Saturday, November 26, 2016

Stubs - All My Sons

All My Sons (1948) Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Mady Christians, Louisa Horton, Howard Duff, Frank Conroy, Lloyd Gough, Arlene Franks, Henry Morgan. Directed by Irving Reis. Screenplay by Chester Erskine. Based on the play All My Sons by Arthur Miller as produced by Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Walter Fried and Herbert Harris. Produced by Chester Erskine.  Run Time: 94 min. USA Black and White. Film Noir, Drama

Arthur Miller is not a name that you would immediately connect with film noir. An award-winning playwright and future husband to Marilyn Monroe, Miller had been writing plays since 1936, but didn’t really have a major hit on Broadway until 1947, when his play All My Sons ran for 328 performances from January 29, 1947 until November 8. The play, which starred Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden, would win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, beating out a little play from Eugene O’Neil entitled “The Iceman Cometh.” The play would also win the Tony Award for Best Author for Miller and the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play, for director Elia Kazan.

The original 1947 Broadway production starred  (l to r) Arthur Kennedy, Karl Malden,
Beth Miller, Ed Begley and Lois Wheeler.

So obviously, the play came to Hollywood with pretty high credentials. As with any film adaptations, changes were required, not only for the transition to a new media, but also to satisfy the Production Code that was very much entrenched in Hollywood by the end of the 1940s.

Chester Erskine, best known at the time as the writer, director and producer of The Egg and I (1947), wrote and produced the adaptation. The film began production in October 1947. While the film was to be shot on location in Santa Rosa, severe weather caused the studio, Universal, to rethink that idea. Instead, much of the outdoor scenery was shot on a production stage. The Western Stove Company in Culver City doubled as Keller’s factory. Some scenes were shot on the factory floor and real employees of Western Stove appear in the film.

The film opens in suburban America. Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson) is raking the leaves when his son Chris (Burt Lancaster) comes out of the house on his way to pick up Ann Deever (Louisa Horton) at the train station. They talk about Chris’s mother, Kate (Mady Christians), who had another bad night worrying about Larry, who three years before went MIA off the coast of China. Kate still holds out hope that Larry is still alive. Joe is less hopeful than Kate about their son’s fate, but every week they find someone who has been MIA, why can’t one of them be Larry.

Chris though is ready to move on. He informs his father that he intends to ask Ann to marry him. But Joe insists he can’t do that as long as Larry might be alive, Ann after all is his fiancĂ©e. But Chris is adamant about it and is willing to give up everything he has at home to be with her. Joe reminds him that he’s the heir to his company and really wants him to stay. If he must marry Ann, Joe asks that he talk to his mother before he does. Satisfied, Chris leaves for the train station.

Chris (Burt Lancaster) brings Ann (Louisa Horton) back to her hometown.

When Chris drives Ann back to his house, they run into the neighbors, Jim (Lloyd Gough) and his wife Sue (Arlene Francis). Jim is the local doctor trying to carve out a little “me time” on a Sunday, while Sue is his supportive wife and resident gossip. When Joe sees Ann, he is thrilled to see her, treating her like she’s his own daughter. Kate, on the other hand, is cool bordering on cold. She doesn’t want Ann back, not because of her being a reminder of absent son Larry, she has left his bedroom as a shrine for that. Rather, she is worried about what her being back will mean to everything Joe has built up.

Jim (Lloud Gough) is a local doctor trying to enjoy a Sunday with his wife.

It’s clear that Ann’s arrival back in town carries with it more weight than a girl returning to her hometown. Her family has history here, dark history as it turns out. The truth is slowly drawn out over the first half of the movie. We learn that her father is in prison, but that’s about all. The whole town still talks about it, she’s told.

As in any small town at the time, the neighbors drop over at the drop of a hat, including Frank (Harry Morgan going through his Henry phase) and Lydia (Elisabeth Fraser). Frank has been busy working on a horoscope for Larry at Kate’s request. Frank tells anyone who will listen that Larry went missing on what was supposed to be a good day for him, so he’s probably still alive. His proclamation rattles everyone and he goes back home. Lydia hangs out a while longer before she, too, has to get back to attend to their two small children, four and two years old.

Their celebratory lobster dinner is about to be interrupted.

Joe has the idea that the four of them will go to dinner at the lake, something they used to do, to celebrate Ann’s homecoming. But when their dinner is served, a drunken former employee, Mrs. Hamilton (Helen Brown), approaches the table and accuses Joe of being a murderer. Joe tries to ignore her, but as her voice rises, so does his dander. He is about to strike her when the waiters intervene and throw Mrs. Hamilton out. Even though he wants to ignore the scene and get back to their lobster tail dinner, Kate and Ann wish to leave, so they do.

The drive back from the lake is much more subdued.

When they get back to the Keller home, Kate goes up to bed. Joe tells Chris to take Ann out to dinner at a roadhouse and the two drive off. But instead of eating out, they end up at a lover’s lane with a view of the town. There, Chris finally tells Ann how he feels about her and she reciprocates his feelings. The two leave engaged to be married.

While they’re gone, Ann’s brother, George, calls the house from Springfield, which is where their father is in prison. Ann speaks to him, but tells him explicably she doesn’t want to talk about what he wants to tell her over the phone, insisting they talk when she’s back in Chicago.

The next day, it’s back to work at the appliance factory, where the saying is “if you want to know, ask Joe.” He is very experienced and hands on, which the other employees seem to appreciate. Ann shows up early to drive the men home, but Joe insists on staying, though he lets Chris leave early, even though he had come in late.

On the floor of the factory, the saying is "If you want to know, ask Joe" (Edward G. Robinson).

Back at the house, Kate tells Ann that George has been calling from the station, demanding that she come and pick him up. But since Ann was out, Kate asked Jim to go to the station. Sue is over wondering if anyone has seen Jim. In passing, Sue tells Ann that everyone in town thinks Joe was guilty, but just outsmarted her father. Ann is confused, but Sue insists that’s the truth. She’s there, when Jim arrives with George (Howard Duff). A newly minted lawyer, George has been to see their father and now believes his story about the incident that put him in prison. Things start to come out a little more.

Kate (Mady Christians) melts George's (Howard Duff) cold exterior.

