“Brute Force” (1947) starring Burt Lancaster & Hume Cronyn

Gallagher [after learning that parole board hearings have been cancelled]: Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead!

Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is a serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison (Westgate Penitentiary). After being held in solitary, then hearing of a friend’s sudden death, he has had enough! Collins and Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the prison’s newspaper editor, plan an elaborate escape. The men in his cell say they’ll follow along. The head guard, Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn in his only villainous role), suspects something is up; he has informants all over. Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) holds authority on paper only; Dr. Walters (Art Smith) is a decent man who has been driven to alcoholism. These veteran actors came from NYC’s Group Theater (1931-1940) which followed the principles of Stanislavski. The film ends in a huge fight between guards and inmates, w/ gunfire, explosions, and many deaths!

Dr. Walters: Yes, Capt. Munsey. I’m just a very ordinary man. I get drunk on whiskey but you sir – you get drunk on power.

The acting is top notch; this is Lancaster’s 2nd movie after his debut opposite Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). He had height, looks (traffic-stopping), and screen presence; he was discovered by producer Mark Hallinger (who died at just 44 y.o. from a heart attack). Cronyn (who hailed from the theater, like his wife Jessica Tandy) chews up the scenery as a sadistic wanna-be dictator. In one standout scene, he interrogates and beats the prison reporter, Louie (Sam Levene), while the music of Wagner (Hitler’s favorite composer) plays in the background. The musical score (composed by Miklos Rozsa) is considered to be even more compelling than the one he wrote for The Killers.

Spencer: Driving along with such a dream doll beside me, I figured myself a pretty lucky guy. Flossie had looks, brains, and all the accessories. She was better than a deck with six aces.

Yes, there are women here (unlike most jail-related movies); they appear in flashbacks. Spencer (John Hoyt- best known as Dr. Boyce in the series pilot of Star Trek: TOS) recounts a story of picking up a beautiful gambler, Flossie (Anita Colby). A mild-mannered bookeeper is in jail b/c he stole to please his wife (Ella Raines- who appeared in several noir films). Becker (Howard Duff) is former soldier dreaming of going back to Italy, where he left his lady love (Yvonne De Carlo). She co-starred w/ Lancaster in Criss Cross, which is a can’t miss noir. The woman in Collins’ life, Ruth (Ann Blyth), is as far from a femme fatale as you can get! This movie is on Amazon and YouTube (can see for free).

[1] Director Jules Dassin is brilliant with light, and sets the example for the French “new wave” of cinema. Lighting Burt Lancaster from the side, or from underneath, makes him and the other actors look almost surreal.

[2] The violence is not explicitly disclosed like in the present days, but the cruelty of Captain Munsey can be understood even by the most naive viewer.

[3] This powerful drama is totally uncompromising and provides a convincing account of what life is like in a prison which is being run in a particularly brutal and autocratic manner. The consequence for the inmates is that they live in an oppressive and overcrowded environment where hard labour, poor quality food and harsh treatment are the norm. Furthermore, they are also subjected to a cruel system which leads to many of them being abused, tortured or even killed

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Kansas City Confidential” (1952) starring John Payne & Coleen Gray

Detective: … left school to enlist with the engineers. Pretty good soldier too! Bronze Star, Purple Heart!

Joe: Try and buy a cup of coffee with them!

A WWII vet working as a flower deliveryman, Joe Rolfe (John Payne- best known as the lawyer/neighbor in Miracle on 34th Street), becomes the fall guy for an armored car robbery worth $1.2M. Payne is very tall (6’4″), w/ an athletic body, and large/expressive brown eyes. When Joe is released for lack of evidence, after being roughly interrogated by the cops, he’s determined to discover who set him up and why. After 6 mos, he gets info which leads down to Tijuana, Mexico. There he meets a nervous ex-con, Pete Harris (Jack Elam), at a gambling house. Pete doesn’t have his share of the robbery money, but is flying to Barrados (a fishing village) to pick it up. He doesn’t know who planned it, or the other criminals (character actors Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef). They all had to wear full face masks during the robbery!

[1] …Payne started off as a crooner and hoofer, a light leading man… he ended up one of the most convincing ordinary-guy protagonists in the noir cycle. He’s tough, all right, but still shows the flop-sweat of fear; and he’s smart, too, but because he’s forced to be what he’s trying to hang onto is all he’s got.

[2] The suspense in Kansas City Confidential is not about who did it. The three robbers are… three of the nastiest dudes in film history. The suspense lies whether Payne can put it all together. As he says to one of them, he’s flying blind in this one.

John Payne gives a riveting performance of a desperate man and one you don’t leave holding the bag without consequences. This is one of the best noir films ever done, not to be missed.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Quentin Tarantino said that Reservoir Dogs (1992) was inspired by this film noir. Kansas City Confidential was directed by Phil Karson (who also made Scandal Sheet); he worked steadily in small budget pictures. This film doesn’t shy away from violence (punching, kicking, and gunplay). The fights happen fast and don’t look slick; they’re a fact of life for shady men. Joe spent a year in jail, too; he can handle himself in rough situations. His love interest is pretty, but also smart (a law student); Helen (Coleen Gray) surprises her father (Preston Foster) by arriving at the resort for a vacation. Gray is perhaps best known as Fay, the loyal girlfriend to Sterling Hayden (another handsome tall drink of water) in Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). The romantic scenes were few, but played well; Payne and Gray became a real-life couple for some time. I noticed (on second viewing) that the editing is tight and well-done. Check out this film for free (since it’s in the public domain) on Amazon or YouTube!

