30 Days Of Noir #18: C-Man (dir by Joseph Lerner)


At the center of the 1949 film, C-Man, is a man named Cliff Holden (Dean Jagger).  When we first see Cliff, he’s cheerfully walking down the street in New York City, looking pretty happy underneath his new fedora.

And really, why shouldn’t Cliff be happy?  He’s a U.S. Customs agent!  He investigates crimes and tracks down smugglers and, perhaps most importantly, his best friend is a customs agent as well!  Who wouldn’t want to work with their best friend, right?  Anyway, Cliff eventually reaches his office and he discovers that nobody else appears to share his good mood.  For that matter, Cliff’s step losing its cheerful spring when he finds out that his best friend has been …. MURDERED!

His friend was investigating the theft of a very valuable necklace.  The Treasury Department has reason to believe that an international criminal named Matt Royal (Rene Paul) will be smuggling that necklace into the United States.  Looking to not only avenge his friend but also protect the reputation of the United States, Cliff takes over the case.  Using the name William Hannah, he flies out to Europe so that he can then board the same plane that Royal will be taking to the States.

While Cliff/William is waiting at the airport, he meets a Swiss woman, named Kathe van Bourne (Lottie Elwin), who is flying to New York so that she can be reunited with her fiancée, Joe.  However, after they board the plane, Kathe is suddenly taken ill.  Luckily, there’s a doctor on the plane, a courtly gentleman named Doc Spencer (John Carradine).  Spencer takes Kathe to the back of the plane to examine her and, while no one’s looking, he hides the necklace underneath a bandage that he wraps around her head.

Back in New York, Royal is pulled off the plane and thoroughly searched.  When it’s discovered that he doesn’t have the necklace, Cliff realizes what has happened.  However, Kathe has already been taken off in an ambulance and, when Cliff goes to Joe’s apartment, he discovers that Joe has been murdered….

C-Man is a film that kind of sneaks up and takes you by surprise.  That it was an extremely low-budget production is obvious from the minute the movie starts.  The black-and-white images are grainy.  The sets are small and sparsely furnished.  The whole film has a rather cheap and ragged feel, as if it might burst into flame and dissolve at any moment.  And yet, that low-budget feel works perfectly for the story that C-Man is telling.  Despite the oddly cheery narration that’s provided by Dean Jagger, this is a sordid tale about people on the fringes of society.  Watching C-Man feels like taking a trip to all of the places that most tourists would never want to visit during their trip to New York City.  For instance, when Cliff searches for the alcoholic Doc Spenser, his search leads him from one liquor store to another and it’s obvious that some of the desperate souls that Cliff passes on the streets weren’t actors.

Gail Kubick’s pounding and relentless score adds to the film’s overall dreamlike feel and Joseph Lerner’s direction is just quirky enough to keep things interesting.  (When one character is bludgeoned to death, the film suddenly starts to spin as if the viewer has become trapped in the killer’s madness.)  Dean Jagger seems a bit miscast as a the tough customs agent but the actors playing the criminals are all properly menacing.  Harry Landers, as the most violent of the jewel thieves, makes a particularly threatening impression.

All in all, C-Man is a surprisingly effective poverty row noir.

Film Review: Hotel Artemis (dir by Drew Pearce)


Oh, Hotel Artemis.

I had such high hopes for you.

Hotel Artemis, you may remember, was initially released way back in June and, at the time, it was advertised as being some sort of nonstop action thrill ride.  The commercials made it look totally over-the-top and exciting, which was I wanted to see it.  Of course, I didn’t see it because …. well, actually I don’t remember what was happening in June that kept me from going to the movies.  But there had to have been something going on because I not only missed seeing Hotel Artemis in the theaters but I also missed Ocean’s 8 and Hereditary as well.

Well, regardless of why I missed it the first time, I did finally get a chance to watch Hotel Artemis earlier this week and, unfortunately, it turned out to not be anything special.  It’s certainly not terrible.  It has its moments and the film looks great but, at the same time, it’s hard not to feel somewhat let down by the film.  Hotel Artemis has promise but much of its goes unrealized.