Apparently, their father, Herbert, had been sent to prison for shipping bad cylinders that led to 21 plane crashes, killing dozens of American soldiers. Joe had also been accused, but had convinced a jury that he was sick at home and knew Herbert had sent the parts knowing they wouldn’t hold up.

George orders his sister to pack her things and come back to Chicago with him that night. When Joe arrives, things get tense. But Kate intercedes. She manages to melt George’s cold exterior, after all, she helped raise him and Ann after their mother died. The other neighbor, Lydia, comes over and it is clear that she and George had been close before the war. But with George off fighting and Frank a year too old for the draft, she married him. You can see the sense of love and loss in George. He relents and stays for dinner, but during the conversation his mood changes. Joe is adamant that he’s never been sick a day in his life to the point that George puts two and two together. Kate tries to deflect George, but he now knows his father was telling him the truth. George gets up to leave and this time Ann is ready to go too, despite Chris’ protests.

The conversation at dinner gets tense as George's mood changes.

But George isn’t alone in doubting Joe; so does Chris and for the first time. Joe doesn’t feel he owes his son any explanation, but Chris thinks differently. He takes a few days off work. Joe thinks he’s travelling, but doesn’t know Chris has gone to see Herbert in prison. In a change from the original play, Herbert’s character is actually seen. Herbert is surprised to see Chris and tells him the story of the cylinders.

In a flashback, we see Joe and Herbert during the war. The plant has been militarized and is making airplane parts rather than home appliances; working practically 24/7 to meet the war effort. The floor manager, who is also the government inspector, has found problems with the latest batch of cylinders the plant has churned out, which the Army is expecting to ship the following Monday. Delaying the shipment would mean financial ruin for Keller and Deever, their company. Keller has too much sweat equity in the company to let it go under. He tells George that fiscally, they have to ship the cylinders, knowing they’ll malfunction. But when the day to ship comes, Joe is home “sick” and George doesn’t feel like he can authorize it. The next day, the Army is demanding the cylinders. George calls Joe, who is still at home. Joe, over the phone, tells George that he’ll take full responsibility for the shipment. But of course, he doesn’t. Joe manages to walk and Herbert ends up in jail. Chris isn’t quite sure he believes it, but on his way out, Herbert reminds Chris, “If you need to know, ask Joe.”

Meanwhile, Ann has returned from Chicago for Joe, since despite everything she still loves him. But Kate is still holding out hope that Larry is still alive; letting Joe and Ann marry would be to admit he’s dead. But Ann is convinced that Larry is dead and her proof is a letter Larry sent her on the eve of his last mission. Kate reads the letter and is devastated. She begs Ann not to show the letter to Joe and she agrees. Ann goes to a friend’s house to wait for George to return.

That night, Joe is at the plant playing his weekly card games with his workers and one of his biggest customers, McGraw (Herbert Haywood). Chris arrives as the game is breaking up. McGraw complains about the doors on some of the new models his stores received and Joe tells them to ship 
them back and he’ll repair them at no charge.

Chris finds Joe at the plant playing cards with one of his customers, McGraw (Herbert Haywood).

When they’re finally alone, Chris tells his father where he’s been and confronts him about wanting to know the truth about the shipment. Under some duress, Joe finally confirms that what Herbert said was all true. But he says he reiterates that he had no choice but to send the shipment or he would have lost the business. Chris doesn’t take learning the truth well. After striking his father, Chris leaves.

But Chris doesn’t go home. Later that night, Kate and Joe are sitting up waiting for his return. Kate pleads with Joe to finally admit what he’d done. But once again, Joe feels that his actions were justified to save the business and protect his family.

Ann thinks she knows where Chris is and drives up the lover’s lookout Chris had taken her to a few days before. Chris tells her that Joe was guilty as charged, but insists he doesn’t fully understand the impact of his actions. To help Chris understand, she gives him Larry’s letter she had earlier shown to Kate. After reading it, Chris goes back home to confront Joe with it.

Kate tries to stop him, but Chris reads the letter to his father. In it, Larry describes how he’s read the news about the faulty equipment shipment, the tragic deaths as a result and Herbert and Joe’s trial. Larry finds his father’s betrayal and his own shame unbearable. He writes that he doesn’t plan to return from his mission the next day.

Chris reads brother Larry's letter to their father.

Joe admits that his guilt always included losing Larry, but he now realizes that all the soldiers who died were all his sons. He retreats into his room and while Chris and Kate discuss next steps, Joe shoots himself. Chris tries to keep his mother from going in, but she insists that she’s taken care of him their whole life together and she’s not going to stop now.

A few days later, Joe and Ann prepare to leave town together; Kate encourages them to go live their life together.

Like the play it was based on, All My Sons, the film, received strong reviews and even won an award from the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Written American Drama for Chester Erskine, as well as the Robert Meltzer Award (Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene) again for Erskine.

But his work is only one of the bright spots in the film.

Edward G. Robinson was one of the great actors to come out of the studio system. While he appeared in a handful of films dating back to Arms and the Woman (1916), he didn’t really become a star until 1931’s Little Caesar with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. While many of his better known roles were starring as gangsters, in films like Smart Money (1931), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), Bullets or Ballots (1936), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Larceny, Inc. (1942) and Key Largo (1948), he was a very versatile actor. He plays every part like it’s really him and his Joe Keller seems a very natural multi-dimensional character.

When Burt Lancaster came to Hollywood, he jumped into film noir right away with The Killers (1946). All My Sons would his fifth film and his star power jumps off the screen. Like Robinson, it’s hard, if not impossible, to think of a bad role Lancaster played in his long career. He gives Chris just enough naivety to make him believable.

The other actors are also good. Henry Morgan is usually a treat to see even if the role is as small as the comedic relief he plays here in All My Sons. Howard Duff has a difficult part with George Deever. On the one hand it has to be tough and unfeeling, on the other, he has to believably melt when Kate Keller puts on the charm. While the audience I saw the film with at the Film Noir Foundation screening at the Egyptian in Los Angeles laughed, the transition would have been difficult for any actor to pull off, you therefore have to give Duff credit for trying.

Sometimes in old movies, you discover actors or actresses that you’ve never seen before. In the case of All My Sons, this was my first time to see either of the lead actresses. Mady Christians, who played Joe’s wife, Kate, was an actress nearing the end of her career. A German immigrant, Christians had been in films in Europe, including being in the first German full sound film, It’s You I Have Loved (1929). All My Sons was one of her last films; she would appear in only one more, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).

