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Tag Archives: Film Noir

Side Street (Dec. 14, 1949)

Side Street
Side Street (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell memorably played young lovers on the run in director Nicholas Ray’s debut film, They Live by Night (1948).

They were reunited in Side Street, a twisty little crime caper directed by the great Anthony Mann.

Side Street isn’t a grand tragedy on the level of They Live by Night. O’Donnell’s role is much smaller and she and Granger play a quietly happy young married couple, not archetypal tragic lovers. But it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s a great crime movie with memorable characters and a lot of wonderful footage of New York City.

Granger

It’s also the last in a string of tough, violent, and exceedingly well-made film noirs from Mann, who previously directed Desperate (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), among others.

After Side Street, Mann would go on to tackle a variety of genres, although in 1950 he exclusively made westerns — Winchester ’73, The Furies, and Devil’s Doorway.

I always have more movies on my “to watch” list than I can realistically make time for, and I almost passed over Side Street. But then I looked it up and saw that it was directed by Anthony Mann, and I had to watch it. I love Mann’s sensibility, and his films are always really well-paced and full of suspense. Side Street is no exception, and if it doesn’t have the stature of some of his other noirs, it’s just because they’re so good that his “lesser” works sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

Mann did some of his best-known work with cinematographer John Alton, but Joseph Ruttenberg, who shot Side Street, was also extremely talented, and he has a lot of high-profile classics on his résumé, like The Philadelphia Story (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Gaslight (1944).

Side Street looks absolutely fantastic. The interiors live and breathe with complicated interplays of light and shadows. The exteriors are mostly shot on location in New York. Not only does Ruttenberg’s exterior shooting look great, it’s a chance to see a great deal of the city as it existed in 1949, including things that are gone now, like the elevated train tracks in Manhattan.

Craig and Granger

The story and screenplay of Side Street were written by Sydney Boehm. It’s a relatively simple story about a mailman named Joe Norson (Farley Granger) who sees an opportunity to pilfer a large sum of money and takes it. His wife, Ellen Norson (Cathy O’Donnell) is pregnant with their first child, and he thinks a lump sum of cash is their ticket to the good life. Of course, the person he steals money from is a crooked lawyer with his fingers in the underworld, and Joe’s life quickly spirals out of control as he is hunted by extremely dangerous people while lying to his wife about where he got the money.

All the actors are great, and their characters seem like real people; Edmon Ryan as the shady lawyer, James Craig as his brutal enforcer, Charles McGraw and Paul Kelly as NYPD detectives, and Adele Jergens as a seductress who is part of a honey-pot blackmail scheme. I liked all the actors, but my absolute favorite was Jean Hagen (recently seen in Adam’s Rib), who plays a cynical nightclub singer and B-girl. Her scene with Farley Granger involves him buying drinks to get information out of her, and she delivers her digressive dialogue perfectly as she very convincingly portrays slowly building intoxication. Like Gloria Grahame in Crossfire (1947), she expresses a lifetime of experience, most of it bad.

Jean Hagen

Everything about Side Street holds up well, and I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a twisty thriller. Aside from the black and white cinematography, the only thing that might rankle modern viewers is Paul Kelly’s intrusive voiceover, but that was a pretty standard feature of police dramas in the late 1940s.

I especially liked that Farley Granger’s character wasn’t an innocent victim of circumstance. He makes a very clear decision to break the law, but it’s the kind of crime of opportunity most of us have probably considered at least once in our lives.

What would happen if we walked into an empty, unlocked house and poked around? What would happen if we took a joyride in an unattended car with the motor running? What would happen if we swiped an envelope we know is full of cash? Side Street presents a worst-case-scenario answer to that question in a way that’s labyrinthine but fairly believable. Highly recommended.

Undertow (Dec. 1, 1949)

Undertow1949
Undertow (1949)
Directed by William Castle
Universal International Pictures

This review originally appeared last year at Film Noir of the Week.

