Tuesday, 5 August 2014

THE MIAMI STORY (1954)


'The Miami Story' was the last of the classic-period noirs known as ‘semi-documentaries’(the earliest being 'The House on 92nd Street' 1945). Framed by a ‘stentorian’ voice-over, we were informed as to "what we are about to see" and then guided through. The device was intended to  add gravitas to stalwart tales of the forces of authority  fearlessly struggling against enemies of society and state like mobsters and communists. And it's annoying as hell. 

Thankfully the narration on 'The Miami Story's is less intrusive than that of many better known semi-docs e.g. 'Call Northside 777' (1948), 'Walk a Crooked Mile' (1948) or 'Walk East on Beacon' (1952). This one just wants to get on with it and does it ever.

The bad guys this time are members of a Miami organization led by kingpin Tony Brill (Luther Adler) who has a lock both on criminal activity in the city and the City itself. However a Cuban gang is starting to muscle in and make things uncomfortable for 'the syndicate'. Meantime, the cops don't seem able to do much so an independent committee of the prominent and the virtuous decides it has to fight fire with fire. It enlists the help of a reformed Chicago gangster, Mick Flagg (Barry Sullivan) who knows the whole mob set-up and also has personal scores to settle with Brill.



While 'The Miami Story' has a few plot holes big enough to fall through and never be seen again, director Fred F. Sears pushes the pace hard and fast enough that we’re around them before we really take notice. Sears showed an auteurist’s touch when it came to mid-line films (somewhere between an 'A' and a 'B') like 'The Miami Story' and he turned out a bunch of them in a very short time: Target Hong Kong Kong (1953), The 49th Man (1953), Cell 2455 Death Row (1955), Chicago Syndicate (1955), Teenage Crime Wave (1955), Miami Expose (1956), Rumble on the Docks (1956), Escape from San Quentin (1957). Few directors were more adept than Sears at successfully negotiating a way around so-so scripts and modest production budgets. 

The 'Miami Story' also provided Sears with a stronger core of actors than he’d had to work with prior. Among them was Barry Sullivan, a popular supporting and character lead whose good looks and physical authority ensured him a long career in films and television. Sullivan was a born B picture actor and a good one, lifting up any film he was in both in quality and prestige. As British writer Andrew Spicer said of him, he had the range to turn in persuasive performances as a suave schemer ('Suspense' 1946, 'Framed' 1947, 'No Questions Asked' 1951); a sympathetic if weak-willed victim ('Jeopardy' 1953,'Loophole' 1954); or an insanely jealous husband ('Cause for Alarm' 1951). In A pictures Sullivan could never have been anything more than a leading man but in B's he could be a tragic hero. Sullivan featured best as a man on the edge and sometimes over it. In his signature film of the classic noir cycle 'The Gangster' (1947) he plays Shubunka, a small-time racketeer who is self-loathing, paranoid and doomed. It's an extraordinary film and performance both.



In 'The Miami Story', he mostly gets to act tough, which he does as well anyone; likewise, Luther Adler as Brill the mob boss, and bombshell Adele Jergens as Brill’s moll, Gwen Abbott. Jergens is particularly scary - partly, it can be said, due to some weirdly bad hair-styling and more heft than she'd carried to that time in other pictures. Gwen is dangerously damaged goods and a threat to everyone around her including her better younger sister Holly, played by Beverly Garland. 

But another big star of 'The Miami Story' is the Miami area itself, especially Miami Beach. Much of the movie was shot on location and shows off the city at its  swankiest Mid-Century Modern. Those were the days and 'The Miami Story's trip back in time is well worth however much it costs to get there.

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