Monday, 13 February 2023

Film Noir's Endpoint: The Scarlet Hour (1957)

By Gary Deane

In efforts to nail down an endpoint of the classic film noir cycle, four titles generally find their way to the head of the line: Touch of Evil (1958) for its baroque inflections of character and style; Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) for its modernist tonal shifts; Psycho (1960) for its narrative and generic dislocations; and Blast of Silence (1961) for its utter moral desolation.  In each case, the film represents a defining shift from what had gone before and, in doing so, extends the period’s time frame.

However, it might also be argued that the real endpoint could well be a late-period noir from 1957, one that looks back to exactly what had gone before. That film is The Scarlet Hour, which exemplifies — thematically, narratively, and visually —film noir’s most resonant motifs earlier framed in the 1940s and early '50s: a male protagonist obsessed with a sexually alluring woman; another female, good, dutiful, and in love with the man; an urban setting where lives are lived out unhappily by day and by night; a lurid and convoluted plotline conveyed with hard-boiled urgency; and a shadowland of expressive and unsettling camerawork.

The Scarlet Hour, unseen and little known until a few years ago, was produced and directed by Hollywood great Michael Curtiz, with studio backing from Paramount. However, the film was released with little fanfare, receiving far wider distribution in the UK than in the US. After that, it languished in obscurity for more than fifty years, with little reference to its existence other than some harsh assessments of the film in the British press, like that in the UK Times:

“(The Scarlet Hour) is a very drab hour and a half, in the company of actors who have not yet established their reputations and are unlikely to achieve them as a result of this movie. The story combines a rather unsavory triangle with a jewel robbery and the director Mr. Curtiz has achieved a certain amount of suspense but little else.”

However, to present-day eyes, The Scarlet Hour isn’t drab at all. It is a deeply noir-stained tale of dark love, obsession, duplicity, and murder — dense in its generic underpinnings and saturated with character types that seem both contemporary and anachronistic at the same time.

Tom Tryon plays E.V. ‘Marsh’ Marshall, the protégé of land developer Ralph Nevins (James Gregory). Marsh also is having an affair with his boss’s wife, Paulie (Carol Ohmart). Paulie wants the life Ralph’s wealth affords her, but she doesn’t want him. Her chance to get away comes when she persuades Marsh to hijack a jewelry heist the two overhear being planned while parked in a lovers’ lane. However, Ralph is aware that Paulie has something going on the side. The plot both thickens and darkens when he decides to do something about it.

That is about as much as you want to know going in. Much of the pleasure to be had from these tales of triangulation and treachery is in the details, supplied here by screenwriter Frank Tashlin, best known for his comedies, including The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Although The Scarlet Hour would be Tashlin’s only association with noir, there was a palpable undercurrent of desperation in his comedies. As observed by writer/ curator Dave Kehr, “More than most of his contemporaries, Tashlin was attuned to how our desire betrays us.”

Unfortunately, some of The Scarlet Hour’s potential is hampered by Tom Tryon’s limited range and a script that leaves little leeway for his character to connect the dots between virtue and temptation. A more adroit performer might have found the connection, but the most Tryon can manage is a hangdog haplessness.

On the other hand, former model and beauty queen Carol Ohmart was the perfect choice for Paulie, a far more complex and sympathetic character than noir’s stereotypical femme fatale. While Paulie uses Marsh and is prepared to betray him, she does so out of jealousy, not malice. Her actions and betrayals are never that straightforward. An unusually self-reflexive femme fatale, she goads herself into a criminal act seeking some nether region of self-worth. Paulie is Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff combined. With her wintery affect and smoky voice, Ohmart harkens back to the ‘fire and ice’ sirens of the 40s, but without seeming derivative.

Adding to the mix is Elaine Stritch as Phyllis Rycker, friend and confidante to Paulie. Phyllis is a retired-but-not-quite-reformed B-girl who’s found true love in the arms of a blue-collar hedonist. She and Paulie have a history and through their exchanges, we learn more about who Paulie is and what motivates her. While always dressed to kill, Paulie appears confident, but she’s both damaged and sad with regret. When Phyllis toasts her slightly sozzled husband, “Here’s to happy marriages made in heaven, Paulie replies, “Here’s to happy marriages made anywhere.” Stritch, always a brash scene-stealer, challenges Ohmart to stand up to her. Ohmart responds in kind and their time together on screen juices up the film.

James Gregory as the vengeful husband, David Lewis as the jewel heist mastermind (who makes a memorable reappearance via the film’s bravura plot twist), and E. G. Marshall and Ed Binns as the investigating police officers were ready-made for film noir. The four would all go on to become fixtures on the small screen.

Jody Lawrance, playing Nevins’ secretary, Kathy Stevens, is the ‘good girl’ who pines for Marsh, a la Virginia Huston in Out of the Past. Lawrance does what she can with her role but, in her bottle-blonde incarnation, begs comparison with Jan Sterling, a more arresting actress. On the rebound from an aborted launch at Columbia at the time, Lawrance faded from view in 1961.

