Wednesday, 14 December 2016

WHEN HEISTS GO BAD: ASSIGNED TO DANGER (1948)





“I hate macho, even though that’s what I was all my life.”  Budd Boetticher

For ten years and about as many movies, he was known professionally as Oscar Boetticher, former all-star college athlete, professional matador, and junior film director. Then came Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), which earned him full recognition as a director, along with an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story. He also was credited for the first time as ‘Budd Boetticher’, the name under which he'd win box office success for a cycle of virile and critically enduring B westerns starring Randolph Scott. Best among them were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960).







However, Boetticher seemed to come to movie-making nearly fully-formed. Much of what was apparent in the celebrated westerns also was in evidence in earlier efforts: the deceptively straightforward visual style; the economical but elegant storytelling; the stoical, self-contained heroes; the bleak appreciation of the cruelties of life and death.

Also among the earlier entries were several vivid crime dramas and film noirs beginning with The Missing Juror (1944), a tense thriller about a reporter on the trail of an avenging killer. Then came Escape in the Fog (1945), Assigned to Danger (1948), and Behind Locked Doors (1948), followed later by The Killer is Loose (1956) and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), a luminous but brutal title about a real-life psychotic Chicago mobster (played by Ray Danton) who reigned during one of gangland's bloodiest eras. The last two especially are often and unjustly left out of consideration of Boetticher's best work.




Of the others, the one least known or seen is Assigned to Danger, a chilling little programmer starring Gene Raymond and Noreen Nash. Raymond plays Dan Sullivan, a Los Angeles insurance investigator who’s ‘assigned to danger’ when his company asks him to try and recover $80,000 stolen in a gang heist. The robbers also killed a watchman and sent out one of their own to be shot down by police while the rest escaped. 

The dead gang member is ID'd as Nip Powers, whose sister, Bonnie owns a lodge in the San Gabriel mountains, just beyond the city. Sullivan goes and books in for a couple of nights and begins to feel Bonnie out for any connection with the gang. However, he overplays his hand and Bonnie brushes him aside, saying, “Don’t start making wolf noises, I’m not that lonely”. She later apologizes, telling him, “I’ve never been lucky with men.” But when he presses her further, she says, “There’s nothing worth telling about me”.




Meantime, the gang led by Frankie Mantell (Robert Bice) shows up at the lodge. Frankie had been shot during the robbery and is not happy about Sullivan's presence - though Bonnie tries to assure him that Sullivan’s just “a nice guy, the only guy that’s treated me like I were nice, too.” Not at all convinced, Frankie orders one of the gang to kill him but backs off when Bonnie informs him that Sullivan is a doctor (she's found business cards Sullivan had been given by a physician in town whom he’d asked about the lodge). Sullivan, now with his back to the wall, confesses to Bonnie that he’s not who she thinks he is. She responds in kind and tells him that she’s actually more than just a friend of Frankie’s. She and the investigator now are handcuffed one-to-the-other by their evasions and lies. 

Gene Raymond, whose talents were only variably provided for by Hollywood, delivers a solid showing in Assigned to Danger. Golden-blond and dashingly handsome in his youth, Raymond was a capable leading man, later starring in the noir psychodrama The Locket (1946) and Hubert Cornfield’s harrowing, unforgettable Plunder Road (1956). In all, Raymond’s career spanned four decades as both actor and vocal artist, introducing a number of songs on screen which became hit standards such as ‘All I Do is Dream of You’, and 'Let’s Have Another Cigarette’[i] In Assigned to Danger, he likes a pipe, which he draws on pensively as he makes an effort to engage with Bonnie. Though a seasoned investigator and nobody’s fool, his interest in her has become as much personal as professional.




But with Frankie threatening, Sullivan moves to takes control, a sympathetic Boetticher tough guy who survives only by bluffing it out until the final showdown with a clutch of voluble villains. Here they're played by Bice, Martin Kosleck, Ralf Harolde and Jack Overman, character actors well-familiar to film noir lovers. Also supporting is Gene Evans (Armored Car Robbery, 1950; Crashout, 1955), as Joey, a mute, hulking handyman who’s as watchful of Bonnie as he is worryingly hostile to Sullivan.

