by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien (and William Conrad in a small role…and yes, he was a big fella even then)
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100%

PLOT: An insurance investigator tries to get to the bottom of a strange case involving a man who waited calmly for two men to find him and kill him.

Over the last several months, I’ve been digging a little more into the film noir genre, specifically going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I’ve discovered some gems.  Pickup on South Street (1953), for example, featuring one of the most violent fight scenes to be found outside of a Tarantino film.  Or The Killing (1956), an early Stanley Kubrick film depicting the kind of ruthless behavior that I didn’t think was permitted at the time.  I’m discovering that, for the adventurous moviegoers back then, there were films available to see that might have made their parents or grandparents gasp in horror.

Take the movie I watched today, The Killers (1946), the film noir that introduced Burt Lancaster to the world.  It’s based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway that was also adapted into a film in 1964, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and, in his last film role, Ronald Reagan.  [Watch this space for a review of that film, coming soon.]  At the beginning of this movie, we’re introduced to two thugs who walk into a small town, cloaked in the kinds of shadows and light that only film noir can get away with.  After terrorizing the patrons of a small diner, they walk to a nearby boarding house and up the stairs to a room occupied by Ole Anderson, aka “The Swede” (Lancaster), who has been alerted to their arrival but makes no effort to escape or call the cops.  He simply awaits his fate.

And what a fate.  The two thugs burst into the room and obliterate the Swede in a hail of gunfire that goes on for quite a long time, even by today’s standards.  (Later, the coroner describes the Swede’s body as being nearly “cut in half” by the barrage…yikes.)  This being 1946, we don’t see any of the actual carnage, but the implication is there.

The movie proceeds in a series of flashbacks.  An insurance investigator named Jim (Edmond O’Brien) tries to find out two things: why the Swede named a kindly hotel maid as beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and what happened to the $250,000 payroll that the Swede helped steal from a hat factory.  Now that I think about it, The Killers is almost like a thick-necked, brass-knuckles, gun-toting variation on Citizen Kane.  We never see anything about the Swede that wasn’t directly observed by someone Jim tracks down, and as Jim continues to dig, things just get mysteriouser and mysteriouser.

Figuring prominently in the Swede’s backstory is Kitty Collins, played by the ravishing Ava Gardner.  This was not her first film, but The Killers is the movie that put her on the map for good.  We first see Kitty when the Swede goes to a fancy party with his girlfriend, Lilly.  Alas, Lilly is no match for the sultry Kitty, who is wearing the kind of stunning black gown that inspires poetry when it isn’t simply driving men crazy.  How crazy?  At one point, when Kitty is caught by a cop wearing shoplifted jewelry, the Swede claims responsibility, slugs the cop, and winds up doing three years in jail for her.  Talk about being Kitty-whipped.

Naturally, as Jim, the insurance guy, meets more people, the Swede’s story comes more sharply into focus, but there’s still the mystery of what happened to all that money.  The robbery was indeed pulled off by the Swede with three other guys, but none of them have the money, and the Swede doesn’t have the money, so where is it?  As it turns out, the hat factory they stole from is insured by the same company that provided the Swede’s life insurance policy, so it’s in Jim’s best interest to get to the bottom of everything and recover the money, even if it means getting involved with the same kinds of thugs who killed the Swede in the first place.  That’s okay, though.  Jim is prepared.  He carries his own piece, and he comes up with a cool plan to get the guilty parties to confess as much as possible before they wind up dead…or he does.

The Killers is an example of a film that helped define, or at least refine, the relatively new film noir genre.  Similar films centering on crime, criminals, and punishment had been around since the ‘30s, but the real granddaddy of them all, The Maltese Falcon, had only been released five years earlier in 1941.  Since then, World War II came and went, and as dark as noir had been, it got even darker and more violent than Bogey was when he slapped Peter Lorre around.  With this film, director Robert Siodmak turned everything up to eleven.  The shadows aren’t just dark, they’re black, which of course makes the periodic pools of light that much more striking.

And the characters mean business, too.  Among the bad guys, there’s one named Colfax who doesn’t look like much – sort of like a moderately well-built school principal.  But when a genuine thug threatens to fight him, he doesn’t posture like a bully.  He just sits back in his chair and calmly tells the thug: “You’ve got quite a reputation yourself.  You’re supposed to be a troublemaker.  Okay.  Make some.”  And you just know that if the thug so much as lifts a finger, he’ll get it broken for his trouble.  It’s an interesting scene that reminded me of Goodfellas: “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”

(I should also mention the flashback involving the payroll robbery.  In today’s films, when we marvel at long takes involving complicated camera moves, it’s good to be reminded that, three-quarters of a century ago, The Killers gave us a heist sequence that starts at ground level, follows the robbers up a staircase, shows the actual robbery, follows them back down into their getaway cars, and even provides a small-scale shootout as they drive away – all in one uncut take, using a camera about the size and weight of a SmartCar.)

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Killers, I wouldn’t quite put it in the same weight class as, say, Out of the Past or The Big Sleep, but it’s got all the right ingredients, it tells a good story well, it gives us Ava Gardner in that gown, and it provided a great springboard for the films that came after.  Good film noir is fine; GREAT film noir is better.  This is one of the great ones.

[P.S.  The scene near the beginning of the film where the two thugs terrorize the people at the diner reminded me strongly of the scene in No Country for Old Men when Anton Chigurh quietly tells the store clerk to “call it.”  They were just as calm and serene and tightly coiled as Chigurh.  Pretty creepy.]


