Love Is A Weapon.

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It’s said that director Phil Karlson joked, “we took The Maltese Falcon and we did The Maltese Falcon…in our own way”.

That might be stretching it a bit, but if you get a chance to see Paramount’s Hell’s Island (originally titled Love Is A Weapon, a much better and more accurate title, I think), you’ll see what Karlson meant. Shot in Technicolor and Vista-Vision, Hell’s Island is one of several mid-1950’s crime and romantic suspense films that seem to point the way – visually, at least – to what would become neo-noir years later…specifically, how to capture film noir’s ominous and foreboding darkness in richly saturated hues. It’d be nice to watch a crisp and clean version of this movie, but aside from an incompatible format European DVD, all I’ve come up with are the online versions. Even so, it’s well worth viewing.

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The opening credits roll over a violent shootout and cut to late-era noir stalwart John Payne on the operating table about to get a bullet dug out of his shoulder. A police detective squeezes in between the surgeon and nurses to light a cigarette for Payne (who’s apparently not under anesthesia…and allowed to smoke in the operating room). In classic film noir fashion, Payne launches into a voice-over narration about how he wound up there.

He’s Mike Cormack, who lost it all just a year earlier when his lifelong love Janie Erskine concluded that marriage to a dashing Caribbean pilot had more appeal than life with a struggling Los Angeles assistant D.A. Seven months spent drowning his sorrows in a bottle of booze didn’t help Cormack get over being jilted, but it did cost him his career, and now he’s a glorified Las Vegas casino bouncer. There he meets a Sydney Greenstreet/Kaspar Gutman clone played by Francis L. Sullivan in one of his last roles, an unsavory wheelchair bound manipulator with a borderline illegal proposition: A grand upfront and four more to follow if Cormack will go to Puerto Rosario to look for a precious carved Madonna ruby, stolen from the local museum and presumed lost when the smugglers’ plane crashed on takeoff. Why Cormack for this peculiar mission? Because the pilot was none other than the glamorous flyboy who stole Cormack’s girl.

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To say too much about the twists and turns that peel off one after another once Cormack makes it to Puerto Rosario would be cheating. Just know that Cormack and Janie do meet up, the silver screen could just about melt once they do, and soon enough the bodies start piling up…culminating in the climactic shootout with Cormack lighting one cigarette after another on the operating table. And Janie being led away by the law into a waiting police van.

Not everyone’s a John Payne fan, but I like him just fine in this and similar roles. Mind you, if Paramount had snagged Robert Mitchum for this role instead, I wouldn’t complain. But the real revelation here is Mary Murphy as Janie Erskine (now Jane Martin). Known more for ingenue, pioneer woman and small-town girl roles, Murphy’s Janie deploys both vulnerability and duplicity wrapped in a steamy allure in order to get what she wants, and when that fails, is ready with a loaded automatic to seal the deal. There’ve been much bigger stars, more memorable heroines and evil villainesses in film noir, but only a few who can match this character’s cold bloodedness. Hell’s Island is worth looking for just to watch Murphy at work.

“Sometimes, love is a weapon,” John Payne’s Mike Cormack is told near the end of the film as he finally begins to realize that he’s been played right from the beginning. Indeed it is, particularly when it’s wielded by someone like Mary Murphy’s memorably dangerous dame.

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At Crime Reads: Virginia Kellogg

T-Men 1947

I still haven’t worked my way through all of the Crime Reads articles I’ve saved, and they just keep flinging more at me. FYI, if you get the itch to scroll backwards through Crime Reads’ site, you’d best allocate a lot of time. You’ll get lost there, albeit happily so.

Case in point: Last week’s article by Chris McGinley, “Virginia Kellogg: The Forgotten Screenwriter Behind A String Of Classic Noirs”. It’s tagged “She wrote some of the greatest crime movies in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Today we know almost nothing about her”.

Crime Reads

Native Californian Virginia Kellogg (1907 – 1981) originally worked as a Los Angeles Times reporter, then a secretary and script girl, penning a couple early screenplays as far back as the pre-code era. But her important work would come later in the postwar era, with projects like T-Men (1947), White Heat (1949) and Caged (1950), those last two earning her Oscar nominations. Now White Heat and Caged are surely familiar faves for anyone popping in here, but Anthony Mann’s faux-documentary styled T-Men is a real treat, with a complex story by Kellogg (screenplay by John Higgins) and visuals that could be used as a how-to textbook on the classic film noir style.

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Head to Crime Reads (link below) for Chris McGinley’s article, and then I challenge you to not start scrolling online or rooting through your disk shelves for one of these three films. Me? I’ll go with T-Men, a movie with more shades of ‘dark’ than you’d think is possible to capture on film.

https://crimereads.com/virginia-kellogg-the-forgotten-screenwriter-behind-a-string-of-classic-noirs/

The Shakedown

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“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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