Noreen Nash as Bonnie, began her career as a showgirl and then played a number of mostly decorative roles in films in the late 40’s and into the 50’s. Nash, who was unquestionably beautiful, transcends expectations with an easy authority (in a 2011 interview, she spoke of Assigned to Danger as the favorite of her films which included The Southerner, 1945 and Giant, 1956). Also in her favor was the convincing-enough script by Eugene Ling, the film’s producer, who later contributed screenplays for Behind Locked Doors, Port of New York (1949), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), and Scandal Sheet (1952). The women in Boetticher’s films sometimes come across as little more than prizes to be fought over, even when they feature prominently in the story. But Bonnie's resilience and desire to do better move Sullivan to more than just action.




Though a low-budget B production that holds to just a handful of sets and locations and clocks in at only 76 minutes, Assigned to Danger doesn't want for much, thanks to Boetticher's craftsmanship and his instincts for significance and emotional truth. With plot, action and character precisely balanced out and pared down to iconic essentials, it's a B noir well-worth watching.




[i] Off screen, Raymond served a pilot in the Air Force Reserve, flying bomber missions in both WWII and Viet Nam for which he was awarded the Legion of Merit. He also active on the boards of the Screen Actors Guild and Academy of Television Arts and Science and received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions.




Gary Deane


Sunday, 11 September 2016

RURAL NOIR: TAKING REFUGE




Ree: You always have scared me.
Teardrop: That's ‘cause you're smart.

from WINTER'S BONE (2010)



Typically, film noir is associated with the urban metropolis, along with its fabled 'eight million stories' and unholy collective of citified street-wise gangsters, fast-talking conmen, backstabbing tramps, femmes fatales, and just plain chumps. 

Well, some things have changed.

As North American cities of all shapes and sizes began their headlong rush to be counted in as precincts of gentrified vibrancy and urgent creative wonderfulness, much of both film and literary noir has packed its bags and headed off to the rural heartland where responses to matters at hand are not always as ‘nuanced’ or ‘mindful’ as city folks might like. 

Welcome to the land of Rural Noir AKA Country Noir, a world which feels like it’s about to explode in violence and usually does, leaving kith and kin to settle scores and make things right amid a conspiracy of silence. Do what you need to but don’t bother calling the law if you want to live past tomorrow.  
  
If this evokes a certain amount of dread, it's meant to, as rural noir works to defuse the myth of the bucolic countryside and expose a hard place of rusty edges and disposable existences. More recent country noir is populated with damaged men and wounded women who at one time might have been farmers or have found jobs in mills or factories. But the family farm has given way to factory farming and mills and factories are shuttered, with the work gone elsewhere. What’s left is economic insecurity, fraying community bonds, anarchic family structures and the fearful aftershocks of crime.

Rural noir’s stories are often seeded in horrific criminal happenings, though at their core, they are as much about self and family identity and how people can lose their way and go wrong even while trying to do the right thing.  But drug addiction, family grievances, and domestic violence leave wounds that won’t heal, and struggles against poverty and fate end in despair and a life sentence of grief. Though ills may be vanquished, a stinging sense of betrayal and distrust lingers.

Gritty crime tales with backwoods settings are part of the traditional and lasting material of noir fiction and film noir. One of earliest and still-best examples of rural noir was James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much, published in 1940 which put a country spin on James M. Cain. Later, several of Jim Thompson’s fearsome tales, such as The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop. 1280 (1964), with their portrayals of depraved small-town lawmen, would find their way to the screen.   

Opening the door wide for contemporary rural noir was Daniel Woodrell, whose 2006 novel Winter’s Bone, released as a film in 2010, defined both a style and sensibility now most associated with modern country noir. Woodrell’s stories of criminals trapped by their violent compulsions developed out of necessity are intimate and poetic and carry genuine emotional weight. Despite the social and economic malaise clawing at the viscera of rural America, these works hold closely to the local and the personal.