William Castle is best remembered as the P.T. Barnum of schlock cinema. Castle was a director, producer, and huckster who sold his flicks to the public with brilliant gimmicks. Anyone who bought a ticket to Macabre (1958) was insured by Lloyd’s of London against “death by fright” while watching the picture. People who went to see The Tingler (1959) took a chance that they might be joy-buzzed if they were lucky enough to sit in one of the right seats. And people who bought a ticket to see the Psycho-inspired film Homicidal (1961) were promised their money back if they walked out during the one-minute “Fright Break” before the climax of the film. Provided, that is, they were willing to stand on display in the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until after the film ended.

What people tend to forget, however, is that before he made Macabre, Castle was a hard-working, dependable director of low-budget studio pictures. He was under contract at Columbia Pictures from 1944 to 1947, where he made several films in the Whistler series and the Crime Doctor series, as well as B noirs like When Strangers Marry (1944), which starred Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter.

While under contract with Universal in 1949, Castle directed two B noirs, Johnny Stool Pigeon, which starred Howard Duff and Shelley Winters, and Undertow, which starred Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady.

Just like his big brother’s loony film noir classic Born to Kill (1947), Undertow starts out in “The Biggest Little City in the World” — Reno.

Scott Brady

Brady plays a good-natured, average guy named Tony Reagan who’s just gotten out of the Army after a seven-year stint (he stayed in for another hitch after the war). All Tony wants to do is help his dead war buddy’s dad run the Mile High Lodge, 40 miles north of Reno, and spend the rest of his days hunting and fishing. The only thing he has to do first is fly to Chicago to see his best girl, Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart), and convince her uncle — gambler “Big” Jim Lee — that he’s good enough to marry her.

While in Reno, however, Tony runs into his old friend Danny Morgan (John Russell). Danny tries to convince Tony he’d be better off helping him run his casino. His sales pitch to Tony is: “Lots of sunshine, steady supply of suckers. And loads of lovely, lonely, loaded ladies.”

As I said, Tony is a good-natured, average guy, and even though he knows his way around a craps table, he’d rather put that part of his life behind him.

If you’re a fan of film noirs, however, you know that good-natured average guys who’ve just rotated out of the service are statistically the most likely people to have a murder rap pinned on them and be forced to flee from both the cops and the bad guys.

Brady Blindfolded

Arthur T. Horman and Lee Loeb’s screenplay for Undertow is standard stuff. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not that different from any number of other B noirs about an innocent man on the run. However, Undertow is worth seeking out for several reasons.

First off, the direction is great. Castle knew how to make an entertaining, fast-moving film, and Undertow is one of his better pictures from the 1940s. Another reason to see Undertow is all of the location shooting in Reno and Chicago, which is rare for a 70-minute programmer.

Castle does more than just throw in a few establishing shots. When Tony Reagan first arrives in Chicago, he heads for the Palmer House hotel, then attempts to lose a police tail while walking down South Wabash Avenue and running up into the elevated train station on the corner. Two scenes in Undertow take place at Buckingham Fountain, and at one point Tony meets his friend Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) and his girlfriend Sally at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. The people in the background in the street scenes don’t look like Hollywood extras, either.

Another reason to see Undertow is to catch Rock Hudson in a very small role. This was the first credit Hudson received for a motion picture. He previously appeared in one other film, Fighter Squadron (1948), but his name didn’t appear in the credits. In Undertow he’s credited as “Roc” Hudson. He appears as a Chicago police detective for about one minute toward the end of the film in a scene in which he discusses a case with Det. Chuck Reckling, played by Bruce Bennett.

Hudson and Bennett

I’ve seen a lot of Lawrence Tierney’s films, but I’ve only recently seen films starring his younger brother, Scott Brady (whose real name was Gerard Kenneth Tierney). Brady very closely resembles his older brother. It would probably be difficult for most people who’d never seen either of them before to tell them apart.

But while Lawrence Tierney played nasty, sociopathic characters the way other actors pick up the phone and say, “Hello?,” Scott Brady projected a general air of decency. From what I’ve seen of him so far, his performances aren’t as memorable as Tierney’s, but he’s perfect for this kind of role.

Finally, one last reason to see Undertow is for some truly outstanding bits of noir photography by Castle and his cinematographers, Irving Glassberg and Clifford Stine. The location shooting establishes the world of the film nicely, and is fascinating from a historical perspective, but it’s scenes like the climactic chase down a dark hallway that really tie the film together.

