A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: November, 2014

“Southside 1-1000” (1950)

"Southside 1-1000" poster


If you were wondering what the love child of a detective drama and patriotic propaganda would look like, Southside 1-1000 is the noir for you. Eschewing the goings-on of the rich and dubious so that it may focus on what Uncle Sam’s enemies are up to, this hard-boiled thriller manages to break down a concept as heady as the economy into a palatable package for mystery buffs. It doesn’t go about its business in the most subtle fashion, and in attempting to emulate the narrator-driven procedural format that Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” would come to perfect, its delivery can come across as a little too dry. But once it does manage to wedge the stick out of its hindquarters, Southside 1-1000 develops into quite the clever crime picture, a novel flick that bleeds red, white, and blue but still has the guts to go out on a realistically down note.

As the Korean War rages on, America’s adversaries are busy plotting to strike at us through a most insidious means: our money. Fiends are working around the clock to devalue the dollar, creating new and improved ways of whipping up bogus bucks with which to flood the economy. Eugene Deane (Morris Ankrum) is one of the finest counterfeiters in the racket, with not even terminal illness being enough to stop him from perfecting a $10 plate…from inside his own prison cell. In no time, the funny money has made its way into circulation, but fortunately, the government is on the job. Dedicated treasury agent John Riggs (Don DeFore) is assigned to the case and pursues what few leads he can in order to stop the fake funds for good. It takes all the cunning he can muster, but Riggs finally ends up embedding himself within the counterfeiting ring, a precarious position in which the slightest wrong move can spell doom for both him and the currency rate.

It’s clear from the beginning that Southside 1-1000 is going to be a fairly uptight affair. As our narrator lectures us on the power money holds as a sort of weapon after the opening titles, the flick does give off a rather humorless vibe, in the same spirit as those old PSAs about how not cleaning your room the right way was somehow undermining democracy. Eventually, what’s most bothersome isn’t the jingoistic call to action that sets up the plot (which, as thin of a beef as it may be, gets the job done) but rather that droning voice hounding us for a hefty slice of the running time. The narration is really that intrusive, often explaining characters and subplots that aren’t that hard to keep track of, as if this were one of those Yakuza dramas with a million things happening. It’s meant to supplement the film’s documentary-esque, “you are there” style, but there are many times when the story accomplishes that on its own, only for Mr. Voiceover to start stating the obvious and spoil the mood. Then again, this is just one part of the tough go the movie has at developing a crackling personality; you always know who’s who and what’s taking place, but after a while, staring at the same succession of gray suits for 80 minutes grows a touch tiring.

But when Southside 1-1000 shakes off its stiff dressing and gets down to business, it comes alive and puts on a good, gritty show. Though it takes a little time to get there, the meat of the film lies with Riggs’s tour of undercover duty, wherein he adopts a gambler’s persona and uses his wits to sniff out the head of the whole operation. The scenes in which this subplot takes center stage are among the movie’s most tense and noirish, succeeding in turning the heat up on Riggs and steering him into some sticky situations, as when he falls in love with a hotel manager (Andrea King) who’s unaware of his true colors. He may be a bit on the square side, but DeFore’s performance gives the audience a hard-working hero to get behind. He’s as quick to think his way out of a jam as he is on the draw, and as Deane returns to the scene for the climax, the race to see whether or not Riggs’ plan will unravel becomes a real nail-biter. Ankrum does terrific work in his small role as Deane, a crook who doesn’t let a little thing like dying stop him from telling the feds to buzz off when they want him to come clean about his plans. King brings elegance and a whiff of unexpected complexity to her part, and the character actors playing the various members of the criminal underworld look as shady as the gin joints and boiler rooms in which their work is carried out.

While it looks like a typical G-man saga on the surface, Southside 1-1000 comes to prove its meddle as a noir treat. The boozy atmosphere is potent, the photography is crudely gorgeous, and for all of the narrator’s preaching about the good actual people like Riggs do, that it acknowledges the cold reality of how little credit they receive in the public eye is an unexpected move. If you can move past its stodgier sections, Southside 1-1000 shouldn’t have much trouble keeping you occupied with some quality vintage thrills.