Clearly, The Scarlet Hour doesn’t shy away from its indebtedness to Double Indemnity. Curtiz pays further respect in a scene where Marsh and Paulie furtively meet up across the aisle in a record store. Their troubled tryst could easily have taken place just down the street at Jerry’s Market on Melrose. The script also has its share of well-turned one-liners, most of them handed to Paulie. Many of the lines function in the way Walter Neff’s voiceover frames Double Indemnity. Not only are they memorably hard-boiled, but they also add resonance to the characters, such as when Paulie says to Marsh: “Don’t try to brush me off, Marsh — when I stick, I stick hard.” and “I never thought about the things I wanted, only the things I didn’t want.

Curtiz’s attempt to return to the more embellished noir style — one that he’d virtually invented in Mildred Pierce, embroidered in The Unsuspected (a textbook example of Foster Hirsch’s notion of “italicized visual moments”) and finally synthesized in The Breaking Point — was compromised to some extent by a combination of factors he couldn't overcome. In those earlier films, the complicated choreography of plot, visuals, and actorly presence meshed into something greater than the sum of its many parts.

In 'The Scarlet Hour, all the elements of a top-notch 40s noir are present, as is the framework for a great and satisfying movie. Unfortunately, the combination of a weaker lead actor and the ultimate lack of velocity in the film’s final reel means the component parts manage to not quite fit. However, what we do have is a categorical study on celluloid of how classic noir was supposed to operate, The Scarlet Hour unquestionably is the last honorable attempt to build a noir from the classic recipe. The film also can be seen as a look into the ‘what if’ career of Carol Ohmart, in every sense a compelling actress who was made for a style of film style on the verge of extinction — just as she was offered the chance to be the very embodiment of it. Ohmart’s portrayal of icy, sexual cunning brings the arc of the true noir cycle to a close — an arc that would not be revisited until Body Heat (1981) nearly a quarter-century later.

Monday, 5 September 2022


By Gary Deane

"This is Detroit, fabulous city of untold wealth, of might and muscle, of culture and the sweat of human endeavor and success... This is Detroit, symbolic of America,… pushing its towering smokestacks of industry against the sky... a city conceded to be the Arsenal of America. But now gangsters and organized crime are making a strong bid to gain control of the labor unions so that they can rule the destiny of some 17 million unionized workers. But for the courage of honest union officials, the police, and a political regime of integrity, these criminal elements would already be in control in Detroit. The film you are about to see, ‘Inside Detroit’ shows what has been done and what can be done by men of faith and fortitude to combat this menace.” 

And so opens Inside Detroit, starring Dennis O’Keefe as Blair Vickers, an upright union official, and Pat O’Brien as Gus Linden, a labor boss as corrupt as they come. Linden had been put away for five years on the testimony of Vickers but is now out and looking for revenge. His plan is to retake control of the union and to see Vickers dead.  Although Vickers has a notion of what's coming, he isn’t ready for Linden’s opening move against him, a bomb hidden in a pinball machine at union headquarters. Vickers survives the blast, though not his brother, Tom. Afterward, Vickers manages to rally, but Linden has more in store for him. 

Meanwhile, Linden’s family, as well as his mistress, Joni Calvin (Tina Carver), get dragged into it, which complicates things not only for him but also Vickers. At one time, Vickers had been good friends with Linden and sweet on his daughter, Barbara (Margaret Field) who's never accepted that her father’s a villain. Vickers' personal involvement endangers him further, as the gangster pursues his takeover of the local. 

Though Inside Detroit is weighted down somewhat by its separated-at-birth plot line and its sworn task of ensuring justice will be done, several things give this late-period ‘semi-documentary’ noir a good lift. One is the committed performances of its headliners, O’Keefe and O’Brien, along with that of Tina Carver as O’Brien’s mistress. A minor player in a series of notable film noirs, including A Bullet For Joey (1955), The Harder They Fall (1956), A Cry in the Night (1957), and Chain of Evidence (1957), Carver was often cast in roles equally familiar to Claire Trevor – those as a beaten-down sister-under-the-mink who can only hope that her next trip down the road of broken dreams won’t be her last. 

Another is the energetic direction of Fred F. Sears, a practiced storyteller whose credits included The Miami Story (1954), Cell 2455 Death Row (1955), Teenage Crime Wave (1955), and Miami Expose (1956). Sears had a knack for taking lemons handed to him by the studios and turning them into lemonade. All the titles above,  with Inside Detroit near the top of the list, are refreshing little late-cycle thirst quenchers.  Drink up.

Postscript: “We wish to thank the United Auto Workers of America for their cooperation without which this picture could not have been made.”

Wednesday, 24 August 2022



By Gary Deane


“Nothing between their secrets and the neighborhood except a pane of glass!.”


“Adults who want new sensations out of life…before it’s too late! Kids who want to find out what it’s all about…too early!”


Poor Craig Fowler. His father, Jay (Alex Nichol), is a self-pitying drunk who’s just been fired from his job as an aircraft mechanic. His mother, Jackie (Ruth Roman), is fed up to here and has begun trading sideways glances with the neighborhood skirt-chaser, Gareth Lowell (Jack Cassidy). Meantime, Craig (played by a sixteen-year-old Paul Anka) has taken to skulking around at night in a rubber mask, peeking through bedroom windows in hopes of seeing what goes on behind closed doors. It's tawdry stuff but then by the early 1960s, classic noir had long since crossed over to the seamier side of the street.

