Movies Till Dawn: All Night Black and White Crime Wave, Part 1

12 a.m. – “The Big Sleep” – Crime Drama

81Iqa1sEnDL._SL1500_(1945/1946, Warner Archive Collection) What begins as a simple case of blackmail leads Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) into dark territory (read: Hollywood), haunted by gangsters, petty thugs, swindlers, nymphomaniacs and stone-cold killers; he also the more pleasant distraction of his client’s feline, very forward daughter (Lauren Bacall), who has some very unique theories about jockeys and horses. The whodunit isn’t as important as how it’s done in director Howard Hawks’ brassy take on Raymond Chandler’s famously impenetrable novel (even Chandler himself wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders); writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman eschew the labyrinthine mechanics plot in favor of Bogart matching wits (and the occasional fist) with a rogues’ gallery of high society and low lifes; when a 1945 pre-release showed that the smoldering sexual tension between Bogart and Bacall was the highlight of the picture, WB chief Jack Warner hired “Casablanca” writer Julius Epstein to add even more purring innuendo to their interplay, resulting in some of sparklingly naughty dialogue (Bogart: You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.” Bacall: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”) Their on-screen chemistry in these scenes, along with their previous screen pair-up, “To Have and Have Not” (penned by Furthman), helped to cement the Bogie and Bacall legend and preserved “The Big Sleep” as a much-loved title for noir and classic Hollywood devotees alike. The WAC Blu-ray includes both the 1945 pre-release (in standard definition) – the more cohesive version in terms of story – and a hi-def presentation of the 1946 version, which emphasizes the sizzle between the leads; also included is a comparison video, hosted by UCLA film preservationist Robert Gitt, that showcases the differences between the two edits, and the theatrical trailer.

1:30 a.m. – “Too Late For Tears” – Crime Thriller

91C0leWTvtL._SL1500_(1949, Flicker Alley) Blind and vicious fate is tossed – quite literally – into the lives of middle class couple Arthur Kennedy and Lizabeth Scott when unseen hands throw a satchel filled with money into the back seat of their car during a drive through the Hollywood Hills. Working stiff Kennedy, sensing nothing but trouble, wants to dispose of the cash, but Scott sees the bag as her ticket out of the middle class doldrums. Enter cheap and sleazy Dan Duryea, who also has designs on the loot; he forms an uneasy partnership with Scott under the pretense that they’ll split the money after she dispatches Kennedy (during a spin on the boats at MacArthur Park), but the plan goes spectacularly awry, and the pair are soon locked in a death spiral of compulsive criminal acts and waves of self-disgust at the depths they can sink in the name of white-hot greed. Roy Huggins – who went on to create such classic TV series as “Maverick,” “The Fugitive” and “The Rockford Files” (with Stephen J. Cannell) – adapted his own novel for director Byron Haskin (“The War of the Worlds”) and former MGM exec Hunt Stromberg, all of whom could not generate much box office interest in “Too Late for Tears”; after a 1955 reissue under the title “Killer Bait,” the picture fell into the public domain until Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archives constructed a sparkling new print from a variety of sources. The Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD set is an excellent showcase for this unusual noir, which surpasses its pulpy plotline with a feverish mix of repressed sexuality and increasingly lunatic behavior; much of the credit belongs to the largely unsung Scott, whose transformation from social climber to sociopath straddles the line between camp and terror, and Duryea, who somehow makes his boozy, hands-all-over chiseler appealing and even sympathetic. The disc includes a making-of mini-doc with noir experts Eddie Mueller, Alan K. Rode (who also provides an informative commentary track) and Kim Morgan (as well as Duryea’s son, Richard), which details the film’s production difficulties and ultimate disavowing by all of the major creative parties. A second featurette discusses the film’s restoration, while the excellent liner notes by Brian Light compare the film to Huggins’ source novel and reproduce a wealth of promotional stills and behind-the-scenes photos.