Similar can be said of the twenty-five films below. Tense, atmospheric and unsettling, these are sinister, slow-burning movies that possess a stark elegance, often even at their most violent. While the themes of government corruption, political opportunism, and corporate malfeasance could have been herded like elephants into the room, thankfully they weren't. Much of these films’ dark attraction resides in their austere, contained narratives which focus on individual or private transgressions, the sins of which lie at the very heart of noir.

That said, the most recent of the titles here, Hell or High Water (2016), a movie self-consciously attuned to today’s outsider politics, swaps out film noir's signature moral ambiguity for a dubious moral equivalency (the picture’s tagline is “Justice is not a crime”). Otherwise, the movie is not to be missed. 

Beyond that, it would be a good thing if rural noir doesn't beome fitted up with ‘Big X’, ‘Big Y’ or ‘Big Z’ as the standard operating forces of villainy. Such wearying, doctrinal sausage-stuffing already weighs too heavily on many box office thrillers of late. Meantime, there are plenty more of these closer-to-the-bone rural noir meditations still to be enjoyed (with plenty of others in the works). 
    

Note: The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) is not among the films listed below, only because it’s “a film that needs no introduction”.
  

1. SHOTGUN STORIES (2007)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE CHICAGO READER

2. FROZEN RIVER

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: TIME OUT

3. DON MCKAY (2009)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

4. WINTER'S BONE (2010)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: TIME OUT

5.THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

6. RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2010)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW:NEW YORK TIMES
WARNING: EXTREME VIOLENCE 


7. SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS (2010)

OFFICAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

8.KILLER JOE (2011)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

9. DEADFALL (2011)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

10. THIN ICE (2011)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ROGEREBERT.COM


11. AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: STREAMONDEMAND

12. OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: NEWSDAY

13. BAD TURN WORSE (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: NEW YORK TIMES

14.BLUE RUIN (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: WASHINGTON POST

15. A SINGLE SHOT (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

16. JOE (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ROLLING STONE


17. NED RIFLE (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: SAN DIEGO READER

18. CUT BANK (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

19. COLD IN JULY (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: STAR TRIBUNE

20. BIG MUDDY (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: GLOBE AND MAIL

21. UNCLE JOHN (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

22. LOST IN THE SUN (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: BLU-RAY.COM

23. COP CAR (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: TORONTO SUN

24. TWO STEP (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

25. HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: NATIONAL POST


Gary Deane

Saturday, 9 July 2016

DANCING WITH CRIME (1947)



“It appears we are in for a basinful of pictures about spivs, smash-and-grab raids and West End ‘wide boys’, with a bunch of murder dramas thrown in as light relief.”  Reginald Whitley, the Daily Mirror


In the years before WWII, the British Board of Film Censors came down hard on what it saw as the corruptive influence of 1930’s American gangster films on British crime dramas. After the war, it was a different matter. Changes in societal outlook and a more liberal Board make-up made it difficult for its policies to be applied as rigorously, despite its Chair, Andrew Harris, insisting that gangster movies were “Hollywood at its worst”.

A chorus of British film critics echoed Harris' sentiments, taken aback by the number of violent crime thrillers they were being asked to review, especially ones portraying ‘spivs’, the all-present black-marketeers and small-time hustlers occupying territory on the underworld’s tattier fringes. Though the origin of the term spiv is as obscure as the provenance of the goods they were selling, by the end of the war both the use of the word and the men it described were everywhere, including on the big screen.

To some, the spivs represented a greater threat to British society than more established villains because their illicit enterprises intersected with the everyday lives of a population deprived of basic necessities and sought-after luxuries. The spiv also held a certain rogue appeal to many Britons. In an article, ‘Meet the Spiv’, playwright Bill Naughton (Alfie), wrote, “Londoners and other city-dwellers will recognize him and so will many city magistrates – the slick, flashy and nimble-witted tough, talking sharp slang from the corner of his mouth…the counterpart to the zoot-suited hooligans of America.”