Dark Hallway

Tension (Nov. 25, 1949)

Tension
Tension (1949)
Directed by John Berry
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I recently did an MGM double bill and watched John Berry’s Tension right after I watched George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949).

After the wit, charm, and progressive gender politics of Adam’s Rib, I was turned off by the first reel of Tension and its tale of infidelity and murder. Audrey Totter is the classic femme fatale with no motivation, backstory, or realistic psychology. She’s just bad because she wants to be.

Ditto for her nebbishy husband played by Richard Basehart, who puts up with being cuckolded to such a ridiculous degree that I wanted to reach into the movie, slap him around, and tell him to stop deluding himself and just get a divorce, already.

Audrey Totter in Tension

But after the plot took one crazy turn after another, Tension totally won me over. The plotting is byzantine but never confusing, the performances are all solid, Allen Rivkin’s screenplay (based on a story by John D. Klorer) is clever and engaging, the score by André Previn is terrific, and the film offers a chance to see the lovely Cyd Charisse in a rare non-dancing role. Also, as an MGM production, Tension looks absolutely fantastic, and features a lot of great location shooting in and around Los Angeles.

Richard Basehart brings the same chameleonic everyman qualities to his role in Tension that he brought to his role in He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike that film, however, Basehart isn’t a trigger-happy sociopath in Tension, he’s just an average guy who changes his appearance to commit murder after he’s pushed to the edge by his cheating wife.

Richard Basehart

Basehart plays a pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to make enough money to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). Unfortunately, she’s as faithless as the day is long, and she runs off with a hairy, knuckle-dragging he-man named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

After Barney Deager beats the tar out of Warren Quimby when he confronts Deager and his wife on the beach, Quimby vows revenge. He gets a pair of contact lenses to change his appearance and moves into an apartment under an assumed name. By creating a person who doesn’t exist, he thinks he’ll be able to murder Barney Deager and get away with it.

Events quickly spiral out of Quimby’s control, as they tend to in film noirs.

He falls for his pretty neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), who falls even harder for him, his murder plot goes badly awry, and before he knows it, he’s in up to his neck as a dogged pair of homicide detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are on his trail.

Tension isn’t exactly a realistic film, but it’s one of the most fun and twistiest noirs I’ve seen in a long time.

Border Incident (Oct. 28, 1949)

Border Incident
Border Incident (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

If you think that Mexico-U.S. border security and illegal immigration are relatively new issues, check out Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. Watching it today, it’s remarkable how familiar the social and political backdrop feels.

Border Incident is a fictional film, but it’s a composite of actual cases. It begins with the stentorian narration that opened nearly every docudrama from the 1940s, and explains how important migrant labor from Mexico is to the U.S. agricultural industry. The narrator goes on to say that while the vast majority of Mexican farm workers play by the rules, wait their turn, and arrive in the United States with working papers, some go through back channels and slip across the border in order to work illegally.

In Border Incident, Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agencies join forces not to combat illegal immigration but to protect illegal immigrants who are being victimized in the lawless borderlands. (Police officers going undercover to protect illegal immigrants was also the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s 1984 nonfiction book Lines and Shadows, which I highly recommend.)

The police officers on the front line of the operation are Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy). Pablo and Jack have worked together before and have an easy friendship, but they don’t get much time together onscreen in Border Incident.

George Murphy

Jack goes undercover as an American fugitive looking to flee the country and cozies up to the vicious leader of the gang who are robbing and killing illegal immigrants. The gang’s leader is named Owen Parkson and he’s played with understated relish by dependable heavy Howard Da Silva. (And speaking of dependable heavies, the great Charles McGraw is also on hand as one of Parkson’s lieutenants.)