(Southside 1-1000 is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Armored Car Robbery” (1950)

"Armored Car Robbery" poster


For many, the film noir genre is synonymous with anything involving detectives and gangsters, but it’s about so much more than that. Movies of this type present viewers with conventional roles being turned on their heads, be they heroes who don’t hesitate to get their hands dirty or villains placed in the position of protagonist. The moral implications give the audience plenty to mull over, and while 1950’s Armored Car Robbery only flirts with bringing such issues to the screen, it’s hard to miss it all when it’s such an entertaining thriller in the meantime. A no-frills potboiler that wastes no time in getting down to business, the picture’s simplicity is its best angle, assuring the audience that it needs no gimmick to capture their interest other than just doing its job succinctly. Part film noir and part heist drama, Armored Car Robbery stores a good deal of excitement within a small yet very effective package.

It was supposed to be the perfect crime. Professional mastermind Dave Purvis (William Talman) and his gang of three cronies were to stick up an armored car, absconding with its dough after making its last stop of the day at Wrigley Field. The caper was planned down to the second, and all contingencies were accounted for…except the law making an earlier appearance than anticipated. Upon the big robbery breaking out, Lt. Cordell (Charles McGraw) hits the scene, only for his partner to tragically perish in the ensuing gunfight. After the hail of bullets has ceased, the two forces scatter, each one scrambling to stay one step ahead of the other. Fueled by revenge for his partner’s death, Cordell hunts down every possible lead that might bring him to the Purvis gang, one of whom is suffering from his own gunshot wound. Slowly but surely, the law creeps in upon the panicking Purvis, who won’t hesitate to coldly blast away any unrest in his crew if it means escaping with both his life and the cash intact.

Directed by The Narrow Margin‘s Richard Fleischer, Armored Car Robbery boils down the thriller to its very essence. It takes a basic premise and does away with nearly all the filler, giving us strictly the highlights and giving the whole thing a healthy coat of grit. The fact that the catalytic caper is underway before we even reach the fifteen-minute mark should give you an idea of how expedient the film is, laying out all viewers need to know before plunging them into the cat-and-mouse game that comprises the bulk of the running time. On the one hand, this is good, because it’s a fantastic way to ramp up the tension and put both the good and bad guys in a real bind. The clock ticks and plans unravel from the word go, with each side of the law equally hell-bent on outfoxing the other. However, the downside to this is that the movie is given only enough room to hint at the sort of psychological exploration that’s served as the backbone of the finest film noirs. We see a little bit of this in action, what with Purvis being our main character (or at least the one we follow around the most) and Cordell exhibiting a dark side as he tracks down his partner’s killers. They’re interesting angles, but again, they’re touched upon just briefly, giving but a moment’s consideration towards any kind of moral complexity before returning to the standard cops and robbers routine.

But what a routine it is, as Armored Car Robbery effortlessly plays up its intended suspense, regardless of how traditional certain details may be. Fleischer’s visual style isn’t quite documentary-quality, but it’s close, evoking a realistic mood that serves as a convincing backdrop. There’s just a touch of stylizing at work, with the burlesque halls, motor courts, and police stations in which our characters dwell not far removed from reality at all. Fleischer knows how to wring tension out of the simplest scenarios, from Cordell’s men tracking the crooks at their waterfront hideout to Purvis attempting to evade capture at his trailer home. The actors themselves do a great job of embodying the film’s unglamorous attitude in their own performances. Talman provides a particularly stirring turn as Purvis, a hardened fink who doesn’t react well to his best laid plans coming apart at the seams. It goes without saying that he’s not terribly loyal to his fellow thieves (what with carrying on a fling with the wife of one of the gang), but that he doesn’t double-cross anyone until he’s backed in a corner makes Purvis that much more dangerous and unpredictable. McGraw’s Cordell is nice and stoic, Adele Jergens makes for a fitting (and fading) femme fatale, and character actors like Steve Brodie, Douglas Fowley, and Gene Evans do fine work in filling out Purvis’ criminal ranks.

You can bicker over to what genre Armored Car Robbery “really” belongs, but the fact that it’s a damned tense flick from start to finish is what’s really important. The pacing is taut, the photography is moody, and the acting is solid, all ingredients that should entice you to see how this whole noirish stew comes to a boil. Clocking in at just an hour and change, Armored Car Robbery is a quick sit, but it’s the rare genre flick that knows how to space its thrills out instead of saving it all for the finale.