Look in Any Window forages for its noir-stained drama among Southern California’s burgeoning suburbs and newly-affluent middle-class who lust after the good things in life---flashy cars, color televisions, backyard swimming pools, built-in barbeques, and the ’lifestyle’ to go with. Not that anyone looks to be any the happier. Husbands work late to bring home the bacon (while enjoying a little something on the side) while the wives sit by the pool all day, drinks in hand. As for the kids, they do whatever they want.

Meanwhile, there is the problem of a peeping tom on the prowl. Folks are in a panic and their complaints to the police bring out a couple of plainclothes officers---one of them with profiling experience---who are assigned to a 24-hour lookout. While they watch and wait, the two witness the chronic boozing, the flagrant affairs, and the domestic upheaval. Eventually, Craig will be caught and unmasked. But by that time, the cops have come to their own conclusions about what’s wrong with the picture.

Despite the cheesy taglines, Look in Any Window is a movie with something to say. It also does a good job of saying it, ringing truer than Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a once film célèbre that today looks and feels ridiculously overwrought.

At the heart of Look in Any Window are the neighborhood’s pair of dominant homemakers and pool-party organizers, played by Roman and Carole Mathews, both of whom give compelling performances. Their characters are smart, attractive, and libidinous females in their late ’30s, who married young and now want to move beyond their everyday existences as material girls and handmaidens to louts. Mathews is especially affecting as Betty, who works hard at keeping her family together, if only for her daughter’s sake. At the same time, she’s increasingly drawn to her next-door neighbor, a courtly Italian widower (George Dolenz) who is as appreciative of her curiosity and intelligence as he is of her figure in a one-piece. On the other hand, the philandering husband, Gareth, shows little regard for either her or their teenage daughter, Eileen (Gigi Perreau). Gareth is a jerk, and when Betty tells him she’s going to leave him and that she hopes his money will buy him happiness, he shrugs and says, “With money, who needs happiness”.

Cassidy was an actor with matinee good looks, as suave and self-confident in real life as he was on the screen. Perfect for the part, he evinces the kind of preening arrogance that comes with an ego as unchecked as Gareth’s. Cassidy came to Hollywood from the stage and his acting often tilted toward the theatrical. In Look in Any Window, he backs off the gas a little. It’s one of his more natural screen performances---and one of his best.

As for the hapless Craig, all he needs is a girl with whom he can share his troubles (and probably his virginity); also for his parents to start acting like adults. After his arrest, Craig at least gets a sympathetic ear from the police and, later, the girl next door. Paul Anka (in his first starring role) was not yet the actor he'd become only a couple of years later in The Longest Day (1962). However, his shortcomings as the young and ill-fated doofus in Look in Any Window serve the picture well.

Look in Any Window
was also William Alland's first (and only) outing as a screen director.  Up until then, he had worked primarily as a producer on low-budget westerns and science fiction programmers such as The Creature of the Black Lagoon, a landmark science fiction title of the era. However, Alland’s resume also included time spent in New York as a stage and radio actor with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, along with contemporaries Joseph Cotton, Norman Lloyd, and Agnes Moorehead. 

Alland also was a friend of Look in Any Window's screenwriter Lawrence E, Mascott who’d done episodes for the television series, Johnny Staccato starring actor, and later director, John Cassavetes. Of Cassavetes, British writer/ critic David Thompson observed that the filmmaker had always looked for inspiration in “stories of basic, unenlightened, unhappily successful people...a rarity, and rigorously shunned in American films.” This would describe equally the characters in Look in Any Window, an ersatz piece of American Neo-Realism that plays like something which Cassavetes, a native New Yorker might have conjured, had he been born and raised in Long Beach, California.

Look in Any Window conspires to rise above its low-rent origins and does so in unexpected ways,  engaging intimately with its characters and showing respect for their stories.  Well worth a peek.



Monday, 15 August 2022



By Gary Deane


Like carpeting in bathrooms, curry and chips, and the sport of cricket, some things British don't travel that well. You could add to the list the numbers of cheaply-made post-war Brit noirs, which would feature Hollywood actors ferried over in hope of adding some box office allure to the UK productions. George Raft, Dane Clark, Dennis O’Keefe, Alex Nichol, Dan Duryea, Arlene Dahl, Ginger Rogers, John Derek, Barbara Payton, Dana Wynter, Jayne Mansfield, and dozens of others would all have their moment on British screens.

However, the American presence did not always make for better pictures. Often, it did more harm than good, as it soon became evident that the imports were there just to be there. It also created a sense of cultural uncertainty around the films themselves. In the end, the foreign involvement underscored the conviction that many of the movies hadn’t been worth the effort to start with.

However, one B-feature notably strengthened by the involvement of an American was Forbidden (1948), a stylish noir thriller starring Douglass Montgomery, an actor born and raised in Los Angeles. Throughout the 1930s, Montgomery had featured opposite A-list actresses such as Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn. But after four years overseas during the war in the Canadian forces, he had become yesterday’s news.

