Sunday, June 3, 2012

711 Ocean Drive
(Columbia Pictures, 1950)

Edmond O'Brien's smug protagonist assumes he's in control.

Expose of the $8,000,000,000 gambling syndicate and its hoodlum empire!

Just the Facts

In another of the everyman roles in which he excelled, noir stalwart Edmond O’Brien plays Mal Granger, an underpaid Los Angeles telephone company technician with an expensive gambling habit. When his bookie, Chippie (Sammy White), tips Mal that his electronics expertise could put him on intimate terms with serious money, Mal takes the bait like a hungry grouper. Chippie promptly introduces him to Vince Walters (Barry Kelly), owner of a wire service that furnishes local bookmakers with up-to-the-minute race results surreptitiously garnered from the city’s racetracks. To grow his business, Walters needs a way to make his information instantly accessible statewide. Mal makes it happen by using relay amplifiers, and soon runs Walters’ daily take up to staggering levels. 
Although he’s making enough money to quit his regular job and romance Walters’ assistant, Trudy (Dorothy Patrick), Mal wants a piece of the action, and eventually forces Walters into a partnership by threatening to take his equipment to a competitive wire service. Mal’s burgeoning bank account, however, is counterpointed by his increasing moral bankruptcy: He enjoys Trudy’s sexual favors without committing to a long-term relationship, and emulates Walters’ callousness toward the bookies who use the latter’s check-cashing service and fall behind on their interest payments. One of these schnooks, pushed to the breaking point when Walters threatens his family, promptly shoots him dead, making Mal the man in charge.

The syndicate boys have other ideas.

Mal’s success, however, has attracted the attention Lt. Wright of the Gangster Squad (Howard St. John), as well as Carl Stephans (Otto Kruger), head of the national crime syndicate in Chicago, who tells his subordinates, “I’ve always thought we should do something about the Pacific Coast. You know, it’s ridiculous that this syndicate has never gone past Kansas City.” Stephans dispatches his number two, Larry Mason, to bring Mal into the fold, implicitly suggesting that Mason utilize his unfaithful wife, Gail (Joanne Dru), as sex bait. Mal rebuffs Mason’s initial overture, but after laying eyes — and, in short order, hands — on Gail, allows himself to be co-opted. Things are hunky dory until Mason tires of being cuckolded and beats Gail badly enough to send her to hospital. To make matters worse, Mal discovers that the syndicate isn’t giving him his full cut.
In a sign of just how far he’s gone from law-abiding citizen to budding gangster, he hires an out-of-town killer to whack Mason. When said hit man tries a little blackmail, Mal resorts to vehicular manslaughter. Sensing that his nascent empire is about to come crashing down, Mal uses his technical savvy to swindle the mob at the Las Vegas racetrack of a quarter of a million bucks. He and Gail then try to flee to Arizona via what was then known as Boulder Dam, only to run smack into a police roadblock. In a terrific sequence, they descend into the dam with a tour group as the cops pursue them through the labyrinthine interior. The film culminates with Mal climbing an endless ladder to the top of the dam — an obvious if apt metaphor for his unbridled ambition — only to emerge from darkness into the light of fierce retribution.

Love for sale.

Summary Judgment
As much morality tale as crime procedural, 711 Ocean Drive is primarily concerned with the latent corruption within us all, and how little it takes to prod it to the surface. All of the main characters compromise to some extent their personal and/or professional ethics for money, sex or power. Mal, of course, goes for the trifecta. It’s a tribute to O’Brien’s skillful, subtle performance that we believe in Mal’s rapid character transformation. As a working stiff, he’s warm, decent and generous, even loaning twenty bucks to a needy co-worker. But once he sees how the other half lives, he becomes abrasive, greedy and callous. The film’s unspoken message seems to be that success is there for the taking, if one ignores accepted conventions of behavior and morality. 

The other characters aren’t much better. Chippie relinquishes his independence to ally himself with the up-and-coming Mal, only to become little more than a hanger-on. Larry Mason cynically uses his wife to advance the mob’s interests. Gail Mason is an alcoholic and a compulsive bed-hopper who ditches her rat of a husband for the sleeker, more exciting rat who calls himself Mal Granger. Her moral turpitude is such that she stays with Mal even after learning that he’s guilty of arranging Larry’s murder. Everybody pretty much gets what’s coming to them.  


