The Shakedown

The Shakedown 1

“Models Were The Bait For Blackmail!”

I usually don’t go for retro British crime melodramas or noir-wannabe’s, considering most a little too timid. But I’ve always loved that poster shown above, and wouldn’t mind getting my mitts on John Lemont’s 1959/1960 The Shakedown with Hazel Court, Donald Pleasence and Terry Morgan, just for a peek. The film didn’t make it to the U.S. until 1961, and mustn’t have made much of a splash then, since even bargain basement DVD companies have overlooked it.

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Just released from prison, Terry Morgan sets up a modeling agency that’s really a front for a naughty pictures racket backed up with a blackmail scheme. When the police get wise, they enlist future Hammer horror films stalwart Hazel Court to go undercover to infiltrate the operation, never anticipating that she’ll end up falling for the good-looking but sleazy blackmailer. The tawdry business wraps up once a blackmail victim’s had enough and shoots Morgan. Before the crook dies, he realizes that Hazel Court is really an undercover police officer. But there’s no talk of love or see you in the hereafter. His final words? He calls her a bitch and gasps his last, leaving Court to ponder what she let herself get mixed up in as she wanders off.

Murder, mayhem and vintage sleaze? Sounds deliciously stupid to me, but all I’ve found so far are short, ho-hum video snips. Still, I bet I’ll stumble across this sleazy gem in some DVD discount bin or risky video site someday.

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Would You Hang Mary Hilton?

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Often described as being based on the real-life case of Ruth Elliss, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, Yield To The Night (AKA Blonde Sinner) was actually in pre-production when Elliss was executed, and is really adapted from Joan Henry’s 1954 novel of the same name. Henry, who spent some time in prison herself, cowrote the screenplay along with John Cresswell for this 1956 J. Lee Thompson film. Its snickering marketing campaign played up Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood studios’ ‘blonde bombshell’ starlets: Diana Dors, who was already notorious in the UK tabloid press. But despite the sleaze factor, much of the movie showcased Dors in a decidedly un-glamorous way, challenged her largely un-tapped acting chops, garnered genuinely positive reviews and was even nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes festival.

Yield To The Night PosterBlonde SInner Lobby Card

Dors plays Mary Price Hilton, a sexy good-time girl who sadly has known nothing but bad times with the rotten men in her life. In the pre-opening credits, we witness her gunning down another woman. The film switches to the convicted murderer in prison, its grim monotony and the fear of her impending execution abetted in some small way by a sympathetic guard played by Yvonne Mitchell. In flashbacks, Hilton recounts the seemingly inevitable chain of events that brought her to this end, most importantly a succession of duplicitous and abusive lovers. When she finally goes for what seems like a rare good guy, it all falls apart when he commits suicide (having been duped by another woman) and that’s enough to push Mary Hilton over the edge. And enough to drive her to murder, killing the woman. Followed by trial, conviction and a sentence to die by hanging.

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Diana Dors (born Diana Mary Fluck – a name that could cause real trouble on a theatre marquee if misspelled) really nailed it this one time, at least. I’m no expert on Dors’ filmography, but it seems to be mostly forgettable 1950’s/60’s sexy comedies and vintage trash exploitation movies. But her work in Yield To The Night had Hollywood beckoning (which turned out to be a short-lived stay) and is the one role she always claimed to be proudest of.

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Reel Murders

The Big Book Of Reel Murders

I haven’t ordered mine yet (it’s pouring today and I’m not up to racing through rainstorms to get from my car to the bookstore) but I will on Monday, the book not out till late October anyway (seen online) or as late as November (per Publisher’s Weekly): The Big Book Of Reel MurdersStories That Inspired Great Crime Films by the master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler. It looks like another Vintage Crime/Black Lizard door-stopper from the maestro, at 1,200 pages and with over sixty mystery and crime fiction short stories that have been adapted to the big screen. From the descriptions, there are some of the usual suspects like Cornell Woolrich, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett and Robert Bloch, alongside some more surprising entries like Budd Schulberg’s 1954 “Murder On The Waterfront”, the inspiration for Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (Schulberg also wrote the screenplay). These jumbo Penzler anthologies are books you sort of live with for a while, diving into a few eager-to-read or re-read stories right away, then revisiting again and again over a few weeks till finished, which sounds to me like a darn good way to spend the late Autumn.