The film takes place in one of those vaguely defined futures where there’s a lot of rioting and a lot of militaristic cops.  In fact, the film opens with Los Angeles in the middle of one such disturbance.  The riot scenes attempt to go for a Purge-style intensity but, for the most part, they just kind of fall flat.  There’s a lot of scenes of people yelling and occasionally, a police transport rolls by but, for the most part, there’s no danger to the film’s riot.  It’s all just a bit too obviously choreographed.  You never get the feeling that things could just randomly explode.

The Hotel Artemis is a combination of a hotel and a hospital.  It’s run by Jean Thomas, who is better known as Nurse and who is played by Jodie Foster.  Jean was once a doctor but, haunted by the death of her son, she became an alcoholic and lost her license to practice medicine.  Severely agoraphobic, Jean has spent 22 years inside of the Hotel.  She only treats criminals and other people on the fringes of society.  Helping her is Everest (Dave Bautista), who helps to keep order in the often chaotic hotel.

All of Jean’s patients are given codenames, based on which room their occupying in the hotel.  There’s Acapulco (Charlie Day), who is wealthy and short-tempered and who is waiting for a helicopter to come pick him up.  And then there’s Nice (Sofia Boutella), an international assassin who gets to beat people while wearing this red gown that is absolutely to die for.  There’s also Wakiki (Sterling K. Brown), who is a bank robber who is worried that his partner, Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry), is going to die from the wounds that he suffered during a robbery-gone-wrong.  Further complicating things is a gangster named The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) and Morgan (Jenny Slate), who needs Jean’s help but who also happens to be a cop.  Zachary Quinto is also in this film, playing the Wolf King’s son, because you really can’t make a pretentious genre film without giving a role to Zachary Quinto.

Anyway, there’s a pretty good action sequence towards the end of the film but it takes Hotel Artemis forever to get there.  Before that, you have to deal with a lot of talking but, unfortunately, none of the conversations are particularly interesting.  Hotel Artemis may clock in at 94 minutes but it feels considerably longer.  On the plus side, the cast is big and interesting but, on the negative side, nobody really seems to be that invested in their role.  It’s fun to watch Charlie Day play a bad guy but otherwise, the majority of the actors struggle with their thinly drawn (though certainly verbose) characters.  The majority of them struggle to convince us that they’re anything more than a group of talented actors slumming it in an action movie.  The fact that Jodie Foster received a good deal of praise for her performance in this film has everything to do with the fact that she’s Jodie Foster and little to do with anything that actually happens in the movie.

On a positive note, the movie looks great.  Visually, the Hotel Artemis is a fantastic creation that combines the decaying luxury of The Shining with the claustrophobic sterility of an underground bunker in a Romero zombie film.  (I’m thinking of the original Day of the Dead in particular.)  The Hotel itself is so fascinating that you can’t help but kinda resent that the film seems to be more interested in the boring people inside of the building than with the building itself.

Despite the superior production design, the film itself is slackly paced and never quite as a clever as it seems to think that it is.  Hotel Artemis is not a terrible film but it is a rather forgettable one.  It’s hard not to feel that it could and should have been a hundred times better than it actually was.

30 Days of Noir #17: Loan Shark (dir by Seymour Friedman)


The 1952 film, Loan Shark, opens with a familiar film noir situation.

A man walks down a dark city street.  Judging from the way that the man keeps looking over his shoulder, he’s obviously nervous about something.  Suddenly, we hear two sets of footsteps approaching him and it quickly becomes apparent that the man has good reason to be so nervous.  The man is being pursued by two gangsters.  (We know that they’re gangsters because of the suits and the fedoras.)  The gangsters toss the man in an alley and proceed to beat the Hell out of him.