All of this personal rot plays out within the wider context of a pervasively corrupt America. 711 Ocean Drive was the first of a string of fifties films that openly proclaimed the existence of a national crime syndicate, along with such notable examples as The Mob (1951), The Enforcer (1951) and Hoodlum Empire (1952) — at a time when J. Edgar Hoover was publicly denying its existence. It’s also one of the most incisive and entertaining, thanks to career-best direction from Joseph M. Newman. Aided by Franz Planer’s flat, naturalistic cinematography, Newman creates a number of trenchant vignettes:
   • Stephans and his associates convene in a classic boardroom setting to discuss such underworld matters as expansion and murder in tones of chilling corporate impersonality. Through lighting, camera placement and editing, Newman unobtrusively but effectively establishes the organizational hierarchy.
   • Newman's visual acumen is also apparent during a poolside meeting between Mal, Stephans and  Mason. As the men discuss business, Gail lounges a few feet away displaying her physical charms for Mal’s benefit. Her erotic and adulterous promise is the real point of the scene. 
   • The film’s big set piece, in which Mal and Gail flee the law inside the dam, contains some unforgettable imagery of the pair running down narrow corridors and past huge electric generators.   

Mal enjoys his oceanside address.
The darkly witty screenplay by Richard English and Francis Swann is beautifully paced and resonates with intriguing allusions to real-life mob figures. For Carl Stephans, read Meyer Lansky. For Larry Mason, read Bugsy Siegel — even to the actual mobster’s murder by long-range rifle. The unprincipled and amoral world they evoke tells unpleasant truths about the American Dream that mainstream films of the era dared not mention.

Fingering the Fifties
• Company employees placing bets with bookies in the men's room
• Gangland assassinations

What happens to bookies who defy the mob.

CHIPPIE EVANS: “You’ve sure got the angles, Mal. If it was anybody but Vince he’d give you part of the take.”
MAL GRANGER: “He’ll cut me in, Chippie. I’ve got him by the short hairs right now.”

CARL STEPHENS [ordering a syndicate hit]: “You know some people in Miami, don’t you?”
STEVE MARSHAK: “What does he get?”
CARL STEPHENS: “Why, ah, I believe he’s a very sick man. I don’t believe he’ll ever get well.”
STEVE MARSHAK: “I’ll see that he doesn’t.”

GAIL MASON [drinking in bar]: “All day I’ve been feeling like a rat. For a long time I’ve been feeling like a rat. This afternoon I felt like talking to somebody who spoke my own language. And that’s you. A great, big, good-looking rat.”
MAN IN BAR: “You need another drink?”
GAIL MASON: “Who doesn’t? You know, you’re gonna get a great shock when my husband shows up. He’s even a bigger rat than you are.”

Escape to nowhere.

Contemporaneous Reviews
The New York Times, July 20, 1950 (Bosley Crowther)
Despite some considerable advertising of “711 Ocean Drive” as a daring and courageous revelation of the big bookmaking and gambling syndicates, this modest Columbia melodrama, which came to the Paramount yesterday, is no more than an average crime picture with some colorful but vague details thrown in. Certainly no one who reads the papers with a fairly retentive eye can have any less comprehension of the gambling racket than is illustrated here. To be sure, in pursuing a story of a poor but honest telephone man who gets mixed up in a bookmaker’s wire-room and rises forthwith to be a big-time gambling boss, this picture does give some modest glimpses of how a wire service operates and how a fellow who is smart at electronics can pull some nifty and enterprising tricks. But the disservice to the betting public which these operations may entail is never demonstrated… In short, this little picture, conventionally written but well photographed, does no more than any gangster picture in reminding us that gangsters are crooks.

Variety, July 1, 1950
Operations of the syndicates are given a realistic touch by the screenplay, and Joseph M. Newman’s direction keeps action at a fast pace. O’Brien is excellent as the hot-tempered, ambitious young syndicate chief.

Lt. Wright has a message for Mal.

Director: Joseph M. Newman; screenplay: Richard English, Francis Swann; producer: Frank N. Seltzer; music: Sol Kaplan; cinematography: Franz Planer; format: black and white, 102 minutes

Edmond O’Brien (Mal Granger), Joanne Dru (Gail Mason), Otto Kruger (Carl Stephans), Barry Kelley (Vince Walters), Dorothy Patrick (Trudy Maxwell), Don Porter (Larry Mason), Howard St. John (Lt. Pete Wright), Sammy White (Chippie Evans)

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Girls on the Loose
(Jewell Enterprises, Inc., 1958)

A man-eater with a ravenous appetite.

Girl Gangs That Stop at Nothing!

