“I’m tired. I’m through… It’ll happen to you too, someday.”

pickup1Pickup on South Street, 1953, 80 mins, Blu-ray

Another Sam Fuller picture, this time a dark crime-noir from 1953 during his spell at Fox, and two years prior to House of Bamboo which I saw back in November. Pickup on South Street his an excellent thriller, in which career-criminal Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) pick-pockets the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) and inadvertently stumbles into an espionage crisis involving Communist agents and a lot of unwelcome heat from the Feds and cops. To some extent this is a typical cold-war thriller reflecting the West vs East tensions of the time, as as such would ordinarily feel dated and an exercise in propaganda as several noir espionage thrillers of its era that I have seen are.

But of course I’m watching this when world tensions are at a fever-pitch as Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the news is endlessly discussing the collapse of relations between the West and Russia and the return of old Cold-War sensibilities. So there’s an added discomfort in this film’s depicted tensions, and what is old is new again.

Richard Widmark is very good in this, he’d memorably featured as psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death several years before, and while there’s a similar energised tone to his performance here its thankfully more restrained and grounded; Skip is much less manic than Tommy Udo but none the less convincing. I was particularly taken by the performance of Jean Peters as Candy, reluctant courier for the communists and eventual love-interest for Skip (this romance an inevitable development but one that oddly convinces). Peters is very good and lifts what could have been a one-dimensional part into something much more interesting.  I wasn’t familiar with the actress and looking her up on IMDB, its little wonder-  she only made 23 features, working under contract to Fox between 1947 and 1955 before then pretty much retiring from the screen to be the wife of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. There’s worse career choices I guess.

pickup2Possibly stealing the show though is character actress Thelma Ritter, who plays streetwise police informer Moe Williams. I get the feeling that she’s the character that Sam Fuller was most interested in, what could have been a minor role elevated instead to possibly the most critical part in the film. I’m rather seeing that this is a  common aspect of Fuller’s writing and directing, drawn to characters who would ordinarily be in the background or of lesser importance to the usual larger-than-life heroes and villains. I’ve read that Ritter’s performance saw her nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year and I’m not at all surprised. Her final scene is outstanding, a sad and broken old lady weary of the world facing her final moments with resigned grace.

The film is also blessed by some wonderfully moody, waterfront locations that brought to mind early-sixties Spider-Man strips drawn by Steve Ditko, the eight-year old kid in me getting ridiculously excited seeing those scenes and remembering the web-slingers encounters with the mob in Ditko’s finely-drawn panels of criminal-infested waterfronts. The film is, typically of Fuller, very gritty and convincing, and indeed some of the action is quite shocking, particularly scenes of Candy getting beaten and the offscreen denouement of Moe is very effective. You can certainly tell its a Sam Fuller picture. As I have noted, in other hands a film such as this could have been just a typical anti-Commie propaganda piece of its time but Fuller lifts it into something much more. Its a very effective thriller with a great cast and screenplay, an excellent noir.

Kiss of Death (1947)

kissofdVictor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark and Coleen Gray star in this well-regarded film noir thriller in which lifetime criminal Nick Bianco (Mature) is caught by police during a botched jewellery heist and refuses to squeal on his three accomplices who get away. Instead he takes the rap, assured by his lawyer Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes) that Nick’s wife and two children will be looked after until he gets parole. Three years later however, Howser’s definition of ‘looked after’ seems to take some double-meaning. Nick learns that his wife has committed suicide following an affair with one of his jewellery heist buddies, Pete Rizzo, and his daughters subsequently placed into an orphanage, so he decides to give evidence to the District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Donlevy) in order to get an early release and take care of his children. Later remarrying, getting a job and leading a better a life away from crime, he is warned that a psychopathic killer that he informed on, Tommy Udo (Widmark) has been released on a technicality and is out for revenge.

I must confess, I had a few problems with Kiss of Death. Its without doubt a classic film noir and one of the better crime thrillers of its era, but my reservations stem mostly from the plot’s forced romance between Nick and his much younger ex-babysitter Nettie (Gray), a woman who frankly creeped me out due to her wildly passionate, nonsensical obsession over Nick, turning up at his prison declaring that she has always loved him ever since she was babysitting his kids years before, rushing into a marriage with him as soon as he is out of jail and playing dutiful mother to his children. She’s purely a function of the plot to speedily (instantly, basically) get him settled down living an honest life by the last third of the film so that he has something to lose when Udo comes after him (and of course so that we can root for him as the good guy, or at least a bad guy gone good).

