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Posts Tagged ‘Noir of the Week’

The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Reward (1965)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Emilio Fernández (kneeling), Gilbert Roland (with gun), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (lying on the ground), and Henry Silva (back to camera) in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward (1965).

Here’s my essay on the remarkable and deeply eccentric film The Reward in the Noir of the Week website; this is the beginning of the text, and you can read the rest by clicking here, or on the image above.

“If you are looking for the latest news, Señor, you’re out of luck. News reaches us like light from the stars – it takes a long time.” — Gilbert Roland as Captain Carbajal in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward.

“I’m not going to deny that Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward is an odd film in many respects; it’s often classified as a Western, which it isn’t, despite the fact that most of the film was shot in Death Valley, and the film has a definite Western edge to it, with much of the dialogue spoken in Spanish with no translation. Produced as a West German/French/English co-production, the film seems to exist in no man’s land, a zone in which no nationality is dominant. Indeed, English is very much a second language here, and the equally eccentric casting of the film drives this home even further.

Top lining the film is Max Von Sydow as Scott Swenson, a down-on-his-luck crop duster whose plane isn’t even his own; as the film opens, Swenson is making one last flight for some much needed cash, but his plane crash lands after hitting an exposed pipeline, taking out a water tower and utterly destroying the aircraft. Crawling from the wreckage as the plane explodes behind him, Swenson coolly surveys the damage, and then walks to a local cantina, where he uses his last few dollars to buy some drinks. All of this is shown with almost no dialogue, and Bourguignon’s smooth CinemaScope framing makes the desert seem arid, endless, and infernal, a living Hell for all who inhabit it.”

It’s only a shame, as I note in my essay, that this isn’t on DVD; it runs occasionally on the Fox Movie Network in a “pan and scan” version that destroys the visuals in the film, but the real film is lost in the vaults, and will probably never get the restoration it so richly deserves.

Read the complete essay here.

Chicago Calling

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

I don’t usually blog on other blogs, so to speak, but I’m making an exception for this essay on the film Chicago Calling.

The film was originally brought to my attention by an article in the May/June issue of Film Comment by Dave Kehr; the director in question is John Reinhardt, who had a scattershot career to say the least, and I saw his film The Guilty a few weeks back, a sort of rundown version of Robert Siomak’s The Dark Mirror, and thought that despite the fact that it was unremittingly grim and depressing, it really didn’t have much to recommend it.

Chicago Calling is a different matter altogether; as Frank M. Young notes in his excellent essay on the Noir of the Week website, the film owes a considerable debt to the down-in-the-street neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, shot on the rundown streets of Los Angeles in 1951, with some minimal studio to round things out. Dan Duryea, a noir veteran to say the least, is perfectly cast in the role of William Cannon, once a promising photographer, but now a spectacular flameout, given to alcoholic binges and completely irresponsible behavior, and his wife Mary (Mary Anderson) is walking out on him at last, not in fury, but in resignation, because she simply doesn’t see the situation improving.

The family lives in a near hovel, on the absolute edge of starvation, and William has to pawn his camera to raise the cash so that Mary and their daughter Peggy (Marsha Jones) can pay $30 for a ride back to Chicago to stay with her mother until William cleans up his act, if he ever will. What happens after that forms the basis for one of the most harrowing, uncompromising, and original films of the early 1950s, a film that doesn’t flinch at showing what life was really like for the marginalized in the Eisenhower era — the dark side of the American dream.

As Young writes, “the film is, arguably, not a bona fide noir. Its main goal is to emulate the neo-realist movement of post-war Italian cinema. Director/co-writer John Reinhardt has no interest in crafting a routine tale of crime and punishment. Everything that happens in Chicago Calling could reasonably occur in your life or mine—were the chips to fall as miserably as they do for the feckless Cannon.” This is top shelf work from a generally unknown director who’s obviously out to make a personal statement, and in the process, gives Duryea the role of his career. A must see, now available from Warner Archives, and refreshingly, only 75 minutes long.

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

When The Clock Strikes

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Here’s my essay on Edward L. Cahn’s When The Clock Strikes, from Steve Eifert’s web site, Noir of the Week.

A brief excerpt:

When the Clock Strikes opens on a stretch of desolate, rainswept road, as Sam Morgan (James Brown, a regular in many Cahn films) disconsolately drives to the state prison, where the hangman will execute Frank Pierce, whom Sam has identified as a murderer, at midnight. The storm knocks a tree down across the road, and Morgan can’t go on; neither can passing stranger Ellie (Merry Anders, another member of the Cahn “stock company”), whose car has broken down in the torrential downpour. Sam gives Ellie a ride to Cady’s Lodge, perhaps the most uninviting guesthouse imaginable. Cady, the proprietor (Henry Corden) takes obvious, morbid delight in the plight of the bedraggled pair, and informs Sam and Ellie that whenever there’s a hanging at the prison, which is located only a mile or so away, all the “specs” (as he calls them), or “spectators,” gather at the lodge to watch the clock mounted on the wall by the fireplace, which predicts with split-second accuracy the hour of every prisoner’s execution — which is always at midnight.

With his ghoulish, obsequious manner, Cady is the last person anyone would want to have baiting them with lurid descriptions of a prisoner’s final death agonies, but since Sam and Ellie are stuck there, they have to endure Cady’s repellent presence. Sam grows more and more uneasy by the minute, and tells Ellie and Cady he’s tormented by the thought that he might have fingered the wrong man. The warden of the prison (played by Francis De Sales) stops by on his way to the prison to witness the execution, but tells Sam there’s nothing anyone can do about it at this late date — Frank Pierce will die at midnight, and nothing can stop the execution.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the montage tribute The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir.

As anyone who knows me is aware, I love film noir. Here is a nifty little montage of clips from some of the most classic examples of the genre, put together in a fashion that both honors and celebrates noir. Clips on display here include scenes from the films Ace in the Hole, Angel Face, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Heat, The Big Sleep, Brute Force, Criss Cross, Detour, Double Indemnity, Gun Crazy, In A Lonely Place, The Killers, The Killing, Kiss Me Deadly, The Lady from Shanghai, Laura, The Letter, The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet, The Naked Kiss, Night and the City, The Night of the Hunter, Notorious, Out of the Past, Pickup on South Street, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Scarlet Street, The Set-Up, Shadow of a Doubt, Sunset Blvd., T-Men, The Third Man, Touch of Evil and Elevator to The Gallows. That’s a rather impressive line-up of films, indeed.

Steve Eifert, who runs the excellent Noir of the Week website, turned me on to this. Check it out by clicking here or on the image above, which, by the way, is from The Big Combo, another great noir that didn’t make the cut here. Never mind; this is a stunning piece of editing.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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