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Tag Archives: Film Noir

Mystery Street (July 28, 1950)

Mystery Street
Mystery Street (1950)
Directed by John Sturges

“Mystery Street” is too generic a title for this groundbreaking crime thriller.

To me, Mystery Street sounds like one of those mystery programmers from the ’30s and ’40s designed to run as a second feature — perhaps featuring Charlie Chan or The Crime Doctor.

But with its focus on forensic investigation, Mystery Street is an innovative police procedural. Only its title is run-of-the-mill. If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones, make some time to watch this movie, and see where the genre got its start.

Montalban and Bennett

In the post-war years, “reality” entertainment was king. The “ripped-from-the-headlines” police procedurals that are still all over TV kicked off with the film He Walked by Night (1948) and the radio show Dragnet, which began broadcasting in 1949 and quickly inspired a slew of imitators.

Mystery Street follows the established formula of the police procedural, but focuses on the process of forensic investigation. When Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to a murder case with no clues — only skeletal remains that have washed up on the beach — he turns to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) of Harvard Medical School. (Incidentally, Mystery Street was also the first Hollywood film to shoot in Boston and Cambridge, MA.)

Discriminating fans of CSI will enjoy the outlandish example Dr. McAddoo gives Lt. Morales when he explains the kinds of crimes forensic science can solve: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case that turned out to be a combination of a bloody nose, a paroxysmal seizure, and a head injury caused by a fall. (It only looked like the woman’s husband had beaten her to death.)

Mystery Street is a stylish and very entertaining noir. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. I think it would make a great double bill with Border Incident (1949), another film that starred Ricardo Montalban when he was first establishing himself in Hollywood. He’s a compelling and charismatic leading man, and it’s fun to watch him before he was a household name.

According to Wikipedia, Mystery Street lost money at the box office, which is a shame, because it’s a great little flick. Maybe a better title would have helped?

Where Danger Lives (July 14, 1950)

Where Danger Lives

Where Danger Lives (1950)
Directed by John Farrow
RKO Radio Pictures

A more accurate and unique title for this film could have been A Man Concussed.

Don’t get me wrong, “Where Danger Lives” is nice and vivid, and it’s so perfectly “noir” that it’s also the name of an excellent blog you should all be reading if you have any interest in film noir. But “A Man Concussed” would have been more specific, and for whatever reason (probably inspired by the Robert Bresson film A Man Escaped), it’s the title that kept running around in my head as I watched Robert Mitchum in this film, his character suffering from a traumatic brain injury, and getting deeper and deeper in trouble.

The screenplay for Where Danger Lives was written by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, who penned the scripts for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), as well as many others. Where Danger Lives has a good story with plenty of unique touches, but the movie never quite hit me where I live. Director John Farrow and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, certainly crafted a great-looking movie. Visually, Where Danger Lives is a great noir, but in terms of a complete experience I don’t think it’s a film noir I’ll keep coming back to.


Perhaps the trouble is Mitchum’s leading lady, Faith Domergue. She delivers a competent performance, but just doesn’t exude the same combination of allure and menace that the great femme fatales do, like Barbarba Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross (1949), or Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1950).

Where Danger Lives is certainly worth seeing at least once, especially if you’re a Robert Mitchum fan like I am. The supporting cast is pretty great, too, including brief appearances by the great Claude Rains and the always enchanting Maureen O’Sullivan.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (July 7, 1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Directed by Otto Preminger
20th Century-Fox

What a difference six years makes. Where the Sidewalk Ends reunited Otto Preminger, the director of Laura (1944), with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, the two stars of Laura.

This reunion between director and actors was nothing earthshaking. In the years between Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Preminger had worked with both Andrews and Tierney again separately, and Tierney and Andrews had appeared together in the film The Iron Curtain (1948), which Preminger didn’t direct.

But comparing Laura with Where the Sidewalk Ends tells us a lot about where the genre we now know as “noir” went after World War II.

Andrews and Tierney

Laura is a glamorous mystery set in Manhattan high society; Where the Sidewalk Ends is a down-and-dirty drama set in the streets of New York, where ordinary people live, work, and die. In Laura, Gene Tierney is an untouchable and barely real object of desire; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, she’s a beautiful but otherwise average young woman with a job who lives with her father. In Laura, Dana Andrews is a tough but decent police detective; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, he’s a police detective whose desire to be nothing like his criminal father leads him to engage in all manner of brutality and occasionally even criminal conduct.