Fortunately, things later took a turn for the better for the good-looking and affable Montgomery when he was cast in Forbidden as a once-promising Canadian research chemist, Jim Harding, who's now estranged from his vocation. Though married, he’s living emotionally and sexually apart from his wife and now is peddling patent medicine and hair restorer on a Blackpool promenade. There, he becomes attracted to one of the carny girls, Jeannie Thompson (Hazel Court), who spins candy floss at a nearby stall. Without telling her that he’s married, he begins an affair with Jeannie, something for which he might not be blamed.  

While not entirely a femme fatale, Harding’s wife, Diana (Patricia Burke), is still one of the more venomous females to be found in classic noir. A stage actress who is desperate to revive a failed career, Diana’s taken to sleeping with any punter she thinks might help her get back on the boards. At the same time, she refuses to give Jim a divorce, as he provides her with at least some degree of financial security. As she tells it, “Having a husband in the background at least gives me some choice”.

When a local spiv, Johnny (Kenneth Griffin, who specialized in playing lowlifes and weasels), tells Diana of Jim’s affair, she hunts down Jeannie, confronting and calling her “a fairground slut”, and saying, “Why don’t you stick to your own kind—or don’t they pay enough?”. When Jim hears about the run-in, he decides that is enough. Aware that Diana uses thyroid pills to control her weight, and with his background in chemistry, he calculates that he should be able to increase the dosage just enough to kill her without raising suspicion. Sticking to plan, he later returns home to find her dead, then buries her body under the slate tiles of his lab. That, of course, is just the beginning.  

Harding is not a character we should like. He's complacent, compromised at every turn, and maybe too ready to play the victim. And yet Montgomery persuades us to go along and to sympathize with Harding and his plight. Like Richard Basehart in He Walked by Night (1948), Montgomery takes a character from whom we’d rather keep our distance and manages to render him compelling.

The film’s two female leads, Hazel Court and Patricia Burke, provide a fascinating study in contrasts. Court, an actress with doll-like radiance, is affecting as a decent working-class girl who “knows her place”. As she says, “I tried looking up over the fence once. Now I’m in me own backyard and it suits me fine”. On the other hand, Burke’s hardened and hateful Diana is convinced she’s deserving of much more and that her place is elsewhere. However, she’s plainly just ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’. The only one who doesn’t know it is her.

Forbidden, atmospheric and unsettling, takes place mostly in the vicinity of the funfair, a natural gathering place for fast-buck artists, con men, grifters, and wide-boys like Johnny. Amusement parks are recurrent locations in film noir, arenas frequently portrayed as far more threatening than amusing. As told in flashback, Forbidden is all that. Crisply directed by George King (Crimes at the Dark House, 1940), The Shop at Sly Corner, 1947), with cinematography by Hone Glendinning (The Shop on Sly Corner, 1947, The Noose, 1948, and Shadow of the Past,1950), Forbidden is part of Odeon Entertainment’s ‘The Best of British Collection’.


Friday, 12 August 2022

Run. Run, Run, Runaway: Eddie Macon’s Run (1983) and Thompson’s Last Run (1986)

By Gary Deane

While Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981) and Michael Mann's Thief (1981) kicked off the ‘80s with a bang, much of the rest of the decade proved a bust as far as potent crime thrillers go. That said, a couple of films did make an effort.  

The first was Eddie Macon’s Run, an old-school police drama starring a still-vital Kirk Douglas as Carl ‘Buster’ Marzak, a New Jersey cop. Marzak has a score to settle with runaway felon Eddie Macon (played by John Schneider), who’d been convicted and jailed on minor charges but is now on the lam. Though Macon made his escape in order to get money to pay for medical treatment for his sick child, the hard-nosed Marzak doesn’t give a damn. The law’s the law and that’s that.

Every bit an ’80s crime title, Eddie Macon’s Run is blunt and melodramatic, stripped of the brooding cool that had qualified dramas of the decade before. Production-wise, the film also looks and feels as though made-for-TV. However, the performances stand tall, especially that of Douglas, whose out-sized character is not far removed from those of his defining noir classics like Ace in the Hole (1951), Detective Story (1951), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

Schneider too is impressive in Eddie Macon’s Run. Unfortunately, after seven seasons of being just one thing in The Dukes of Hazzard, the actor would be asked, for the rest of his career, to sleep in the bed he’d made for himself. For her part, Lee Purcell shines as the spoiled socialite who’s only too eager to give shelter to the hunky Macon just for the thrill of it.

Eddie Macon’s Run is available on YouTube.


If Eddie Macon’s Run looks and feels a lot like a movie of the week, Thompson’s Last Run was the real thing, which had its first broadcast showing on the CBS network in February of 1986. A lower-key affair than Eddie Macon Runs, this one has big-screen warhorses Robert Mitchum and Wilfred Brimley in harness as longtime pals who end up on opposite sides of the law.

