We open on a filthy bathroom sink. A pair of blood stained hands enter the frame and begin to wash off the blood. Whose blood? As the blood washes off, the camera pans up and shows a broken, slightly askew mirror reflecting a man's face. The man stares into his reflection with haunted eyes, what combat veterans call "the thousand yard stare". The shattered mirror surface is a direct reflection of the man's psychological state. Although he's washed the blood off of his hands, he can never wash the blood off of his soul.
The man staggers out of the dingy bathroom. We see now that the washroom is in a roadside garage. The man walks like a zombie to the side of the road where he mechanically thumbs a ride to the city. He says nothing to the driver that eventually picks him up, just stares ahead with a blank gaze. The driver lets him off at an apartment building in the city. The man goes to an apartment and when the door is opened, draws a gun and shoots a woman. Right behind him, and too late to save either man or woman, is a police detective. He picks up the wounded woman, places her on a sofa and she begins to tell the story of how all of this horror came about.
That's the beginning of DECOY (1946), a low-budget, "poverty row" film noir made at Monogram Pictures by director Jack Bernhard from a screenplay by Nedrick Young. The budget was microscopic and the shooting schedule maybe a week, ten days at best. A bigger studio could have given the material a glossier treatment. Bigger name actors could have been cast and the script could have been expanded, the plot holes patched up and smoothed over.
But then, it wouldn't be the same film and given what the cast and crew had to work with, they turned out a minor masterpiece, a tight (76 minutes running time), taut, effective little thriller that is drenched in doom. There's even a horror/science fiction element thrown in for good measure but you buy it because the film is such a feverish nightmare of horror and evil.
The lovely Jean Gillie stars as Margot Shelby, a black widow who embodies the femme fatale concept. She's consumed with greed and nothing will stop her from getting her hands on $400,000 worth of buried, stolen money. Her lover, Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong, looking so dissipated that I didn't recognize him until half way through the film), robbed a bank and hid the money. He's about to go to the gas chamber and his corrupt lawyer, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris), can't get him an appeal. Margot hits on a scheme to inject Frankie with a drug that will counteract the effects of cyanide after he's killed. But she needs a doctor to provide and administer the drug.
She sets her sights on Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley), a decent man with a small practice in a rundown part of the city. She seduces him quite easily and ensnares him in the wild resurrection gambit. It works and the gassed Frankie is revived in a scene that echoes any number of 1940s mad doctor thrillers. Frankie draws a map to the buried loot and then he's killed again, this time for good. Margot, Vincent and Craig head out to recover the money. Along the way, they have a flat tire. After Vincent replaces the tire, Margot runs him over. That's one less person to share the money with. Margot and Craig find the money box and Margot shoots Craig, leaving him for dead. She takes the chest back to her apartment and this is where we came in because it's Craig (who has somehow survived multiple gunshot wounds), that we saw at the beginning of the film.
The detective, Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard, playing a good guy rather than the hoods he specialized in), hears Margot's confession. She laughs in his face and dies, thinking she at least got the money, no matter how many men she had to kill to get it. But when Portugal opens the box, there's one final surprise.
DECOY is one helluva film noir. The plot doesn't always make sense but it's so damn compelling you don't care. The score, by Edward J. Kay, is a bit overbearing at times but it provides a relentless drive to the narrative. The leads are all solid, with the lovely Gillie a stand out as Margot. This is one hard boiled film, full of violence, cruelty, sadism and a wicked femme fatale.
"I'm easier to frame than Whistler's Mother."
Here's a sure sign I'm either getting old or have way too many DVDs in my collection. Back in August, TCM ran THE DARK CORNER, a 1946 film noir directed by Henry Hathaway. It sounded like a good one from the listing description and I hadn't seen it so I recorded it and finally got around to watching it the other day After watching it, I went to the film noir section of my DVD collection (yes, I have a film noir section) and found a brand new, never opened copy of the film sitting on my shelf. I guess that should teach me to double check my collection before hitting that record button on the remote.
THE DARK CORNER is a good film noir, drenched in atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Joseph MacDonald with a pretzel plot by screenwriters Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Jay Dratler (from a story by Leo Rosten). Mark Stevens stars as private detective Bradford Galt. He's aided by plucky secretary Kathleen (Lucille Ball, who gets top billing). A mysterious man named Foss (William Bendix) is following the pair around New York City. When Galt confronts Foss, he reveals that he's working for Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger). Jardine, a blackmailing attorney, is Galt's former partner. Thinking Jardine is out to kill him, Galt goes after Jardine.