Where the Sidewalk Ends is a great movie about a troubled man finally forced to come to terms with himself. Andrews is excellent in the lead role, as is Tierney, and the supporting cast are wonderful, too, especially Karl Malden as a no-nonsense police lieutenant and Gary Merrill as a mean, sweaty crime boss addicted to nasal spray.

Armored Car Robbery (June 8, 1950)

Armored Car Robbery
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
RKO Radio Pictures

Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery was originally conceived and shot with the title “Code 3,” but RKO Radio Pictures opted for extreme truth in advertising. It’s a great example of the kind of tough, no-nonsense B-noir that RKO specialized in.

Fleischer had an extraordinarily long career in Hollywood. He directed his first short in 1943, and worked throughout the 1940s making short features and short documentaries, as well as low-budget features that no one remembers, like Child of Divorce (1946) and Banjo (1947).

Fleischer worked consistently throughout the decades, and went on to make huge movies that everyone remembers, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Soylent Green (1973). His directorial style is hard to pin down, as are any personal or authorial touches. Fleischer made movies in practically every genre; film noir, science fiction, war movies, horror flicks, and docudramas. He made trash classics like Mandingo (1975) and the remake The Jazz Singer (1980), which starred Neil Diamond. Toward the end of his career, Fleischer made entertainingly bad movies like Amityville 3-D (1983), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Red Sonja (1984).

Back in the 1940s, Fleischer was one of those competent, hard-working craftsmen who toiled away in the studio system and produced movies that were entertaining, but not particularly memorable. (He was the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer, who created Popeye and Betty Boop, as well as the great Superman cartoons of the early 1940s.)

The last movie Richard Fleischer directed that I reviewed was Bodyguard (1948), which starred legendary tough guy Lawrence Tierney. Because there are always more movies to watch than I can possibly make time for, I missed Fleischer’s next few flicks, The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Make Mine Laughs (1949), and Trapped (1949).

McGuire and McGraw

I almost passed on Armored Car Robbery, but I decided to give it a watch for two reasons. First, it’s a heist movie that came close on the heels of one of the greatest and most game-changing heist movies of all time, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Second, it stars granite-jawed tough guy Charles McGraw, whom Fleischer would direct again in one of my favorite noir thrillers of all time, The Narrow Margin (1952).

So I wanted to see how Armored Car Robbery stacked up against The Asphalt Jungle, and I wanted to see what Fleischer and McGraw were getting up to before they made The Narrow Margin together.

Considering its small budget and tight shooting schedule, Armored Car Robbery stacks up pretty well against The Asphalt Jungle. The heist is not nearly as detailed, but it’s believable, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off.

Like Fleischer’s Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery features a lot of location shooting in Los Angeles. For instance, the heist takes place outside Wrigley Field. (I know what you’re thinking, isn’t that in Chicago, where the Cubs play?) In Los Angeles, Wrigley Field was a ballpark that was in operation from 1925 to 1965 and demolished in 1969. It was built by the same chewing-gum magnate who build the other Wrigley Field.

The leader of the heist crew, played by William Talman, calls in a series of false reports outside Wrigley Field, then observes police response times. He puts together a string of heavies, including dependable baby-faced heavy Steve Brodie and dependable haggard-looking heavy Gene Evans, along with an oily Lothario played by Douglas Fowley.

If you’ve seen a heist movie before, you’ll know that the best laid plans often go awry. Talman is shtupping Fowley’s girl on the side, which can’t possibly turn out well. Incidentally, Fowley’s girl is played by the lovely and talented B-pictures mainstay Adele Jergens, who gets to show off her gams as a burlesque dancer. Armored Car Robbery gives her a nastier, more fun role than the one she played as a dancer in Ladies of the Chorus (1948), in which the 30-year-old Jergens played Marilyn Monroe’s mother(!).

McGraw and Jergens

After the commission of the heist, Armored Car Robbery is a tightly paced cat and mouse thriller in which the robbery crew narrowly avoids capture by the police as McGraw and his new partner track down leads. A lot of it is shot quickly and unpretentiously, but the cinematography by Guy Roe is always excellent, especially in the nighttime set-ups and the paranoia-inducing low-angle shots when the crew is beginning to unravel.