Meanwhile, Pablo goes undercover as a migrant laborer looking to put himself at the mercy of the human traffickers who transport desperate men in dangerous and cramped conditions. Will his soft hands give him away? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Mitchell and Montalban

Border Incident was one of the last films Anthony Mann made with cinematographer John Alton. Earlier in their careers, Mann and Alton made two of the most visually innovative noirs of all time; T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

I didn’t find Border Incident quite as involving as either T-Men or Raw Deal, but visually it’s every bit the equal of those films, maybe even better. It’s full of deep-focus photography that frames two people’s faces — one in the foreground and one in the background — in a way that dials up the tension and paranoia. Day-for-night shooting rarely looks good, but Alton makes it work in Border Incident, which is replete with stunning desert landscapes that are dominated by jagged mountains and that have a sense of claustrophobia despite taking place outdoors.

While Border Incident doesn’t have any of the “We don’t need no steenking batches” types of Mexican caricatures, aside from Montalban’s protagonist, the Mexican characters don’t have much depth. And it’s odd that a film with so much authenticity would cast an Anglo actor, James Mitchell, as the second most prominent Mexican character. (If you’re a fan of soap operas, you might know Mitchell as Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children.)

Minor quibbles aside, however, Border Incident is a top-notch entry in the film noir docudrama genre. It’s a tough, tense, violent film that features extremely impressive cinematography and continually mounting tension. It also made me wonder what Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958) would have been like if Ricardo Montalban (an actual Mexican) had been cast in the lead role instead of Charlton Heston (a fake Mexican).

Stray Dog (Oct. 17, 1949)

Stray Dog
Stray Dog (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toho Company

Akira Kurosawa’s ninth film is one of my personal favorites. I love a good police procedural, and Stray Dog is one of the best.

Kurosawa originally wrote Stray Dog as a novel. He was influenced by the Inspector Maigret novels by French writer Georges Simenon. In the 1960s, in an interview with Donald Richie, Kurosawa expressed his disappointment about the film. “I wanted to make a film in the manner of Simenon, but I failed,” he said. “Everybody likes the picture, but I don’t.”

I think it’s good for artists to be their own harshest critics, but in this case I think the public is right. Kurosawa may have failed to make the film he wanted, but he succeeded in making a great film nevertheless. For my money, Stray Dog and Drunken Angel (1948) are Kurosawa’s two earliest masterpieces.

Like The Naked City (1948), which was one of the first police procedural movies, Stray Dog pairs an older, seasoned detective with a younger, inexperienced detective. They’re played by Kurosawa regulars Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune.

If you’ve seen Seven Samurai (1954), you know Shimura as the de facto leader of the samurai (he’s the one with the shaved head) and you know Mifune as the wild and unpredictable odd man out.

Shimura and Mifune played variations on this relationship in numerous Kurosawa films. In Drunken Angel Shimura was an alcoholic physician who struggled to convince the swaggering young gangster played by Mifune that he had to treat his tuberculosis. In The Quiet Duel (1949), Mifune played a young surgeon desperate to keep his syphilis infection a secret, and Shimura played his father and the head of their medical practice.

In Stray Dog, Shimura plays Detective Sato and Mifune plays Detective Murakami. Their relationship has elements from their previous two collaborations with Kurosawa, but there’s a playfulness and sense of humor that was absent from both Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel.

Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket

The film begins when Murakami’s service weapon is stolen, and Murakami’s shame is more than he can bear. The little .25 caliber Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket was lifted by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Its magazine was loaded with all seven rounds. After the weapon is used in a mugging, Murakami writes a resignation letter, but his lieutenant rips up the letter and advises him that catching the thief would be a better form of penance.

Stray Dog presents a panoramic view of postwar Japan. Unlike the huge cesspool in Drunken Angel that functioned as a grim and fairly obvious metaphor for life during the American occupation, Stray Dog presents a world that has changed forever, in ways both good and bad.

After Murakami makes a positive identification of a female suspect, another detective who is familiar with the woman is surprised to learn that she was wearing a dress, since she always wore a kimono in the past. Murakami assures the older detective that she was wearing a Western-style dress, and that she had a perm and stank of perfume. The older detective shakes his head and observes that times have certainly changed.

When Murakami goes undercover to track the passage of the stolen pistol through the black market, we see one destitute person after another in a series of dissolves. Life is not easy for most people after the war.

But there’s also the sense of life returning to normal. Sato and Murakami track a suspect to a baseball game and keep him under observation in the stands. This tense sequence features seamlessly integrated 16mm footage of an actual game between the Nankai Hawks and the Yomiuri Giants. The players all have numbers on their uniforms, which was forbidden as “too individualistic” during World War II.