SPOILER WARNING: It turns out that Foss is really working for art dealer Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb). Jardine is sleeping with Cathcart's wife, Mari (the lovely Cathy Downs). Cathcart hopes to goad Galt into murdering Jardine. If that doesn't work, there's always Plan B, which is have Foss kill Jardine and frame Galt. Got all that?
The plot has plenty of twists and turns, the dialogue is both hard-boiled and witty, and the leads are all solid. While watching the film, I kept thinking that if someone had made a Doc Savage film in 1946, the cast could have included Bendix as Monk and Webb as Ham. Kathleen's devotion, concern and love for Galt ultimately saves him from his inner darkness and the film ends on a happy note despite the fact that three people are brutally murdered in the course of events. Not a great film noir but a solid effort that is well worth seeing. Recommended.
|Ever wonder what legendary private detective Sam Spade was up to in San Francisco before he got involved in the Maltese Falcon caper? Well, veteran mystery/crime writer Joe Gores brings us up to date quite nicely in SPADE & ARCHER (2009), the prequel to Dashiell Hammett's famous novel THE MALTESE FALCON (1929), which, of course, was later filmed in 1941 by John Huston (his feature film directorial debut) with a cast featuring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. |
SPADE & ARCHER begins in 1921 with Spade working as an operator (or "op") for the Continental Detective Agency in Seattle. He leaves the agency and heads for San Francisco where he opens an office as a private detective. He hires a secretary, Effie Perine and starts solving mysteries. The book is divided into three parts, spread over a period of seven years (1921-1928). Each part deals with a separate case but all three crimes are linked by a mysterious master criminal that Spade doesn't bring to justice until the end of the book.
Gores does a good job of capturing Hammett's terse, stripped-to-the-bone prose style. There's not an ounce of fat on this narrative. Gores brings 1920s San Francisco to life with a colorful cast of characters that includes sympathetic cop Tom Polhaus and ball-buster supreme, Dundy. Miles Archer doesn't join the firm until the third act. He helps Spade on a case but also demonstrates that he's a crooked, lazy detective. But Spade's no saint. He's screwing Ava, Archer's wife, every chance he gets.
History doesn't record how Sam Spade met his death but I'm willing to bet it wasn't from old age. If a crook didn't get him with a bullet or a knife, Spade must have surely died from either the copious amounts of bootleg booze he imbibes or the countless filterless hand-rolled cigarettes he relentlessly makes and smokes throughout the book.
SPADE & ARCHER is a good, fast paced detective novel that does what it's supposed to do, which is fill us on Spade's back story while setting the stage for THE MALTESE FALCON. In fact, the last paragraph of the book, is a paraphrase of the first paragraph of Hammett's novel.
Over the last few years I've read twenty-five SHADOW pulp novels. I've not only read them, I've read them aloud to my beautiful wife, Judy. CHARG, MONSTER (the Jove/HBJ reprint from December 1977 is pictured above), is the twenty-sixth Shadow I've read and it's the first one that has a comic book super-hero feel to it (although originally published in July, 1934, several years before the comic book debuts of Superman and Batman).
Before I started reading The Shadow books, I assumed that he went up against a super-villain of some sort on a regular basis. While The Shadow has certainly clashed with "super crooks" in some of the stories I've read, most of them have him tangling with gangsters and assorted underworld figures. Also, in many of these stories, there's little or no elements of the fantastic despite the colorful covers and evocative titles. The Shadow adventures that I've read are basically mystery novels with liberal does of gun play and violence (and the occasional death trap) thrown in for good measure. In the universe that The Shadow and his agents operate in, the mere presence of a mysterious, cloaked avenger of the night is fantastic enough.
In CHARG, MONSTER, The Shadow goes up against a super-villain who uses robots to commit murder. For once, the cover art by Jim Steranko is a fair representation of what's actually inside (albeit the absence of a shapely, blonde damsel in distress). The technology used by the villain and his metallic murderers is quite sophisticated for the mid-1930s. Also, this adventure is more tightly written than other Shadow thrillers. The plot is more streamlined and the pace is quicker than usual. There's little or no padding and The Shadow (and Lamont Cranston), appear on almost every page. With a murderous mastermind like Charg and his killer robots, The Shadow is up against a genuinely fantastic, super foe. The result is a superlative pulp thriller.