Armored Car Robbery is great entertainment, and a wonderful showcase for its dependable cast. If you’ve never seen Charles McGraw in a movie before, Narrow Margin is a great place to start, but Armored Car Robbery isn’t a bad place to start either. And it contains the memorable moment when McGraw comforts a friend whose husband has just died with three words, “Tough break, Marsha.” In his book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, Alan K. Rode called it “the bluntest expression of bereavement in film history.”

Armored Car Robbery will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Friday, July 10, 2015, at 12:15 PM (ET).

The Asphalt Jungle (May 23, 1950)

The Asphalt Jungle
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by John Huston

I love heist stories. True or fictional, filmed or written; it doesn’t matter. Any tale of a well-planned robbery is catnip to me.

But like any connoisseur, I’m picky. Reading about real-life heists has made me dislike overly complicated fictional heists, like the wackiness on display in the Ocean’s Eleven films. Real-life heists — at least the ones that work — usually involve the smallest possible number of people, and the simplest possible method to get in and get out.

Heist films (and novels) invariably follow the same plot structure. It’s a story in three parts; the planning stages, the heist itself, and the aftermath. The heist itself can take many forms, and it’s always exciting to see a heist that’s creative and fresh, but the overall story is usually as rigidly structured as a haiku.

Sam Jaffe

I also love the heist film’s ability to implicitly or even explicitly comment on America’s capitalist economic system. A group of skilled professionals joining forces to expertly and efficiently make off with the biggest possible haul of cash or saleable goods has resonance in a society that values the almighty dollar over nearly anything else, and in which “legitimate” business endeavors often cross the line that separates the legal from the illegal.

This is addressed explicitly in The Asphalt Jungle. When May Emmerich (Dorothy Tree) says to her husband, Alonzo, “When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with — downright criminals — I get scared.” Emmerich calmly replies to his wife, “Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Louis Calhern

Emmerich is the “money man” behind the scheme in The Asphalt Jungle. He’s a wealthy attorney who is outwardly legitimate, but is privately bankrolling a heist led and planned by the recently paroled Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe).

In addition to Jaffe and Calhern, the main players in The Asphalt Jungle are Sterling Hayden as the ruthless career criminal Dix Handley, who provides the muscle on the job; Jean Hagen as “Doll,” Dix’s friend and potential love interest; Anthony Caruso as the safe-cracker, Louis Ciavelli; James Whitmore as the driver, Gus; veteran character actor Marc Lawrence as “Cobby,” the bookie who helps coordinate the heist; and of course the luminous Marilyn Monroe, who was just beginning her career in Hollywood, as Emmerich’s young mistress, Angela Phinlay.

Marilyn Monroe

Every actor in The Asphalt Jungle plays their part perfectly, which is one of the many reasons this is a film I never get tired of watching.

John Huston is at the top of his game here, and not just in terms of directing his actors. Huston and his cinematographer, Harold Rosson, created something that is really beautiful to look at. Nearly every shot in the film is a masterpiece of framing and lighting. Also, the decision to only use Miklós Rózsa’s score at the beginning and end of the film was a really smart decision. Film scores are often the single element that dates the worst, and even though I love Rózsa’s high-tension scores for noir classics like The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), the absence of a score for most of its running time gives The Asphalt Jungle a sense of documentary realism.

The script for The Asphalt Jungle by Huston and Ben Maddow (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett), is great. It’s full of rich, quotable dialogue. The plot is tightly constructed, but complicated enough that more than one viewing of the film is necessary to see everything that’s going on.

The majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles, mostly in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, but it takes place somewhere in the Middle West. The opening shots of The Asphalt Jungle were filmed in Cincinnati, although the city in which the film takes place is never identified. All we know is that it’s a small city in the middle of the country that’s driving distance from Kentucky and is probably not Chicago.

Hagen and Hayden

The Asphalt Jungle is a groundbreaking heist film. There were plenty of movies about crime and criminals made in the first half of the 20th century, going all the way back to the short film The Great Train Robbery (1903), but The Asphalt Jungle changed the game.

The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and Gun Crazy (1950) all detailed well-planned robberies, but we really didn’t see much of the robberies themselves. The Asphalt Jungle depicts its heist from start to finish in ways that pushed the envelope of the Hays Code’s rules about depictions of criminal enterprise.

I’m not sure if we’ll see a heist this meticulously detailed again for a few years, until Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) (which also stars Sterling Hayden and takes a lot of cues from The Asphalt Jungle).