The local tire factory has a problem.  Though its employees are highly valued, they’re not highly paid.  In order to make ends meet, many of them have resorted to gambling.  Plant foreman Charlie Thompson (Russell Johnson) always seems to have the latest tip on a sure thing.  Interestingly enough, the tips never seem to pan out and, as a result, the workers are forced to go to the local loan shark, Lou Donelli (Paul Stewart).  Lou always loans them the money but he charges exorbitant interest and, when the workers can’t pay back the loans, he sends his thugs to beat them up.  The factory’s management knows that they have to do something to take this loan shark out of commission.

Now, what would you do if you were a part of management?  Would you go to the police and maybe see if they could arrange to put a trained undercover cop in your factory?  Or would you hire an ex-con and tell him to just take care of it on his own?

The ex-con in question is Joe Gargen (George Raft).  He’s just been released from prison, though the film is quick to point out that Joe didn’t really do anything that bad.  He just hit a guy who was being obnoxious.  The guy fell back and hit his head and, as a result, Joe was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.  (As Joe explains it, he’s a former boxer and, as a result, his fists are legally considered to be deadly weapons.)  When Joe is first offered the clandestine job at the tire factory, he turns it down.  As he explains it, he’s not looking to get in any more trouble with anyone.  But then when the loan sharks kill his brother-in-law, Joe reconsiders.

Soon, Joe is working at the tire plant.  (If you’ve ever wanted to see, in meticulous detail, how a tire is made, this is the film to watch.)  After Charlie gives him a bad tip on a horse, Joe finds himself in debt to Donelli.  However, when Joe manages to beat up the thugs that Donelli sends to collect, Joe finds himself with another job offer.  Soon, Joe is working for the loan sharks!  Because he can’t reveal that he’s undercover, everyone — from the administrative assistant (Dorothy Hunt) who he once took dancing to his own sister (Helen Westcott) — is disgusted by Joe’s actions.  Joe finds himself a pariah but he’s still determined to discover the identity of Donelli’s boss.

With it’s combination of the mob and exploited blue collar workers (not to mention it’s use of an ex-boxer as its protagonist), Loan Shark lightly treads on the ground that would later be covered, in a far more exacting manner, by On The Waterfront.  Unfortunately, Loan Shark suffers a bit from the miscasting of George Raft in the lead role.  Raft was a charismatic actor but, when he made Loan Shark, he was 51 and looked about 9 years older.  When Raft shares what is meant to be a romantic dance with Dorothy Hart, he looks more like a proud father dancing with his daughter at a wedding reception than anything else.  Loan Shark is one of those films that calls out for a younger actor, a William Holden or maybe a John Garfield.  That said, Raft was a genuine tough guy and, despite his advanced age, he still looked like he could go a few rounds.

That said, Loan Shark is a tough and shadow-filled film, one that features some genuinely exciting fight scenes.  Miscast or not, when George Raft throws a punch, you believe it.

30 Days of Noir #16: I Was A Communist For The FBI (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1951 noir, I Was A Communist For The FBI, tells the story of Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy).  The film could just as easily be called I Hate Matt.

Seriously, from the minute we first see Matt, he’s got people hating on him.  When he goes to visit his mother, his three brothers all make it clear that he’s not welcome in their house.  When he goes to the local high school to find out why his son has been getting into fights, the principal is cold and rude to him.  Even worse, his son announces that it’s all Matt’s fault!  When Matt goes to his job at a Pittsburgh steel mill, the other members of his union view him with a mix of suspicion and resentment.  When Matt attempts to give his neighbor’s son some batting tips, the boy’s father tells Matt to get away from his child and adds, “Baseball is an American game!”

As you may have guessed from the film’s title, Matt is a communist.  He’s been a member of the Communist Party for nine years and, during that time, he’s seen a lot of bad things.  He’s met wth the shady spies who secretly deliver Russian orders to their comrades in the U.S.  He’s watched as communist leader Jim Blandon (James Millican) has plotted to sow discord among otherwise loyal Americans.  He’s watched as unions have been taken over and money has been raised on the backs of the workers.  If there’s anything that Matt understands about communism, it’s that the majority of its leaders care little about the people that they claim to represent.

