GUN CRAZY (1950) – Annie Laurie Starr, get your gun

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I enjoy hearing stories about how people met their spouses. It gives me a little insight into both the couple and the person who’s telling the story.

In Gun Crazy, Bart Tare (John Dall) meets his future wife, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), while he’s shooting at her head at a carnival.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The movie begins with flashbacks of the young Bart, showing how interested he is in guns. He doesn’t want to kill anyone or anything with them. At the risk of sounding Freudian, in Bart’s view, a gun seems to be a piece of security in life — which Bart could certainly use, having been raised only by his sister.

Bart pays a price to society for his gun obsession and is then set free. On his first day of freedom, Bart and his old friends go to town to attend a carnival, where Bart sees Laurie performing as a sharpshooter. Sparks (and bullets) fly quickly between the two.

Through the usual film-noir machinations, Laurie is eventually as free and beholden to no one as Bart is. So she decides to make Bart beholden to her. She figures that, with their joint expertise with guns, they can get whatever they want in life. At first, Bart hesitates at getting that down-and-dirty, but when Laurie threatens to leave him, Bart caves.

From there, an ever-spiralling series of circumstances make it doubtful that Bart and Laurie will make it to their first wedding anniversary.

Even by noir standards, this is one of the most pervasive weird movies I’ve ever seen — and one of the most riveting. Its most fascinating aspect is how the movie’s POV nonchalantly observes this in-over-the-head couple going on an increasingly violent robbing and shooting spree. Cinema’s Production Code guaranteed that the couple would pay for their actions in the end — but that doesn’t mean that viewers don’t get some titillating and voyeuristic thrills along the way.

John Dall is strangely touching as Bart, depicting how Bart’s pacifism slowly gets swept away by this woman who’s giving him the romance he thought he’d never have (in more ways than one). And Peggy Cummins long ago entered film-noir history as the ultimate manipulative dame. She offers us Laurie at face value, with no reasons or apologies for her grubby, grabby behavior — and just like Bart, we get swept up in her quiet fury.

I’ve never owned a gun or even fired one, for the same reason that many people give: I fear that it would be too easy to give into its temptation as an easy answer to an otherwise low-key conflict. Gun Crazy takes that premise to its ultimate extension. If only Bart had been more obsessed with marbles or coin-collecting when he was young…

CRY OF THE CITY (1948) – As intelligent and beautiful as film noir gets

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The following is my entry in The Film Noir Blogathon, being hosted Aug. 12-14, 2016 by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ lively critiques of a variety of film noir movies!

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Cry of the City is a mesmerizing film-noir about Martin Rome (Richard Conte), a criminal currently recovering from bullet wounds after having a shoot-out with a cop that left the cop dead. On the other side of the law is Police Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature), a cop who is singularly obsessed with bringing Rome down. The police suspect that Rome carried out a jewel robbery with Teena (Debra Paget), a young girl who briefly visited Rome in the prison ward. The robbery is yet unsolved, and Candella thinks that if he can track down Teena, he can resolve the robbery and end Rome’s crime career in one fell swoop.

The plot sounds cliched, yet the superlative acting, stark photography, gritty screenplay (co-written by an uncredited Ben Hecht), and taut direction by noir veteran Robert Siodmak (Criss Cross) result in a riveting tale. The story is presented most unglamorously, showing how both the villains and the good guys suffer.

Rome acts and talks like a cool crook but is frequently brought to heel by characters even shadier than he is — a self-serving lawyer (Berry Kroeger), a very mannish female masseuse (Hope Emerson). Candella puts himself and his partner (Fred Clark) through the wringer trying to catch Rome, and the movie lightly hints that Candella doesn’t completely act in virtuous-cop mode — that it might be a feather in his cap to bring down this major hoodlum.

The problem with a lot of film-noir is that it gets lost in stylishness at the expense of plausibility. Because Cry of the City takes the time to add some shades of nuance to its characters and settings, the viewer ends up having a stake in its outcome — which is deliciously delivered, by the way, right up to its haunting final shot. I’m for any movie that treats moviegoers like thinking adults, and Cry of the City fits the bill quite satisfyingly.

BORN TO KILL (1947) – You can’t always get what you want

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

There are a lot of people in Born to Kill who want only precisely what they can’t have.