Just the Facts
A band of masked criminals stage an expertly planned, deftly executed raid on the Brantford Payroll Service and abscond with a cool $200,000 in cash. As they make their getaway in a stolen laundry van, the masks come off and, in a neat twist on the standard heist picture, reveal the perpetrators to be women. After ditching the van, they bury the booty near a remote cabin out in the sticks, where they plan to leave it for two years until the heat dies down. It’s the perfect crime—who would suspect four attractive women of conceiving and pulling off such a daring robbery? But the girls turn out to be imperfect criminals, falling prey to the same internal divisions, ungovernable greed and combustible rivalries as their male counterparts.

The unquestioned leader of the pack is Vera Parkinson, a tough and sexy nightclub owner played by B movie queen Mara Corday. Vera rules with an iron fist in a velvet glove. What Vera wants, Vera usually gets, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. Rounding out the crew is Joyce (Joyce Barker), a blonde, butch masseuse; Marie (Lita Milan), an alcoholic beautician with a penchant for shoplifting and picking pockets; and Agnes (Abby Dalton), the inside woman who works at the payroll firm. Also in the mix is Vera’s younger, not-so-innocent sister Helen (played by Barbara Bostock); the two live in a swank apartment atop the nightspot, modestly called Club Vera.

Things begin to unravel on the day following the heist, when Agnes calls Vera in a panic, worried that she won’t be able to hold up under police questioning of the payroll service employees. Vera wastes no time paying Agnes a visit, giving her some sleeping pills, then turning on the gas to ensure that she slumbers undisturbed for eternity. Vera sets it up to look like suicide, an explanation quickly embraced by the investigating officer, Lt. Bill Hanley (Mark Richman), who seems less interested in solving the robbery than in macking on Helen, especially when he catches her act at Club Vera, singing torch songs and performing sexy little dance numbers.

Girls will be boys.

Joyce, however, doesn’t buy the idea that Agnes killed herself. “How did you do it, Vera?” she taunts, causing the normally unflappable queen bee to lose her cool: “How did I do it? I said it was suicide, you pig! If you ever say it again, if you even think it, I’ll ram these scissors right through you, you sick, ugly slob!” There’s more bad blood brewing when Marie starts adding up numbers and suspects that Vera plans to gradually reduce their ranks to increase her share of the payout. She subsequently tells Vera that she’s quitting the gang and demands her money up front. The three women repair to the cabin, where a drunken Marie starts digging up the buried loot, seemingly unaware that the others view this move in lethally disapproving terms. With Vera’s implicit assent, Joyce dispatches the errant homegirl by viciously burying a switchblade in her back. Two down and two to go.

While all this infighting is going down, Helen and Lt. Hanley are fervently carrying on behind Vera’s back. The budding romance is viewed with alarm both by big sister and the conniving Joyce, who does her best to terminate the relationship via attempted vehicular homicide. Further complications ensue and more fur flies as the surviving gang members circle each other like hungry sharks. During the full-bore hellcat showdown, their psychotic impulses and implacable killer instincts ignite with predictable yet satisfying results.

Felonious and fashionable.

Summary Judgment
Girls on the Loose is a wicked slice of cinematic subversion that totally inverts the masculine-dominated universe of the typical crime film. Men are marginalized to the extent that they exist only to satisfy the sexual demands of women like Vera. The sole police officer in the film, Lt. Hanley, plays no role whatsoever in bringing the girl gang to justice. In fact, he’s completely unaware of their identities until Helen confesses all while recovering in hospital from the aforementioned automotive assault. Nor does he participate in the violent denouement. Feminists would doubtless have a field day with the empowerment theme being played out, while exploitation connoisseurs will simply enjoy the pervasive atmosphere of sleazy sexuality.

Corday, a former Playmate of the Month and star of such sci-fi epics as Tarantula (1955) and The Black Scorpion (1957), dominates the film as Vera, making her a stunning combination of virago and vixen. Vera is all woman, but she’s as tough as any man. She pistol whips a payroll guard into a coma during the robbery, and doesn’t hesitate to slap the girls around when they step out of line. She even smacks dear little Helen when the latter tries to assert her independence. Vera will stop at nothing to protect her interests and maintain her authority, including murder. She’s one of the purest embodiments of feminine evil in fifties films, and a constant joy to watch.

“Here, honey, try this propane gas inhaler.”

With her swept-back hair and take-no-prisoners bosom, Vera takes her pleasure as she finds it, and she finds it most often with those who take orders from her. One such fellow is Joe, the bartender at her club, whom she greets the morning after the robbery with a lingering kiss that leaves no doubt as to the other services he renders. Vera is also a cougar in the making, with a decided yen for the young men who deliver food from the local market. Five minutes after playing tongue tag with Joe, she’s making a call in the kitchen when in walks the newest delivery boy, Danny. Vera sizes up this latest piece of meat with a critical eye, as if considering where to take her first bite. Within moments, she’s entwined herself around him and locked her lips firmly to his. Fade to black, with the clear implication that Vera is immediately going to find out whether Danny measures up to his predecessors.

