Columbia Noir: The Mob (1951)

mob1Well there’s no uncertainty about this one- The Mob is very much a film noir, right from its rain-drenched, night-time opening and to its thrilling, gutsy conclusion. The lighting, the framing, everything screams ‘noir’ from the very start and while the film goes off into an organised crime caper that echoes that of 711 Ocean Drive, the previous film in this second Columbia Noir set from Indicator, there’s something much darker, edgier and pulpier in this offering.

Its possibly because they were generally b-movies and exploitation thrillers, but sometimes these noir feature the unlikeliest, or perhaps more aptly speaking, the most unspectacular, of protagonists as their leads. Conventional Hollywood leading men would I suppose usually be featured in more wholesome, higher-budget dramas and thrillers, so these noir often, it seems to me, feature actors who seem to have lived in the real world more than, say, your regular Hollywood heartthrob (Glenn Ford may argue with me though on that observation). But certainly, Broderick Crawford, middle-aged and overweight and hardly blessed with a face to set women’s hearts a flutter seems both a refreshingly unlikely lead and paradoxically an oddly convincing one. When  this guy turns up on the docks undercover, he looks like a surly trouble-maker and working-class joe rather than a heroic handsome lead- you can believe the workers and thugs don’t imagine he is really a cop. There’s a sense of reality to it, and Crawford is great in the role.

The noir trope of a trapped hero raises its head early on in the film- Crawford plays Police Detective Johnny Damico who late at night stumbles upon the aftermath of a gun fight whilst off-duty. The shooter, face partly obscured by the rain and shadows, identifies himself as Lt. Henderson, a Detective from another Precinct. Surrendering his badge and gun to Damico, Henderson reveals that the dead man at his feet shot a police officer just a few hours before. Damacio suggests that Henderson goes over to an open shop across the road to call for back up, handing Henderson his gun. But while a police car quickly arrives, Henderson doesn’t return, and the patrolmen exiting the car deny being called-in. Damico rushes over to the shop and is told by the owner that Henderson didn’t go to the phone, but instead went out the back and off into the night. It dawns on Damico that he’s been had, which is confirmed when he calls his boss and learns that a Lt. Meary was murdered a few hours before, and his gun and badge stolen. Whoever ‘Henderson’ was, he wasn’t a cop- and Damacio has unwittingly let a killer caught cold-handed get away free.

Damico is offered a chance to redeem himself by going undercover at the waterfront docks to finish what the dead officer Meary was trying to accomplish- to uncover the identity of a mysterious gangland figure who is in charge of racketeering on the docks, who goes by the name of Blackie Clegg- in the grand tradition of Fu Manchu, this criminal genius is an unknown figure that nobody on the right side of the Law has seen or been able to identify.

Its quite an intriguing drama involving gun-happy heavies, mysterious waterfront characters, corrupt cops, and Damico threatened on all sides. Crawford is supported by a very fine cast, which features Ernest Borgnine in one of his very first films, as menacing mob leader Joe Castro, and a very young Charles Bronson in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it early role as a dock worker. I really enjoyed The Mob, and its twists and turns were really very well executed .On top of its very good script and fine cast, the film looks absolutely top-notch, with gorgeously atmospheric cinematography. It really works on all levels and I can’t fault it at all, its a solid film and strong addition to this very fine Columbia Noir set.

The Contradictory Runaway Train (1985)

runaway1I confess to being rather nostalgic whenever I see the Cannon Films logo animation/fanfare music before the opening credits of a film. Most of the films were very bad but its still a particular period of films that I can look back at with fondness. Usually they carried the kind of bad-but-cool action film vibe that The Expendables movies aspire to. One-note movies starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris, say what you like about them, you usually knew where you stood with their films and their no-nonsense kind of indie film making. Cannon were masters of the b-movie, so bad their films, looking back, appropriate the definition of cool that Tarantino has to work at achieving but for them was perfectly natural.

Runaway Train is that rarest of things- a good Cannon Films movie. Granted, it has many of the staples of  a Cannon production; dodgy acting, stilted scripting, limited production values. The scenes in the control room, in particular, are painfully bad with poor dialogue and rotten acting from all involved (or are stunningly realistic/down to Earth, I’m not sure which) . The scenes on the train are much better, if only because they centre on the films main plus-points, the fabulous leads, but much else of the film feels staged and awkward. Part prison escape movie, part action movie, part nihilistic journey into oblivion, its a strange mix. Maybe that’s due to it being based originally on a Japanese project (a script by Akira Kurosawa, no less), or it being directed by a Russian (Andrei Konchalovsky) with his nation’s own particular sensibilities, and being produced by a company renowned for its simple exploitation fare.  Yet the film also has these great iconic performances by its two main stars, great effects (practical and miniature) and a multi-layered script bordering on art house level sophistication.

runaway2There are all sorts of contradictions regarding Runaway Train.  A particular fascination is the dangerous convict Oscar `Manny’ Manheim (Jon Voight). Here is a far deeper and nuanced character than might be expected in a film like this. Manny is a  man simply born out of his own time, reminding me of Esau Cairn from Robert E Howard’s Almuric. A hero to his fellow prisoners and a dangerous, savage criminal to normal society, Manny always seems at war with the world around him- he has the manner of a wounded animal hitting out at everything. At the start of the film he has spent three years welded to his cell, a convicted bank-robber in a bitter feud with the prisons sadistic warden Rankin (who is actually dedicated to seeing Manny dead, ideally at Rankins own hands). And yet there is a scene later on the train, when Manny tries to persuade fellow-escapee Buck not to waste his life in criminal activities, but to instead get a job – even the lowest and most menial of jobs. Buck, aghast at the notion, asks Manny if he could do that and Manny sadly replies, despairingly, “I wish I could.” Manny knows he is not that kind of man, but he wishes he could be. Instead, the runaway train is hurtling Manny to his oblivion, and by films end Manny is finally at peace with that, embracing it as he races through the Alaskan wilderness. Suddenly an exploitation prison-escape movie has become a work of poetic grandeur, complete with soaring Antonio Vivaldi music. Its an utterly brilliant transformation.