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Let’s start with the biggest one first. Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) simply wants everything. He has an outsized sense of entitlement that would make Donald Trump look humble. To him, everything and everybody is a toy, intended for his amusement until he wearies of it and moves on to the next toy.

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Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) has just finalized a divorce in Reno and already has another man waiting in the wings — her ostensible fiancee, a rich man named Fred (Phillip Terry). (Unaddressed in the movie is the fact that Helen is already engaged to Fred before the ink on her divorce paper has even dried. So chances are that her dalliance with Fred might have been at least one cause of the divorce.)

On the night that Helen is preparing to leave Reno to meet up with Fred in San Francisco, she happens to stop back at her boarding house one more time. There, she discovers that two people have been murdered. Helen takes the sight unusually quietly and doesn’t even phone the police about it. Nothing must delay her trip to Frisco, after all, so why get involved?

But Helen gets involved whether she wants to or not. On the ferry to her train, she strikes up a conversation with a dashing man:  Sam, who unbeknownst to Helen was the one who committed the murders. The two hit it off, take the train to Frisco together, and then part ways, with the duo making a vague plan to meet up again in Frisco.

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One night, Sam drops by unexpectedly while Helen is entertaining her foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long). Helen is heir to a fortune that Sam sees as his ticket to the good life. Since Helen has now dismissed Sam as a one-night stand, he figures he’ll take up with Georgia.

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Lest I divulge any more of the plot, let me mention a couple more hangers-on who can’t have what they want. Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard, Detour) is a boozy old spinster who runs the boarding house where the murder takes place. All she wants is good, mindless times, and she nearly pays for it with her life.

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Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) is Sam’s sycophant. All he ever wants is a crumb of Sam’s approval, which he rarely gets. (If Marty’s desperation to please Sam strikes you as a little more than platonic, you wouldn’t be the first moviegoer to think so.)

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About the only one who gets what he wants is detective Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), but that might be because he sets his sights pretty low. He uses a sparkling and expansive vocabulary in an attempt to rationalize his mercenary ways. As such, he’s about the only person in the movie who tells things like they really are, functioning as a rather sleazy Greek chorus. (For that reason, he’s probably my favorite character in the movie.)

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All of this is directed to a noir-thee-well by Robert Wise, who seems to flitter around these lowlifes and regard them even more shadily than the verbose detective does. Claire thinks that all she has to do to avoid her part in a murder plot is to distance herself from it. But Fate has a way of drawing these similarly sketchy people together, like a rope that will quietly lasso them in and then draw a noose around each of their necks.

Born to Kill is a thoroughly gripping film-noir entry, a perfect movie to watch when you’re feeling down about your lot in life. It’s as if the movie was saying, “Relax — you could be one of these people.”

Co-hosting a #BNoirDetour double feature for 1/17: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK and THE SCAR

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The lovely Salome at BNoirDetour has once again pulled a “Mike Douglas” and is generously allowing me to co-host her Sunday-night Live Tweet as a double feature. So we’re showing a couple of films-noir that have to do with the fracturing of famous faces.

First at 9:00 p.m. EST, Salome brings us The Face Behind the Mask (1941), starring Peter Lorre and Evelyn Keyes. Salome will probably write about this movie on her own blog, so I don’t want to give too much away myself. Suffice to say, Peter Lorre really gets burned in this movie, in more ways than one.

Then at 10:20 p.m. EST, I rudely push Salome aside so that I can present The Scar (1948). It stars Paul Henreid as a gangster on the run who hightails it to a small town, where he discovers that he bears a striking resemblance to the town’s psychoanalyst. The only feature he’s lacking to make the resemblance complete is a facial scar borne by the psychoanalyst. Hmm, one scar = new identity…This isn’t going to end well for at least one person.

So put your noir face on this Sunday, and join us at Twitter.com for a great double feature. Be sure to use the hashtag #BNoirDetour to comment on the movies while they’re playing.

#SatMat Twitter Live Movie Tweet for Sat., Jan. 2: DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982)

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First off, let’s get one thing straight — it was my idea, not the dame’s, okay?

Salome at BNoirDetour is adamant about providing Live Tweet movies on Twitter.com at no charge to her audience. But how could I present a hilarious film noir parody on #SatMat — even if it’s a movie that can only be rented — without getting the BNoirDetour stamp of co-approval?