‘Bad Times’ Was A Good Time

I’m usually the last one to see any current movies, often as not streamed or on disk instead of herded into the multiplex. Case in point: Drew Goddard’s 2018 stylish neo-noir Bad Times At The El Royale. Released not long before Halloween 2018, my own sale rack DVD was tossed in my bag for a weekend getaway where cable, broadband, WiFi (or even a land line) was unavailable. So I finally saw it a week and a half ago. If I recall a brief Autumn 2018 marketing blitz, it didn’t seem to pay off at the box office. Still, the film’s been well reviewed, and I’ll add my own thumbs-up for Goddard’s Quentin Tarantino homage (well, that’s what it seemed like to me).

El Royale Intro

A brief intro’s muted palette and its unexpected jolt of mayhem alerts viewers that they’re in for a smart bit neo-noirish fun.

And the film delivers, as a traveling salesman, a Catholic priest, a singer and a smart-mouthed hippie converge on the El Royale, a peculiar and nearly deserted (its gaming license recently evoked) resort hotel straddling the Nevada-California state line. But no one’s who they seem to be, including the kinda-creepy desk clerk, apparently the only staff on site. Jon Hamm’s salesman is really an FBI agent. Jeff Bridges’ priest is actually a paroled bank robber, Dakota Johnson’s hippie is on the run from a Manson Family style cult, her little sister drugged and tied up in the car trunk. Lewis Pullman’s creepy guilt-ridden perv of a desk clerk is a former Army sniper. Only Cynthia Erivo’s singer-for-hire appears to be playing it straight, though that hardly keeps her out of trouble.

In a decidedly non-linear narrative, we glimpse each character’s backstory, enough to deepen the mystery and drag the viewer inexorably towards a violent climax. When the credits finally roll, a few questions might remain unanswered or at least some details left unclear, but that’s okay. Written and produced by director Drew Goddard, the film’s a visual treat, drenched in almost surreal hues, erupting in sudden bursts of violence, with every participant turning in terrific performances.

El ROyale Cast

Cynthia Erivo and young Cailee Spaeny are both new to me, but I’ll be watching for more from them, that’s for sure. Just as I’ll be watching for Dakota Johnson to further demonstrate how well she can do bad-ass and handle a gun.  If there’s a lethal assassin, cat burglar or (dare I hope) a gumshoe role in her future, I’m in.

Dakota Johnson

If you missed Bad Times At The El Royale, and enjoy a quirky neo-noir thriller, and like Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez’s or even David Lynch’s work, then give this film a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I sure wasn’t.

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The Kind They Talk About.

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They’re “the kind they talk about” according to Warner Brothers’ advance promotional pieces for Girls On Probation, a 1938 crime melodrama directed by William C. McGann, scripted by Crane Wilbur, and featuring an early feature part for a young Susan Hayward and pre-president, pre-governor, pre-Bedtime For Bonzo Ronald Reagan.

Girls On Probation stars Jane Bryan (1918 – 2009) who’d been groomed by the studio to become a leading lady and already had some important parts alongside Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G Robinson. Little did the studio bigwigs know that she’d soon wed a wealthy drug store magnate and happily leave Hollywood behind (hubby and wife among the key players in convincing Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980). Bryan co-stars with Sheila Bromley (1911 – 2003), a Hollywood workhorse who’d appeared in over 70 films (mostly westerns) as well as numerous 1950’s – 60’s TV shows.

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The girls they talk about: Good girls, fats girls and mean girls…‘Good Girl’ Jane Bryan gets mixed up with ‘Fast Girl’ Sheila Bromley, resulting in a trumped up larceny charge over an expensive dress taken from a dry cleaner, the accusation made by ‘Mean Girl’ Susan Hayward. Bryan’s friendship with Bromley gets even more dangerous when they get involved with some bank robbers, though prosecutor Ronald Regan, who is in love with Bryan, saves the day. Probation, no prison.

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I’ve only seen some grainy snips of this film online, and don’t see it anywhere on disk or as a full download, but would really like to view the whole thing intact. Silly vintage Hollywood stuff? Sure, it might be. But some of these long-forgotten big city crime melodramas can surprise you and turn out to be real gems.

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Undercover Girl (Well, One Of Them)

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An Academy Award nominee it wasn’t, and labeling Universal’s 1950 Undercover Girl a ‘film noir’ might be broadening the genre’s parameters a bit. Or not, depending on where you draw the line between ‘noir’ and postwar crime melodrama. Pretty sure there’s no connection to the popular comic character Starr Flagg – Undercover Girl from right around the same period, which was created by that human writing machine Gardner Fox with art by Ogden Whitney, first appearing in Manhunt starting in 1947, graduating to her own short-lived comic title in 1952.