Helen is also something of a sexual adventuress, although cut from a less predatory cloth than her older sister. She firmly dictates the course and tempo of her relationship with Lt. Hanley, and the script implies that he’s far from being her first lover. Marie and Joyce’s sexuality is ambiguous, although there’s a late-night massage scene that implies they might be occasional lovers. And when Marie makes a drunken pass at Hanley at Club Vera, Joyce pulls her away with the possessive fervor of a jealous woman.

Calling all fetishists.

Director Paul Henried was, of course, better known for his acting, particularly his role as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (1942). But beginning in the fifties, he directed a half-dozen feature films and nearly 100 television episodes. He seemed to gravitate to pulpy thriller material like Girls on the Loose and Live Fast, Die Young, also made in 1958. Henreid brought a journeyman’s craft to his work behind the camera. He rarely attempted any camera virtuosity, and concentrated on moving the narrative along and eliciting competent performances from his actors.

Where Henreid really shines, and where he reveals his inner Elmer Batters, is in the inordinate number of shots devoted to the women dressing and undressing. If the visual evidence in this film is anything to go by, Henreid was a dyed-in-the-wool leg man and foot fetishist. He first indulges himself when Vera returns home after the robbery. As the nightgown-clad Helen lounges in the living room, Vera strips down to a sexy camisole and slowly, sensually peels off her stockings, her movements imbued with maximum resonance through Henreid’s framing. This is followed by a shot of Vera luxuriating in the bathtub, one leg thrust straight up in almost orgasmic satisfaction. Also on frequent display are pulse-quickening peignoirs, bottom-hugging pajamas, form-fitting girdles, man-eating bras and endless décolletage. The ultimate money shot is a stunning image of Helen’s beautiful feet superbly contained in sexy stiletto heels. Have mercy.

The girls settle a little disagreement.

Every so often Henreid remembers that he’s directing a crime film and includes some decently stylized violence. Vera’s clubbing of the payroll service guard has a nice visceral edge, and her gassing of the unfortunate Agnes is staged with chilling aplomb. Joyce’s simmering hostility also boils over several times in rather spectacular fashion. Henreid privileges these moments with nicely timed close-ups that accentuate her latent psychosis. Finally, and fittingly, the climactic confrontation between Vera and Joyce takes place in the bleak surroundings where the money lies buried. It’s played out with bullet and blade and no quarter expected or given.

Fingering the Fifties
• Couples necking in parked cars
• Hot older women sleeping with delivery boys
• Bullet bras that leave broken men in their wake

What’s a little rubdown between friends?

VERA: “What’s your name?”
DANNY: “Danny.”
VERA: “Well, Danny boy. I hope your deliveries are as dependable as the other boys.”
DANNY: “I’m very dependable. You’ll see....You want to check this, ma’am? Just to make sure?”
VERA: “Let’s check everything, just to be sure.”

AGNES: “The radio just now said he might die. That’s murder, Vera. I get sick just thinking of it.”
VERA: “Thinking takes brains. Just forget you’ve got them.”

VERA: “Helen has lived with me since she was born. There’s plenty of me in that girl.
MARIE: “She ought to sue you for defamation of character.”

JOYCE: “Someday, I’m gonna twist your spine till it snaps. See you in my dreams.”
VERA: “Have a good nightmare.”

Contemporaneous Reviews

Director: Paul Henreid; screenplay: Alan Friedman, Dorothy Raison, Allen Rivkin; producers: Edward B. Barison, Richard Kay, Harry Rybnick; music: Irving Gertz, Henry Vars, Stanley Wilson (uncredited); cinematography: Philip Lathrop; format: black and white, 77 minutes

Mara Corday (Vera Parkinson); Barbara Bostock (Helen Parkinson); Mark Richman (Lt. Bill Hanley); Joyce Barker (Joyce); Lita Milan (Marie Williams); Abby Dalton (Agnes Clark); Paul Lambert (Joe); Ronald Green (Danny); Fred Kruger (Mr. Grant); Monica Elizabeth Henreid (Lili); Jon Lormer (doctor)

Lt. Hanley is no match for this girl on the loose.

Get It Here

Monday, August 9, 2010

Miscellaneous Mayhem #1
FBI Girl (1951)

Raymond Burr doesn't like the dress Audrey Totter is wearing.

