Friday, 25 September 2015


d. Paul Wendkos (1957)

'We, the dead, welcome you'.

Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea, weary as hell) is a career criminal, a break in expert. He has never been caught, never been photographed, never been finger printed. Neither has he ever been particularly successful, living in a series of crummy rooms in slummy streets, eking out a living for himself and his adopted sister, Gladden (Jayne Mansfield!). They are in love with each other, but something always gets in the way: life, usually, and Nat’s higher sense of obligation and morality to the girl he has looked after since she was a kid. Maybe if things were different they could be happy, live a different life. Maybe. Nat is like a sleepwalker, locked into himself, indifferent to almost everything apart from the instinct to put one foot in front of the other. Even love is a burden. 

Nat decides that he needs a big score, so forms an ‘organisation’: him, Gladden, a whining weakling called Baylock and a sleazy psychopath called Dohmer. Together they steal a sapphire necklace from a shifty spiritualist called Sister Phoebe. It’s worth a cool $150,000, and they think they can get $80,000 for it. What they actually get is death, hunted down by a crooked cop who wants the necklace for himself.

As you might expect from a film noir based, like Nightfall, on a book by arch fatalist David Goodis, The Burglar is dark, inky black in places. The characters are lost causes, stuck on predetermined routes to sordid ends. They all need someone to talk to, someone to listen. They will end up unsung, unremembered, unburied, left in crumpled heaps or in hastily dug holes by the side of the road. The drama is played out in huge sudden close ups and in flashing action cuts, all to the blaring of an occasionally intrusive brass and vibes score. Everything about this grim little story is played big, as if it mattered, as if any of it mattered.
At the climax, in the bustling amusement arcades and tourist attractions of Atlantic City (‘the playground of the world’) the characters play out their last scenes in sudden isolation, as if they are the only people on the planet. In the end, Nat finally gets what he wanted all along: he is put of his misery. Gladden survives, the only one young enough and innocent enough to still have a shot at something else, at someone else. What happens to the necklace? Who cares?

Friday, 18 September 2015


d. Jacques Tourneur (1957)

'That's your whole trouble, you know that? The top of your head never closed up when you were a kid. Neither did your mouth.'

Film Noir often hinges on coincidence or, perhaps more in keeping with the idiom, dumb luck. Nightfall contains a plot that is so convoluted it can scarcely be believed - but it works, it just works, and it makes for the most under-rated film I know.

I'm not going to summarise the story, other than to say it comes from the typewriter of arch pulp writer David Goodis and involves $350,000 of stolen money, a murder, two ruthless villains, a beautiful girl and an innocent man trying to clear his name, played by that most believable of fall guys, Aldo Ray*. Most of the action plays out in Wyoming, a stunning looking state of deep snow, tall mountains and great swathes of beautiful wilderness. It's not quite breathless, but it is relentless, a film of great verve and energy and momentum that is greatly aided by superb performances from just about everyone in the cast.   

I'm pretty sure that the Coen brothers watched this film before they wrote Fargo. It's by no means a rip off, but there are too many recurring elements for it to be a coincidence: a man running across a snow covered field; money buried, waiting for a thaw; a double act of killers who hate and mistrust each other, one voluble, almost reasonable, the other a psychopath; bloody death by machinery (a snow plough here, not a wood chipper). It's not a problem, it's just interesting. The Coen's clearly know their stuff, or, at least, they did: they've ploughed a very arid furrow indeed since The Big Lebowski.  

* Aldo Ray is great. Tall, heavy set, tough, but with a broken, raspy voice and blue eyes that seem permanently on the verge of tears. When he smiles, he looks about six years old. 

Friday, 11 September 2015


d. Charles Barton (1940)

What a great villain Peter Lorre was. Here, he plays a man involved in 'the dirtiest racket ever invented': white slavery. His modus operandi is to recruit parolees, offering them a home and a job, before flying them to his private fiefdom, Dead Man's Island (there's a clue there, really) where he chains the men together and forces them to mine for diamonds until they expire of fatigue, disease or malnutrition or get killed by the brutal guards. 

The diminutive Lorre pads around the island on crepe soled shoes, wearing a boxy lounge suit and a pith helmet. He never stops smoking, and the resentful lighting of his cigarette by underlings is a recurring motif of the power he wields, and the hatred he inspires. He alternates between sudden, hysterical rage and a kind of somnolence, as if he is exhausted with his own evil. There's a telling little scene where he gets in a temper and shoots his housekeeper's monkey (not a euphemism, an actual monkey). Fury spent, his heavily lidded eyes close in ineffable weariness. He has a beautiful wife, who absolutely detests him, so he sits and listens to her play the piano and smokes and smokes and smokes.

A dedicated undercover agent (who apparently spends two years of his life in a state prison to maintain his cover) is on Lorre's tail and soon infiltrates Lorre's operation - and his wife. Interestingly, Lorre knows all about the agent and, in fact, has actively sought him out - in order, perhaps, to facilitate his own downfall.

An undemanding but satisfying film, this is an ideal choice if you like corporal punishment as there are literally lashings of lashings, or if you like to watch people being shot or stabbed in the back, because there's a fair bit of that too. It's undeniably all about Lorre's character, though, and, when he dies, stabbed by his monkey grieving housekeeper, you almost feel sorry for him - but not quite, he's a creepy little bastard and a rotten Boss.

Friday, 4 September 2015


d. Jerry Warren (1964)

The Curse Of The Stone Hand only really makes sense if you know the story behind the production, so here it is. Producer Jerry Warren, a man who revelled in his reputation as a hack, grew tired of the expensive and time consuming process of making his own films, so took to buying foreign productions, hacking them to bits and dubbing them, filming a few inserts, recording some narration and putting them out with a sensational new title. It's not art, baby, but it is most definitely commerce.

This film is made up of two other movies, one from Argentina and one from Chile, and there are some new and poorly matched framing sequences making it a sort of poor man's portmanteau, or poormanteau as I have now decided it must be called. 

The first story looks like it might have been quite good in its original form, an occasionally stylish tale of a man who joins a gambling club where the price of membership is to kill or be killed, depending on the turn of a card. The editing is so choppy to render it almost unintelligible, but you are just able to get the gist. It doesn't help that Warren compulsively cuts any scenes that feature more than a couple of lines of dialogue (too hard to dub) and clearly has no idea that Durham is not on the outskirts of London. It's a frustrating experience.

The second story is completely incomprehensible, but is something about a depressive nobleman and the terrible way he treats his family. Again, it looks like it was probably quite well crafted at one time but, apparently cut by a third, the edited version provides little more than movement and sound. There is endless, meaningless narration and new clips of old John Carradine to pad out the running time (and give Warren a directing credit) but none of it helps. The ending, a new sequence, posits the idea that the nobleman locks himself in a basement and paints a series of self-portraits as he dies. It's ridiculous, but his mouldering skeleton provides a minor shock to close on.

So, a terrible film, but a fascinating concept. Warren was clearly some sort of monster but, luckily, he was in the film industry, one of the few professions where that really isn't a problem. It's a shame in many ways, as, every now and again, there are glimpses of a much better film waiting to be coaxed out. Oh well. As Jerry might say 'fuck it, it's only a movie''.