3 a.m. “99 River Street” – Crime Drama

91UXH8EwNkL._SL1500_(1953, Kino Lorber) This feverish revenge noir reunites director Phil Karlson and star John Payne, who previously teamed for the terrific “Kansas City Confidential” (1952). In that film, Payne is an essentially decent guy pushed into violence when his life is ruined by crooks; here, his ex-fighter’s fuse is already dangerously short from a promising ring career cut short, a venomous wife (Peggie Castle), and a dead-end day job driving a cab, so when oily jewel thief Brad Dexter steals away and then murders Castle – and pins the murder beef on him – the brutality that follows feels more like fate than a last resort. There’s very little light in “99 River Street” – Evelyn Keyes and Frank Faylen (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) offer eccentric support – but mostly, the film echoes Payne’s unhealthy obsession with raw deals, awful surprises and nosedives into ruin. If you like your noir on the pitch-dark and remorseless side, “99 River Street” is your bitter brew. Kino’s remastered HD Blu-ray – an improvement over the MGM MOD release – offers informative commentary by Eddie Mueller, and the original theatrical trailers; spots for Kino’s other new noir releases, including “Shield for Murder” (see below) “Hidden Fear” and “He Ran All The Way” round out the disc.

4:30 a.m.- “Mexican Manhunt” – Crime Drama

61UgrUwNN2L._SL1000_(1953, Warner Archives Collection) Crime writer George Brent travels to Mexico to help newspaperman Morris Ankrum clear his name in a murder case; gangsters Carleton Young and Stuart Randall, who are the real killers, have other plans for them. This low-wattage B-noir from Monogram Pictures benefits from forays to lonesome stretches of Sonoran-looking locations (my guess is that it’s the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth) and the amusing presence of John Ford regular Alberto Morin, who lends humor to his stock Mexican sidekick role. Former Warner Bros. leading man Brent, in his penultimate film role, is fine, if a bit long in the tooth as the lead; co-stars Karen Sharpe (as Ankrum’s daughter) and Marjorie Lord (as Brent’s girlfriend) went on to long careers on TV (Sharpe also married Stanley Kramer), while Carleton Young (another Ford vet who also appeared in “Reefer Madness”) hopefully made a mint from his side business: selling cans of “Genuine Los Angeles Smog” at joke shops during the 1960s.

6 am – “Shield for Murder” – Crime Drama

81R8xFm1smL._SL1500_(1954, Kino Lorber) Twenty years on a brutal city beat has calcified the soul of police lieutenant Edmond O’Brien and driven him to commit murder in a last-ditch attempt to gain the American dream. But the crime – he guns down a mob bookie and pockets the dead man’s money to put a down payment on a tract house in Castle Heights – only drags O’Brien down into the mire he so desperately wants to escape: the respect of his captain (Emile Meyer) and partner (John Agar) turns to suspicion, there’s a nosy reporter (Herbert Butterfield) digging into the case, and the bookie’s boss (Hugh Sanders) sends two crooked private eyes (Claude Akins and Lawrence Ryle) to flush out the missing money. Things go badly for O’Brien from there, as these sorts of things often do. This grimy, downbeat noir, directed by O’Brien and producer Howard W. Koch for United Artists, says nothing particularly subtle or new about a cop’s descent into self-destruction, but it does feature some wild scenes of brutality – one, in which O’Brien tricks and then savagely pistol-whips Akins and Ryle, the other a shootout at a public pool that sends swimmers scattering for cover – and a wealth of doom-laden dialogue (“You get to hate people. Everyone you meet.”) by crime scribe and frequent Koch collaborator John C. Higgins (“T-Men, “Raw Deal”) that affirm its status as Grade A pulp. O’Brien’s sweat-soaked performance epitomizes the primal zoo impulses that drive noir anti-heroes to do the things they do, and anchors a cast of Late Night TV habitues that includes an icy peroxide Carolyn Jones, Marla English as O’Brien’s fretful inamorata, and the late, always great William Schallert.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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