“Gambit” (2012)

"Gambit" poster


Gambit comes backed by the sort of pedigree that’d make you do a spit-take once you learned how hard its distributors tried to bury it. The idea for the picture — remade from a 1966 caper — had been around since the ’90s, stranded in development hell for a spell before a rather enviable cast and crew was assembled to give the project some life. Starring big names like Cameron Diaz and Colin Firth, penned by the Coen Brothers, and directed by Game 6‘s Michael Hoffman, Gambit might not have been destined for masterpiece status, but it definitely had the makings of quality escapist fun, thanks to some really talented folks. What a shock it is, then, to see their efforts pay off with a movie that’s in such disorder, one seriously ponders the possibility of imposters leaving the creative team bound and gagged in a closet somewhere while their good names were being sullied. Alright, so Gambit isn’t as atrocious as all that, but when it’s bad, it’s dreadful, an almost totally impotent con comedy that exhibits mere shades of the sensibilities for which its creators are beloved.

Harry Deane (Firth) isn’t the smoothest operator, but he’s certainly a man of ambition. Years of serving in the employ of unctuous media mogul Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman) have driven him up the wall, and he’s out for revenge in a huge way. With the help of an art forger friend (Tom Courtenay), Harry plans to fleece Lionel for a small fortune by presenting a long lost painting’s reproduction as the real deal. Enlisting cowgirl P.J. Puznowski (Diaz) to impersonate the piece’s owner, our hero sets his scheme into motion and sits back to watch his boss take the bait. Unfortunately, Harry’s plan hits something of a snag from the get-go, as he’s inadvertently cut out of the game completely at a crucial point. With the headstrong P.J. proving more than adept at wrapping Lionel around her finger, Harry finds himself in quite a bind as he attempts to worm his way back into his own con and fend off anymore potential hitches.

Gambit aims for a playfully quirky vibe with its humor that ends up feeling forced and obnoxious. There’s an intentionally awkward edge to its jokey set pieces (mostly geared at humiliating Harry for no good reason), but the pauses during which I assume viewers were supposed to guffaw themselves silly come to form a seemingly endless parade of dead patches. The script is littered with peculiar little asides and weirdo characters — which, as far as the Coens are concerned, is par for the course. This time, however, they’re even more gratuitously strange than usual, as if they’re placeholders for the movie to come back to once it’s figured out how to use them. As a matter of fact, Gambit has a real unfinished vibe as a whole, coming across as though the Coens hammered out a rough draft, left to do something else, then returned to find the script filmed before they had a chance to iron out the details. You never get a sense of why Harry is supposed to be such a loser, why everyone finds P.J. so incredibly endearing, or why Lionel is so deserving of being duped (he’s a blowhard, sure, but not exactly worthy of being the target of a Danny Ocean-style shakedown). It’s not even all that fun to watch the pieces of Harry’s scheme come together, for instead of having him cleverly adapt to the challenges that come his way, the film opts to just mock him until it decides some other character can move the plot along in his place.

With the how’s and why’s of the story never quite coming together, it’s a mad dash for Gambit‘s performers to look like they know what they’re doing, at which they more or less succeed. Diaz isn’t that fortunate, what with her Sandy Cheeks-ian accent, but as she’s just one in an entire movie packed with bizarre personalities hell-bent on making an impression, it’s hard to blame the actress herself and not the directing. Firth fares the best out of the cast, with his deadpan delivery and normally sharp timing helping a lot of the gags get the snickers that they’re supposed to. That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t leave him flailing about in go-nowhere bits, but despite the story never revealing the reason why he’s so dead set on conning Lionel until the end (in a twist that’s not worth all the farting about that led up to it), Firth maintains a great attitude and turns in a mostly fun performance. Rickman’s also having a blast as the self-centered Lionel, although the character could easily have been cast in a much more savage light. Courtenay (The Dresser) serves as our narrator and Harry’s closest confident, and while he too is around just to heap more goofy onto the picture’s plate, he at least gets to say a few amusing lines for his troubles.

As a con artist movie junkie and fan of just about all the parties involved in its production, it was completely unreal to see Gambit flounder this badly. It never summons a signature style, a large chunk of the jokes are duds, and the script nearly ruins whatever chemistry the actors try to create between one another. Though far from a career-killing fiasco, Gambit is a plodding and unfunny mess, made by people who should’ve been smart enough to fix its failures before it was too late.