and he doesn’t seem in full control of the material. He got much better later, for example in another of my recommendations, Treasure Island. This isn’t Lizabeth Scott’s best work either. She seems one-note off in I Walk Alone, for a reason I cannot guess (Bad direction from Haskin, maybe). Charles Schnee was a great script writer (The Bad and the Beautiful, starring Kirk Douglas, being one of his gems). His script here includes some pungent dialogue but the story drags at times, particularly in the second half. But no matter what slow spots intrude on the viewer’s enjoyment, the film always roars back to life as soon as the two lions of post-war cinema are tussling on the screen again.

As a note on the actors, this was the fourth film for both men and they apparently spent little time with each other off-screen. Their friendship/rivalry was to blossom much later during the making of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. About 10 years ago, I had the good fortune to hear from Douglas’ own lips that the rivalry was largely a studio and trade press invention, when in reality they had always been good friends. But who knows or cares? Whatever their personal relationship was like off screen, they were a terrific duo onscreen.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Strange Impersonation

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The only plot elements in Strange Impersonation that are not utterly predictable are completely preposterous. But everything else is right in the under-appreciated Anthony Mann’s 1946 noirish tale of two formidable women locked in intellectual and romantic combat.

The film was made just after the war, and could be interpreted in light of women’s changed roles and the desire of some people to change them back. Our heroine, Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall, in a multi-faceted performance) is an independent, brilliant researcher. When her suitor, Dr. Steven Lindstrom (William Gargan) tries to kiss her in the lab she withholds her lips and admonishes “Please dear, science.” Her able assistant, Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke, in her best film role other perhaps than Woman in Green), is a different sort of woman. Arline can’t understand how Nora is putting her career ahead of marrying Dr. Lindstrom. During a dangerous experiment, Arline proves to be the ultimate frenemy; disfigurement, murder, plastic surgery, stolen identity, and romantic double dealing ensue.

Lindstrom’s character is actually too dull for these powerhouse women to be fighting over, so forget him and enjoy the sparks between the female leads. Hillary Brooke was a much better actress than her appearances on the Abbott and Costello show let her demonstrate, and her malicious charm is in full flower here. The film’s budget looks to have been about 50 cents, but Mann makes the most of it by setting up some intriguing camera shots and keeping the pacing brisk. Props to the UCLA Film Restoration team for their work on the now sharp-looking print of this old movie.

A great film? No. A good film that is worth 68 minutes of your time? Absolutely yes.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama Mystery/Noir

Get Carter

How appealing an actor is Sir Michael Caine? Put it this way: While watching him play Colonel Steiner in The Eagle Has Landed, a lot of otherwise sensible film goers find themselves rooting for the Nazis.

In the classic 1971 Brit gangster film, Caine’s likability and magnetism are in full flower, as he somehow makes us care about and even identify with Jack Carter, a thoroughly nasty mob enforcer bent on revenge. In the dreamlike opening of the film, we learn that Carter works for some sleazy, Kray-esque London crime lords who discourage him from investigating the death of his brother in Newcastle. Jack wasn’t close to his brother — indeed as the film progresses we find out he treated his brother horribly — yet something in Jack can’t accept his sibling’s mysterious death.

He heads to Newcastle on his own, a very risky proposition given the rough criminals who run the city (led by John Osborne — yes THAT John Osborne, in a quirkily effective performance). But it’s no more risky than seducing and planning to run off with his boss’ girlfriend (A stunning and believable Britt Ekland), which Carter is also doing as he tries to determine how and why his brother died. Indeed, Carter seems drawn to danger: The more threats he receives to drop his investigation the more determined he becomes to pursue it to its conclusion.

Carter also has to contend with an old rival named Eric (Ian Hendry). As a Newcastle criminal with “eyes like piss holes in the snow”, Hendry well portrays a mixture of fear and loathing of Carter, which is apparently what he felt for Caine. On the set, Hendry was sometimes drunk and openly bitter about Caine’s greater success as a star, and those emotions come out to advantage in the two men’s performances.

The other star of this film is the City of Newcastle, which is dear to me both because I lived there and because I grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a time when it too was a struggling industrial city on the skids. Newcastle is bleak and tough, but also has character and spirit. The feeling Geordies have for Get Carter is remarkable. A group of them even tried to stop the city from tearing down an old car park because it appeared in one of the movie’s many memorable confrontations between Carter and the gangsters of Newcastle.

A young Mike Hodges came out of nowhere to brilliantly direct this gritty and involving film, one of only two great movies he made in his long and uneven career (the other is Croupier). Many directors would have overdone the violent scenes, but Hodges clearly understood that fewer and less graphic scenes actually have more impact, especially with a star like Michael Caine who can go from ice cold to pure savagery and back at the drop of a hat. It makes his character, and the film, fraught with electrifying menace.

The clip I am posting is not strictly speaking a trailer. Rather, it’s the great Roy Budd playing his super-cool theme music, accompanied with scenes from the movie. If you have seen the film before, look fast for an important co-passenger on the train with Carter as he heads north.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Ride the Pink Horse

Ride the Pink Horse' Hits Criterion: Edges of the Frame

I have recommended Dorothy Hughes’ dark novel In a Lonely Place and its classic film adaptation. Almost as good is a 1947 adaptation of a crime thriller she set in her home town of Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ride the Pink Horse. Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, two of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, adapted her book, contributing their trademark biting noir dialogue along the way.

The story opens with a man named Gagin (Robert Montgomery) arriving in a town near the U.S.-Mexico border. The disillusioned, rootless, ex-GI is the ultimate film noir protagonist (though the cynical, hard drinking ,private eye vies for the distinction) and Gagin is the apotheosis of the type. Gagin’s come to town to find the mobster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), who killed his army buddy. But Gagin’s not there to murder Hugo, or even to turn him over to the federal agent (Art Smith) who’s been on Hugo’s trail for years. Rather, the cynical Gagin just wants a payoff for some incriminating information he possesses. Intrigue and brutality follow.

The story unfolds a bit too slowly, but atmosphere fills in nicely for plot development, including what for the period was an unusually positive portrayal of Mexican culture and Mexican people. Gagin is dismissive of the locals at first, but in addition to helping him survive, they prove to be almost the only decent people in a town populated with violent gringos like Gagin and Hugo. Thomas Gomez is particularly compelling as the operator of a merry go round (hence the film’s name). For his performance, he became the first Hispanic actor in history to be nominated for an Oscar.

Thomas Gomez in Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

The key creative force behind the film is Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth of Bewitched fame), who had just left MGM because they didn’t want to let him direct the films in which he starred (Even if profitable, his famously gimmicky Lady in the Lake may have been why). Producer Joan Harrison was open to Montgomery working on both sides of the camera and got Universal on board. He fares well as a director here, giving the talented supporting cast a chance to shine (indeed they outshine him, his acting is only okay).

Montgomery also continues his penchant for unusual visuals. The opening tracking shot, which runs for several minutes, is extremely well done and one wonders if this was a rehearsal for cinematographer Russell Metty, who later created with Orson Welles probably the most famous opening extended take in history (in Touch Of Evil). I also liked how in Montgomery’s first meeting with femme fatale Andrea King, he puts the camera behind his character, looking over his shoulder at her as they size each other up. We can see her face, but we can’t see his, which is unnerving in a way that works. There’s also a creative if brutal shot from a camera on a merry go round, repeatedly giving the audience a glimpse of an ongoing beating.

Ride the Pink Horse was hard to find for many years, but you can probably track it down on line or on a classic films channel. It’s worth the extra effort to view this sturdy and unusual entry in the noir genre.