Somehow, one can’t imagine such a publicity still being used to promote a movie today. But back in fifties filmdom, dames had to be tough enough to put up with all kinds of abuse from assorted hoodlums, killers and cops, and Audrey Totter was one of the toughest. Here she takes it on the chin from an underworld fixer played by Raymond Burr, one of a long line of villainous roles he essayed before crossing to the other side of the law in his television series Perry Mason. Totter plays an FBI clerk who’s pressured to steal a file detailing the criminal past of a governor planning to run for the U.S. Senate. Not only does Audrey’s platinum perm get messed up, she also meets an untimely end at the hands of Burr’s henchman in this tight little programmer from Lippert Pictures.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bonnie Parker Story
(American International Pictures, 1958)

Bonnie with her preferred phallic symbol.

• Cigar Smoking Hellcat of the Roaring Thirties
• She Lived Like A Woman, And Killed Like An Animal!

Just the Facts
The Bonnie Parker Story appeared amidst a spate of late-50s gangster biographies. The cycle began with Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson (1957) and centered on notable historical criminals of the 1930s. None of these movies were entirely faithful to the actual lives of their subjects (surprise!), and this one was no exception. The real Bonnie Parker apparently never killed anyone or smoked cigars; her character does plenty of both in this 1958 AIP production. The actual Clyde Barrow was a hard-bitten criminal and unrepentant murderer, aspects that are belied somewhat by Jack Hogan’s wisecracking portrayal. (For some reason, the film also changes Clyde Barrow’s name to Guy Darrow.) But The Bonny Parker Story gets closer to the truth than most films about the famous pair, notably in its refusal to soft soap their callousness, and boasts a harder edge to boot.

The action begins in 1932 in Oklahoma City, where Bonnie (Dorothy Provine) is doing time in a greasy spoon while hubby Duke Jefferson (Richard Bakalyan) serves out his life sentence in prison. Enter Guy, a small-time thief with big-time delusions. Bonnie can take him or leave him, but senses his potential, especially when he shows her his machine gun. (There’s B movie thematics for you!) They hook up and start knocking over bars and gas stations across Texas, but while Guy is content with penny ante jobs, Bonnie longs for bigger scores. Meanwhile, Bob Steel (Douglas Kennedy), the Texas Ranger tasked with their arrest, arranges for Guy’s brother to get parole and then tails him to the gang’s hideout in a Missouri farmhouse. Before Guy can say, “Holy cow! There’s somebody out there holding National Guard maneuvers in the front yard,” the law has rolled out the welcome wagon with tear gas shells and a fusillade of bullets. The gang briefly returns fire before piling into a getaway car and making a hasty escape as Bonnie fills a couple of sheriff’s deputies full of lead.

Just a couple of young, carefree killers.

The teed-off Ranger tracks the gang to Iowa and stages a shoot-first ambush during which Guy’s brother Chuck (Joseph Turkel) is killed, although Bonnie and Guy manage to slip away. Bonnie, now firmly in control, engineers Duke’s prison escape so they’ll have the manpower necessary to start robbing banks. Having achieved her objective, however, Bonnie seems to derive more enjoyment from denying both men her sexual favors than separating depositors from their life savings. Following a botched payroll truck heist (during which a jealous Guy “accidentally” kills Duke in the ensuing shootout), he and Bonnie cross the state line into Georgia, where they have a big bank job lined up. Unfortunately for them, the father of one of their new recruits tips off Steel that the wanted couple will be at his house the next morning. Come sunup, the Texas Ranger and assorted lawmen hunker down by the side of the road, guns at the ready, as Bonnie and Guy drive towards their appointment with fate.

Guy likes to practice shooting between the cans.

Summary Judgment
The many films based on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow range from the fanciful Gun Crazy (directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1949) to Arthur Penn’s more literal Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Nestled between these two like a bullet in the chamber is this cheap exploitation biopic. If The Bonnie Parker Story lacks the expressionist power of the former, it avoids the artistic pretensions of the latter.

Director William Witney, veteran of countless serials and B films, was no Joseph H. Lewis. In fact, he never got within shouting distance of an A film. But Witney was shrewd enough to recognize Provine as the film’s biggest asset, and duly makes her the focus of attention from start to finish. That includes the opening titles, in which her mirrored reflection strips down to a form-fitting slip as Ronald Stein’s rockabilly instrumental theme establishes an evocative backroads vibe. As the last title fades, Bonnie pulls a light cord and plunges the screen into darkness, whereupon Witney cuts to a close-up on a machine gun in full fury, deftly introducing and linking the film’s twin themes of sex and violence.

As the camera pulls back, we see that it’s Guy, not Bonnie, doing some target practice. But Stanley Shpetner’s screenplay quickly identifies Bonnie as the dominant player in their relationship. When Guy walks into the sleazy diner where she works and tries out some stale pickup lines on her, she flings a pan of hot grease in his direction with the warning that she might be too hot for him. This is the first indication of Bonnie’s proclivity for violence. She starts out as a frustrated nonentity—going nowhere in particular and taking her time about it—until she discovers the killer inside her. Bonnie embraces violence the way other women embrace marriage and family. Unlike the herd, she’s bored by the prospect of bland domesticity. Stealing money, and killing anyone who tries to stop her, seems a much more exciting career path.

Hotter than the pistol in her hand.

Violence in turn defines Bonnie’s sexuality. After she and Guy rob a gas station—which she needlessly sets ablaze—their car is pulled over by a motorcycle cop who walks directly into Bonnie’s blistering line of fire. As the pair speed away, Bonnie is suddenly consumed with sexual hunger and kisses Guy with such violence that he almost runs the car off the road. Her insistence on taking pleasure when, where and with whom she wants also gives rise to several instances of black humor. One pungent moment occurs after she lures a couple of hayseeds away from the spot where Guy plans to stash guns for Duke’s prison crashout. She’s gone for a considerable length of time, and her defiant response to Guy’s jealous questions holds the clear implication that she’s had sex with both men in the interim. In another scene, she memorably scatters thumbtacks around her bed to ward off the unwelcome attentions of both husband and boyfriend, whom she forces to sleep in another room. The film’s unspoken joke is that Bonnie has the biggest balls in the gang. The phallic implications of this dynamic are visualized in the long cigars she smokes and the frequency with which she whips out her gun.

Crime couture, circa 1930s.

Relatively small in scope—we see only a fraction of the gang’s numerous robberies—The Bonnie Parker Story compensates with its B movie energy, bursts of brutality and subversive sexuality. Witney invests the film with good period atmosphere despite its low budget, and utilizes appropriately grim and nondescript locations. Outside of Provine’s tawdry sex appeal, no attempt is made to glamorize the settings or characters, in marked contrast to the Technicolor sheen applied to the famous 1968 version, in which Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are unable to transcend their star personas.

No such problem exists for Provine, for whom The Bonnie Parker Story was her debut film. (Legend has it that she got the role a mere three days after her arrival in Hollywood. What one would give to see that story brought to the screen.) She followed it with another bad girl role in Riot in Juvenile Prison (1959) before adding other facets to her persona and graduating to mainstream fare. But she’s at her raw, indelible best in this film, burning up the screen with her combustible allure and strong-willed personality. She plays Bonnie with unapologetic amorality, never once trying to enlist audience sympathy. She maintains that intransigence right up to the moment we hear her voice from the grave before the final credits roll: “We got ourselves a one-way ticket. There’s nothing you can do once you get on, but ride right to the end of the line.”

Getting down and dirty while knocking over a payroll truck.

GUY DARROW’S PAL: “That Bonnie Parker’s a real wildcat.”
GUY DARROW: “Wildcats don’t worry me none. I kind of like the way they scratch when they get excited.”

GUY DARROW: “Honey, you team up with me and we’ll just take what we want. You know as well as I do, you’re just gonna wind up on a street corner, and you won’t be sellin’ newspapers.”
BONNIE PARKER: “Shut the door.”

BONNIE PARKER: “I didn’t lose my nerve. I know right where I left it.”

TEXAS RANGER TOM STEEL: [to the men waiting to ambush Bonnie and Guy]: “Boys, they’re a mighty tricky pair. No matter how dead they look, don’t stop firing until I tell you!”

“Make sure you kill ’em reeal good!”

Fingering the Fifties
• Although the film is set in the 1930s, Bonnie’s rejection of traditional feminine values and behavior not only transgresses social codes of that decade, but also those of the 1950s.

Contemporaneous Reviews
Variety’s 1958 review managed to simultaneously praise and dismiss the film, describing it as “obviously an exploitation item, but capably constructed and intelligently carried out.”

Director: William Witney; screenplay: Stanley Shpetner; producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson, Stanley Shpetner; music: Ronald Stein; cinematography: Jack Marta; format: black and white, 79 minutes, 2.35:1 aspect ratio

Dorothy Provine (Bonnie Parker); Jack Hogan (Guy Darrow); Richard Bakalyan (Duke Jefferson); Joe Turkel (Chuck Darrow); William Stevens (Paul Baxter); Douglas Kennedy (Texas Ranger Tom Steel); Patricia Huston (Chuck’s girlfriend); Joel Colin (Bobby); Jeff Morris (Marvin); James Beck (Alvin); Carolyn Hughes (contact girl)

The real Bonnie Parker.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Highway 301
(Warner Bros., 1950)

George Legenza: mean as a snake and twice as deadly.

The whole blazing story of the Tri-state gang!

Just the Facts
Highway 301 is a down and dirty crime picture that evokes in its fierce energy and breakneck pace the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the thirties. Written and directed by Andrew L. Stone, the film charts the extralegal activities of the “Tri-State Gang,” so named because its members ply their trade in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. The five-man crew is led by George Legenza (Steve Cochran), a stone-cold sociopath who doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone he deems a threat—not excluding girlfriends who contemplate ratting out to the police.

Following a brief “crime does not pay” preamble by the actual governors of the aforementioned states, we see it pay very well indeed as the outlaws knock over a Winston-Salem bank with military-like precision. That evening the gang unwinds at a swank nightclub, but George’s squeeze Madeline (Aline Towne) kills his buzz with her incessant worry that the police will soon catch up to them. George smacks her down, but it’s not enough to make her tone down. She eventually splits and cabs back to her hotel, intending to pack and run out for good. Legenza tails her and is on his way up in the hotel elevator as she nervously waits to ride it down. She gets the surprise of her life when the doors open and she finds herself face to face with lover boy. “Goin’ somewhere, sweetie?” he asks calmly, and just as calmly pulls out his piece and guns her down.

Legenza's girlfriend no longer has to worry about the cops.

Their next job, a payroll truck heist, goes just as smoothly as the bank job, but as the men tear into the booty, they discover the money's been cut and was en route to the federal mint to be burned. A bad omen, one the gang ignores at its peril, as its heretofore-profitable program starts to unravel. Even Legenza’s trigger-happy habit can’t prevent the law from closing in. The fast-paced film picks up even more steam as the boys become embroiled in one desperate scrape after another. Following a tense hospital shootout, the remaining gang members end up on the losing end of a fierce police pursuit, which culminates in spectacular fashion as one of them suffers further—and fatal—trauma from the effects of machine gun bullets and a speeding train.

Summary Judgment
Andrew Stone was one of numerous Hollywood directors who labored in relative obscurity while making consistently reliable entertainment. His films are notable for their frequent location shooting, direct sound and naturalistic lighting. He worked hard and he worked fast, but most important, he worked efficiently, turning out a series of taut crime thrillers throughout the fifties: Confidence Girl (1952), The Steel Trap (1952), A Blueprint for Murder (1953), The Night Holds Terror (1953), Julie (1956) and Cry Terror (1958). The no-nonsense approach he brought to his films reflects the character of the man who turned down a lavish MGM contract, stating: “I’d have had to pacify the stars and keep them happy—like a priest who doesn’t believe a word of what he says.” Stone’s contrarian personality can be sensed in the disparity between his handling of the film’s authority figures and those on the other side of the law. The prologue’s gubernatorial trio is presented in static setups that do nothing to mitigate the numbing boredom of their platitudes. Ditto for Detective Sergeant Truscott (Edmon Ryan), who leads the investigation of the Tri-State Gang and is also heard in periodic sanctimonious voiceover.

A new twist on making a withdrawal.

In marked contrast is the beautifully filmed bank robbery sequence that opens the film proper. Stone first gives us a privileged view of the men riding inside the getaway car, introducing them visually before we learn their names. This first brief glimpse of Legenza immediately establishes his low-key yet unquestioned leadership. After the car parks a few yards from the bank entrance, one man gets out and saunters into the building as the voiceover states his criminal resume. In like manner, three more gang members follow suit, one at a time, and take up strategic positions inside. After impersonating customers for several minutes, they suddenly spring into action. The measured pace gives way to fast cutting as one crook disarms the harmless old security guard, another covers the patrons and employees, and two more nimbly leap over the teller windows, a shot given added dynamism through its high-angle perspective. (French director Jean-Pierre Melville must have been a fan of this scene, as he faithfully copied its slow-building rhythm, and many of its shots, in his 1973 neo-noir Un Flic.)

A similar level of unobtrusive craftsmanship enriches many other set pieces: There’s a tense scene in which Legenza and Robert Mais (Wally Cassell) hide in the back of a truck amidst dozens of egg crates while a pair of checkpoint patrolmen peer through the cracks, putting the hoodlums in a cold sweat as they try to make themselves as small as possible. Elsewhere, Stone deftly evokes the threatening atmosphere of the urban jungle when an innocent girl caught up in the gang flees through deserted streets as Legenza tails her from a distance with near-spectral malice.

It's a jungle out there.

Stone’s screenplay is on par with his direction. It’s tight as a drum and peppered with dark humor. While hiding out after one of their outfit has been killed, Legenza and Mais must prevent the girlfriend of the dead man from escaping and informing on them. Legenza locks her in a room, leaving Mais to watch her while he grabs a bite to eat. As he exits, Mais asks, “What are you gonna do with her?” Legenza stares at him for several seconds and then says, “That’s right.” As Mais closes the door behind Legenza, he glances balefully towards the girl’s room and turns out the light.

Cochran is solid gold as career criminal George Legenza. Beginning his film career in 1945, he contributed memorable turns in The Chase and The Best Years of Our Lives (both released in 1946), earned additional notice by holding his own against scene-stealer James Cagney in White Heat (1949), and showed further range as a high-class hood who falls for Joan Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Highway 301 was his first starring role, and Cochran took full advantage of the opportunity, creating one of the most bone-chilling characters in the crime film canon. He underplays his role nicely, wearing a heavy-lidded expression that evokes a snake waiting for the right moment to strike. His character also has an interesting kink in that he likes to have sex after pulling a big job (a characteristic shared by Richard Stark’s main character in the Parker novels). The dialog hints at this when Legenza is dancing with a reluctant Madeline after the bank job. “C’mon, sweetie, brighten up. You know what I like after a big deal. I gotta soak up a little fun.” “I don’t feel like fun,” she replies. “Well, try it for size,” he snarls.

Stone cold.

Fingering the Fifties
• People smoking in hospitals.
• Uniformed elevator operators.
• Pleasant bank tellers.

ROBERT MAIS [reading article on the gang’s exploits]: “Truscott says this and Truscott says that. He’s making a career out of us.”
GEORGE LEGENZA: “Well, it’ll be a long career.”
ROBERT MAIS: “Don’t sell the guy short. I heard he’s plenty smart.”
GEORGE LEGENZA: “Just like all the rest. A stupid cop.”
MARY SIMMS: “Would you like a little background music to that? It’s called a swan song.”

OLD MOTORIST [after almost being run off the road by the gang]: “Why, ya crazy galoots!”

All aboard!

Contemporaneous Reviews
The New York Times, December 9, 1950 (Bosley Crowther)
The most disturbing and depressing of the many depressing things about the Strand’s current Warner Brothers’ shocker, “Highway 301,” is the fact that governors in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina endorse this cheap gangster melodrama as an effective deterrent to crime. In forewords which are personally delivered by Maryland’s lame-duck Governor Lane and by Virginia’s and North Carolinas Governors Battle and Scott, respectively, these eminent and honorable officials convey the solemn idea that what you are about to see is something that will prove to you how profitless crime is. And what you see is a conventional modern-day cops-and-robbers film, based on the dismal depredations of the so-called Tri-State gang, in which robbing and shooting and violence are exhibited for pure sensation’s sake, with the gangsters annihilated in a juicy blood-bath at the end.

Opening with the supposed robbery of a bank in Winston-Salem, N.C., by a gang of five sinister hoodlums, not one of whom would win a brain-test prize, this picture recounts their adventures in their escapes, their other crimes and with their “molls” through a series of ticklish moments, until the cops finally give them the works. Steve Cochran plays the gang leader, so he’s the most arrogant of the mob, and Gaby Andre as a naive French-Canadian is the most sympathetic of the “molls.” As other gangsters, Robert Webber, Richard Egan and Wally Cassell are standard muggs, and Virginia Grey is acerbic as a “moll” who tries to play the game. However, the whole thing, concocted and directed by Andrew Stone, is a straight exercise in low sadism. And the reactions at the Strand yesterday among the early audience, made up mainly of muscular youths, might have shocked and considerably embarrassed the governors mentioned above.

(As Pauline Kael noted in 1964, one could invariably rely on Crowther’s “reverse acumen” to determine a film’s true merit.)

Director: Andrew L. Stone; screenplay: Andrew L. Stone; producer: Bryan Foy; music: William Lava; cinematography: Carl Guthrie; format: black and white, 83 minutes, 1:37:1 aspect ratio

Steve Cochran (George Legenza); Virginia Grey (Mary Simms); Gaby Andre (Lee Fontaine); Edmon Ryan (Detective Sgt. Truscott); Robert Webber (Bill Phillips); Wally Cassell (Robert Mais); Aline Towne (Madeline Welton); Richard Egan (Herbie Brooks); Edward Norris (Noyes Hinton)

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