John Thompson (Mitchum) is a seven-time loser facing a transfer from an out-of-state prison back to Texas where he’ll serve a life sentence under the state’s habitual offender law. Texas lawman Red Haines (Brimley), though he's less than a week away from retirement, asks to be the one to bring Thompson back.

During the transfer, however, Thompson’s niece, Louise (Kathleen York) manages to break him loose. Louise, who’s been turning tricks to support herself and her young daughter, figures that John must have enough money hidden away for her to leave the life and have the three of them disappear forever. That’s what she thinks, anyway.

Unlike Eddie Macon, Thompson’s Last Run reels out slowly, without a lot of heightened action. For one thing, Thompson isn’t that anxious to be on the run. Now out of jail and in hiding, he’s enjoying spending time with Pookie, an old girlfriend, and another tart-with-a-heart, played convincingly by Susan Terrell. However, it doesn’t take Haines all that long to put things together and begin closing in.

Like Eddie Macon’s Run, the film is low-rent fare. But Mitchum, being the Hollywood pro he was, is fully present and accounted for and looks to be enjoying himself. Brimley, on the other hand, was never cast to look like he was enjoying himself, whether playing ‘Sherriff’, ‘Doc’, or ‘Coach’. He’s in great form here as the curmudgeonly Haines.

Thompson’s Last Run offers up a compelling story about two old-timers, life-long friends as well as long-time adversaries, who manage to get through it all without killing one another. In this case, that’s no small thing.

Thompson’s Last Run is streaming on Hoopla. 

Thursday, 2 June 2022


By Gary Deane

The term film noir made its debut in the late 1930s, first put to use by a conservative French press distressed by the number of dispiriting narratives and displays of questionable morality darkening domestic movie screens for nearly a decade. Having had enough of both doomed men obsessed with little more than money and sex and women too vulgar to qualify as femmes fatales, one inflamed reviewer assailed the movies as “sordid and bestial noir, with characters who are black down to the third basement of their soul.”

By that time, the critical storm around such films — ranging from Jean Renoir’s corrosive La Chienne (The Bitch, 1930) to Pierre Chenals’ cold-blooded Le Dernier tournant (1939) — appeared to have come to a head. However, the unsparing bleakness of many of the wartime and postwar releases to follow, such as Henri-George Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), Henri Decoin’s La Fille du diable (1946), Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres (1947), and Yvés Allegret’s Manèges (1950), only served to add fuel to the fire — as did a later cycle of films noir even less graced by pathos. These — including Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Jules Dassin’s Du Rififi chez les hommes (1955), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956) — reviewers would vilify for their indecent glorification of conspicuous consumption and cheap gangsters in two-toned Cadillacs. (1)

Just as unhelpful would be a group of influential young cinephiles and film-makers,  known as the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave).  Prominent among them were Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol. While admiring of American popular culture — especially the hard-boiled and ‘suspense thriller’ tradition, both in literature and film — they were less enthusiastic about most popular French moviemaking of the classic period, referring to it as the le cinéma de papa and le cinéma de qualite.  Among those named-and-shamed for a supposed lack of personal and artistic conviction in their films were journeyman directors Julien Duvivier, Henri Decoin, Henri Verneuil, Jean Delannoy, Andre Cayatte, and Gilles Grangier, all of whom would come to be recognized, and in some cases celebrated, for their contributions to the international film noir canon.

Caught up in all this very Gallic sucking-and-blowing was Michel Deville, a young director and contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague, who’d worked under Henri Decoin on several studio productions, including Razzia sur la chnouf (1955), a shimmering noir starring Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura. Like Jean-Pierre Melville and Louis Malle, Deville wanted to plot his own course, while also attempting to remain on good terms with the modernists of the Nouvelle Vague. With his apprenticeship behind him, Deville jumped at the chance to direct Une balle dans le canon, based on a novel written by Albert Simonin whose books and film adaptations (including Touchez pas au grisbi), had been embraced by audiences with an appetite for big-shouldered polars (crime thrillers) and policiers (police procedurals).

Une balle’s storyline satisfies the hunger for both. Simonin’s main characters, Dick (Roger Hanin) and his pal, Tony (Pierre Vaneck), veterans of the war in Indochina, have recently returned to Paris, bringing with them twenty-five million francs they’re to hand over to a local crime boss. However, hoping to get more out of the transaction than just a commission, the pair is talked into investing in a high-end cabaret, the ‘Club Tip-Tap’ on the understanding they can cash out if and when they want.

Unfortunately, the club’s owner, Pépère (Paul Frankeur), who’d persuaded them to come in with him, soon after informs the pair that if they want see their money again, they’re going to have to pull a job for him. He says he’ll split the proceeds, but the two suspect he has other plans. Tony is ready to be done with it all and just disappear. Dick, the more headstrong of the two, says that at this point, there’s no turning back — not for them or for Tony’s guileless girlfriend, Brigitte (Mijanou Bardot), who happens to be the robbery target’s daughter.