The popular allure of the spivs gave post-war British cinema an excuse to produce its own version of Hollywood gangster movies – enjoyed as much in the UK as anywhere else. The cinematic clothing – the garish ties, and striped shirts, worn with sharply-cut suits with wide lapels – did hark back to that worn by Cagney and Robinson, though Dan Duryea’s modish garb in Scarlet Street (1945) comes closer to the mark.


In the end, the post-war ‘spiv cycle’ generated many of British film noir’s most memorable titles. Among them: Waterloo Road (1944) with Johns Mills and Stewart Granger; Night Beat (1947) featuring Maxwell Reed and Anne Crawford; It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) starring Jack Warner and Googie Withers; Brighton Rock (1947) headlining Richard Attenborough, Willam Hartnell, and Carol Marsh; They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) with Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones,  Sally Gray; Noose aka The Silk Noose (1948) starring Derek Farr, Joseph Calleia, and Carole Landis; Good Time Girl (1948), featuring Dennis Price, Herbert Lom, and Jean Kent; Night in the City (1950) with Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Googie Withers; and Wide Boy (1952) starring Syd Tafler and Susan Shaw.

Of these, the cycle’s best-known entry would be John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, which made it clear that post-war British cinema could be as effective in expressing the conventions and concerns of what we now call film noir as the signature American releases of the period. Based on the book by Grahame Greene and with a screenplay written by Greene and playwright Terence Rattigan, the densely-plotted film primarily concerns itself with the last days and final maneuverings of an amoral young spiv, Pinkie Brown. Attenborough’s performance in Brighton Rock is decisive, bested only by his portrayal of serial killer John Christie in Richard Fleisher’s chilling 10 Rillington Place (1971). Though Brighton Rock’s fired-up director John Boulting sometimes strained too visibly with his overly-pushy compositions, the film stands as an otherwise unqualified classic of British cinema.


Preceding the release of Brighton Rock by only two months was Dancing with Crime, also starring Attenborough. Although a lesser-known spiv film, Dancing with Crime was an all-important transitional title. It was more graphic and violent than anything seen on British screens and also the first of the post-war films to deal explicitly with the kind of low-level criminality that was beginning to impact upon parts of English life as the war came to an end. Conjuring up a nocturnal half-world that reflected the anxiety and dissolution of the period, Dancing with Crime embodies the urge to escape from the chafing restraints of post-war existence by whatever means. As one Scotland Yard inspector observes dryly, “Civvy Street seems pretty strange to some of the boys”. 

   
Attenborough, 23 years old and looking much younger, plays a recently ‘demobbed’ soldier, Ted Peters, now working as a taxi driver trying to get ahead and save enough to be able to marry his childhood sweetheart, Joy, played by Sheila Sim (in real-life, Mrs. Richard Attenborough). Meantime, Peter’s boyhood friend and army buddy, Dave Robinson (Bill Owen) is only out for easy money and dealing in “this and that – everything a rich man wants and can’t get”. After pulling a jewel heist, Robinson runs afoul of gang leader, South London dance palais owner, ‘Mr. Gregory’ (Barry Jones) and his henchman and club manager, Paul Baker (Barry K. Barnes). Leaving the club one night, Robinson is shot in the back but manages to crawl into the backseat of Ted’s unattended cab. Ted and Joy later find Robinson dead and Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. However, Ted sets out on his own to find out what happened to Robinson, endangering both himself and his fiancée who takes a job at the dancehall hoping to find evidence against Gregory. 

Dancing with Crime was based on a screenplay by Brock Williams, whose list of writing credits would grow to include crime thrillers The Night Won’t Talk (1952); Three Steps in the Dark (1953); Meet Mr. Callaghan (1954), featuring Slim Callaghan, a fictional PI in the American hard-boiled style, based on books by Peter Cheney; The Gilded Cage (1950); The Pleasure Lovers (1959); Strictly Confidential (1959); and Young, Willing and Eager (1961). 

