Sunday, May 22, 2022

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1950: Killers, Cons, Convicts, and Crooks

Yesterday, we laughed. Today, we look over our shoulders. Noirs and adventures, oddities and horrors, here are some films from 1950 focusing on The Criminal Element.

It was Kyle Turner who recommended I watch Gun Crazy, a movie that does not show up on any official reminder lists (at least as transcribed at And The Oscar Goes To...), despite having a 1950 release from Untied Artists and boasting a score from Samson and Delilah composer Victor Young. Film follows a young man who is obsessed with firearms, despite not wanting to actually use them to kill anything, man or beast. He falls in with a carny sharpshooter who wants the good things in life, and she's willing to do anything to get them. Artfully done: the introduction of Peggy Cummins' gun carny is hypnotic, sexy; the frequent long takes for the subsequent heists and their aftermaths dial up the suspense. Then there's the aforementioned music, haunting and romantic. From the opening sequence to the tragic finale, it's nonstop surprise and excitement.

The Baron of Arizona is inspired by the true story of a man who sought to claim the entire Arizona territory by taking advantage of the then-laws honoring Spanish land contracts...and forging some claims of his own. Not until Theatre of Blood would Vincent Price find another role seemingly tailor-made for his talents: his James Addison Reavis charms through every swindle and manipulation, that one-of-a-kind voice perfect for passing himself off as something nobler than his origins would suggest. Doesn't hit you over the head with its questions about what land ownership means when the celebrated pioneers being swindled are themselves invaders of Indigenous land, but the point is as clear as is the general awe (and admiration!) of the audacity of the American Spirit. Such chutzpah, this baron of Arizona! Such entertainment, this Baron of Arizona!

Where the Sidewalk Ends is about a cop whose anger and sense of raw justice (borne out of his father's own criminal past) puts him on the wrong side of the law when he hits a "person of interest" in self-defense, accidentally killing him. Dana Andrews, love that man, stars, while Alfred Newman's Street Scene theme underscores. It's an all-star affair, actually: Gene Tierney, Karl Malden, Tom Tully, and Gary Merrill (given a lot more to do here than in All About Eve, and he executes with slimy relish) are all here. How do you make a film where the bad guys get in the end while still remaining true to the principle that police brutality is bad? It ain't easy, and it ain't cozy, but Otto Preminger satisfies.

Rage is also at the center of In a Lonely Place, recommended to me by Brian Eggert (among many many others). It follows an alcoholic screenwriter with anger issues who is suspected of murdering a neighbor. In the meantime, he pursues a romance with a woman who believes in his innocence, but is more and more troubled by his mood swings and drinking. A very sad film about those who can't cope, those who enable, and those who must learn that some changes can't be forced. Might be the best performance I've seen from Gloria Grahame, and definitely among the best Humphrey Bogart performances. It's a unique take on the crime film, less concerned with the crime and investigation than it is with the psychology of someone who is not a killer, but could become one.

Night and the City is a noir about a guy who's always failing at his sure-thing schemes - but he knows this time will be different, because he's going into boxing promotion, running afoul of a manager-promoter who runs all boxing in London and the nightclub owner his girlfriend works for. Nothing's on the up-and-up, everyone's conning and stealing and cheating and eliminating to get out ahead. Jules Dassin directs, Richard Widmark stars, and along for the ride is a dynamite cast (Francis L. Sullivan, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom!), neat score (Franz Waxman, of course), and mood-perfect cinematography (Max Greene). At the time, critic Bosley Crowther wrote that it was "little more than a melange of maggoty episodes having to do with devious endeavors" and while he's not exactly wrong, that's what makes it great! Can't desperate dirtbags be fascinating, too?

Fritz Lang's House by the River has a glorious opening sequence, where the beautiful tenant of the married thriller author goes for a bath, and he plants himself nearby to hear the water draining through the pipes, the eroticism of her nakedness implied only by the sound and the steam. And then he accidentally kills her and the rest of the movie is the coverup. Mean movie, great sound design.

Convicted actually sends its cast to jail - and stays with them! A remake of the Oscar-nominated 1931 drama The Criminal Code, this time with Glenn Ford as the good man sent to prison and Broderick Crawford (fresh off his Best Actor win for All the King's Men) as the good-hearted warden. Ah, but the film is stolen right out from under their noses by the ensemble cast as the inmates, especially Millard Mitchell as a lifer and Frank Faylen as an informant.

Shakespeare's greatest murderer Macbeth is brought to life by Orson Welles. Dicy Scottish accents abound. It's a mood piece mostly, where every scene seems to take place on the same set, a place where castle and mountain and ruins are as one, all mud and fog. The costumes and the sets and the horror lighting and the makeup and the score, they're all evocative of doom and misery. Like the recent version that got Denzel Washington an Oscar nod, I do not like it, but I guess I respect it?

Treasure Island is another literary adaptation centered on criminals, though of course, we tend to consider pirate films to be more Adventure than Crime Thriller. But there are thrills to be had in the classic story of young Jim Hawkins, his friendship with the scheming and charming Long John Silver, and the adventure that takes them across the sea to the titular island. It's quite good! A wonderful example of economic storytelling, skipping a lot of chapters, taking out multiple characters, reducing others' "screentime" but filling in the gaps through terrific casting - and at no detriment to the story! 

Tomorrow we look at a handful of other films, including The Rules of the Game and Rio Grande.

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