While Christians was at the end of her career, Louisa Horton, who played Ann, was appearing in her debut. After this, she would start acting on the new medium, television, and would continue to concentrate her acting there, making her last appearance in 1990.

All My Sons was Louisa Horton's film acting debut.

Both Christians and Horton are very good in their roles. Christians’ Kate is as stubborn as she is protective of her family. She has a hard time letting go of Larry, but her plight must have been common for mothers and fathers immediately after World War II. As long as she holds onto his memory, then he’s not really dead.

For a relative newcomer, Horton more than holds her own acting alongside the likes of Robinson, Lancaster and Christians. While Ann is no great beauty, her love for Chris comes from not just physical attraction, but also from a shared past and comfort with each other. The attraction seems more real this way.

While All My Sons comes from the theater, it doesn’t come across as a filmed play. A lot of the credit for that belongs to Chester Erskine who wrote the adaptation as well as produced the film and to director Irving Reis. A former director on Broadway, Erskine had been working in Hollywood since 1932, where he wrote, directed and produced movies, including writing, producing and directing, The Egg and I, a comedy with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray and Take One False Step 
(1949). He would also write and produce Witness to Murder (1954) with Barbara Stanwyck.

Chester Erskine surrounded by Horton, Robinson and Lancaster on the set of All My Sons.

Reis would get his start as a writer for radio, before starting at Paramount in 1938 as a scriptwriter. While there, he would study film direction. He would take that up full time, leaving Paramount in 1940 for next door RKO Pictures. He would direct George Sanders in a series of Falcon films: The Gay Falcon (1941), A Date with the Falcon (1942) and The Falcon Takes Over (1942), as well as such films as Hitler’s Children (1943), Crack-Up (1946) and The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer (1947).

Both men had shown they could work in a variety of genres and their collaboration on All My Sons helped rise it above the normal Film Noir fare.

While I went in without any expectations, I left very impressed with the story, the acting and the directing. All My Sons is not only a good film noir, but also a good movie and if you have a chance to see it, I would say take it.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Stubs - Take One False Step

Take One False Step (1949): Starring William Powell, Shelley Winters, Marsha Hunt, Dorothy Hart, James Gleason, Felix Bressart, Art Baker, Sheldon Leonard. Directed by Chester Erskine. Screenplay by Irwin Shaw and Chester Erskine. Produced by Chester Erskine and Jack Hively. Black and White U.S. Run Time: 94. Film Noir, Comedy

Film Noir comes in all flavors. While we have the notion that every hero is Humphrey Bogart or Burt Lancaster, some are William Powell. And with Powell, you get a different hero than you do with Bogart or Lancaster. Perhaps best known as Nick Charles in the very popular Thin Man franchise of films, Powell’s forte is light-hearted comedy. So, it should not come as no surprise that Take One False Step is a lighter comedic Film Noir.

Take One False Step was Chester Erskine’s film follow-up to All My Sons (1948). Following the success of that film, Universal was probably happy to give him leeway in his next film. Perhaps not feeling as comfortable with straight out drama, he chose to fall back on comedy, a genre that he had success in prior with such films as The Egg and I (1947), which he also directed and co-wrote.

This film was screened at the recent 17th Annual Festival of Film Noir at the Egyptian theater by host Eddie Muller, the President of Film Noir Foundation. While he told the audience that the film contained a lot of shots of Los Angeles in the late 1940’s, most of the action actually takes place up in the Bay Area, in and around San Francisco and Berkeley. Filming, which ran from January 5 to February 8, 1949, actually mostly took place at Universal Studios. It originally opened on June 3, 1949, in Los Angeles.

The film’s opening credits help set the tone, as they are intercut with a montage of shots showing people’s legs and feet about to make wrong steps. It’s clear from the get-go that this film is not going to be dark.

Well-known educator Andrew “Andy” Gentling (William Powell) is visiting Los Angeles to raise funds for a new university. In a bar, he used to frequent he runs into a former girlfriend he knew during the war, Catherine Sykes (Shelley Winters). It’s not necessarily by mistake either as she has read he was going to be in town. While Andy is happy to see her, he’s now married and tries to discourage her from flirting with him.

Andy Gentling (William Powell) in Los Angeles on business
runs into a former girlfriend, Catherine Sykes (Shelley Winters).

He leaves her and goes back to his hotel room to meet with his two colleagues, Professors Morris Avrum (Felix Bressart) and Henry Pritchard (Art Baker) to map out their strategy for their big meeting in the morning with their hoped-for benefactor. Soon after his colleagues say good-night, Catherine calls.

She invites him to a party she’s throwing, and while Andrew s reluctant to go, she cajoles him into accepting. But before leaving, Andy telephones his wife Helen (Dorothy Hart) in New York and invites her to fly to Los Angeles to be with him.

When Andy gets to the party, he turns out to be Catherine's only guest, but they are not alone. Their l mutual friend Martha Wier (Marsha Hunt), in whose home Catherine is entertaining, appears. Like Catherine, Martha met Andy during the war. She explains to Andy that Catherine has become morose and self-destructive even since she married Arnold Sykes (Jess Barker).

Andy turns  out to be the only guest at Catherine's party,  is
throwing at old friend Martha Wier's (Marsha Hunt) house.

Catherine insists on Andy taking her for a drive, so he takes her home, but she refuses to get out of his car. Claiming that Andy and a man named Freddie Blair are the only two men she’s ever loved, Catherine tries to kiss Andy. This flusters Andy, who jerks the car forward. Stopping suddenly, Andy causes Catherine to hit her head on the windshield, cutting her head. After Andy gives Catherine his scarf to apply to her cut, he leaves the car and waits for her to get out. Returning back to the car, he sees her standing outside her house before driving off.

Andy gives Catherine a ride back to her house.

The next day, Andy and his two colleagues met with A. K. Arnspiger (Paul Harvey), the millionaire they hope will fund their university. During the meeting, Andy’s attention is diverted by a newspaper on Arnspiger’s desk. The headline story is about Catherine’s disappearance and presumed murder. Andy is visibly rattled by the story, in which his bloodied scarf is identified as a piece of evidence. His reaction causes the conservative Arnspiger to reconsider his investment, so Andy excuses himself.

Andy with Professors Morris Avrum (Felix Bressart) and Henry Pritchard
 (Art Baker)  try to persuade millionaire A. K. Arnspiger (Paul Harvey) to back their university.

Back at his hotel room, Martha shows up and persuades Andy not to go to the police until he’s done a little investigating first before the police connect him to her. She tells him about a diary that Catherine kept and advises him to retrieve it from Catherine's closet, while she keeps Sykes busy out of the house.

Martha persuades Andy not to go to the police until he's done some investigation on his own.

By chance, Andy discovers that Catherine left her purse in his rental car and uses her keys to gain entrance into her house. But even though Sykes is away, his dog, a German Shepherd, is still there and attacks Andy. He manages to lock the dog in the den before heading for the closet in the bedroom.

This lobby card depicts the scene in which a German Shepherd
attacks Andy when he breaks into someone else's house.

Meanwhile, the police investigating the case, Captain Gledhill (James Gleason) and his assistant, Pacciano (Sheldon Leonard) show up to search the house. Andy hides in Catherine's closet while the detectives search the house. Andy overhears the detectives discuss Sykes's gambling connections as well as their plan to tail Martha.
When they’re alerted to Sykes's imminent return, the police hastily depart. Andy is not so lucky and he is attacked by the now-loose dog. In his struggle, Andy is bitten before he can defend himself, striking the dog with a heavy object in order to make his escape.
Returning home, Sykes finds his injured dog and assumes that Freddie, with whom he had stolen money from the syndicate is responsible and calls the police.
Meanwhile, Andy and Martha go through Catherine’s diary and find Freddie's San Francisco phone number. Deciding that Freddie is involved in Catherine's disappearance. Andy decides to go to San Francisco the next day. But before he leaves, he runs into his colleagues. They still need him to help with Arnspiger and quickly make plans for Andy to give a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, which they’ll have Arnspiger attend.
Meanwhile, Gledhill tells the press that the dog that bit the intruder has rabies and that the man he’s bitten is in dire need of care or else he will die. Andy hears this on the radio while he’s driving north. He stops at elderly Dr. Montgomery Thatcher’s (Houseley Stevenson) office hoping to get care. 
Hoping to avoid detection, Andy lies about the circumstances of his bite, but he grows impatient. The doctor asks a lot of questions and balks at his plans to take him to the hospital and to call the police, all part of the protocol for a potentially rabid dog bite. Andy flees just ahead of the doctor connecting him to the police reports.
Not far away, Andy encounters a police roadblock, but with the help of Horace (Tommy Ivo) who gives the police bad information for a nickel bribe, Andy manages to avoid being found out. After arriving at his hotel, Andy calls Freddie, who agrees to speak with him but only on condition that they meet on a street corner later that night.
Dr. Markheim (Howard Freeman), an influential physician, arrives at Andy’s hotel room. He notices the bandage on Andy’s hand, but Andy won’t let him examine it. Markheim is the one who has made the arrangements for Andy’s lecture that night in Berkeley. He brags about how his influence and Andy puts it to the test, asking him to find out the address for Freddie’s phone number. One quick call to a contact on the police and he has it.

Dr. Markheim (Howard Freeman) makes a house call to Andy's hotel room in San Francisco.
When Andy arrives at the address, he sees a bruised Sykes leaving and offers him a ride. But they don’t get too far before Sykes suspects Andy has been sent by the syndicate and his panic leads to Andy crashing his car into a roadside tree. Sykes escapes, but Andy is left unconscious; note this is years before seatbelts.
Everyone shows up for Andy’s lecture in Berkeley, including Dr. Markheim, professors Avrum and Pritchard, Arnspiger and Helen, who has come with Martha from Los Angeles. Gledhill and Pacciano, who are following Martha are also there, but there is no Andy. Another speaker is called upon to lecture until Andy arrives about an hour and a half late. Despite having kept the audience waiting, they are receptive to Andy’s lecture.
Afterward, he quickly leaves to keep his appointment with Freddie; just moments before Pacciano gets word that the bloody scarf has been identified as Andy’s.
Andy makes his rendezvous with Freddie, but is once again taken for someone sent by the syndicate, Freddie tries to bribe Andy into letting him go. But when Andy asks about Catherine, Freddie is no longer afraid and starts to beat Andy up. But the police have been following Andy and soon show up on the scene. Freddie makes a run for it and gets caught on some train tracks where he is hit and killed by a train. Meanwhile, Andy manages to escape unnoticed.
Returning to Freddie’s house, he breaks in. In an upstairs bedroom, he finds Catherine very much alive, well and packing to go away with Freddie. When asked for an explanation, she tells Andy that the night she disappeared, Freddie, who had stolen Sykes’ share of the syndicate’s money, drag her away with him. As a way of getting back at Freddie, Sykes called the police and reported Catherine had been the victim of foul play.

Andy finds Catherine alive and well in Freddie's house.

While they’re driving back, Catherine makes another play for Andy. When he refuses to run away with her, she jumps out of the car and threatens to throw herself over a seaside cliff. Just as she is about to go over, Andy grabs her. At that moment, Gledhill and Pacciano drive up and see Catherine is safe in Andy’s arms.
Cleared, Andy starts to hurry to a hospital to get treatment, when Gledhill reveals that the rabies story was only a hoax.
The film ends with Andy laying the cornerstone for the new university, with his wife Helen looking on. But also in the crowd is a still affectionate Catherine who comes up on stage. As he backs away, Andy is about to take a false step into a batch of cement.

No real walk on the dark side here and not a totally satisfying film if you’re looking for a typical film noir We definitely have a femme fatale, Catherine, though she is a really damaged character. Married to one man, having an affair with another and putting the moves on a third. Still, she manages to manipulate Andy, though not with the results she had wanted, which itself is typical for how a lot of film noirs end up.

For the subject matter and tone of Take One False Step, William Powell is definitely the right choice.  He rarely disappoints in any movie I’ve seen him in. Powell’s Hollywood career dates back to a silent Sherlock Holmes (1922). Powell’s first break came opposite Emil Jennings in The Last Command (1928). That film led to his first starring role as amateur detective Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case (1929) opposite Louise Brooks.  While he played Vance in a series of films, he’s best known as Nick Charles in a series of Thin Man films at MGM, opposite Myrna Loy, with stops along the way as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Godfrey in My Man Godfrey (1936). His last film was the memorable Lt. Doc opposite Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts (1955).