Zombies weren't as well represented in the classic horror cinema of the twentieth-century as their higher profile monster kin such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera and The Creature From The Black Lagoon, among others. Prior to 1968, there were only a handful of zombie oriented horror films produced including the Bela Lugosi film, WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), Val Lewton's moody and poetic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), the low-budget comedy programmer ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945), exploitation quickie ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957) and Hammer films' PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966). Three of those films, WHITE, WALKED and PLAGUE, are actually quite good and well worth seeing. But still, zombies just never had the street cred that other movie monsters did. Zombies were just re-animated corpses who moved kinda slow and obeyed their masters commands. They couldn't run very fast and hey, it's not like they were going to eat you or anything.
All of that changed with George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), the first modern horror film to explicitly posit the newly resurrected dead as ghouls and cannibals. These lumbering, shambling, mindless monstrosities did indeed want to eat you. This new iteration of zombie monsters was a game changer for the sub-genre. Almost every zombie oriented horror film or television series in the last forty years has featured fast moving, strong and hungry-for-human flesh hordes of the living dead.
Cast in point, Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and it's 2007 sequel, 28 WEEKS LATER. I recently had the opportunity to watch both of these films, albeit in reverse order, but they are both interesting, well made films that are worth seeing if you're a horror film fan in general and a zombie junkie in particular.
That said, I would make the case that the flesh-eating human monsters depicted in both of these films are not, in the technical, strictest sense of the word, actually zombies per se. They're not dead people brought back to life. They're merely infected with a not-quite-specified but extremely fast acting virus which turns them into rage filled, gut-munchers in less than a minute. They're still a threat but they're zombies for the 21st century in which fears of a terror attack using weaponized biological agents is a very real possibility to say nothing of worldwide epidemics of contagious, infectious diseases.
28 DAYS opens with some scientists experimenting on apes with the virus. Animal rights activists invade the laboratory to free the animals and unknowingly unleash the "Rage" virus into the world at large. Specifically, the United Kingdom, where the action resumes 28 days later with a young man, Jim (Cilian Murphy), awakening in a London hospital to find he's the only person left alive in the city. He wanders about London in scenes that recall John Wyndham's science fiction novel, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1951), and two of the three film adaptations of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I AM LEGEND: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) and OMEGA MAN (1971). and pre-figure Will Smith's I AM LEGEND (2007).
Of course, he's not entirely alone. Jim is saved by a couple of survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). But Mark is soon killed by the zombies and Jim and Selena eventually take refuge with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The four of them pick up a radio signal from a military base outside of the city and decide to make the journey in the hopes of finding safety and sanctuary. The military outpost, commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), is welcoming at first but the real agenda of the soldiers is soon revealed.
28 DAYS LATER ends on a note of hope but not before putting the characters and the audience through the wringer. This is a grim, grisly horror film, an almost unrelentingly downbeat and depressing story of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The effects and make-up are first rate and totally convincing, the action scenes taut and suspenseful and the performances are solid across the board.
The film did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, 28 WEEKS LATER, in 2007. Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the film takes place after the infection has been largely contained within the United Kingdom, thanks to the efforts of a NATO peacekeeping force. A small area of London has been opened for re-population by returning refugees. The zone is heavily militarized and is supposed to be air-tight and totally secure.
Of course, something goes wrong. There's another outbreak of the virus which leads to a complete disaster as both infected and non-infected citizens are gunned down by the military. Two kids, brother and sister Tammy and Andy, are naturally immune to the virus and it's up to U.S. Army Sgt. Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army medical officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne), to get the kids out of the city safely and escort them to France where an antidote can possibly be concocted from their blood.
WEEKS is more of an action horror film than DAYS. There's plenty of automatic weapons' fire and if you've ever wanted to see a military helicopter use its' rotor blades to mow down a horde of advancing zombies, this is the movie for you. Well made, exciting and suspenseful, 28 WEEKS LATER is a fine continuation of the story that began in 28 DAYS LATER. If you're a horror film fan, check 'em out. They're definitely worth seeing.