Starr flagg Undercover Girl

Still, Canadian born actress Alexis Smith, perhaps best known to noir and crime film fans for The Two Mrs. Carrolls alongside Humphrey Bogart in 1945, wields a revolver pretty well in this postwar era crime-action film as a rookie cop out to nab the narcotics gang responsible for her father’s death. Or at least, she does it handily in the film’s publicity stills.

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Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss - Hnd Colored

Not sure if I’ll be home in time for TCM’s 11:00 PM CST Noir Alley with host, noir maestro Eddie Muller. Tonight it’s Vincent Sherman’s 1947 Warner Brothers film Nora Prentiss, shot by James Howe Wong with a Franz Waxman score, starring one of Hollywood’s hardest working actresses, Ann Sheridan. I’ve never seen the film and would like to, particularly with Muller’s always insightful opening and closing remarks.

You like your film noirs with syndicate bosses, mobsters, dirty cops and gun fights? Who doesn’t? But there’s an equally essential subset of classic film noir and crime melodrama focused on smaller stories that are equally dark and fatalistic, Nora Prentiss among them, considered by some as one of the best “women’s noir”.

Nora Prentiss - MontageKent Smith plays Dr. Richard Talbot, bored with his humdrum life and marriage, who begins an affair with seductive nightclub singer Nora Prentiss, played by Ann Sheridan. He fakes his own death in order to run away with her, relocating from the west coast to New York, where she goes back to work in the clubs. But it can’t go well, and Dr. Talbot grows increasingly paranoid once he leans that his faked death is now a murder investigation. Soon he’s bitter, jealous, combative and drinking too much, finally crashing his car. Disfigured from the accident, unable to identify himself, he’s actually accused of his own murder.

Nora Prentiss still

Though the film sounds like it’s Talbot’s story more than Ann Sheridan’s, it’s really not, at least based on what I’ve read. And Ann Sheridan rarely disappoints, especially when she gets a meaty role where she can play street smart with an undercurrent of vulnerability (though I suspect her husband-stealing songbird might not be particularly vulnerable). Well, in or out, that’s what DVR’s are for. I’m catching this movie one way or another.

Nora Prentiss poster

8 (Not ‘Eight’) Million Ways To Die

8 Million Ways To Die Poster

(See the preceding post about Lawrence Block and John K. Snyder III’s excellent graphic novel of Eight Million Ways To Die.)

The way to look at 8 Million Ways To Die, Hal Ashby’s 1986 film adaptation of Lawrence Block’s hard-boiled Matthew Scudder novel Eight Million Ways To Die, is simply to forget that the movie has anything at all to do with Block’s novel. Which is pretty easy to do, since so little of the book was retained. The Oliver Stone script (with an assist by Robert Towne) transplants an ode to 1980’s New York to Los Angeles. Oh, some character names are retained, former cop Scudder struggles with his drinking, and there is still a prostitute who comes to the unlicensed P.I. to help her escape the life, yet winds up dead. But that’s about where it ends. As Lawrence Block has noted in interviews, he did cash the check, and film studio dollars can pay mortgages the same as publisher’s royalty checks. All writers can learn from Block’s experience, and he’s not the only big name to offer wise counsel about the perils and pluses of dealing with Hollywood.

Montage

8 Million Ways to Die can be lumped together with a whole series of neon-lit and sun-drenched So-Cal neo-noir-ish action and crime thrillers, like To Live And Die In L.A., Tequila Sunrise and others from the 1980’s-90’s. The film was done by top-notch talent, and featured excellent actors, including Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia in his first major role. Block’s dark and brooding murder mystery is gone, as are the shadowy Manhattan streets, dingy bars and grimy walkups.

Rosanna Arquette

Still, Garcia is delightfully slimy (his little pony tail a constant visual treat), no one does troubled-but-stoic like Jeff Bridges, and Rosanna Arquette…well, lets just say there’s kind of a crush there. A good movie? Apparently reviewers didn’t think so, nor did movie-goers, since it was a box office flop. That said, if it popped up unexpectedly late at night during a final once-around-the-channels with the cable remote, I’d stay up and watch it again.

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