Columbia Noir: Tight Spot (1955)

tight1This was such a strange film, carrying an unlikely tension throughout, between comedy and noir- and I have the suspicion that it was possibly even unintentional, that the film was somehow out of control. But then again, if it was intended to be a gritty, tense noir about the long reach of the mob to intimidate and silence witnesses via corrupt administration and police, then how come director Phil Karlson didn’t pull up star Ginger Rogers on the first day of shooting and inquire “Ginger honey, what the hell are you doing?”

Because to be clear, Ginger Rogers, playing prison inmate Sherry Conley and last-hope witness for a desperate  prosecution of a mobster who has hitherto escaped the law, is all wrong for this picture. I suspect the role was just too much of a stretch for her, resulting in her streetwise, bad-luck criminal being too loud, too over the top, bordering on farce and almost breaking the fourth wall as she delivers sharp one-liners directly at the audience. Its specially jarring as the rest of the cast are so restrained and subtle – the great Edward G Robinson is marvellous as the tough, dedicated prosecuting attorney Lloyd Hallett and Brian Keith surprisingly endearing as police detective/minder Vince Stalker. Indeed, the film is almost stolen from all of them by Katherine Anderson’s Mrs Willoughby, a prison warden who is Conley’s escort when she is removed from prison, who steals scenes with her calmness. I’m really not at all familiar with Ginger Rogers but it seems patently clear that in a drama such as this she was out of her comfort zone  and perhaps as a result, she over-acts as if in a panic and attempts to steal every scene she’s in by just drawing attention to herself, practically crying out to the audience “look at me! Look at me!”

I cannot understand why she wasn’t asked to dial it down somewhat. Maybe you didn’t do that with stars of her calibre back then: at this point in his career Robinson was out of favour, almost backlisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and relegated to b-movies rather beneath him, and Brian Keith was on his way up after a career in television and hardly one to rock the boat. I can imagine Robinson walking of set shaking his head with a wry grimace that such was his lot and Keith wary of speaking out. The alternative of course is that it was all intentional, and Rogers’ broad strokes welcomed, and yet it doesn’t work-  I can only imagine jittery producers watching the Dailies with a rising panic.

Tight Spot is not a bad movie: based on a stage play and basically a one-set movie (mostly taking in place in a hotel room in which Hallett endeavours to convince Conley to testify against mobster Costain (Lorne Green)) the original source was obviously a character study and so ideal subject matter for a tense dramatic film (like 12 Angry Men maybe) but it keeps on swerving into romantic comedy. Rogers chews up scenery and rattles off witty one-liners like bullets from a machine gun, and scenes are occasionally broken up rather jarringly by sequences from a television broadcast of a charity marathon with a singing cowboy that is given surprising screen time. Its quite a bizarre experience that’s difficult to really explain. The film is partly saved by a surprise twist that I won’t share here (even if the film is over sixty years old) and I feel the need to point out that Lorne Green makes a memorable bad guy even if he has little more than two scenes.  Indeed its the performances from the rest of the cast that saves the picture almost in spite of Rogers; I much preferred Brian Keith here over his role in 5 Against the House and the film proved a very welcome reminder of just how good Edward G Robinson was. It has some tense moments (mostly a gritty beginning and finale, leaving the film feeling like a madcap comedy bookended by noir) and really is very enjoyable once one can dial-out or ignore Rogers’ ill-judged performance. Or maybe I’m missing something unique to 1955.

Columbia Noir: 5 Against the House (1955)

cnoir5Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), the smartest of four college students who have spent a night at a Reno casino, is excited by the challenge of robbing it. Its the intellectual challenge that inspires him, seeing it as a prank, intending to inform the police of where the money is once he’s stolen it- but one of the four friends, traumatised by his experiences in the Korean war, has no intention of returning any money.

I didn’t really click with this one. The premise is very promising, but its not really the tense thriller that the title or the synopsis would suggest: indeed, the tension really doesn’t come from the heist (which takes most of the film’s running time to even get to), rather coming from Brick going off the rails. For some reason -presumably the source novel by Jack Finney- the focus is largely on Brick, with an awkward aside to Kim Novak’s sexy dame who seems shoehorned in (the film crunching to a halt for her to sing a romantic song or two). Its really a very odd feature, and hardly much of a traditional noir- instead it feels like a genre mash-up, stuck in-between the dark heist thriller I expected and the light-hearted caper film that harkens more towards Oceans 11 (that would arrive five years later). It has its moments, particularly its genius finale set in what I can only describe as an automated parking garage in which cars are parked vertically in columns above each other – absently predating the finale of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Its an early feature for Mathews, a familiar face from films I watched in my childhood (particularly his Harryhausen films, which possibly did his career more harm than good as he’d later become rather typecast with those matinee swashbuckler adventures that quickly slipped out of fashion). Curiously, Matthews will also turn up in the next film of this Indicator noir set, The Garment Jungle, in a superior role that would indeed suggest better things should have lay ahead of him.

I quite like this kind of thing, the links between films, connections of sorts: Nina Foch of course appeared in the first two films of this set, another is that this film’s screenplay was co-written by Stirling Silliphant, who would later write the sixth film in this set, The Lineup. It was an early feature for Kim Novak (her second credited role, I believe), who, unlikely as it might seem from this film, would go on to appear in one of the greatest films ever made, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just a few years after. Both are Matthews and Novak fine, as is Brian Keith who plays Brick, the war-vet student who goes off the rails in rather melodramatic fashion. One curious piece of trivia for viewers of a certain age is the appearance of William Conrad in a minor role, who would later star as Cannon in the hugely popular tv series of 1971-1976, and notable to geeks like me as the narrator of the 1977 Making of Star Wars tv-documentary and the voice that opened every episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980). Those were the days.