Friday, 25 July 2008

House of Bamboo (Sam Fuller, 1955)

Sandy Dawson: Who are you working for?
Eddie Kenner: [pretending to be Eddie Spanier] Spanier.
Sandy Dawson: Who's Spanier?
Eddie Kenner: Me.
Sandy Dawson: Who else you working for?
Eddie Kenner: Eddie.

Sergeant Kenner - posing as Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) - tries to become a member of Sandy Dawson’s gang. Dawson (a role played by Robert Ryan who has a strong presence in the film) is the head of a violent gang formed by expatriate war veterans. Kenner is helped by Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi); eventually he will win Dawson’s confidence (some critics see a hint of homosexuality in their relationship) and will try to warn the police about the gang future crimes.

This is an unusual film noir (a loose remake of The Street with no Name). It was filmed in Technicolor and the setting was Japan. There are stills with Mount Fuji, the Kamakura Buddha; Tokyo is the real stage where most of the action takes place. From our perspective the Japanese background may seem a little exotic and stereotyped but there are very beautiful stills (in fact the setting is one of the strong points of the movie) and there is also some hint of American violence towards Japanese society - the ending in the amusement park reinforces this idea.

The final climax on the bizarre park tower may have some resemblance with White Heat. Some gangsters may reach to the top but they are bound to fall…

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)

Caesar Enrico Bandello: Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?

These are the famous last words spoken in this milestone of gangster movies (the seeds of film noir had been planted).

Rico or “little Caesar” (Edward G Robinson) is a small-town gangster (the opening scene with a robbery at a gas station is one of the best moments of the movie). He ambitions to become a big racketeer: I could do all the things that fella does, and more, only I never got my chance. And when I get in a tight spot, I shoot my way out of it. Why sure. Shoot first and argue afterwards. You know, this game ain't for guys that's soft!

He decides to move east with his colleague Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). However Joe doesn’t want to follow Rico’s footsteps the crime league and his ambition is to become a professional dancer together with his loved Olga (Glenda Farrell).

Rico will continue his rise to become a big racketeer - a memorable scene is the killing of gang member Tony on the church stairs (it reminded me of Eddie Bartlett’s death in The Roaring Twenties). The will to have former colleague Joe by his side – seeking true loyalty - will lead to Rico’s downfall.

The rise and fall of Rico Bandello is narrated using the technique of early cinema (for example with the use of written “tableaux”). There are clear references to the Italian American world (as in the 1Club Palermo). Little Caesar became an iconic film and E.G. Robinson would also become one of the references in gangster film and later in noir movies.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy 1932)

Helen: Jim, why haven't you come before?
: I couldn't, I was afraid to.
: But you could have written. It's been almost a year since you escaped.
: But I haven't escaped. They're still after me. They'll always be after me. I've had jobs but I can't keep them. Something happens. Someone turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends. No rest. No peace.

: How do you live?
James Allen
: I steal.

In the famous last scene of this film James Allen (excellent acting by Paul Muni) appears from the shadows of the night to bid farewell to her lover before disappearing in the dark The prison system hasn’t given him any chances and has broken his life and respectability.

Allen, a war veteran had refused to work in a routine factory job because he wanted something else in life: “I don't want to be spending the rest of my life answering a factory whistle instead of a bugle call… I want to do something worthwhilelife is more important than a medal on my chest or a stupid, insignificant job

His ambition was to build bridges as an engineer, however he had a difficult start and in the south he was involved in a crime. In spite of being innocent he was sentenced to ten years of hard labour.

After some months of harsh conditions he manages to escape with the help of some inmates and later moves to Chicago where he finds a good job and respectability.

But Marie (Glenda Farrell) - a primitive femme fatale – blackmails him and he returns to the south to serve for some weeks to get his pardon.

However the southern justice doesn’t keep its promise and he is confined for years in a tougher camp. Eventually he manages to escape together with inmate Bomber (Edward Ellis) but he will be a chased character, forced to live in the shadows…

The film (based on an autobiographic novel by Robert Elliot Burns was controversial at the time of its release – especially in the Southern States - and it contributed to the abolition of forced labour in the US. As one of the tagline of the film reads: "Six sticks of dynamite that blasted his way to freedom...and awoke America's conscience!"

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

Laura McNeal: What's the matter, won't the pieces fit together?
P.J. McNeal: Some of them, but they make the wrong picture.
Laura McNeal: Pieces never make the wrong picture. Maybe you're looking at them from the wrong angle.

Reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) tries to match the pieces of a crime that was committed in Chicago in 1932. An advertisement - call Northside 777 - on the newspaper offering a reward for information on a murder had put him in contact with convicted Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and his mother who is working hard to get her son out of prison.

Stewart (who never looks too comfortable in his role) is impressed by the woman determination and decides to write about Wiecek case.

As the story progresses McNeal – who was sceptical about the case - gathers evidence that Wiecek is innocent and will fight to prove his innocence. We are told at the beginning of the movie that it is based on a true story. In fact the documentary style is present all along the film – it was popular at that time. Besides, Call Northside 777 was also filmed on location (Chicago) giving an air of realism to this interesting – though in some aspects dated – movie.