Sato and Murakami

I think that Stray Dog presents a more realistic view of police psychology than The Naked City. After Murakami and Sato narrow down their search to a single suspect, Murakami feels sympathy for the man. Like Murakami, the criminal is also a returning serviceman, and Murakami thinks that he could have easily become a criminal if he hadn’t become a cop. As his stolen Colt is used in a series of increasingly brutal crimes, he feels responsible for each one. Sato tells him to leave the psychoanalysis to detective novels and just focus on arresting the bad guys. Sato says that Murakami will never forget his first arrest, but after each subsequent collar he will grow less and less sentimental.

Sato has a much lighter touch than Murakami. When we first see him, he is laughing and sharing popsicles with the female suspect who Murakami got nothing from after leaning on her too hard. Sato’s way with suspects appears more lenient than Murakami’s, but it’s because he has a much better idea of what he’s doing.

Murakami is dogged but fairly incompetent in the early stretches of the film, but as he learns from Sato he becomes more patient and observant. A young person learning from a seasoned veteran is one of the oldest stories in the book, but it’s a damned good one when told well, and Kurosawa told stories extremely well.

Mifune

In addition to the convincing performances and the involving story, Stray Dog is a triumph of atmosphere. The film takes place in the hottest days of summer, and Kurosawa never lets the viewer forget it. The opening shot is a closeup of a dog lying on the ground and panting. The first words we hear from the narrator are, “It was an unbearably hot day.” In nearly ever scene there is something that conveys the humidity and languor — people fanning themselves, sweat glistening on faces and staining clothing, men mopping themselves with handkerchiefs and rolling up their sleeves. When a chorus of scantily clad showgirls led by the beautiful and petulant Harumi Namaki (Keiko Awaji) traipse off stage and collapse on the floor, their flesh is beaded with perspiration.

At just over two hours, Stray Dog is a long movie, but even in the stretches where not much happens there’s always a sense of forward movement conveyed by well-paced edits, frequent dissolves, and wipes to transition from one scene to another. (Kurosawa loved wipes.)

Fumio Hayasaka’s score conveys tension and excitement, but it’s used judiciously. Kurosawa also makes great use of diegetic music in the film’s two climactic scenes. In the first, the heat has finally broken and there is a tremendous rainstorm as the radio in a hotel lobby plays Sebastián Yradier’s “La Paloma” in the background. In the second climactic scene, Murakami confronts his quarry behind a house where a young woman is playing Friedrich Kuhlau’s Sonatina in C Major, Op. 20 No. 1. The music tinkles out of an open window, its serenity at odds with the violent confrontation that is about to explode.

Stray Dog is one of the best police procedurals of all time, but like a lot of great films it transcends its own genre to tell a universal story.

Starting in 1950 with Rashômon, Kurosawa would gain more and more attention worldwide as he produced one great film after another. Stray Dog was one of the last films Kurosawa made that was pretty much unknown outside of Japan until the 1960s. It’s still not as widely seen as his best-known films, so if you like Japanese cinema and haven’t seen it yet, you have something to look forward to.

Thieves’ Highway (Oct. 10, 1949)

Thieves' Highway
Thieves’ Highway (1949)
Directed by Jules Dassin
20th Century-Fox

Welcome to the white-knuckle world of trucker noir!

Trucker noir is a sparsely populated subgenre, even though the world of long-haul trucking seems tailor-made for film noir. Truck drivers are blue-collar everymen who push themselves to the limit and exist in a nighttime world where sleep equals death. They battle corrupt syndicates and each other for a little cold hard cash.

And yet, when I was trying to think of great noirs (and not-so-great noirs) specifically about truck drivers, I could only come up with a handful.

The original, and still one of the best, trucker noirs is Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940), which is based on the 1938 novel The Long Haul, by A.I. Bezzerides. Produced by Mark Hellinger and released by Warner Bros., They Drive by Night still stands up as superior entertainment, and was the template for most of the trucker noirs that followed. It stars film-noir mainstays George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as brothers who run a small trucking business in California that carries fresh fruit from farms into the markets of Los Angeles. The beautiful and talented Ann Sheridan plays a truck-stop waitress who takes a shine to Raft, and Ida Lupino — one of my favorite actresses from the classic noir cycle — is the femme fatale who wants to get her claws into Raft.

