Crime Film

The Murder Man (1935)

The Murder Man 1935When J. Spencer Halford (Theodor von Eltz), a business man known for his shady dealings that have swindled lots of people out of their money, is found murdered in his car, it’s exactly the kind of story local newspaper reporter Steve Grey (Spencer Tracy) is best at handling. His reputation for writing about murder cases has earned him the nickname of “The Murder Man.” At least, this would be the perfect story for Steve, if his other coworkers could find him; he also has a reputation for being a hard drinker who often wakes up in places that aren’t his home.

When he’s found and gets to work, he comes up with a theory that Halford was killed by a shot fired from the shooting gallery across the street and that Halford’s business partner Henry Mander (Harvey Stevens) killed him to collect on his insurance policy. Enough evidence is found to support that theory, Mander is put on trial, and Steve is one witness to testify against him. His testimony is enough for him to be found guilty and Mander is sentenced to death.

Although this should be a victory for Steve, he feels awful about it. His boss and his girlfriend Mary (Virginia Bruce), the newspaper’s advice columnist, both convince him to take a vacation, but that doesn’t do much good. Just before Mander is set to be executed, Steve’s fellow reporter Shorty (James Stewart) convinces him to do the final jailhouse interview with Mander. It should be an explosive story, but after meeting with Mander, Steve can’t write the story. He knows Mander is innocent and knows who really killed him and must tell the truth before it’s too late.

The Murder Man is an absolute gem. A very tightly-told crime story with a great twist at the end. I usually find most plot twists to be rather predictable, but I liked this one. It’s also noteworthy for being a major film milestone for two film legends — Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. This was the first movie Spencer Tracy made while under contract to MGM; he went on to work for the studio for 20 more years. He certainly made the most of his MGM debut, he was great in it. This is also the first featured, credited film role for Jimmy Stewart. Since it’s an extremely early role for him, he’s not given a whole lot to do, but it’s still just fun to see Jimmy Stewart in his first featured role. Virginia Bruce rounds out a great cast as the sympathetic, likable girlfriend. I’m not sure why I’ve never heard of it before today, but I sure am glad I decided to watch it. As much as I find it ridiculous that a real reporter would have this much power over a murder investigation, these types of 1930s newspaper movies sure are entertaining.

Brannigan (1975)

John Wayne Brannigan Chicago police lieutenant Jim Brannigan (John Wayne) is assigned to go to London so he can collect gangster Ben Larkin (John Vernon), who is being extradited back to the United States. When Brannigan arrives, he meets with officer Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), who is supposed to help him with Larkin. But a man like Larkin is bound to have a few enemies and Brannigan arrives in London just in time to find out that Larkin has been kidnapped.

There’s some question whether or not he’s really been kidnapped, but eventually the authorities are convinced and Brannigan has to work with Jennifer, Larkin’s lawyer Mel (Mel Ferrer), and Commander Swann (Richard Attenborough), the British police commander who doesn’t fully grasp Brannigan’s style of police work, to find him. But Larkin knows Brannigan has come to town to pick him up and has ordered a hit on him, so in addition to trying to find Larkin, Brannigan has to avoid the person who’s out to get him.

I liked Brannigan a lot more than I expected to. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my favorite movie discoveries so far this month and since I’m not a big Western fan, I really didn’t think I’d end up saying that about John Wayne day. So I guess it’s a good thing I decided to check out one of his non-Western films. Brannigan is a lot of fun in the unique way that 1970s cop movies can be. With all the great action scenes, the musical score, the fashions, the cars, and lots of awesome tough-sounding dialogue, it’s hard not to be entertained by it. John Wayne was so perfect for roles like Brannigan because he was such a great tough guy, even late in his career. He got to do some great action-packed scenes, punch some people, and deliver some awesome lines. I couldn’t help but love the big brawl scene that had “Let the Sun Shine” playing in the background. Or the moment near the end where Brannigan comes bursting in to confront Larkin. Those moments embody pretty much everything that I like about 1970s cop movies. Not to mention that I totally love that poster.

In the grand scheme of his career, it may not be one of John Wayne’s best movies, but considering this came very late in his career, it’s nice to see that he was able to end his career on a better note than a lot of other actors did.

The Breaking Point (1950)

The Breaking Point 1950

Harry Morgan (John Garfield) dreams of running a successful fishing boat rental business, complete with a whole fleet of boats. Currently, he only owns one boat and is barely making enough money to make the payments on it and take care of his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two daughters. It’s putting a terrible strain on Harry and Lucy’s marriage and Lucy desperately wants him to give up this idea and go work on his father’s farm, but he refuses.

One day, Harry is hired to take Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) and his girlfriend Leona (Patricia Neal) fishing in Mexico. While in Mexico, Hannagan leaves Leona behind and without paying Harry for his services. Now truly desperate for money, Harry takes a job offered to him by Duncan (Wallace Ford), who often tries to recruit him for shady jobs. This time, Harry is asked to smuggle Chinese workers into the country illegally. Harry isn’t happy about having to take this job and tries to protect those close to him like his friend Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) and Leona, who he has become attracted to, so they won’t be involved. And he certainly doesn’t want Lucy to know what he’s up to, although it doesn’t take her long to realize something is wrong and to hear that he’s been spending a lot of time with Leona.