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Ann Blyth
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94%

PLOT: A convicted felon tries to organize a prison break under the nose of a sadistic chief guard who is on the verge of becoming the new warden.

In Brute Force, released seventy-five years ago, we are witness to: a man getting crushed by a metal press, a suicide, a brutal interrogation with the help of a length of metal pipe, a prisoner machine-gunning dead cops out of sheer frustration (okay, you got me, that part is off camera), and the kind of nihilistic ending that you typically only see in old French films.  Wages of Fear, for example.  I mean, this movie is violent by TODAY’S standards, let alone just a couple of years after World War II ended.

Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster in only his second film) is just getting out of solitary confinement at Westgate Penitentiary when he sees one of his cellmates being driven out of prison…in a hearse.  This only solidifies his resolve to escape with the help of his remaining cellmates.  Meanwhile, we get glimpses of life elsewhere in the prison.  The current warden is a trembling coward who addresses the prisoners only through a P.A. system in his office.  The prison physician, Dr. Walters, sees injustice and top-down barbarism on a daily basis and has his own method of escape: whiskey.  Inmate informants and stool pigeons are dealt with promptly and carefully.

Looming above everyone, despite his relatively small stature, is Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn).  He has the real power at Westgate.  He rarely raises his voice and even stops his lieutenant from beating a prisoner unnecessarily.  But he unflinchingly doles out punishments and even strong-arms other convicts into ratting out their buddies.  Of course, the stoolies are usually found out and wind up dead.  Shame about that.

The crux of the story is the escape plan, an ambitious endeavor involving capturing the yard tower which controls the gate and lowers the drawbridge – an actual drawbridge! – to the mainland.  Between making these plans and various other intrigues involving the warden and an imperious visiting government official, we are also treated to flashbacks showing how some of Joe’s cellmates wound up in prison to begin with.  Here the film gets a little overly melodramatic, a typical trait of many dramas of the ‘40s, but director Jules Dassin wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long.  The scenes do just enough to create more audience empathy for these “bad men” without bathing in soap.

I put “bad men” in quotes because these guys are, in fact, criminals, but they’re also our protagonists.  When it comes to Joe himself, it seems clear by his demeanor and his flashback that he wasn’t just a criminal, he was a leader of criminals, head of his own little gang.  This is not a very nice man.  The only convict sharing a cell with Joe who might conceivably be considered a “good guy” is Tom, a man who embezzled money from the company he worked for to buy his frustrated wife a fur coat.  Everyone else looks capable of perpetrating real violence.

Why do we root for these men?  Partly because it’s in our nature to support anyone who is out to give authority figures the finger.  From Cool Hand Luke all the way to Hannibal Lecter and beyond, we are instinctively drawn to men and women who are bucking the system.  But it’s especially prominent in this movie where we see these men at the mercy of a broken system that eventually revokes all their privileges, even visiting hours, in the name of restoring discipline.  Armed guards watch the prisoners everywhere, even in the chapel.  There is no longer any attempt at actual rehabilitation.  In the prison’s auto garage, a prisoner is asked what he’s learned while working there.  His answer: “I’ve learned that, when I get out, I don’t wanna be a mechanic.”  He hasn’t learned anything.  He’s just learned that it’s better to not get caught.  For this we pay our taxes?

So, yes, there is a strong message in Brute Force.  It’s not especially subtle, especially during the liberal Dr. Walters’ various monologues about the corrupting nature of power and the futility of expecting lasting behavioral changes through punitive measures.

But what stood out to me was the unexpected level of violence in the story.  Sure, some of it is discreetly left off screen, but what is left to the imagination can be infinitely worse than what the screen shows us.  Case in point: Se7en, where we are always shown murder scenes, never the murders themselves.  Or the infamous ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, where we never actually see the deed being done, yet it’s remembered as one of the most violent scenes in film history.

In Brute Force, during an interrogation, we see Captain Munsey winding up to deliver several blows with a lead pipe to the head of a handcuffed prisoner.  We push past the prisoner, so we only see Munsey, and down comes the first blow.  We hear the impact, then cut to just outside Munsey’s office where other officers are killing time playing cards or writing reports.  And through the doorway we hear more impacts, one after the other after the other.  Some officers look uncomfortably toward the office but make no move to stop what’s happening in there.  One officer is so disturbed he throws down his cards and stalks away.  Right away, we’re thinking, jeez, if HE’S that upset, something terrible is going on in that office.

This is not the kind of “realness” I was expecting from a 1947 film.  And it doesn’t end there.  There are other little vignettes of violence during the climactic escape attempt that made me gasp, including a hand-to-hand fight where one guy appears to be getting hit in the head and neck with a belt of machine gun bullets…for real.  At least twice.  Looked convincing to me, anyway.

Jules Dassin (1911-2008) is known for directing some of the best loved film noirs of all time, including The Naked City [1948], Night and the City [1950], and Rififi [1955], which won him the Best Director award at Cannes that year.  His best films are steeped in atmosphere and a fatalistic sense of…well, fate, an idea that no matter how hard we kick and scream at the walls of our existence, any attempts to escape will be met with massive resistance and will most likely end in failure, or at best only a partial victory.  Not a particularly uplifting outlook, but who says all movies must have a happy ending?  Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.  By the end of Brute Force, Dassin ingeniously combines those two outcomes.  Tricky.