Williams’ stories and efforts at character development tend towards the schematic and the familiar. In Dancing with Crime, it comes down to two life-long friends who go down different roads, one straight and one crooked; a returning soldier unable to negotiate the demands of civilian life who turns to crime; criminals who attempt to frame the protagonist for murder; a self-styled sleuth who feels he has no choice but to act in order to clear himself and bring the real criminal to justice; a female who goes undercover in order to help ferret out the criminal. 

However, even if the film makes little effort to upset some of the standard noir tropes and conventions, Dancing with Crime has no end of things to really like about it, beginning with its cast. Though the characters may be typed, the actors bring a vivid fleshiness to each, all of whom are searchingly real in their Englishness. Baby-faced Richard Attenborough with his youthful appeal and vulnerability can be swallowed 'smooth as margarine’. Bill Owen as the stylish and voluble Robinson shines every moment of the too few that he’s on screen, as do Barry Jones as the fastidious, ruthless criminal mastermind and Barry K. Barnes as the suave floor boss easily attracted to both women and violence.


Among those women is Toni (Judy Kelly), one of the club’s ‘professional partners’, who suffers at the hands of Barnes and whose despair is practically a living presence; also, the uncredited Diana Dors as Annette, another of the floor dancers at the night club. The dark-haired Dors was only 15 years old at the time but the cool self-awareness and intelligence that would win her praise for her performance in the much-nominated Yield to the Night (1956) was already apparent. Look too for Dirk Bogarde in an unbilled, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bit as an earnest young police constable.  


Dancing with Crime's director,John Paddy Carstairs, was a producer's friend who turned out well-crafted pictures, mostly thrillers and comedies, on time and on budget for over 30 years. Notable among his crime films, apart from Dancing with Crime, were The Saint in London (1939), Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948) and his final film, The Devil’s Agent (1962), a superior hard-edged Cold War thriller starring Peter van Eyck and Macdonald Carey. Carstairs also became well-known as a painter and he brought an imaginative eye to his trade. Dancing with Crime though made on a modest budget by a minor studio is far more ambitiously directed than many second-tier British noirs of the period – witness the unreserved brio of the elaborate boom shots in the dance palais. 

   
Capturing this blithe elegance as well as ominous night-time exteriors was the ardent camera of cinematographer Reg Wyer. Wyer was a contemporary of Otto Heller, the man responsible for lensing the now noir-enshrined They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Robert Siodmak’s Portrait of a Sinner (1959), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), and the groundbreaking Victim (1961). However, the cumulation of Wyer’s efforts over the same period was at least as consequential in terms of craft. Besides Dancing with Crime, his on-screen credits included the critically-awarded The Seventh Veil (1945), The Upturned Glass (1946), Daybreak (1948), So Long at the Fair (1950), Never Look Back (1952), Eye Witness (1956), The Weapon (1956), Across the Bridge (1957), Violent Playground (1958), and The Man in the Back Seat (1961).  

Dancing with Crime, which far outperformed Brighton Rock at the box office, is enlivened further by an array of ‘forties British big band classics like the hit ‘Bow Bells’ and an atmospheric score by composer/musical arranger Ben Frankel. Frankel’s music graced over a hundred films including film noirs The Seventh Veil; Dear Murderer (1947), Mine Own Executioner (1947), Night Beat, Bond Street (1948), Sleeping Car to Trieste, Night and the City (British release), Double Confession (1950), The Clouded Yellow (1950), Footsteps in the Fog (1955), Libel (1954) and a dozen others.

But by 1950 and with the weakening of austerity measures and rationing, the sympathetic relationship between the public and the small-fry spivs was coming to an end. While Richard Widmark’s finely-attired Harry Fabian is desperately trying to find a way to “live the life of ease and plenty without working for it”, British audiences, looking ahead with greater hope, were no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to such fecklessness.