Take One False Step comes towards the end of his career but it is obvious that he still has a screen presence. Still likable and watchable as an actor, he always seems ready to slip into Nick Charles, Andy just needs a few drinks to get there.

Shelley Winters may be best remembered as the heavyset actress she was in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), but she broke into films as the blonde bombshell type. After several films, in which she went uncredited, including Red River (1948), Winters began getting much-deserved credit in  films such as Larceny (1948) and Winchester ’73 (1950). But Shelley was more than just a pretty face, which she proved in A Place in the Sun (1951), for which she was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy.
Take One False Step finds her somewhere in between serious actress and blonde bombshell. Catherine is not an easy character to play. She is depressed, alcoholic and generally lost. She sees Andy as the last steady man she loved and can’t get over the fact that their lives have gone in different directions. She might not want to get left behind, but she has been.

The other small roles are left in the capable hands of character actors like James Gleason, Sheldon Leonard, and Houseley Stevenson. While they’re all good in their roles, they are no really enough to save the film.

Generally, the film suffers from an over convoluted plot without much of a payoff. Reviews of the film at the time were not necessarily overflowing with adulation. Bosley Crowther, the film critic at The New York Times at the time, referred to the film as a “curiously mixed-up mystery picture” and worst of all “drab”. Not would be considered great word of mouth.

While Take One False Step might not satisfy your Film Noir hunger, it is not really a bad film. Not great, but maybe the passing of time has made it appear less drab than Crowther thought. If you’re a fan of William Powell’s then you will definitely want to see this film. But this isn’t the first film you should see if you want to learn what Film Noir is all about. 

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stubs – Destination Murder

Destination Murder (1950) Starring: Joyce MacKenzie, Stanley Clements, Hurd Hatfield. Directed by Edward L. Cahn. Screenplay by Don Martin. Produced by Edward L. Cahn and Maurie M. Suess. Run Time: 72 minutes U.S. Black and White Crime, Film Noir

Destination Murder starts with a very interest plot point. During the intermission at a movie theater, Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements), tells his date he’s going outside to get a smoke, but instead leaves the theater in a car driven by a man named Armitage (Albert Dekker). While they’re driving, Jackie is told to put on his deliveryman outfit.

Arriving at the home of Arthur Mansfield (Franklyn Farnum), Jackie pretends to have a delivery but instead shoots Mansfield as he stands in the doorway. Mansfield’s daughter, Laura (Joyce MacKenzie), who has been away at school, reaches the door just in time to see Jackie jump over the gate, get back in the car and drive away.

Lieutenant Brewster (James Flavin) has Laura look at delivery boys in a line up and while she can’t positively identify anyone, Jackie is one that she feels might have been involved. But without a positive ID, the police have no choice and let everyone, including Jackie, go free. Lt. Brewster offers Laura a ride home, but she insists on taking a cab home.

A line up of delivery boys looking for the killer of Arthur Mansfield.

Outside, Jackie takes notice of her and offers to give her a ride home. She accepts, but is cautious, not letting Jackie immediately know where she lives. Feeling she can trust him, she lets him walk her to her door. He asks if he can see her again and she says yes. Excitedly, Jackie leaps over the gate, just like he had the night before. Laura immediately calls Brewster, but he tells her that’s not enough evidence to make an arrest.

Laura (Joyce MacKenzie) goes out on a date with Jackie (Stanley Clements), her father's killer.

Undeterred, Laura goes out on a date with Jackie, trying to keep her own tabs on the suspect. He takes her to a gambling club where he promptly gets in over his head to the tune of $1500. Looking for quick cash, Jackie drives to the Vogue club, where nightclub manager Stretch Nelson (Hurd Hatfield) tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Jackie from seeing Armitage, who has his office upstairs.

Jackie tries to get more money from Armitage to pay off his gambling debts.

Inside Armitage’s office is Alice Wentworth (Myrna Dell), a blonde that Armitage is in love with. When Jackie asks for more money to cover his gambling debt, Armitage, who refers to himself in the third person, asks for music. Stretch starts the player piano. Armitage then beats the young boy and has Stretch throw him out of the club.

Laura, who has been waiting in the car, takes Jackie home but returns the next day. Wanting to learn more, she asks for a job as the club’s cigarette girl, using the name Laura Ashton. Stretch, reluctant at first, agrees to take her on. Alice, who has a thing for Stretch, is obviously jealous and makes a play for Stretch, which he rejects.
Stretch suggests to Armitage that they kill Jackie and make it look like he is an accomplice of Frank Niles (John Dehner), a business rival of Mansfield, whom the police have put in jail for the crime.

Laura gets a job as a cigarette girl at the nightclub.

But before that plan can happen, Alice goes to Jackie and makes him a proposition. She tells him to write a letter confessing to the murder and to use that to blackmail more money from Armitage. She’ll hold the letter for safekeeping for a split of the cash. The night Jackie returns to the club, Laura is there selling and avoids Jackie seeing her face. The blackmail plan works and the two split $5000 with an eye to milk Armitage again and again.

Alice (Myrna Dell) pitches to Jackie the idea of blackmailing Armitage.

Stretch suggests that Armitage use Alice’s charms to get the letter back from Jackie. Later, Alice sees Jackie with Laura and when Jackie tells her that he’s dating the victim’s daughter, Alice realizes what’s going on. She takes the letter to Stretch at his apartment and tells him of the blackmail plot, offering to cut Stretch in on the deal. But unbeknownst to her, Armitage is in the next room and overhears everything. Alice is killed there in the office, with a player piano once again covering up the noise. (Did they move the one from Armitage’s office for the occasion?) While Armitage is murdering Alice, Stretch pretends to burn the confession, hiding the real letter under a couch cushion. Stretch tells Armitage to get rid of Alice’s body.

Alice offers to let Stretch (Hurd Hatfield) in on the blackmail scheme.

Later, Lt. Brewster informs Laura that Jackie has been found dead in an apparent suicide. He tells her that they have their own suspicions about Armitage’s involvement and he, once again, tries to dissuade her from her own investigation.

But Laura starts to date Stretch, hoping to get closer to Armitage. When Armitage makes a play for Laura, Stretch reveals himself to be the real boss of the operations. He wants Armitage to learn his place and also sees a way of implicating Armitage for the murder of Laura’s father. Laura falls in love with Stretch and after he proposes marriage, she confesses everything to him and asks his help in bringing Armitage to justice.