Because Matt’s a communist, he basically can’t go anywhere without someone calling him “a dirty red” or a traitor to his country.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that not even his fellow communists trust him.  When Matt leaves one clandestine meeting, he’s followed until he reaches home.  In order to test Matt’s ideological purity, Jim Blandon orders a school teacher named Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart) to get to know him.  We’re told that Eve is one of many communists who have managed to land a job teaching the children of America.

As you’ve probably once again guessed just by looking at the film’s title, the communists have good reason to be suspicious of Matt.  For 9 years, Matt has been working undercover.  As much as it tears him up that he can’t even tell his family the truth, Matt is determined to do what he has to do to keep America safe.  Sadly, that means that Matt has to be a pariah.  He has to deal with his “comrades” showing up at his own mother’s funeral and sarcastically mocking her religious faith.  When his own brother punches him, he has to accept it and lie about  being “a communist and proud of it!”  As he explains it, the fact that his son hates his “communist” father just makes Matt love his son all the more….

I Was A Communist For The FBI is an interesting film.  On the one hand, it’s a very easy film to criticize.  Yes, it’s totally heavy-handed, to the extent that the film even ends with the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background.  Yes, Frank Lovejoy is a bit on the bland side in the lead role.  Yes, the film does seem to be making the argument that some people are more deserving of civil liberties than others.  As someone who believes in individual freedom above all else, it’s hard for me not to take issue with the way the film glorifies not only the FBI but also government overreach in general.

And yet, it’s a very well-made film.  Director Gordon Douglas hits all the right noir notes, from the shadowy streets to the pervasive sense of unease and paranoia.  James Millican is wonderfully villainous as Jim Blandon and Dorothy Hart also gives a good performance as Eve.  The film itself portrays the communist leadership as being more concerned with profit than ideology.  At one meeting, they brag about how much money they’ve made by infiltrating the unions.  In another meeting, Blandon orders one of his stooges to start promoting fascism, the idea being to divide Americans into two extremist camps and then wait for them destroy themselves.  When the communists start a riot during a labor strike, they attempt to blame it on a Jewish newspaper.  When they’re not fanning the flames of antisemitism, they’re causally using the “n-word.”  Again, it’s all very heavy-handed but, at the same time, it’s also a reminder that there will always be grifters who will attach themselves to any ideological movement, hoping to enrich themselves off of the idealism of others.  In our current hyperpolitical climate, that’s an important lesson to remember.

Finally, if nothing else, I Was A Communist For The FBI is very much a document of its time.  It was based on a true story, though how close it sticks to the actual facts of the case I won’t venture to guess.  Oddly enough, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, even though it’s clearly not a documentary.  Don’t ask me how to explain that one.  It’s a strange world.

30 Days of Noir #15: The Man With My Face (dir by Edward Montagne)


The 1951 film, The Man With My Face, tells the story of Chick Graham (Barry Nelson).

Chick’s a nice guy.  He might be a little bit bland but, at the same time, he’s also never been in any real trouble.  He’s the type of person who you would trust to look after your money but, at the same time, you would probably also forget to wish him a happy birthday on Facebook.  He’s just one of those decent but forgettable human beings.

After serving his country in World War II, Chick moved to Puerto Rico and opened up a business with his best friend from the army, Buster Cox (John Harvey).  Not only that but he also married Buster’s sister, Cora (Lynn Ainley).  Of course, when he fell in love with Cora, he also abandoned his then-girlfriend, Mary (Carole Mathews).  Mary’s still a little bit upset about that but you know who is really bitter about it?  Mary’s brother, Walt (Jack Warden).  Walt says that Chick’s no good and there’s no way that he would ever help Chick out if Chick ever got in any trouble.

But no matter!  Chick’s got a nice house.  He’s got a loving wife.  He’s got a loyal best friend.  And he’s got a dog!  It’s a perfect life!

Or is it?