Three years later and just months after the last ration book was withdrawn, The Bells of St. Trinians, an antic comedy starring Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell, was released which featured an over-the-top caricature called ‘Flash’ played by George Cole. The movie was a sensation and almost overnight the spiv and his lot had become but a joke.  




Gary Deane     

Thursday, 30 June 2016

NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO (1964)



“I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire
Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away!” (Psycho Killer,
Talking Heads, 1977)



He was a shirt maker in a town full of pants makers. For four decades maverick director Robert Altman barely tolerated the Hollywood film industry, as it barely tolerated him. That said, he could play the game as needed and was as artful in getting his individual and idiosyncratic movies produced and to market as he was conceiving and creating them.

Altman got his start after WWII working on business and industrial films in his hometown Kansas City. He soon left for Hollywood, where his production skills were underappreciated and his stories were rejected – with the exception of Body Guard, filmed and released in 1948 starring Lawrence Tierney. Discouraged, Altman went back to Kansas City but returned to California later in the ‘50’s with an independently-financed picture, The Delinquents (The Hoods of Tomorrow! The Gun-Molls of the Future!) under his arm. Starring Tom Laughlin, the movie didn’t add anything new to the youth-gone-wild cycle but had the ring of truth to it and showed clearly enough that Altman could direct. 


Though none of the major film studios were ready to hire him on, Altman managed to find steady work in television, directing on M Squad, Hawaiian Eye, Peter Gunn, Route 66, and Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama on ABC. The latter’s trenchant writing and gritty realism won it multiple Emmy nominations and a committed audience. Unfortunately, after shooting ten episodes, Altman got turfed for ‘uncooperativeness’.  However, the work he did on the series revealed some of the elements of what would become a trademark style: an appreciation of ensemble performance, a restive mise-en-scène, a film noir-like use of light and shadow, and dissonant multi-track soundscapes and scoring.

Altman then went to NBC’s Kraft Suspense Theater, directing three episodes before getting himself fired, this time for telling a TV Guide interviewer that the Kraft-sponsored series was as “bland as cheese”.  However, one of his episodes, Once Upon a Savage Night based on a novella, Killer on the Turnpike, by William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Shield for Murder, Rogue Cop, Odds Against Tomorrow) was anything but. The high-voltage black-and-white crime drama was like nothing else seen on television – shot in cinéma vérité style in and around Chicago and featuring a jagged, expressionistic score by jazzman Benny Carter and a young ‘Johnny’ Williams, who’d go on to win more than forty Academy Award nominations.



Because of the higher costs involved in location shooting, the producing studio, Universal Pictures, had Altman take enough extra footage to be able to extend the episode to feature length for syndication and theatrical distribution. The eighty minute version, titled Nightmare in Chicago, later showed as a made-for-TV movie, then screened theatrically in Europe.

A taut, modernist post-noir fugue à la Blast of Silence (1961), Nightmare in Chicago tracks a killer known as ‘George-Porgie’ (“Kissed the girls and made them die!”). Georgie’s already murdered four women in other places by the time the film picks him up in Chicago’s desolate rural outskirts. Georgie (Philip Abbott), an ordinary-looking guy in a topcoat, has just strangled his fifth victim in bed in an old farm house and is heading back to the city. It takes a while for the Chicago police to realize that the killing is troublingly similar to the other four – all the women being “tall, blonde, and a little on the cheap side” according to, Harry, the lead detective on the case played by an irritable Charles McGraw.


Though physically non-descript and having to wear dark glasses because of a congenital eye condition, Georgie is a smooth-talker and has no trouble finding willing prey. Back in the city, he chats up his next victim and before long they’re having drinks in a packed burlesque joint in the Loop. Amid all the noise and on-stage distractions, he chokes her with her own scarf while they make out in a corner. 

However, one of the strippers sees what’s just happened and Georgie has to get out fast. Some customers and beat cops give chase but lose him when he hijacks a car. Later, the police realize he’s made it all the way onto the Illinois Tollway, which complicates the pursuit due to its restricted accesses. Worse is that the Tollway is about to be cleared by state police for an Army convoy that’s thundering through with a giant nuclear missile in tow.