Roger Hanin, a fierce charmer both on and off the screen, is in his element in Une balle. Often portraying a take-charge type not to be messed with, Hanin starred in movies and popular French television series for more than five decades. Signature appearances in classic noirs included those in Robert Hossein’s dire Les Salauds vont en enfer (1955), the stylish Le Désordre et la nuit (1958), directed by Gilles Grangier, and Jean Luc-Godard’s provocative New Wave pastiche, Breathless (1960). Hanin’s partner-in-crime, Pierre Vaneck, was first introduced to French filmgoers as ‘the new Gerard Philipe’ (Une si jolie petite plage, 1949) and, like Hanin, would go on to star widely ‘across stage, screen, and television’. Une balle was among Vaneck’s first films, one in which he showed he was well capable of mustering more than just a pretty boy’s bland vigor.

Mijanou Bardot fares less well. No more than a winsome presence, the younger sibling of Brigitte Bardot shows only occasional flashes of her sister’s bombshell allure. Resembling more a young Brigitte Fonda than she ever did la Bardot, Mijanou was never given much of a chance to develop as an actress in her own right. Only in Eric Rohmer’s lushly seductive La Collectionneuse (1967), do we get a sense of her as the performer she might have been. Today, she’s generally best remembered for her role as a frisky French exchange student in Albert Zugsmith’s exhilaratingly bad Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), sharing the bill with the likes of Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.

Otherwise, Une balle has a stellar supporting cast of soon-to-be French movie favorites: the waggish Jean Rochefort as the club’s bartender; Michel Lonsdale, as a dogged cop; and Paul Frankeur, as the gang’s chilling puppet-master, Pépère. Frankeur was a welcome fixture in Franco-noir, typically operating on one side of the law or the other. The beefy actor shared the screen with his friend Jean Gabin in more than a dozen films, and, later, with Lino Ventura in Jean-Pierre Melville’s elaborate thriller Le Deuxieme souffle (1966). However, the film’s special treat is the appearance of the great American jazz pianist, Hazel Scott, who showcases as the nightclub's featured artiste. (2)

Une balle dans la canon, a film in which motives and actions are either suspect or unknown, was the right project at the right time for Michel Deville, and a perfect launch point from which he might make a few creative waves of his own. Aware that the enfants terribles of the Nouvelle Vague already had the blood of his mentors on their hands, Deville was not about to end up as collateral damage by making a film for which he’d be skewered as un traditionaliste. Stylistically, Une balle has a fair bit of nouveau showing, including the flamboyant use of hand-held cameras, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, extended tracking shots, and idiosyncratic editing. There’s a raw, graphic energy to the film and, within its frames, moments of drama that are independent of the story.

Un balle also avoids many of the narrative clichés which can cheapen genre thrillers — though it remains the kind of movie whose succulent minor-key B movie refrains are generally foreign to French productions, as well as to their international audiences who have come to assume that all French films will be ‘works’ of something rather than something that simply works. But then that’s the great conjuror’s trick. Much of classic cinema was created not by self-styled artistes but by gifted artisans and craftspersons as once might have labored on cathedrals.

Ironically, there’s a case to be made that Michel Deville, while not really of the New Wave, was the first director to put some of the formative thinking of its theorists into action. Deville’s precocious debut would be released the year before Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1959), a film held up as the movement’s first born. By default, it also can be argued that Une balle was the New Wave’s first nod to film noir, only to be followed later by Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Deville would again succumb to film noir’s siren call with Lucky Jo (1964), starring American transplant Eddie Constantine as a hapless thief whose partners no longer want to work with him. The movie, despite some fanciful mannerisms, remains a curiously effective noir.

In time, Deville’s films would take on a yet darker hue as he began exploring postmodernist tropes: the relationship between memory and the past, the boundaries between reality and fiction, and the transitory nature of love and attachment. His movies also continued to engage provocatively with genre conventions. Dossier 51 (1978), a Kafkaesque police thriller — which uses a subjective camera to create an aura of menace and paranoia — would win the French Syndicate of French Cinema Critics Award for Best Film, as well as a César (the French Oscar) for Best Screenplay.

Others, also crime-based, are assaults on bourgeois double standards and hypocrisy. These hand-signed noirs include: Le Mouton enragé (‘74) starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider; Eaux profondes (‘81) with Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert; and Péril en la demeure (‘85), an emotionally-layered thriller with Nicole Garcia, Richard Bohringer, and Michel Piccoli.

Looking down upon it all, Deville’s one-time mentor, director Henri Decoin, would have been proud of his one-time assistant — and very likely more than a little envious.


(1) Following WWII, the term ‘film noir’ was applied more equitably to a select group of Hollywood releases unseen in France to that time.  With their dream-like states, gloomy romanticism, and transcendent male protagonists, movies such as This Gun for Hire (1942), Laura (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), and Phantom Lady (1944), were viewed as reflective of surrealist and poetic-realist traditions in French cinema, as well as being grounded in what writer Nino Frank would call “the dynamism of violent death.” So began what would become the near-universal association of ‘film noir’ with American crime films.  