The romance is never given sufficient time to convince at all. Nettie is painfully underwritten and Gray hopelessly over the top because of it (another example of what I call an actresses enforced romantic hysterics covering up for an ill-judged plot mechanic), and it proves the weakest element of the film. I guess audiences just accepted bizarre sudden romances back then, but it felt so awkwardly engineered that it actually had me a mite suspicious and unfortunately distracted. Maybe I’ve seen too many noir, but the vague description that Nick’s wife (unseen throughout the film) had killed herself by putting her head in the gas oven just didn’t wholly convince. Had she been actually killed, her death staged as a suicide? Had Howser organised it to get out of his debt to Nick? I thought the film had missed a trick, with me at one point believing that Howser had hired Udo to do it, bringing things full circle for the final showdown and a revelation that of course never came, but I was even at one point suspecting dear besotted Nettie, that she had done it so that she could get to Nick at last. Yeah I’ve seen too many noir lately; they’ve got me suspecting that nobody is what they purport to be, especially an over-dramatic character whose parents should be consulting a doctor.

Of course, that’s partly the beauty of noir and the natural depth of these films thanks to their endless shades of grey. Just because it doesn’t state that Howser got Udo to stage the death as a suicide, doesn’t mean it didn’t turn out that way (Howzer is clearly a sleazy lawyer with Udo his right arm man enforcing Howser’s schemes amongst the criminal fraternity, because Howser later sets Udo after Rizzo when he thinks its Rizzo who’s turned snitch). Maybe there is more to Nettie than meets the eye.

But of course all my angst regards the unconvincing romance and Nick’s conveniently deceased wife is purely incidental to the real plus of the film, and why it is so well-regarded as a classic noir: and that’s the brilliant, chilling performance of Richard Widmark as the psycho killer Tommy Udo. This film was actually Widmark’s debut, and perhaps it was the nervous energy of appearing in his first feature that the actor channelled into the twitchy, horribly deranged killer. Just shy of over-the-top, its a performance that has clearly rattled down the decades informing many an actor’s portrayal of murderers and crazies, from the Joker in the Batman films to Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio to Joe Pesci’s turn as Tommy Devito in Goodfellas, or just about any other that one might mention. Widmark is just THAT good, and no doubt proved a shocking sensation at the time. The moment when, thwarted by his quarry Rizzo having evaded him, Udo by way of consolation throws Rizzo’s aged mother -in a wheelchair no less- down a flight of stairs to her death is jaw dropping and I can only imagine how audiences back at the time reacted to it. Something akin to Psycho‘s shower scene I suspect.

The fact that the film manages to hold its own elsewhere as a crime noir is testament to just how strong most of the other performances are as a whole and how solid and convincing the script largely is. Indeed, it could well be argued that Widmark’s high-energy performance only works as well as it does because it is counter-balanced by more grounded performances elsewhere.

I never really took to Victor Mature in the (admittedly few) films I saw him in before (The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Hannibal, that’s about it) but he is very good indeed here and its really a shame for him that he would be inevitably overshadowed by Widmark, who was fourth-billed but stole the show from everyone. Its one of the definitive film moments where you can feel films changing forever just from one stand-out performance, but as I say, I think Widmark owed his fellow actors some credit to his own success here. In any case, Kiss of Death is absolutely a great noir movie.

 

In Brief: Two Nights

nightcity1Quick post regards what I’ve been up to. By weird coincidence (its funny how these things happen) I’ve watched two films that share the word ‘Night’ in their titles: Night and the City, an outstanding film noir set in postwar London starring Richard Widmark and Night of the Eagle, a really effective horror film starring Peter Wyngarde. Both films really were very impressive (Night of the Eagle evoking -yes there’s THAT word ‘Night’ again- the classic Night of the Demon– so much so it’s sent me to the shelf for my copy of that film for a timely re-watch). Although I’d heard of Night and the City a few years ago I hadn’t gotten around to buying the Blu-ray until now (nothing like a sale price to finally swing it), but I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Night of the Eagle before, so that film (another catch on Talking Pictures) proved to be a very welcome surprise. Its just a pity that film hasn’t been released on Blu-ray over here; again, one has to wonder how many of these genuinely great old films fall through the cracks, never get a disc release and seldom get aired on mainstream channels.

