MOD Movies Spotlight: B-Noir and Forgotten Crime

13 October, 2011 (12:53) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Noir, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The Threat (Warner Archive), a 1949 programmer from Felix E. Feist, opens with a rat-a-tat energy, quite literally: a prison break, a whining siren, and then the almost unbroken blasts of machine gun fire standing in for a musical underscore during the opening credits. All accomplished with a couple a few simple sets against the black of night. That’s making the most of limited resources. And that’s part of the pleasure of this kind of cinematic archeology.

Felix Feist is no auteur but he made some minor classics of the noir genre, notably The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Tomorrow is Another Day. Here he has a good story (if not always a great script) and a truly menacing heavy in Charles McGraw as death-row killer Red Kluger, his tenor gravel and heavy frame carrying the threat of the title in every step and speech. Red isn’t simply engineering a getaway, he’s plotting his revenge against everyone who put him in prison and getting rid of anyone standing in his way.

We’re not talking lost masterpiece here; Feist is saddled with flat dialogue (“Now you know how a good detective works. When he finds something, he calls!”), generic sets and a cast of frankly non-charismatic leads (Michael O’Shea adequate as the cop hero, Robert Shayne a real stiff as his partner, and Frank Conroy almost a non-entity as the D.A..). But Virginia Grey is superb as a trampled flower of a showgirl and Feist allocates his limited budget cleverly, saving his resources for a few set pieces, notably the finale in a hunting cabin where the wait for a getaway plane drags on and the tension turns to violence with a dynamic crane shot and a brutal bare-knuckle brawl. This is the kind of punch that low-budget crime films could and, at their best, did deliver.

Follow Me Quietly (Warner Archive), a 59-minute thriller from Richard Fleischer (soon to be a major studio director but in 1949 paying his dues in specialty shorts and B-movies), is just as good, and just as limited. This was clearly timed to play the bottom of a double bill, but it has better production values than most B-movies and Fleischer devotes much greater care to the direction. He’s announcing his ambitions here.

William Lundigan is the lead detective on the trail of a self-styled executioner called “The Judge” and Jeff Corey is his loyal, supportive partner, supplying the wry remarks as Lundigan applies modern techniques to build a physical and psychological profile from a smattering of clues: an early profiler in a shadowy film noir world. Fleischer does a tremendous job of whipping up drama from a generally static script, though even he can’t generate much heat from the love-hate tension between Lundigan and spunky, persistent reporter Dorothy Patrick. But while Fleischer garnered well-deserved kudos for a couple of sharp cinematic stings involving the dummy they mock up from the clues, his more impressive achievement is the eerie mood he creates from a generic backlot city street set and the chase finale he stages in an industrial plant, full of pipes and tanks and catwalks and ladders, a labyrinth that Fleischer employs superbly before the film’s final jab. (You should just ignore the romantic comedy of the framing coda, just one of those conventions of B-crime movies designed to left audiences back out of the darkness before send them out of the theater.)

Both of these films are given solid presentations: no frills, as is the MOD way, but solid, sharp masters from clean prints. They are fine looking discs.

Robert Wise is another director who used the B-movie unit as a training ground and graduated to bigger things. His 1952 film The Captive City (MGM Limited Edition Collection), made after his big-budget success The Day the Earth Stood Still, is kind of a return to form, a tough yet austere little crime story carved out of a small budget. Inspired by the Kefauver hearings into organized crime (Senator Estes Kefauver supposedly penned to film’s forward and appears in person in the afterward) and anticipating the “Confidential” exposé films of the fifties, it’s a low-key thriller of a small town newspaperman (John Forsythe) who discovers that organized crime has infiltrated and corrupted his picture-perfect little town. After turning down a blatant bribe to keep quiet, a campaign of intimidation from folks he once considered his friends in the community turns deadly and Wise matches the shift by casting darkness over what we’ve seen as a sunny little slice of American values.

The early mob movie has matter-of-fact narration and a (perhaps necessary for the time) break for exposition when one character asks “What’s the mafia, really? I mean, I’ve heard of them, but…” Sure, it sounds elementary now and perhaps it was so then, but it’s just one of the those conventions you accept to enjoy the rest of it. Like the above films, this is no lost masterpiece, merely a minor noir with memorable flourishes. Wise takes plenty of cues from Orson Welles (and perhaps from Gun Crazy as well), masking the limitations of his budget and ratcheting up the tension by shooting in tight close-up, staging shots in depth and shooting in long, sustained takes. This isn’t a showcase of bravura style, mind you, merely a smart technician’s solution to meeting a challenge, but it is effective and looks forward to Don Seigel’s even more effective approach to small town horror in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The disc is advertised as “wide screen” but is actually the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, which is the correct and accurate aspect ratio for the film. It is, however, anamorphic.

Speaking of the “Confidential” films, Chicago Confidential (MGM Limited Edition Collection) is a more conventional mob noir. Framed by a docu-drama introduction with introductory comments on “organized crime in Chicago unions,” this “true story” (well, perhaps loosely inspired by one) stars Brian Keith as a (very young) State’s Attorney fighting to shut down the syndicate while it goes around murdering its way into the union leadership and framing the anti-mob leader for the crime. Director Sidney Salkow takes the script through its paces dutifully but unmemorably. It’s only significant claim to fame is Elisha Cook Jr. at his most pathetic and toadying as a down-and-out rummy used and discarded by the mob. This widescreen production is indeed widescreen, filling the 16×9 screen (perhaps a little too tightly when it comes to headroom), but it is a little soft and has a slight green tint.

Cop Hater (MGM Limited Edition), based on an Ed Bains “87th Precinct” novel, is an independent production shot largely on the cheap in with a New York cast headed by Robert Loggia and featuring small roles by Vincent Gardenia (as a stoolie) and a rising young stage actor by the name of Jerry Orbach. Yep, the future Law and Order detective is a young Puerto Rican hoodlum here, hauled into the squadroom for a little interrogation into the spate of cop killings in the precinct. Loggia’s girlfriend is a deaf-mute with a light bulb for a door bell, his partner (Gerald S. O’Loughlin) is in a failing marriage and both of their women have a tendency to get down to bathing suits and lingerie. And that pretty much sums up the notable elements of an otherwise unmemorable production. The 1958 film from director Sidney Salkow is presented in an indifferent 1.33:1 edition. Though it was clearly shot to accommodate a full-screen presentation, it should have been letterboxed and any home viewing experience on a widescreen set benefits from zooming the picture to fill the frame and cut off the dead space on the top and bottom of the screen.

Available directly from the Warner Archive:

The Threat
Follow Me Quietly

Available from Amazon, Screen Archives Entertainment, Classic Movies Now and other web retailers:

The Captive City (MGM Limited Edition Collection)
Chicago Confidential (MGM Limited Edition Collection)
Cop Hater (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

MOD stands for “Manufacture on Demand” and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and “burned” individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.

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