If this specter of mass destruction sounds like more of a load than a small and restless character-driven narrative should have to bear, keep in mind the tale began with author McGivern, master of the drum-tight storyline. The plot does not suddenly go Tom Clancy on us. Events only render Georgie’s frantic attempt to escape that much more intense.


Shot on a tight schedule just days before Christmas and mostly at night, Nightmare in Chicago was Robert Altman’s first studio feature (the science fiction drama Countdown made in 1967 counts as his first big theatrical release – even if Jack Warner took him off the shoot and banned him from the lot out of exasperation with the way “everyone in the damn movie is talking at the same time!”). Nightmare also stands as one of Altman’s most reliably straightforward narratives, something he was deemed weak at constructing by critics who were as unreceptive to his triumphs such as The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) as the missteps like Prêt-à-Porter (1994). As for his radical 1973 deconstruction of Raymond’s Chandler’s revered The Long Goodbye, it’s always going to depend on who you talk to. 



Altman’s main gift as a director was his ability to create a visceral sense of time and place and to reveal characters by immersing audiences in the often-fraught immediacy of their worlds. However, it sometimes felt as though he was content just to leave us there. Altman liked to say that he wanted his films “to seem as though they were just happening”.  In Nightmare, he makes certain that things really do. His scene-building and story-telling in the film are as deliberate as they would ever be. At the same time, Nightmare in Chicago feels loosely-scripted. Altman is patient where he feels he needs to be and allows the camera to linger. Often there’s a sense of time and space being stretched to be able to contain the actions of the characters, particularly in busy scenes shot within the moderne immensity of the Tollway’s ‘Oasis’ rest stops.

The film also is trusting of its actors. Their characters feel real, their lives small and routine, their stories largely undisclosed. Harry and his easier-going sergeant, Dan (Robert Ridgely) grind it out in hopes of capturing Georgie before he kills again, while having to deal with the self-serving interference of Police Commissioner (Ted Knight) who’s more concerned about delays to the convoy and his scheduled handball games downtown. 

Georgie and his victims are isolated and vulnerable souls, a familiar Altman type. A near-casualty is Bernie, a lonely-hearted waitress who serves Georgie in the rest stop’s massive Fred Harvey eatery. She’s endangered when she ends up being the only one who’s able to identify him. Bernie is played by Barbara Turner, married for a time to actor Vic Morrow with whom she had a child, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (Turner is now best known for her screenwriting, including the film Pollock (2000) which garnered Academy Awards nominations for Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden). 



Turner’s scenes in Nightmare are among the movie’s most openly improvised and affecting. They foreshadow some of what would become the director’s signature ‘urgency-to-no-clear-end’, an Altman-ism shaped by a conviction that straightforward resolutions or consolations should come no more easily in movies than they do in real life.

Meanwhile, Nightmare in Chicago drew critical fire with its bleak naturalism and family resemblance to the meaner exploitation films of the period, from sex-and-violence cheapies to no-grade horror movies. Georgie-Porgie is a banal but chilling noir embodiment of horror’s unpacified evil – a psychotic who’s driven to kill his mother again and again, tormented by the agony of her promiscuous childhood betrayals and the brute noises in the room next door that still throb in his brain. 



But even better-known and disruptive end-of-the line film noirs like Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) drew on some of the same dark impulses and dread sense of conviction as Nightmare in Chicago. The difference was that Nightmare in Chicago started out life as a television program with everyone in the living room watching.

However, as comfortless as the film may be, it does, like most of Robert Altman’s films, evince a moral understanding of how and why human beings behave as they do. Altman’s movies at their core always come from a place of empathy – something that all true film noirs, no matter how bleak, know something about. Count Nightmare in Chicago among them.


Note: Several sources, including IMDb, show Andrew Duggan, Carrol O’Connor, Michael Murphy and Mary Frann as starring in Nightmare in Chicago. Whether or not they were ever cast to appear, none did, in either television or film versions.


Gary Deane