Armitage (Albert Dekker) makes a play for Laura.

Stretch writes his own version of Jackie’s confession, but implicating Armitage and tricks Armitage into meeting him, under the guise of giving him ownership of the Vogue. While Laura waits in the other room, Stretch drugs Armitage and puts a gun in his hand, which he fires. When Laura hears the gun shot, she picks up the gun Stretch has left for her and goes into the office. Stretch acts like he’s in danger and Laura shoots Armitage dead to protect him.

While Armitage’s murder has been ruled self-defense, Brewster tells her that the police suspect Stretch is involved with her father’s murder. Niles, who has been in jail for his own protection, is sent by Brewster to tell Stretch that he’s taking over Armitage’s territory for himself. Stretch tells him that he’s the real boss and offers to become Niles' partner, not knowing the police have planted listening devices and are recording everything.

Laura is sent into the office and informs Stretch that everything is being recorded. Stretch grabs for Niles’ gun and tries to take Laura hostage, but he is quickly gunned down by the police.

With the case finally wrapped up, Laura apologizes to Brewster for interfering with the police’s investigation. He commends her for her courage, but this time when she plans to take a cab home, he insists that a squad car take her.

Destination Murder was shot during the month of December 1949 by Prominent Pictures at the Motion Pictures Center Studios, one of the first homes of Metro Pictures and now the home of Red Studios Hollywood. RKO acquired the film from Prominent and released it on June 6, 1950. The film did not receive rave reviews, the premise was called “ridiculous and plot confused” by Herb Rau of The Miami News.

Now a little confusion can be a good thing with a film noir and while I agree that the premise is a little hard to believe (you know a film is in trouble when you have to use unbeknownst or a similar word more than once to describe the story), it is not the plot that bothers me so much as the wooden acting by pretty much everyone involved, especially Hurd Hatfield, an actor who had already found fame as the lead character in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), only his second film in Hollywood.

Joyce MacKenzie is perhaps best remembered as Jane in the Tarzan series of films starring Lex Baxter. Judging by her performance here, perhaps the monkeys were carrying her. Stanley Clements, who’s career was interrupted by service during World War II, never really made it big in Hollywood. After this film, he would end up replacing Leo Gorcey as Huntz Hall’s sidekick in The Bowery Boys series, appearing in eight films from 1956 to 1958.

Myrna Dell would start her film career as a dancer in A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940), but her status as starlet was as far as she would go. By comparison with the others in the cast, her performance, along with John Dehner’s as Frank Niles, seems lively.

Armitage, played by Albert Dekker, is a memorable character, but for all the wrong reasons. His referring to himself in the third-person seems unmotivated and gets tiresome pretty fast. And James Flavin as Lt. Brewster never seems quite right, even though I think I’ve seen him in similar roles before I saw this film.

While the title intrigued me, I never really got into the film as much as I wanted to. The plot and the acting just don’t seem up to par, even for an obvious “B” picture. Destination Murder is thin, to say the least, and not one I would recommend.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016) Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong,  Michael Stuhlbarg,  Benjamin Bratt,  Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton, Directed by Scott Derrickson. Screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill. Based on the Doctor Strange comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Produced by Kevin Feige. Runtime: 121 minutes. USA. Color. Fantasy, Science Fiction, Action

The 14th entry in the seemingly never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has opened with the usual bang this past weekend. Once again Marvel is digging deep into their vault, pulling out a relatively unknown superhero and putting them on the screen. We've seen them do this before with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Ant-Man (2015) and they've done it again with Doctor Strange. The films have all been successful at the box-office, even though the films have not always been as good as they might be.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a self-obsessed brain surgeon who finds his livelihood and self-esteem at risk when his hands are damaged beyond rehabilitation in a car accident. When his colleague and sometime lover, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), tries to help, he turns her away. During his rehab, he hears that Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic, managed to cure himself; Dr. Strange wants to know how. Jonathan tells him that he went to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal and Strange follows his path.

But the cure isn't medical, it's more magical, and Strange learns at the feet of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic mystic, and her right-hand man, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Strange is a voracious student and soon becomes a master sorcerer which puts him on a collision course with Dormammu of the Dark Dimension (Cumberbatch) and his minion, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who want to, wait for it, take over the world.

While all the films in the MCU are CGI dependent, Doctor Strange takes that to a new level, sort of think of it as Harry Potter meets Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010). Doctor Strange, who first appeared in comics in 1963, has been around long before the boy wizard was a twinkle in J.K. Rowling's eye, but his cinematic presence does draw some comparisons to that cinematic series since both deal with sorcerers and spells. But Doctor Strange goes places Harry never did. The mystical side of the story and the journey to a holy "man" to learn the mystical ways also recalls Nolan's Batman series.

A small sample of the special effects that dominate Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange has, perhaps, the most accomplished cast to appear in a Marvel movie. Tilda Swinton won an Academy Award for her role in 2007's Michael Clayton. Chiwetel Ejiofor was nominated for his lead performance in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Rachel McAdams was nominated for her role in Spotlight (2016). Cumberbatch has also been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Imitation Game (2014). These actors give the film a certain serious gravitas that the actors and script always seem to be working to balance.

There is humor amongst the special effects, though not as much as Deadpool (2016) or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some laughs are part of the Marvel-formula, as these films try very hard not to take themselves too seriously. Also true to form, the stories make changes as they are adapted from the pages of a comic book for the big screen. If you're like me, and have never read Doctor Strange, you might not notice that the Ancient One was originally not Celtic or a woman, but a Tibetan Man, which makes more sense given the placement of the story in Nepal. But if you don't know that, then it really isn't bothersome, as Swinton does a good job with her role.

Tilda Swinton channels her inner Tibetan man as the Ancient One.

For the most part, all the acting is good, which is another part of the formula. While I'm not a huge fan of Cumberbatch, he does do well as the titular Strange. Chiwetel Ejiofor is always interesting in the roles I've seen him in, going back to Serenity (2005), the film designed to bring closure to Joss Whedon's broken TV series, Firefly. He really has a presence. Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best known as TV's Dr. Hannibal Lecter, also demands the screen when he's on. He seems to have the face for villains. The only one who really feels underused is Rachel McAdams. Her role, which I believe was changed from love interest to past lover, seems almost to be an after thought to the story.

Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring
a lot of acting gravitas to their roles in Doctor Strange.

While I enjoyed the film, I didn't leave the theater with the same anxiousness to repeat the experience as I had most recently with Guardians. I can't quite shake the feeling that I'm beginning to feel obligated to see the MCU rather than desire to see them at this point, sort of the difference between taking a required course at college as opposed to an elective one. That's not a good way to feel going into a theater or on the way out.

If you're a fan of the MCU, then you will want to or have already seen Doctor Strange. But its a daunting thought that there are eight more films, four of them sequels, planned over the next three years. School's back in session when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits the screen in the "summer" of 2017. Maybe my attitude will change as that is one film I'm looking forward to seeing.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Stubs - Criss Cross (1949)

Criss Cross (1949) Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea. Directed by Robert Siodmak. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs. Based on the novel "Criss Cross" by Don Tracy. Produced by Michael Kraike. Run Time: 87 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime

While RKO and Warner Bros. may be closely associated with the film noir genre, they were far from being the only studios making such movies. All of the majors, including independents, were in the film noir business. One of those newly minted independents was Valley Studio, being formed by producer Mark Hellinger and his close friend, Humphrey Bogart. Hellinger was a former New York journalist turned film producer. He had come to Hollywood as an associate producer after the success of a film based on one of his own stories, The Roaring Twenties (1939).

At Warner Bros., Hellinger worked on such films as It All Came True (1940), Torrid Zone (1940), Brother Orchid (1940), They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941), several of which starred Bogart. But Hellinger was unhappy at the studio, having personal and professional conflicts with its head, Jack L. Warner. Hired away by Darryl F. Zanuck, Hellinger went to work at 20th Century Fox in 1941. While Hellinger would return briefly to Warner Bros., he would end up at Universal, where he would produce The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948), which would be released after his death.

But Hellinger was already planning his next move. He had purchased Don Tracy’s novel, Criss Cross, for his new production company with Bogart. Hellinger had already borrowed Burt Lancaster from Universal, whom he’d worked with on The Killers and Brute Force, and wanted for the lead. He also had signed director Robert Siodmak for the project, whom he had also worked with on The Killers. He even had his own story ideas for the film, having chosen a racetrack setting. But that was probably as far as he got. Even though he was only 44, Hellinger was in ill health, no doubt a result of his work hard party hard lifestyle.

On December 21, 1947, Hellinger died from a coronary thrombosis. While that spelled the end of Valley Studio, it didn’t mean the end of the adaptation of Criss Cross. Universal purchased the rights to the book from Hellinger’s estate and Lancaster and Siodmak were already committed to the project. Anthony Veiller was announced as the screenwriter, but he would be replaced by Daniel Fuchs. Likewise, the original producer, Jules Schermer, was replaced by Michael Kraike, just before the film went into production in mid-June 1948.

Shooting would take place on locations around Los Angeles, including Union Station, Angel's Flight, Bunker Hill, Terminal Island and a Spring Street hotel. By the end of July, filming would be finished. The finished film would be released to the public on January 19, 1949, a little over two years after Hellinger’s death.

The film opens with a clandestine meeting between
lovers, Steve (Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne De Carlo).

The film opens in the parking lot of a bar called the Round-Up. Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) is meeting with his married lover, Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo), reassuring her that they will be together. When Anna goes inside, her husband, Slim (Dan Duryea), is waiting for her. When Steve enters, he’s stopped by his friend, police lieutenant Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), who is seated at the bar. Pete tries to stop Steve from going further into the restaurant, but Steve can’t be persuaded. He goes into a backroom, where Slim is hosting a private party to celebrate his move, with Anna, to Detroit the next day.

Anna's husband, Slim (Dan Duryea), is throwing a farewell party before moving to Detroit the next day.

Pete is approached by patrons who want him to break up the ensuing fight, but by the time he bursts into the room, there is a knife on the floor and Steve is standing over Slim, who is supine on the floor. But neither wants to press charges and there is little that Pete can do.

What Pete doesn’t know, is that while Steve and Slim don’t like each other, the altercation was as much staged, as it was real, to fool him. The two are actually planning an armored car robbery, which is set to happen the next morning.

While there is usually a crew of three, one of the guards gets a call at the last minute that his wife is ill. Even though it is against regulations, Steve and Pop (Griff Barnett) leave to do the run a man short, which is part of Steve’s plans. It is obvious that Pop and Steve are more than just co-workers, that they’ve been friends for a long time.

The man in the back is supposed to be the third guard on the run but gets a call about his wife and leaves.

The movie then flashes back eight months, through Steve’s thoughts, to set up what has led Steve to the robbery. It begins with his return to Los Angeles after drifting around the country for two years, trying to forget Anna. He tells everyone that he’s come back home to take care of mother (Edna M. Holland) so that his younger brother can get married, but he knows it’s because he can’t get Anna out of his head.

He goes down to the Round-Up, their old haunt, and sees her dancing on the floor with another man (Tony Curtis, in his film debut). Steve watches from across the crowded room and is about to leave when Anna recognizes him. She calls him over and the two talk. You can sense the love the two still have for each other, but their tender moment is disrupted when Slim shows up.

Tony Curtis makes his film debut in Criss Cross, dancing with Anna at the Round-Up.

But the passion between Steve and Anna won’t go away and the two begin to see each other, even though she is still with Slim. This distresses both his mother and his lifelong friend Pete, since they both know how manipulative she can be. Then one night, Steve learns that Anna has married Slim in Yuma. Mad, but Steve still can’t stay away.

When he runs into her at Union Station, after Slim has taken the train to Las Vegas without her, the two meet again in secret. She tells Steve about how miserable she is with Slim, who had been pursuing her ever since her divorce from Steve. Slim hits her and she shows Steve the marks on her back as proof. She tells Steve that she only married Slim because Pete had threatened to arrest her and send her to prison if she continued to see Steve.

Anna shows Steve the marks on her back from her husband's abuse.

Later, at the Round-Up, a drunken Steve takes a swing at Pete for what he did to Anna. Pete admits to what he did and warns his friend not to cross Slim. But Steve doesn’t take the warning and continues to see Anna. One day, she comes to Steve’s house when he’s alone and tells him that Slim has found out about their affair and is returning from Vegas. She’s a little late with the warning, because, as they discover, Slim and his crew are downstairs in the Thompson’s parlor, making themselves at home.

