Tuesday, August 29, 2017


United Artists, 99m
Format: 35mm

Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 25th – Thursday, August 31st, 2017

This past Saturday afternoon, NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2017 host Eddie Muller explained this year's festival selections share a heist theme. Prior to film noir treatments, typical heist films focused on the exploits of Robin Hood-like aristocrats according to Muller. But when the Production Code began to loosen up in the 1950s, the heist storyline began to infiltrate bleak noir narratives like the durable MGM title THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). The commercial success of that film set the stage for ensuing noir caper films such as KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, one of the more influential films of its kind. The memorable storyline authored by George Bruce and Harry Essex was based on a concept by Harold Greene and Rowland Brown. It was Brown who came up with the novel idea that the criminals assembled for the caper would not know each other.

The film opens with an armored car robbery in the planning stages. To make off with $1.2 million, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) requires three accomplices whose identities are to be concealed from each other via masks. Pete Harris (Jack Elam) is a small time gambler with little choice but to join forces with Foster. The same holds true with cop killer Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and three-time loser Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef). The heist is executed as planned, but do not tell that to Western Florists truck driver Joe Rolfe (John Payne), who is set up by Foster to get grilled by police for the bank job.

Rolfe is an ex-con, but also a veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. In a theme associated with a wide range of noir titles, Rolfe is a WWII vet faced with extreme difficulty in a civilian world. Caught in the wrong place at the worst possible time—another common problem for the noir protagonist—Rolfe even loses his job over the heist investigation. Then sensational news headlines link the innocent Rolfe with the crime. Stuck with no job prospects and no help from the police, Rolfe sets out as the rugged individualist in search of the men who trashed his life.

Though KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL does not rely on darkness and shadows like many of its atmospheric noir cousins of the 1940s, when Rolfe assumes the identity of one of the bank robbers, the all around sense of paranoia and dread intensifies throughout the remainder of the film. The men recruited by Foster are invited to the (fictitious) Mexican resort town of Barados, where the robbery take allegedly will be distributed. But Foster has a complicated past of his own, and motivations unknown to the men he hired. Especially as portrayed by Preston Foster, the embittered mentor of the heist is among the more sympathetic of noir criminals, complete with a pleasant daughter (Coleen Gray) who is enrolled in law school.

A rough and tough little film noir, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is brimming with slapping, punching and shooting along its eventful course. Director Phil Karlson is remembered fondly for this and other hard-hitting noir exercises that would follow, two of which featured Payne:  99 RIVER STREET (1953) and HELL'S ISLAND (1955). Karlson also directed 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955) and THE BROTHERS RICO (1957), all essential viewing for the film noir enthusiast. Producer Edward Small has a similar stable of noir material to his credit, including 99 RIVER STREET. He also produced RAW DEAL (1948), WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948), DOWN THREE DARK STREETS (1954) and the outstanding NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL (1955), one of my favorite noir films to hail from the 1950s. 

Traces of KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) can be found in three of the undeniable neonoir treasures of the 1990s:  RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997).

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Paramount Pictures, 93m

Last week ALIAS NICK BEAL premiered on Turner Classic Movies. I was unable to catch the live presentation, but thankfully TCM made it available on demand for the next seven days. To be honest, I never even had heard of this title, but after a helpful Facebook alert from film noir historian Eddie Muller I knew it was likely an important work, and so it is. A noir picture with an unusual dose of the fantastic, ALIAS NICK BEAL would make for a good double feature with THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941). The Paramount production also recalls producer Val Lewton's noir horror cult classics, especially CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). After the film’s opening credit sequence brings to mind classic Universal horror, the look, tone and structure of ALIAS NICK BEAL are cemented firmly within accepted noir boundaries.

The storyline condenses an eight-month period of time. 48-year-old District Attorney Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) would make a fine governor according to underworld figure Frankie Faulkner (Fred Clark), but Foster wants nothing to do with the sort of help offered by the unabashedly crooked Faulkner. Well known for his work with the local Boys' Club, Foster is an honorable man. Suddenly he is plunged into noir waters when he gets an anonymous tip from a man who claims he can help the DA bring down a notorious racketeer named Hanson, who is "...an octopus sucking the blood of every little business in the city," according to Foster.