But The Asphalt Jungle is an important heist film not just because of its detailed depiction of a well-planned robbery. It’s an important heist film because its intricate plotting, well-drawn characters, and believable depiction of a professional criminal underworld created a template that is still being followed decades later in films like Thief (1981), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), and Inception (2010).

The Asphalt Jungle will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday, May 6, 2015, at 9:45 PM ET.

Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).

In a Lonely Place (May 17, 1950)

In a Lonely Place
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Columbia Pictures

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film — and the novel it is based on — that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen the film and read the novel.

This might come as a surprise to people used to films that slavishly adhere to the smallest details of the novels and comic books they’re adapted from (lest the filmmakers incur the wrath of throngs of nerds on the internet), but movies based on books used to be wildly different from their source material.

The phrase “the book was better” became a cliché for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that during the era of the Hays Code, novels could be much more explicit about sexuality, violence, race, gender, and other “grown-up” issues than Hollywood films could be.

There was probably no way Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel In a Lonely Place — which is about a man who stalks, rapes, and murders a series of women in postwar Los Angeles — was ever going to make it to the screen with its original plot intact. What’s interesting about Nicholas Ray’s film adaptation, however, is that it fundamentally changes the story while retaining the novel’s exploration of toxic masculinity.

In a Lonely Place 1947

Hughes’s novel is a third-person narrative that never leaves the perspective of Dixon Steele, a World War II veteran who is pretending to write a novel while receiving financial support from a rich uncle.

Dixon — “Dix” to his friends — sponges off a wealthy friend from college, Mel Terriss, who never appears in the novel and is supposedly out of the country. Dix lives in Mel’s apartment, wears his clothes, and charges purchases to his expense account.

One of Dix’s friends from his days in the service, Brub Nicolai, is now an LAPD detective investigating the murders that Dix is committing. Under the guise of “research,” Dix insinuates himself into Brub’s life and into Brub’s investigation. Dix was a pilot in the war, and he became addicted to the thrill of danger when flying missions. When he rides along with the police and returns to the scenes of his crimes, he learns what they know and what they don’t know, and he experiences rushes of adrenaline by pushing his luck.


Andrew Solt’s screenplay, from an adaptation by Edmund H. North, retains most of the characters’ original names, but nearly everything else is different in some way. Instead of pretending to write a mystery novel as a cover, in the film version Dixon Steele is a successful screenwriter; or at least he used to be. Instead of being outwardly “normal” and utterly average-looking, the film’s Dix is distinctive-looking, well-known around Los Angeles, and has a police record for violence. Instead of a string of murders, Dixon is suspected of only one; the murder of a checkroom girl he took home one night to help him with a screenplay.

If the producers had been casting for a straight adaptation of the book, I think the perfect choice for Dixon Steele would have been Robert Montgomery, who starred in another adaptation of a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse (1947). Montgomery was the kind of guy who would be hard to pick out of a police line-up, but he had intense and haunted eyes. He also served in combat in World War II, just like Dixon Steele.

Bogart, on the other hand, is always “Bogie” no matter who he is playing. I don’t mean that he was ever typecast, just that his unique image and his star power were always bigger than the character, at least in the post-Casablanca era. This works for the film version of In a Lonely Place, since Dix is recognized all over Hollywood, mostly by people who dislike him.

Bogart and Grahame

In a Lonely Place is a masterful film from Nicholas Ray, a director who had already made a handful of impressive films in a relatively short career. The changes made to Hughes’s novel all work in the context of the film, since it’s not a film about a murderer, it’s a film about an angry and deeply unhappy man who is unable to control his rage.

In a Lonely Place works on two levels. If you go into it without knowing the ending, you’ll probably spend most of the film trying to guess whether or not Dix is guilty of murder. Bogart’s performance is perfect in this regard. His line “I’ve killed dozens of people … in pictures” rivals Bela Lugosi’s famous line from Dracula (1931), “I never drink … wine.”

Solt’s screenplay originally ended with Dixon — who is innocent of the murder he’s suspected of — strangling his girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). This is a trite conclusion that implies that police railroading “made him do it,” and it’s good that Ray shot a different ending.

What we’re left with is something much more profound. Unlike most Hollywood films, the love of a good woman doesn’t reform Dixon Steele. His rage and his refusal to confront his own propensity for violence drives her away. He is unwilling to confront his own demons, and it damns him to a lifetime alone.


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