Thinking fast, Steve tells Slim that he had Anna come to his house so she could help him find Slim to discuss his plans for an armored car robbery. Slim is not interested since no one has been able to rob an armored car for nearly thirty years, but Steve is insistent that it can be done with an inside man. Steve wants half the money and for Anna to deliver it to him. Slim reluctantly agrees to that and the two begin planning the heist.

Steve makes sure Anna is part of the planning of the heist.

While he’s not to be a part of the actual robbery, Slim needs Finchley (Alan Napier) to be involved in the planning. They meet in an apartment house near Angel’s Flight and work out all the details of the crime in an overnight session. Part of the plan is to broadcast Slim’s leaving for Detroit on the same day as the robbery and to even throw a going-away party at the Round-Up the night before. One condition Steve has is that there is to be no shooting. He doesn’t want anything to happen to Pop.

One condition Steve has is that nothing happens to Pop (Griff Barnett).

Back to the present, with Steve driving the armored car and Pop in the back still worried, not only about any cars that might pass but also about regulations. When they get to the company, we can see Slim’s men are all around, some are pretending to be sewer workers on their lunch break, one is driving an ice cream truck that is to be used in the escape, another is driving a tanker truck that will be used to prevent the police from chasing the getaway car, etc. Everything seems to be in place when Steve arrives at the appointed location. There is an explosion and tear gas is released. Slim’s men wear gas masks and things seem to be going according to plan.

In a cloud of tear gas, Slim's men move in.

But Pop, who isn’t in on the plans, begins to shoot at the robbers, who return fire, fatally wounding him. Steve, enraged that Pop has been hurt, returns fire as well. He, too, gets shot and is badly wounded. Slim and his gang make their escape before the police can arrive.

But the heist doesn't go according to plan and Pop and Steve are both wounded.

When Steve comes to, he’s in traction in a hospital bed and is considered to be a hero by everyone but Pete. Being a police detective, Pete has figured out that Steve was somehow involved and warns him that Slim will be after him since Anna has disappeared. Steve knows this also means that she has the money and should be waiting for him in a cottage in Palos Verdes.

Panicked, Steve asks Mr. Nelson (Robert Osterloh), whom he believes is there to visit his sick wife, to watch the door for him during the night. It is not until the next day that Nelson reveals himself to be working for Slim. Cutting Steve out of the traction restraints, Nelson literally drags him, apparently unnoticed, out of the hospital.

On their way to meet with Slim, Steve offers Nelson a bribe to take him instead to Palos Verdes and for $10,000 he does. But Anna is not happy to see Steve and knows Nelson is working for Slim. After she pays him off, she begins to pack. She tells Steve that in his condition, he’s not strong enough to go with her and she’s not tough enough to stand by him.

Slim shows up before the lovers can leave their hideout in Palos Verdes.

But before she can leave, Slim arrives. It is a foregone conclusion that Slim will kill them and he does. But as he leaves, we can hear the police sirens closing in. There is no happy ending with Criss Cross.

There is no happy ending and both Anna and Steve are murdered.

This is one of the better film noirs I’ve seen recently. It starts with its stylistic look and use of different camera angles, such as shooting down from above as the heist sets up or the rearview mirror shot of a car following, but ultimately not threatening the armored car. And there are the shots of Los Angeles that cinematographer Frank Planer captures, such as Angel’s Flight running in the background while the robbers plot their heist in an apartment house. When you see a film like this, you realize when used effectively, Los Angeles provides a great location for many such stories.

One of the shots in the film that set up the tension.

Next, the acting is also top-notch. It is no wonder that Hellinger wanted Burt Lancaster for the role of Steve. Not only is Lancaster athletic and good-looking, but it should not be overlooked that he was really a very good actor. Even up to the very end, you always believe, through Lancaster, that Steve thinks Anna still loves him. He is doing this so he can be with her, but she is not as committed to him as he is to her.

Yvonne De Carlo, who would be better known for her role as Lily Munster on that short-lived TV show, makes more than a respectable show here. She is just beautiful enough to be believable as the love interest to a regular guy like Steve as well as the moll to a low-level gangster like Slim. While it seems that her predicament is more through circumstances than planning on her part, her reaction and her speech when the chips are down is pure femme fatale. She is telling a hapless Steve goodbye while she packs up to leave him to die.

Yvonne De Carlo as Anna in Criss Cross.

Dan Duryea usually seems to play a villain who is more bark than bite, such as Waco Johnny Dean in Winchester ’73 (1950); he’s only tough until a bigger boss shows up. That’s not the case here. Slim is at least the top dog in his inner circle. Duryea always seems to play a schemer and just as in this film, even though he thinks he has all the bases covered, there is still a weak side that he can’t defend. He is really a great character actor who never seems to get his dues, but like in so many of his films, his character is a very important lynchpin around which the movie revolves.

Dan Duryea plays villains very well.

The story itself is compelling. Though we see the men planning the robbery, we don’t actually see much of it due to the use of tear gas. This is a nice plot device to get around the Production Code’s ban on showing how to actually commit a crime. It makes for a memorable heist.

Crime is an essential ingredient for a film noir, whether it is murder or robbery or both. I can’t think of one that isn’t about either the committing of a crime (real or imagined) and/or dealing with the aftermath of a crime (real or imagined). When Steve first mentions the idea of an armored car robbery, it seems to come a little bit out of left field. As first presented, Steve seems to think it up as a quick way of explaining why he’s shirtless and alone with Anna. But Steve is hoping to use the money to get her away from Slim. Again, this is a theme we see repeated in other films, such as Roadblock (1951). As in that film, the “hero” turns villain in order to get the girl he loves away from her bigger villain boyfriend/husband. What helps separate Criss Cross above Roadblock, which is a good film noir in its own right, is that Anna turns out to be as bad as feared and shows her colors as a true femme fatale, while Diane in Roadblock is not presented as such.

I had seen Criss Cross several years ago, perhaps during TCM’s earlier flirtation with a Summer of Darkness and it was as good the second time I saw it. For anyone who likes film noir and/or Burt Lancaster, Criss Cross is one that should not be missed.

Taken from Trophy Unlocked:

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.