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid stars Steve Martin (who co-wrote the movie with director Carl Reiner) as Rigby Reardon, a low-level private eye who might or might not be getting the wool pulled over his eyes by a fulsome femme fatale (the undeniably curvy Rachel Ward). Other than that, about the only thing you need to know about the movie is that, through the miracle of special effects, Martin nonchalantly acts alongside 1940’s versions of noir stars including Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and too many others to mention.

Even if you’re not thoroughly versed in the elements of noir, Martin’s early-career wackiness is enough to carry you for the movie. His mini-ballet on skinned knees, or his mouthing along to the movie’s scorchy score (by another noir veteran, Miklos Rozsa), are just a couple of the movie’s comedy highlights.

So please join us this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST at Twitter.com, and use the hashtag #SatMat to follow along and comment on the movie. You’ll need to pay a rental fee to YouTube ($2.99) or Amazon.com ($3.99) to watch the movie, but it’s a small price to pay for big laughs, so cough up the dough, ya mug!

THE GANGSTERS ALL HERE Live Tweet #Noirvember movie for Sat., Nov. 21: Lawrence Tierney in THE HOODLUM (1951)

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The name of this week’s The Gangsters All Here movie gets straight to the point. The movie is called The Hoodlum — a title so generic, it’s the movie equivalent of slapping a white-with-black-lettering label on a can of beans. But there’s nothing generic about the guy who plays the title role…

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It’s Lawrence Tierney!

The Hoodlum is directed by Max Nosseck, who directed Tierney in his breakout role in Dillinger (1945). But by the time of this movie, both Tierney’s and Nosseck’s careers had hit bottom — Tierney due to a lot of jail time earned by off-screen drinking and brawling, and Nosseck because he went from Dillinger right b;lkack to the B- and worse-type movies he’d previously been doing.

One could almost say that the bitterness of these two men burst forth in this movie and made it work. Tierney plays Vincent Lubeck, a career criminal whose career is so vast, it’s lovingly detailed in the movie’s prologue. Lubeck gets paroled due to a lucky break, but he still comes out of jail declaring that life has never given him a chance and will continue to not do so. So when Lubeck gets a good look at both (a) a loot-filled armored car that passes his way every day, and (b) his brother’s sob-sister-and-virginal girlfriend, what do you think are the chances that he’ll try to nab both?

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On a scale of 1 to 5 fannies, I give this movie a 4-½. Tierney sizzles from start to finish, and the movie is uncompromising in nearly every aspect of its subject matter (especially for 1951). I deduct a half-star only because the movie begins with that weariest of tropes, a plea to the jailhouse warden from the convict’s elderly mother. But if you stick with the movie right to the end, you’ll see that even this cliche gets turned on its head.
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THE GANGSTERS ALL HERE Live Tweet movie for Sat., Nov. 14: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949)

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Usually, our The Gangsters All Here movies start out with the main characters already established as gangsters. But this week’s movie, Too Late for Tears, takes a different approach. What if a set of a particular set of circumstances was dropped in an Everyman’s lap to make him turn into a gangster?

Actually, in this case, it’s not an Everyman, but an Everywoman — social-climbing housewife Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott). And it’s not one circumstance, but sixty thousand of them. One night, Jane and her milquetoast husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving along a dark highway in their convertible, when a passing car happens to drop a satchel in their back seat. Upon further examination, the Palmers discover that the satchel contains $60,000 ($584,000 in 2015 dollars, if you’re counting).

Alan is all set to surrender the money to the police. But then Jane opens the satchel and spreads the money out on their bed — just so that she can get a look at it — and suddenly…

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Not even some very assertive outside forces — in the forms of Dan Duryea and Don DeFore — can deter Jane in her lust for lucre. Besides being a riveting film-noir, the movie poses an interesting question: Just how many (or few) steps would it take us to let the gangster within us run wild?

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No doubt about it — on a scale of 1 to 5 fannies, this movie gets a 5. A tightly woven screenplay by Roy Huggins (who went on to create a little TV series named “The Fugitive”) is mounted on the able shoulders of Lizabeth Scott, who runs with it to the finish.

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