I can’t say I ever really warmed to Richard Widmark; I don’t really know why, but I suppose with any actor, part of the process is one of chemistry and empathy. There are actors which, as a viewer, one can instantly strike a rapport with and subsequently enjoy any film they feature in, but at the same time the opposite can be true. In the case of Night and the City, the coolness I feel towards Widmark as an actor likely worked in the films favour, as his character, the hustler/chancer/selfish rogue Harry Fabian is pretty much a contemptible character anyway, so far as me as a viewer was concerned, half of Widmark’s work was done. Perfect casting maybe. To be fair to Widmark, an interview with him from 2002 that accompanies the film on this BFI disc was a bit of an eye-opener for me, gaining me new appreciation for the man and, who knows, maybe his work too. An opportunity for future re-evaluation then.

nighteagAs for Night of the Eagle– what a cracking horror movie. Soon as I noticed that the screenplay featured the work of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont I guessed that I would be in for a treat. Its a finely wrought script that balances reason with the inexplicable and the film confidently suggests more than it shows (and to be honest, even when it ‘shows’ it does so surprisingly well). The cast, too, are uniformly excellent, I think; Peter Wyngarde is very good but I was particularly impressed by Janet Blair, who played his wife. Yet again, however, I find myself chagrined by being greatly impressed by an actress only to find her subsequent career destined for ill- in Blair’s case, one removed from film pretty much entirely, instead languishing in television guest-star spots.

Real-world issues have impacted my blog-writing over the past few days but I’m hoping to get proper reviews posted for these two, but if not, hopefully these brief notes will suffice until I can.

To The Devil A Daughter (1976)

devil12016.74: To The Devil A Daughter (TV Airing)

Until the recent revival of the studio’s fortunes, I believe that To The Devil A Daughter was the last Hammer film produced for theatrical exhibition. Its had a pretty poor reputation, but it wasn’t this film that ‘killed’ the studio- the damage had been done long before this film was released to indifferent/scathing critical and popular response.

I must confess that when watching it, well, the first half quite impressed me. I think it was all the location footage, not a dodgy gothic set in sight.  Indeed it seemed quite an atypical Hammer horror, set in contemporary times and in real-world locations with some quite interesting cinematography. Losing the period gothic sensibilities of so much Hammer output felt like something of a culture shock though. The film was clearly an attempt to ride on the success of films like The Exorcist, being an occult horror (ostensibly based on a book by Dennis Wheatley) set in the real-world with much of the old Hammer gore and titillation  lacking (there’s one moment at the end, when Nastassja Kinski undresses as a temptation to Richard Widmark’s character, that ‘feels’ like a proper old Hammer with a bit of fire in its veins, but it’s hardly a momentary diversion). It feels like an Hammer film lacking its own identity- if it had maintained the gore and sexual intimations/nudity of the Hammer classics but brought that to the real-world scenario here, then it might have been more successful. As it is, its pretty lacklustre, a horror without real bite, almost more old-fashioned than the Hammer classics of the 1950s and 1960s.

Oddly, it features a birth sequence (and a rather weird reverse-birth dream sequence) that prefigures the chestburster of Alien but it is presented so ineptly it looks funnier than it does scary, perhaps a sobering reminder of what Alien might have been had it not been handled so well with an A-list director and budget.

devil2What really sinks To The Devil A Daughter is the script. It doesn’t seem to have one. Instead it seems to have rough ideas and plot-points, like an early draft that needs refining. Characters come and go and there are hints at a Satanist cult/mystery with Christopher Lee looking menacing, but really it doesn’t make a lot of sense and, crucially, the film lacks a credible conclusion. It just ends. Its really quite bizarre and the film-makers must have known they were in terrible trouble when they had the final edit. The big bad devil-worshipper Christopher Lee just… vanishes… off-camera too. He’s just there, has a stone thrown at him, and then he’s gone. Its appalling. Its as if no-one had quite finished that last page of the screenplay… it was just blank, and they kind of went with it. I’ve seen some crazy non-endings but this one is quite maddening.

So frustratingly, here’s a British horror film that might have been something great but ends up rather pretty terrible and forgettable. Most everyone seems embarrassed to be seen in it (besides Nastassja Kinski, who seems to be enjoying herself regardless) and the effects boys had a budget more akin to a BBC Dr Who show of the time. It needed more time, a proper finished script and a bigger budget to manage the films obvious aspirations to be a British answer to The Exorcist. Instead it is really poor, and cheap. A sad end really. At least with Peter Cushing in Richard Widmark’s part it might have been a bit fun.