(2) Hazel Scott, an Afro-American beauty and jazz pianist extraordinaire, fled to France after her marriage to US Congressman Adam Clayton Powell had fallen apart and appearances before the House Un-American Activities had derailed her career in the US. With her young son in tow, she sailed for France, joining the burgeoning American expatriate community in Paris. Her apartment on the Right Bank became a regular hangout for Americans in Paris, such as James Baldwin, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and musicians from The Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands. Scott began to appear in films, landing a memorable part as a nightclub manager and performer in Le Désordre et la nuit with Jean Gabin. A virtuoso performer with an awesome dexterity and expressiveness, she recorded an album in 1955 with Charles Mingus and Max Roach titled ‘Relaxed Piano Moods’. Downbeat magazine declared it one of the most important jazz recordings of the twentieth century and in 2001, it was added to NPR’s Basic Jazz Records Library. Scott returned to the US in the late ‘60’s but the music scene had no place for her. She continued to play in smaller clubs to a devoted fan base until her death in 1981.

(A longer version of this article appeared in NOIR CITY e-magazine) 


Thursday, 7 April 2022


By Gary Deane


Her: “You’ll have to be better than this, Gerry. I’ve seen bigger rings on a peppermint stick”.

Him (lying): “That was my mother’s ring”.

Her: “Your mother’s? I didn’t know that”.

Him: “There’s a lot of things you don’t know, baby.”


Blessed with arrogant good looks and a rogue charm, Gerard Graham Dennis was meant to live brazenly. Though born into poverty,  his tastes would later run only to the finer things: swank automobiles, bespoke apparel, French champagne, and beautiful women with models’ cheekbones. Beneath it all, however, lay little more than a shameless talent for deceit and a reckless willingness to defy the law.

When still a young teenager in Southern Ontario in the 1930’s, Dennis was arrested for petty thievery and sent to reform school. Upon release, he headed for Montreal. It was there he found out it was just as easy to steal a fortune in valuables as it was kitchen change from coffee cans. One evening, after robbing an aging gold-mining heiress of  $75,000 worth of jewels, he headed to the US with an American girlfriend, Eleanor Harris. Ending up in Westchester County, a leafy and well-to-do enclave just outside New York City,  he took to plundering some of the precinct’s poshest properties. One night, however, he was caught in the act by a wealthy New Rochelle boat-builder. Dennis shot him and got away,  pockets stuffed with cash and jewelry. 

During this period, Dennis also had been teaching himself how to break up precious stones and remake jewelry so as to avoid the underworld markdown on stolen goods. He began posing as a legitimate trade rep, unafraid to ask list prices for his merchandise. Then, in the summer of 1947, he made his first big mistake. He picked up an attractive young socialite, Gloria Horowitz, in a Manhattan nightclub and, not long after, sent her out to sell a few of the diamonds to a jeweler in Philadelphia. A suspicious clerk called the police and Horowitz was busted while Dennis,  out of harm’s way, watched from across the street. The terrified debutante would spill everything and, for the first time, the cops had a line on him.

Knowing he’d been fingered, Dennis left New York for Los Angeles, where he lost no time in setting up shop. Touring around in a Cadillac convertible or, as the occasion demanded, a plush Lincoln sedan, he began to woo well-heeled Hollywood celebrities and bigwigs, representing himself as a prosperous jewelry dealer and aspiring actor. He was becoming a fixture at parties held in some of the tonier areas of L.A. like Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Bel Air. There, he was able to case homes at his leisure, then later return to rob them, tracking the owners’ movements by following the society pages, travel news, and gossip columns. Among his victims were movie stars Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, Joan Crawford, Dennis Morgan, and Loretta Young. 

Along the way, he acquired a new girlfriend, a former school teacher from Toronto, Betty Richie, and in early 1949 told her he was going to divorce his wife back East. He kissed Richie goodbye and flew to Cleveland to unload a cache of diamonds. As he sat talking to the jewelry dealer, the man’s nephew walked in, recognized Dennis from a wanted poster, and ‘phoned the cops. Within minutes they showed up and arrested him without incident, his only response being, “Well, looks like you fellows have got me, doesn’t it?” In his pocket was a hand-written list of others whom he'd planned to rob next, including Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Coleman, Alice Faye, Hedy Lamarr, Jack Benny, Mary Pickford, Dorothy Lamour, and Louis B. Mayer. A name crossed was that of Bing Crosby because, as Dennis explained, he was a big fan of the crooner.

Authorities estimated that Dennis had stolen over a million dollars worth of valuables since arriving in Los Angeles. Beverly Hills Police Chief Clinton Anderson expressed grudging admiration for the robber, saying, “He’s one of the greatest burglars whoever operated.” Dennis undoubtedly was one of the greatest jewel thieves up until then. But the party was over. ‘The Raffles of Beverly Hills’ was convicted, sentenced to 18 years-to-life, and sent to Auburn State Prison in Upstate New York to serve his time, much of it at hard labor.  