One day, Chick is shocked when his wife doesn’t pick him up after dropping him off in the city.  When she calls his house and asks her what’s going on, she replies that she doesn’t have the slightest idea who he is.  When Chick finally makes it home, both Cora and Buster continue to insist that they don’t know who he is.  His own dog doesn’t even seem to know him!

However, what’s really strange is that, in Chick’s house, there’s a man who looks exactly like him.  Cora, Buster, and the man all claim that he’s the real Chick Graham and that the original Chick is just a double. Fleeing his house, Chick soon discovers that his picture is on the front page of every newspaper!

Except, of course, it’s not his picture.  Instead, it’s a picture of Bert Rand!  Bert is a notorious criminal who recently robbed a bank in Miami.  It’s rumored that he’s fled to Puerto Rico!  It doesn’t take long for Chick to figure out that Bert has stolen his identity and moved into his house.  But how can Chick prove it?  (Remember this film was made in 1951, back when most people didn’t even know what DNA was.)  Making things even worse for Chick is that he now has a crazed dog handler (Jim Boles) and a doberman chasing him all over San Juan….

As far as stolen identity films are concerned, The Man With My Face isn’t bad, though it is kind of predictable.  It’s not a spoiler to say that people are conspiring against Chick but, as you watch the film, you have to wonder why these criminals would pursue such a needlessly complicated scheme.  You have to admire their dedication but, at the same time, it’s seems like they could have gotten the same results with a much simpler plan.  On the plus side, Barry Nelson (who you might recognize as Mr. Ullman from Kubrick’s The Shining) is a sympathetic hero and character actor Jack Warden has a nice supporting role as Mary’s world weary brother.  Though Puerto Rico may seem like a strange place to set a film noir, the film’s final chase scene makes good and atmospheric use of the Fort San Cristobal.  All in all, The Man With My Face is an entertaining little time waster.

30 Days of Noir #14: Shoot to Kill (dir by William Berke)


The 1947 film, Shoot to Kill (also known as Police Reporter), opens with both a bang and a crash.

The police are chasing a car down one dark and lonely road.  When that car crashes, the police are shocked to discover who was inside of it.  Two men and one woman, all well-dressed.  The men are both dead but the woman is merely unconscious.  The police identify one of the men as being the notorious gangster, Dixie Logan (Robert Kent).  It makes sense that Logan would be fleeing the police but what about his two passengers, newly elected District Attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmund MacDonald) and Dale’s wife, Marian (Luana Walters)?

The police may not be able to get any answers but fortunately, there’s a reporter around!  Mitch Mitchell (Russell Wade) is a crime reporter and, seeing as how he knew both Lawrence and Marian, he seems like the perfect person to get some answers.  (In fact, it was Mitch who first suggested that Lawrence should hire Marian as his administrative assistant, therefore setting in motion the whirlwind romance that would end with them married.)  Mitch goes to see Marian in her hospital room and he asks her what happened.

It’s flashback time!  Yes, this is one of those films where almost the entire film is a flashback.  That, in itself, is not surprising.  Some of the best film noirs of all time were just extended flashbacks.  (D.O.A, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard, to name just a few examples.)  What sets Shoot to Kill apart is the fact that, occasionally, we even get characters having a second flashback while already in someone else’s flashback.  We’re through the the film noir looking glass here, people.

Lawrence Dale, we’re told, was elected district attorney because he managed to secure the conviction of notorious gangster Dixie Logan, despite Logan’s insistence that he was no longer involved in the rackets.  However, what we soon discover is that not only was Logan actually innocent but Dale specifically prosecuted him as a favor to some of Dale’s rival gangsters.  That’s right, Lawrence Dale was on the take!  It also turns out that Marian has some secrets of her own.  When she first showed up at Dale’s office, she was doing more than just looking for a job.  As for her marriage to Dale …. well, I really can’t tell you what the twist is here because it would spoil the entire film.