It gets harder and harder to keep his new “job” a secret, especially after Harry gets into a tussle and kills a gangster who tries to rip him off. Harry runs into problems with his boat being confiscated, which gets him even deeper in with Duncan after Duncan helps get the boat back so Harry can do more work for him. This time, Duncan wants Harry to help some gangsters escape after a robbery. Once again, feeling like he has no other choice, he takes the job but comes up with a plan to turn the tables.

The Breaking Point is film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Although the version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which came six years earlier, is by far the more famous version, The Breaking Point is much more faithful to the source material. (As great as To Have and Have Not is, nobody even bothers trying to argue it was a faithful adaptation of the book.) The Breaking Point is hugely under appreciated. John Garfield, Patricia Neal, and Phyllis Thaxter are all excellent. It’s very raw and gritty with a powerful ending, very much in line with the signature Warner Brothers style. The screenplay is fantastic and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it had Michael Curtiz at the helm as director. The only reason I can imagine as to why it isn’t a more well-known movie is that it’s overshadowed by To Have and Have Not. (I’m not trying to speak ill of To Have and Have Not; I’m very fond of both movies.) Keep an eye out for this one, you won’t be disappointed.

Pulp (1972)

Pulp 1972

Mickey King (Michael Caine) is an author who specializes in writing sleazy pulp novels under dirty pseudonyms. When meeting with his publisher one day, Mickey is given the chance to ghostwrite the memoir of a legendary Hollywood actor. The book would be a guaranteed best seller and Mickey would be quite handsomely for the job, so he accepts, despite the fact that he has no idea who the mystery celebrity is.

Before finding out who his employer is, Mickey has to travel to Malta and wait to be met by a contact. Along the way, he meets a man who he thinks is his contact, but Mickey finds the man dead in a hotel room, it isn’t long before Mickey begins to suspect someone might have been trying to kill him instead. Eventually, Mickey meets his contact and finds out he’ll be working on the memoir of Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), a retired actor famous for playing tough gangsters on film and hanging around with them in real life.

Preston has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wants to be sure his wild life story will be immortalized. Preston is also a notorious prankster so when a person appears to shoot Preston during a party, his guests think it’s just another one of his jokes. But Preston really is dead and Mickey has reason to think he also may have been a target. After all, Preston was friends with many criminals who may not want Mickey to make their stories known to the public. But it’s up to Mickey to find out who might be trying to kill him.

When I started watching Pulp, it seemed like the type of movie that would be right up my alley. I have a bit of a dark sense of humor and Pulp has dark, offbeat humor in spades and Michael Caine was perfect at delivering those dry lines. The story sounds like a murder mystery, but Pulp is really more of a dark satire of detective films. Although I really appreciated the movie’s style of comedy and liked seeing all the beautiful scenery (the movie was filmed on location in Malta), but the pacing was a little slow for my liking. It felt like it was a longer movie than it really was and the dark humor wasn’t enough to keep me interested in it. Perhaps I’m biased because I was tired when I watched it; I might be willing to give it another shot just because I really want to like this movie.

Smart Money 1931

Smart Money (1931)

Nick Venizelos (Edward G. Robinson) runs a barbershop by day, but has a reputation for being a very shrewd gambler by night. Known as Nick the Barber, he runs games out of the back room of his barbershop along with his friend Jack (James Cagney) and a lot of his friends believe he could win big if he went into the city and got into a game with some other big name gamblers. They’re even willing to chip in money for Nick to go to the city to gamble with.

Armed with $10,000, Nick takes a train to the city and gets to work at finding out where the action is. If there’s one thing Nick can’t resist, it’s a pretty blonde and when he sees hotel employee Marie (Noel Francis), he’s drawn to her like a magnet. She tips him off about a big card game and when he arrives, Nick thinks he’s playing with notorious gambler Hickory Smart. The only problem is that Hickory Smart is serving a prison sentence in Florida and Nick ends up losing big time to conman Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde). When Nick finds out what’s going on, he tries to win his money back, but gets beaten up and he vows to get even with them someday.

Nick goes back to being a barber, but within a few months, he’s ready to get his revenge. Not only does he successfully con the con men, his reputation as a gambler quickly grows. He even gets to finally play cards with Hickory Smart — and wins! He becomes infamous for being one of the biggest gamblers around, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the District Attorney. But Nick soon realizes his new position is being jeopardized by a woman he’s been trying to help.

Smart Money isn’t one of the all-time great gangster movies, but it’s enjoyable enough. The most interesting thing it has going for it is that it showcases two of Warner Brothers’s biggest stars right as their careers were starting to really take off. Edward G. Robinson had just recently had his career breakthrough with Little Caesar and Cagney was working on Smart Money at the same time he was working on The Public EnemyThe Public Enemy ended up being released first, so although Cagney is a supporting actor in Smart Money, he became an A-lister by the time it was released (which explains why Cagney gets equal billing with Robinson.) Smart Money was also, surprisingly, the only movie the two actors made together. It’s really too bad Cagney and Robinson didn’t do another movie together where they both really got to be on equal footing.