The oddly helpful agent is Nick Beal (Ray Milland), who emerges near the China Coast Cafe, a dockside dive with oblique angles that appear to have escaped from the set of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920). An uncanny presence, Beal likes the thought that Foster would give his soul to rid the streets of Hanson and his protection schemes. Thanks to Beal's assistance, Foster finally gets Hanson convicted, but the evidence that convicts Hanson is obtained illegally. Thus we have our "break," as Eddie Muller would say (faced with a morality choice, a film noir character makes the wrong decision, and an ever-worsening chain of events ensues).

At the heart of the narrative lies a timeless tale that is as disconcerting today as ever. Based on the successful prosecution of Hanson, Foster is able to build a case for governor, but he becomes increasingly entangled with Beal, an individual of far less character than Foster. Be that as it may, Beal offers an apparent means to an end. With the governorship, Foster could push through his many admirable ideas, even if he must "...throw a few scraps to Faulkner..." thanks to Beal’s involvement. Unfortunately, men like Faulkner and Beal are not satisfied with scraps forever.

Due primarily to their own ambitions, basically good men like Foster are vulnerable to people like Beal, and it is easy to understand why. Considering the present-day condition of federal and many state balance sheets in the real world, the alarming separation of wealth, and the net worth of the average politician, these days it appears the influence of men like Beal is considerably more prevalent than that of men like Foster. Though the conscientious may find the strength to resist making dark alliances, so many others will succumb to their own self-interests rather than the greater good. Too often, influential politicians answer to powerful figures who exhibit significant control from behind the curtain.

Beal does not limit his targets to ambitious persons like Foster. With remarkable self-assurance, he picks up the trollop Donna Allen (Audrey Totter) after she is booted from the waterfront bar Beal frequents. Allen proves women who have hit rock bottom are highly susceptible to the machinations of contemptible characters like Beal, who elevates her living standard in exchange for careful manipulation of Foster. With her heavy eyelids and thick lips, Audrey Totter (THE UNSUSPECTED [1947], THE SET-UP [1949], TENSION [1949]) could not help but convey the sultry impression of a promiscuous femme fatale. She is spot-on in this controlled performance, which sometimes calls for her to act while acting. Behind Allen's alluring look is a woman who has endured a lot more than she probably deserved. For victims of predators like Beal, the lesson learned is identical:  when one takes an exit down a dark road, there may not be a clear way back.

Though remembered more for his work on comedies, director of photography Lionel Lindon understood the film noir visual approach well given the persistent chiaroscuro lighting and low camera angles that haunt ALIAS NICK BEAL. The film noir look is always evident around the bayside dock where the neon sign for the local drinking establishment is about the only thing that cuts through the thick fog. Lindon also served as cinematographer on THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) and QUICKSAND (1950), both favorite noirs of mine. Other noir themes and motifs include the not unusual presence of a crippled man, represented here by Reverend Thomas Garfield (George Macready), whose walk with a cane contrasts mightily with the stealth embodied by Beal. That opposition really emphasizes the threat of Beal, who appears and disappears as it suits him. The China Coast Cafe reminds the viewer of an American distrust of the Orient that was heightened during and after World War II, as perhaps best exemplified in THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), both quintessential film noirs.

ALIAS NICK BEAL director John Farrow already had worked with Ray Milland in the Western CALIFORNIA (1947), as well as THE BIG CLOCK (1948), a suspenseful noir thriller. The two would be matched again in COPPER CANYON (1950), another Western. Farrow also helmed the film noir NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), which starred noir veteran Edward G. Robinson, and WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950), a rather textbook noir in terms of narrative, style and starpower. Ray Milland is superb here as the creepy Beal, a memorable tough talker with plenty of good lines provided by Jonathan Latimer's screenplay (based on an original story by Mindret Lord). Beal delivers a terrific little speech about a world composed of gray areas; certainly appropriate subject matter for the film noir.

Be sure to have your DVR locked and loaded the next time ALIAS NICK BEAL airs on TCM. This unique film noir currently is unavailable on home video in the US.