Shoot To Kill may clock in at just 64 minutes but it manages to pack a lot of twists and turns into just an hour.  In fact, I’d argue that it probably tries to do a little bit too much.  At times, the film is a bit difficult to follow and a few inconsistent performances don’t help matters.  For instance, Russell Wade is likable as the crime reporter but he still doesn’t exactly have a dynamic screen presence.  Much better cast are Luana Walters and Edmund MacDonald, who both do a good job as, respectively, a femme fatale and a sap.  At the very least, history nerds like me will be amused by the fact that Edmund MacDonald was obviously made up to resemble Thomas E. Dewey, the former Manhattan District Attorney who twice lost the U.S. presidency.

The best thing about Shoot To Kill is the look of the movie.  Filmed in grainy black-and-white and full of dark shadows, crooked camera angles, and men in fedoras lighting cigarettes in alleys, Shoot to Kill looks the way that a film noir is supposed to look.

Regardless of whether it was the filmmaker’s original intention, Shoot To Kill plays out like a low-budget, black-and-white fever dream.  It’s definitely a flawed film but, for lovers of film noir, still worth a look.

30 Days of Noir #13: Undertow (dir by William Castle)


In the 1949 film, Undertow, Scott Brady plays Tony Reagan.  Tony used to be a member of the Chicago mob but that’s all in the past now.  He served his country in World War II and now, as he tells his old racket friend, Danny (John Russell), all Tony wants to do is settle down and run a hunting lodge in Reno.

However, before Tony can forever abandon Chicago for Nevada, he has to make peace with his future in-laws.  He’s engaged to marry Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart).  In fact, he’s so in love with her that not even meeting a single teacher named Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) can distract Tony from his plans.  The only problem is that Sally is the niece of a Chicago gangster named Big Jim Lee and, in the past, Big Jim and Tony haven’t always been the best of friends.  In fact, the Chicago police are constantly harassing Tony because they’re convinced that he wants to start a gang war with Big Jim.  Instead, Tony just wants to make peace with Big Jim before the wedding.

Tony goes to visit Big Jim and …. well, you can guess what’s going to happen, can’t you?  If you’ve seen enough film noirs, you know that no one is every totally out of the rackets.  No one believes an ex-mobster when they say that they’re no longer interested in making trouble.  Even worse, any murder committed with automatically be blamed on anyone who says that they’re no longer a member of the rackets.  That’s what happens to Tony.  Not only does he discover that Big Jim has been shot dead but everyone thinks that he’s the one who did it.  Fleeing through the shadowy streets of Chicago, Tony finds himself not only being pursued by the police but also by the murderers.  Everyone wants to either capture or kill Tony.

In fact, the only person who seems to be on Tony’s side is Ann McKnight.  Ann lets Tony hide out at her apartment while he tries to figure out what’s going on.  Of course, Ann does have a nosy landlady who has no hesitation about letting herself into the apartment whenever she feels like it….

The plot of Undertow isn’t going to win any points for originality.  It’s not going to take you long to figure out who is setting Tony up, if just because there really aren’t enough characters in the film for there to be much suspense about who is betraying who.  But no matter!  The film is still an atmospherically shot and briskly-paced thriller.  Undertow was directed by William Castle, who is probably best known for directing campy B-movies like The Tingler and Strait-Jacket.  There’s nothing campy about Castle’s direction of Undertow.  The majority of the film was shot on location and Castle makes great use of Chicago.  When Tony tries to lose the cops that are tailing him, it helps that he’s not running across a soundstage but instead down real city streets, ones that feels alive with tension and danger.  There’s also a great chase that takes place in a long and dark corridor in an underground garage.

Scott Brady (who was the brother of tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney) gives a sympathetic performance as Tony and he and Peggy Dow have a really likable chemistry in their scenes together.  Dorothy Hart is also well-cast as the film’s femme fatale, while Bruce Bennett has a few good scenes as a detective who is an old friend of Tony’s.  Fans of “classic” matinée idols will want to keep an eye out for Rock Hudson, making a brief appearance in his second film and credited as “Roc” Hudson.