Other noirish tales of brave men fighting rackets and trying to stay awake through the night include Truck Busters (1943) (directed by B. Reeves Eason), Speed to Spare (1948), and Highway 13 (1948) (both directed by William Berke).

Trucker noir reached its apotheosis in 1953 with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), which was remade by William Friedkin in 1977 as Sorcerer. The Wages of Fear is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the few thrillers that lives up to the term “edge of your seat.”

Conte and Mitchell

But before that high-water mark, Jules Dassin directed a very good film called Thieves’ Highway. It’s similar in a lot of ways to They Drive by Night, probably because they’re both based on novels by A.I. Bezzerides. Thieves’ Highway is based on Bezzerides’s novel Thieves’ Market, which was published earlier in 1949.

Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, a Greek-American who has returned home to Fresno, California, after serving overseas. He discovers that his father, Yanko Garcos (Morris Carnovsky), has been crippled following an altercation with the crooked produce distributor Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).

Nick vows revenge, and teams up with a salty old trucker named Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) to deliver a big load of Golden Delicious apples to Figlia’s market in San Francisco. Nick drives a military surplus Studebaker US6 and Ed drives an old Mack AB that’s on its last legs.

My favorite sections of Thieves’ Highway are the ones that take place on the road. Jules Dassin’s direction is at its best in these sequences, which are full of tension and drama. There are another pair of wildcatters, Pete (Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie), who are trying to beat Ed and Nick to the San Francisco markets. I love Pevney and Oakie’s performances in this film. Even though they come off as jerks in most of their early scenes, they’re both able to craft fully realized and relatable characters who are as much a part of the fabric of the film as Ed and Nick are.

Lee J Cobb

I also love the scenes in the market, which were shot on location in San Francisco and are dominated by the menacing bonhomie of Lee J. Cobb as Figlia. I’ve never seen Cobb give a bad performance, and Thieves’ Market is no exception.

Ditto for Richard Conte, who plays Nick as a determined guy who doesn’t have a lot of experience, but is good at thinking on his feet and won’t ever back down from a conflict. I love the scene where he snarls the extremely old-school threat, “Touch my truck and I’ll climb into your hair.”

The scenes in the market are punctuated by Nick’s burgeoning love affair with a prostitute named Rica, played by Valentina Cortese. (She’s listed in the credits as Valentina “Cortesa.”) She invites him up to her rented room, and lets him sleep and bathe after spending hundreds of miles on the road. These scenes are strongly reminiscent of the bits in They Drive by Night where Ann Sheridan cares for the bone-tired George Raft, but they’re much more sexually charged. Not only does Nick remove his shirt and allow her to caress him, but it’s brazenly obvious that she’s a prostitute. Figlia even refers to her as a “trick” when he admits to Nick that he paid her to get Nick up to her room.

Valentina Cortese

Dassin directed a bunch of films for MGM before making his two early masterpieces, Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) for Universal with producer Mark Hellinger. He was blacklisted around the time he made Thieves’ Highway, and it would be the last film he directed in Hollywood. (He was still under contract with 20th Century-Fox when he directed his final post-blacklist film, Night and the City, but that movie was shot in London.)

Thieves’ Highway was a modestly budgeted film shot on a very tight schedule, and it suffered some narrative tinkering by Darryl F. Zanuck, but it still stands as a typically great film by Dassin. It’s also an important part of the wave of post-war/pre-HUAC film noirs that explicitly critiqued the American capitalist system.

Thieves’ Highway is a tale of capitalism in miniature. The Golden Delicious apples that Ed and Nick struggle to get to market are a hot but perishable commodity. They’re gambling with their livelihoods and their lives to get them to Figlia’s market as fast as they can. Dassin presents capitalism as an economic structure that, at its best, encourages daring, shrewd negotiation, and hard work. At its worst, it encourages deceit, treachery, and the exploitation and death of laborers as long as there’s a buck to be made.

White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

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