Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)


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(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (Universal 1942)


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The natives are getting restless… and you will too, while watching THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET, which feels a lot longer than its 61 minute running time. The film does have a few saving graces, mainly the great Lionel Atwill as a mad scientist experimenting with bringing people back from the dead, and is an early endeavor for future film noir auteur Joseph H. Lewis . But the extremely lame script by Al Martin, whose inexplicably long career included the Lewis-directed Bela Lugosi vehicle INVISIBLE GHOST, manages to sink this shocker despite Atwill’s and Lewis’s best efforts.

Dr. Ralph Benson offers a man $1000 to let him put the man in a “catatonic state”, and revive him later. Benson has mad dreams about conquering death and disease with his untried (and definitely not FDA approved) methods. When the man doesn’t return home the next day, his wife calls the…

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Silk Purse: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Columbia 1945)


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Columbia Pictures cranked out 52 films in the year 1945, mostly ‘B’ movies with titles like LET’S GO STEADY, I LOVE A MYSTERY, EVE KNEW HER APPLES, ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES, TEN CENTS A DANCE, and THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY, along with their continuing series featuring Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Crime Doctor, The Durango Kid, and The Whistler. They were programmers, budget jobs, designed to fill a double bill  and a theater’s seats, bread-and-butter movies with no pretenses to reach any artistic heights.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS was one of those programmers, a quickie cashing in on the success of the previous year’s hit GASLIGHT. Whereas MGM’S psychological thriller boasted stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer directed by George Cukor, Columbia headlined their contract players Nina Foch and George Macready , good, competent actors but hardly box office draws. And in place of Cukor, Joseph H. Lewis sat in…

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The Fabulous Forties #33: Boys of the City (dir by Joseph H. Lewis)


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The 33rd film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1940’s Boys of the City.

As a classic film lover, I have to admit that I groaned a bit when the opening credits announced that Boys of the City starred “East Side Kids.”  The East Side Kids were a group of actors who appeared in a number of B-movies from the 1930s through the 50s.  Many of the actors started out as members of the Dead End Kids and a few more were members of a group known as The Little Tough Guys.  In the 40s, they merged to become the East Side Kids and then eventually, once the East Side Kids started to hit their 30s, they became known as the Bowery Boys.  Their movies started out as tough and gritty melodramas but, by the time they were known as the Bowery Boys, they were making cartoonish comedies.  Occasionally, one of their films will show up on TCM.  Their early serious films (Dead End, Angels With Dirty Faces) remain watchable but, from what little I’ve seen of them, their later comedies appear to be damn near unbearable.

Boys of the City finds the East Side Kids in transition.  The kids still have an edge to them.  They are definitely portrayed as being juvenile delinquents who are walking a thin line between either a short life of crime or a long life of poverty.  But them film itself, while it may not be as cartoonish as the films that were to come in the future, is definitely a comedy.

Basically, the East Side Kids (Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Hal E. Chester, Frankie Burke, Sunshine Sammy, Donald Haines, David Gorcey, and Algy Williams) have been arrested for vandalism and are given a choice.  They can either go to juvenile hall or they can spend the summer at a camp in upstate New York.  Somewhat reluctantly (and hopefully remembering the unlucky fates of Humphrey Bogart in Dead End and James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces), the kids agree to go to the camp.

However, on the way to the camp, their car breaks down and they are forced to stay at the nearby home of a crooked judge (Forrest Taylor) until they can get the car repaired.  The judge, however, is killed and it’s up to the East Side Kids to solve the murder!  Was the judge killed by the gangsters that he was set to testify against?  Was he killed by his niece (Inna Gest)?  Or maybe it was his housekeeper, Agnes (Minerva Urecal, who appears to be parodying Judith Anderson’s performance in Rebecca)?  Or was he murdered by Knuckles (Dave O’Brien), who the judge wrongly sentenced to die and who, following his vindication and release from prison, has become a guardian to the East Side Kids?

Who knows?  Who cares?  I certainly didn’t.

Clocking in at 68 minutes, Boys of the City is a typical 1940s second feature.  Designed to keep audiences entertained without requiring them to think, Boys of the City moves quickly and adds up to nothing.  I know that there are some classic film lovers who can tell the difference between the various East Side Kids (or Dead End Kids or Bowery Boys or whatever you want to call them) but they all pretty much blended together for me.

Not surprisingly for a film made in 1940, Boys of the City is full of casual racism.  Sunshine Sammy plays an East Side Kid named Scruno.  As soon as Scruno sees the cemetery next to the house, his eyes go wide and he says, “G-g-g-ghosts!”  Apparently, that was very popular in the 40s but today, it’s impossible to watch without cringing.

Boys of the City has some interest as a time capsule but otherwise, it’s a film that is easily and happily forgotten about.

Take the Money and Run: GUN CRAZY (United Artists 1950)


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GUN CRAZY is a thrill ride that will have you hanging on for dear life as it takes its protagonists on a downward-spiraling roller coaster ride that turns straight downhill into rock bottom. This is the ultimate noir, moving at breakneck speed towards its inevitable conclusion, a sordid tale of sex and violence that’s second to none. GUN CRAZY was a huge influence on many later films, especially 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE, right down to the fashion style of lead Peggy Cummins.

Bart Tare loves guns. So much so that, as an adolescent, he smashes a store window to steal one. Busted by the cops, he’s sent to reform school until he’s of age. After a stint in the Army, Bart returns to his hometown, and with old pals Dave and Clyde, attends a carnival. It’s there he meets Annie Laurie Starr, a trick-shot artist. There’s immediate heat between the two, as their mutual…

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