“Human Desire” (1954) starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, & Broderick Crawford

Director Fritz Lang said that his American films of the 1950s were “all about fate.” He never saw the characters as evil; they were “people who succumbed to social evils.” This film was made right after The Big Heat– a must-see for fans of noir and classics. We have the re-teaming of Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, who work very well together. Human Desire was shot on location in Oklahoma. Director of Photography (DP), Burnett Guffey, won Oscars for From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde. Suiting the dark subject material, the look is grim and gritty. There is much use of shadows, most notably in the scenes where the lovers are alone. Trains are often heard in the background- wheels, whistles, and even going off the tracks.

Jeff Warren (Ford), a Korean War vet, returns to his railroad engineer job and boards at the home of his older friend/co-worker, Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan) and his family. He’s amused by Alec’s daughter, Ellen (Kathleen Case), who has an obvious crush. Vicki (Grahame) is the young wife of a middle-aged rail supervisor, Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford). After the hot-tempered Carl is fired for insubordination, he begs Vicki to intercede on his behalf w/ John Owens, a rich/powerful businessman. Vicki’s mother was Owens’ housekeeper; his influence could get Carl his job back. When Carl suspects Vicki slept w/ Owens, he beats Vicki and forms a plan to get revenge. Jeff meets Vicki, not knowing that she’s married.

You see, the war messed him up. He can’t be in a normal relationship. He has to somehow degrade himself in being w/ Vicki. He’s even willing to commit a crime for her. -Ileana Douglas (actor/film buff)

There is mention of war and killing, though not much detail is provided by Jeff. Under his regular guy persona, something is hidden which draws him toward the troubled Vicki (instead of the carefree Ellen). After Jeff helps Vicki take the drunken Carl home, there is a (semi-erotic) scene. Grahame unbuttons her blouse part of the way, pulls it off one shoulder, and reveals the bruises inflicted by her abusive husband. Later on, when they kiss in the abandoned shed, Ford buries his fingers in Grahame’s hair and yanks her head back (yowza)! While these may seem tame (by today’s standards), I’m sure they surprised audiences in 1954. See comment (below) for the full movie.

[1] This film features interesting photography and lighting typical of this style of film – I especially like the way the train scenes are shot, with the camera strapped to the front of the train, giving a first-person ride along the railroad tracks.

[2] Grahame is a revelation as the amoral wife stung by unfulfillment, sleazy yet sexy. Grahame makes Vicki both alluring and sympathetic.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Scandal Sheet” (1952) starring Broderick Crawford, John Derek, & Donna Reed

An ambitious/tough-talking editor, Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford), meets the wife he abandoned 20+ yrs ago at a “Lonely Hearts Club” ball sponsored by his NYC newspaper. Charlotte Grant (Rosemary DeCamp), threatens to expose him as a wife-deserter and impostor (he changed his name). In a fit of rage, he pushes and accidentally kills her! When Mrs. Grant’s body is found, Chapman assigns his young protégé reporter, Steve McCleary (John Derek), to the story. It could be a juicy follow-up story to the ball and raise circulation. Julie Allison (Donna Reed), a features writer/Steve’s girlfriend, gets a phone call which could crack the case.

This film noir is based on the 1944 novel, The Dark Page, by Samuel Fuller. The wise-cracking photographer, Biddle, is played by Harry Morgan (who gained fame in the TV show M.A.S.H.) Less than a year ago, Chapman was brought on board to save the paper, as it was losing money. Now, some of the shareholders don’t approve of the scandalous stories which he chooses to cover, though the paper is nearing a circulation of 750,000. Julie can barely hide her disdain for Chapman; she’s disappointed that Steve looks up to him. Derek is (as expected) uber-handsome w/ long lashes and thick dark hair; his character makes some sexist comments (reflecting the era). A few viewers were a bit shocked that Reed (who does a fine job) smokes in this movie- LOL!

Top notch suspense as Crawford gambles that he can keep his cool and get away with it, even as the walls close in and the odds look worse and worse. Crawford is at his no-nonsense, take no prisoners, mince-no-words best…

Reed plays a woman who is like the voice of conscience in the movie–always appalled at Crawford’s methods and making it clear that she wants no part of this degradation of the paper.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Big Combo” (1955) starring Cornel Wilde & Richard Conte

Capt. Peterson: You’re a cop, Leonard. There’s 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.

This is a lesser-known/low-budget noir w/ snappy dialogue, a jazz score (rare for that period), and fine B&W cinematography. It has its good points, but the femme fatale isn’t compelling, and a few scenes seem slow. A determined cop, Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde from Leave Her to Heaven), is told to stop surveillance of suave mob boss, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte from Thieves’ Highway). Leonard’s captain says it’s costing the police department too much money w/ no results after 6 mos. Diamond makes one last attempt to uncover evidence against Brown by going to Brown’s girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace- wife of Wilde and resembling Grace Kelly), who is chaperoned by two henchmen- Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman).

Mr. Brown: I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.

This was one of the very first American films to imply a man going down on a woman; I was a bit surprised! Brown maneuvers around Susan, stopping briefly at her lips, but then dropping out of frame, seemingly down past her waist. Leonard is clearly having a “friends w/ benefits” relationship w/ the burlesque dancer, Rita (Helene Stanton). Her show outfit is sparkly and skimpy, even by today’s standards. Also, the film openly infers that Fante and Mingo are a gay couple who live together, kill together, and seem to love each other (note the basement scene).

 In a performance brimming with cool menace, Conte is fond of saying `First is first and second is nobody.’

And Brown is obsessed with his prowess with women as Diamond is with capturing him and wooing his moll. The film is filled with risque sexual allusions…

What almost ruined this picture for me was the hideously annoying performance of actress Jean Wallace…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews