Cry of the City (1948)
After the one-two genre punch of Moss Rose and Kiss of Death in 1947, Victor Mature returned to film noir as detective Vittorio Candella in this Robert Siodmak thriller, a flick that the director was unhappy with, but audiences ate up. Richard Conte’s Martin Rome is a bad guy, the sort of person who’s connected to multiple murders and armed robberies. He was also Candella’s best friend growing up, and he loathes the man for turning to a life of crime. Candella refuses to believe that Rome didn’t do the crime for which he’s been captured at the start of the picture, even if Conte’s character did not, in fact, shoot a cop. That connection between our leads, the inversion of the wrong man trope, and the extensive use of location shooting in New York all combine to make this a unique piece of noir.
By taking the more personal, more grounded approach, Siodmak (directing a script by Richard Murphy and an uncredited Ben Hecht) sucks the audience in and doesn’t let go of them. He even pills off the trick of making broader characters like Barry Kroeger’s slimy lawyer and Hope Emerson’s robustly-configured masseuse work in the grimly realistic setting, a testament to the director’s skill. It looks great, the characters and situations demand your attention, and the climax is captivating. It’s a robust enough movie that you almost forget that Conte’s character’s girlfriend is played by a 14-year-old.
Drive a Crooked Road (1954)
I was honestly gobsmacked after I finished this movie — who knew Mickey Rooney had it in him? In a nuanced, thoughtful performance, the man best known for being Judy Garland’s sidekick for ten movies plays mechanic and part-time race car driver Eddie Shannon, a lonely man who’s picked by a pair of career criminals1Those criminals, by the way, are played to the hilt by Kevin McCarthy and Jack Kelly. They’re gay-coded as the day is long and it’s absolutely delicious. to help them out.
See, they plan on robbing a bank in Palm Springs, and they need a wheelman that can handle a particularly treacherous stretch of road to ensure they’re able to get out of the area before checkpoints drop on all the major thoroughfares. To get Eddie’s help, the hoodlums enlist Dianne Foster’s Barbara, a leggy blonde who gives the shy, scarred wheel jockey the time and attention he’s never gotten from a woman before.
One of the things that makes Drive A Crooked Road work is how much time is spent on the little things: parties in a beach house, lunch with the mechanics at the high-end shop where Eddie works, etc. There are even a few moments where you forget that Barbara is playing Rooney’s character for a fool and hope that the little guy makes it. Sadly, reality intrudes and things take a nasty turn. The actual heist, which is as thrilling as these things get, ends up being secondary to the emotional rollercoaster that Eddie’s put on. This isn’t just a movie I recommend — it’s a film noir I proselytize about.
The Set-Up (1949)
Speaking of powerhouse performances, this is among Robert Ryan’s best, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his turns in Bad Day at Black Rock and On Dangerous Ground.. He plays the world-weary Bill “Stoker” Thompson, a has-been who gets one final shot in the ring, going against Tiger Nelson, a mob-controlled kid in his early 20s. He believes this can be his shot at redemption; his wife wants him to forfeit; his manager has taken a chunk of change from a gangster to make sure he takes a dive without informing Thompson. It’s a bad set-up2Get it? That’s the name of the movie!and we get to watch it all go horribly wrong in real time.
This was Wise’s last picture for RKO, his favorite that he did for the studio, and it’s easy to see why. His direction in this is top flight, featuring kinetic camerawork and dramatic compositions all captured beautifully by Milton Krasner3who would be Oscar-nominated a year later for a little picture called All About Eve. The Set-Up is visceral, fast-paced, and handily earns its 72 minute runtime.
The Harder They Fall (1956)
Yes, it’s another boxing picture, but it’s different, honest. Humphry Bogart (in his fine role) is Eddie Willis, a sportswriter whose paper has just collapsed, leaving him bereft. In what will be a fortuitous turn for his wallet, but a bad one for his soul, boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) happens to be looking for a PR man to promote Toro Moreno, massive pugilist from South America. The good: Moreno’s handsome and charismatic, the kind of guy crowds want to root for. The bad: he stinks in the ring and Benko has been fixing every match behind the boxer and his manager’s backs, a practice that Eddie will continue during a cross-country tour.
What can I say about Bogart? He was an actor who carried every scene he shot without any apparent effort, and this movie — which he shot while dying of esophageal cancer — features a hard-hitting4no pun intended performance that’s among his best. He was someone who acted with their eyes, someone able to let the audience see their characters work through their feelings, and Eddie’s journey is all the more engaging because of that skill. Robson’s direction and Yordan’s screenplay5based on a Schulberg novel are good — really good — but between Bogart and Steiger, this is a movie you can watch just for the acting and walk away feeling satisfied.
Okay, there. That’s a good start to the month, right? I’ll come back to the subject again, I’m sure — I have to write about Double Indemnity for this month’s screening at the MVFS, after all — but I’ve been thinking about curating themed lists or doing a deep-dive on a particular performer or director’s work. We’ll see; thanks for reading!