Closely following the news of Dennis’s exploits was Warner Brothers producer Bryan Foy, head of the studio’s B unit. Foy’s career as a creative producer would span 200-plus films, including B noir classics Canon City (1948), Hollow Triumph (1948), Trapped (1949), Highway 301 (1950), Women’s Prison (1955), and Blueprint for Murder (1961). Foy also happened to be a friend of Stanley Church, the beleaguered mayor of New Rochelle, who had initiated the nationwide search for Dennis. Church had kept in touch with Foy, providing him updates on the less-than-gentlemanly bandit whose boldness had profoundly rattled the good burghers of Westchester County. With Dennis’s arrest getting play in the national media, Foy was primed to produce a movie about the affair (one in which Church would get to appear as himself, in an engagingly bouncy performance). Foy then went looking for a screenwriter who would do credit to Dennis’s fierce criminal adventuring. His pick was Borden Chase, whose scripts were valued for their straightforward dialog, clearly-outlined action, and powerful emotion as evidenced by films such as Howard Hawk’s Red River (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950).

Chase had grown up on the mean streets of New York in the 20’s and had lived a turbulent life prior to becoming a writer. He had been gangster Frankie Yale’s chauffeur—at least until Al Capone had Yale killed. Chase had a native affinity, if not affection, for wayward rogues such as Gerard Graham Dennis. In The Great Jewel Robber, he renders Dennis (played by David Brian) an engaging, living-and-breathing character, despite his sins, which come fast and furious. By the film’s thirty-minute mark, the master-thief has been busted for robbery, escaped from prison (where, but for a sadistic warden, there had been some hope for his reform), acquired forged documents, crossed the border to the US, planned and pulled off a job, and been beaten up and hospitalized. Along the way, he’d also enticed a landlord’s daughter, consorted with countless shady ladies, and seduced a hospital nurse, Martha Rollins (Marjorie Reynolds) who would become his lover, wife, and, later, accomplice.

David Brian, a fearless Viking of an actor, bolts through The Great Jewel Robber with great style, always one move ahead of the authorities and always with a different woman on his arm. The film’s females are a glamorous bunch: Perdita Chandler as the cross-border girlfriend who’s as just crooked as he is; Alix Talton, as a hard-nosed department store buyer whom he picks up in a hotel lobby in New York; and Jacqueline deWit, playing a haughty Beverly Hill socialite whom he cultivates and turns into his dupe. Like most of the women who cross Dennis’s path, each will pay a price, especially Nurse Rollins, who tends to him while he recovers from a beating and then runs away with him. Because of her caring nature  and the fact she loves him, Rollins is vulnerable and it isn’t long before he begins to abuse her. Forever suspicious and jealous, he says, “You haven’t been doing anything you weren’t supposed to, have you, you dirty little slut?” and strikes her. Later, as she watches him attempt to pick up a dishy blonde (Cleo Moore), Rollins can only look on with a combination of dismay and resignation. By this time, Dennis’s maverick appeal has worn out its welcome, and, like Rollins, we’re hoping to see him get what he deserves. 

David Brian was the natural choice to play Dennis, a  manipulating cad equal parts suavity and viciousness. Brian had already featured in similar roles with Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), and would star with her again in The Woman is Dangerous (1952). It was Crawford who’d first encouraged Brian, then a New York stage actor, to come to Hollywood, where he'd have a long career in movies and television. Ironically, Brian would be most rewarded by both critics and audiences alike for his moving performance as a fair-minded Southern lawyer who defends a black man facing down a vicious lynch mob in Intruder in the Dust (1949), based on a book by William Faulkner. He also played on the right side of the law as crusading D.A. Paul Garrett in the TV courtroom series Mr. District Attorney, which reprised his earlier radio role. In real life, Brian was one of Hollywood’s nice guys, known and respected within the community for his graciousness, musical accomplishment, and life-long fundraising efforts on behalf of the Volunteers of America, a charitable organization. There  were also few men-about-town who looked so well-attired in a dinner jacket.

The Great Jewel Robber, its story ‘ripped from the headlines', is unflinching and intense, with director Peter Godfrey wringing all the drama and suspense he can out of Borden Chase’s charged script. Three times Dennis is approached by the authorities just at the moment he thinks he’s in the clear. On one occasion, police are called to a party at a Beverly Hills residence after a priceless necklace goes missing.  Dennis has stashed the piece of jewelry in a plant pot but has stayed close by. A dour-looking cop who’s been sniffing around approaches him and says, “That’s a funny place to put a thing like that”. A started Dennis starts to move for his gun, just as the cop says, “I mean, that flower, there”, pointing past him to a towering orchid.

Godfrey had walked on the dark side of the street before, directing a number of fraught melo-noirs including Hotel Berlin (1945), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Cry Wolf (1947), and The Woman in White (1948). He would follow a few years later with one of his tidiest film noirs, Please Murder Me (1956), starring Raymond Burr and Angela Lansbury. Godfrey had begun his career in live anthology television (Lux Video Theater, The Star and the Story, The Ford Television Theater) and was a skilled craftsman who handled even lesser material with conviction. Though a B project by budget and billing, The Great Jewel Robber often thinks and looks more like an A feature, thanks to Chase’s robust screenplay and Godfrey’s correspondingly forceful point of view. Occupying similar territory as other great A/B crime titles such as Pushover (1954), Rogue Cop (1954), or Private Hell 36 (1954), The Great Jewel Robber is a classic noir crime procedural that still begs to live large once more. 

 (A longer version of this article appeared in NOIR CITY e-magazine)

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