Not only does Smart Money have Cagney and Robinson as they were on their way up, it also features a very brief appearance from another rising star, Boris Karloff. Smart Money was released shortly before the public saw his iconic performance in Frankenstein. Keep an eye out for him in the beginning of the movie as one of the gamblers in the backroom of Nick’s barber shop.

The Unknown Man (1951)

The Unknown Man 1951Brad Masen (Walter Pidgeon) really has it all. He’s a highly respected attorney, known for his dedication to upholding the law. He has a lovely wife Stella (Ann Harding) and his son Bob (Richard Andersen) is about to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, too. But it all starts to fall apart when Brad’s friend approaches him about defending Rudi Wallcheck (Keefe Brasselle), who is facing a murder charge. Since Brad doesn’t handle criminal cases, he initially turns the case down. But after thinking it over and meeting with Rudi, he changes his mind since he believes Rudy is sincerely innocent and wants to help him.

Despite his lack of experience with cases like this, Brad successfully convinces the jury that Rudi is not guilty. But it isn’t long before Brad realizes that Rudi is nothing more than a good actor. In reality, he was a known thug who was indeed guilty. Horrified at his failure to uphold the law, Brad immediately starts doing everything he can to right his wrong. He does some investigating and finds out Rudi has been involved in a crime syndicate that shakes down local business owners for “protection money.” Even worse, it turns out the syndicate is run by Brad’s friend Andrew (Eduard Franz). When Andrew realizes that Brad knows what he’s doing, he starts cautioning Brad about what getting tangled up with him could mean. In a rage, Brad stabs Andrew to death using a knife he had taken from Rudi’s apartment.

Since the police find Rudi’s fingerprints all over the gun, he immediately becomes the top suspect. But even in a situation like this, Brad is still deeply committed to the law and doesn’t want Rudi to be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Brad represents Rudi in court once again, but can he save Rudi?

If I were to sum up The Unknown Man with one word, I would pick “adequate.” It’s likable enough, but not a movie to go out of your way for. It’s worth seeing if you’re a big Walter Pidgeon fan as he’s quite good in it. But the rest of the cast doesn’t rise above being simply sufficient (Ann Harding’s role is fairly small). The story had potential, but other pieces of the puzzle aren’t strong enough for the movie to become as good as it could have been. There are certainly worse ways you could spend an hour and a half and it’s the sort of thing I might watch again if there isn’t anything else on, but it’s just an average movie.

Dead Ringer (1964)

Bette Davis Dead RingerIn their youth, twin sisters Edith and Margaret (Bette Davis in a dual role) were both in love with Frank DeLorca.  Even though Frank had been pursing Edith first, Edith’s relationship with Frank comes to an end when Margaret announces that she’s pregnant with Frank’s baby and they are to be married.  Edith doesn’t see Margaret again until eighteen years later when they are reunited at Frank’s funeral.

After the burial, Edith visits Margaret at her home and all of Edith’s past resentment comes rushing back to her.  Frank had come from a very wealthy family so while he and Margaret were living in the lap of luxury, Edith was struggling to make the cocktail lounge she owns financially solvent. To make things even worse, she finds out that Margaret was never really pregnant all those years before.  With so many financial problems hanging over her head, Edith plans to get Margaret to come over, kill her, and switch clothes with Margaret so it looks like Edith committed suicide and Edith can assume Margaret’s identity.

Even though Edith has no problem physically passing as Margaret, she struggles to cover up the differences in their behaviors.  But as Edith spends more and more time living Margaret’s life, she discovers that Margaret had a few skeletons in her closet — specifically one named Tony Collins (Peter Lawford).  And with police sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden), who had been dating Edith, getting involved, can Edith keep up the act?

I’ve always thought Dead Ringer was one of Bette Davis’ more under-appreciated movies.  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is generally thought to be Bette’s last significant movie, but she made a few gems after that and Dead Ringer is one of them.  It has its moments of pure camp; the scene where Margaret offers Edith money and Edith yells, “You haven’t got that much!” before knocking the checkbook out of her hands and shoving her into a chair is the stuff Bette Davis drag queen impersonator dreams are made of.  And you have to admit that the whole concept of getting to see Bette Davis duke it out with herself on screen is pretty campy in and of itself.

But on the whole, Dead Ringer is actually a very interesting thriller.  Bette has a field day in this movie; she’s great in both roles. The story has plenty of suspense and twists to keep you wanting more.  I love its supporting cast; Karl Malden is good and even though I don’t generally care much about Peter Lawford, I loved how wonderfully sleazy he was in this.  The musical score by André Previn serves as the icing on the cake.  Dead Ringer also features some fine direction from Bette’s Now, Voyager and Deception co-star Paul Henreid.

A word of warning: If you have never seen Dead Ringer, do yourself a favor and do NOT watch the trailer first! It’s one of those trailers that gives away absolutely everything.

Dueling Divas Blogathon 2013

Thanks to Lara from Backlots for hosting the third annual Dueling Divas Blogathon! Head on over to Backlots to read more contributions.