Archive for Dick Powell

Lockdown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2022 by dcairns

I forget who it was who suggested that STRONGROOM would make a good double bill with CASH ON DEMAND. Duly noted, and though we didn’t pair them up (this time), we did finally get around to Vernon Sewell’s claustrophobic thriller.

Sewell, a former associate of Michael Powell, seems to have had a natural inclination towards restrictive environments. True, it’s a natural way of controlling costs, but there are other ways to do that — filming on location to avoid the need to hire studios and build sets, for instance. Sewell made several films on his boat, and a decent haunted house film, but STRONGROOM may well be his best.

The concept is simple: three bank robbers are compelled to lock two staff members in the vault where their plan goes awry. Realising that the prisoners will suffocate over the long weekend, they resolve to alert the authorities, but circumstances conspire against them. Weirdly, the tension relating to whether the poor bank employees will asphyxiate is less than that concerning whether the bastards who caused it will face a murder rap.

The double-bill we went for was this and SPLIT SECOND, the Dick Powell-directed nuclear thriller, which has an interesting cast and a high concept — criminals take a bunch of hostages at a nuclear test site — but weirdly is far less tense, until the very impressive final blast. Nobody in SS seems to be taking the nuke seriously enough. Every single moment in S is about the threat of death, of finding yourself a murderer.

Sewell’s direction isn’t so much — logic says the shots ought to build in intensity, but they barely do — but the script knows what to concentrate on. It’s shameless but effective in its constant amping up of anxiety. Writer Max Marquis wrote mainly TV drivel (Crossroads!) but Richard Harris (not that one) concentrated on thrillers, including great stuff like I START COUNTING, THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (English dialogue), and a bunch of obscurities like THE MAIN CHANCE which I now feel eager to try. It’s a perfect low-budget movie, exploiting not only small, cheap sets, but slow pace. Watching oblivious minor characters padding about while death is on the line is extremely suspenseful.

While the imprisoned (Colin Gordon & Ann Lynn) are rather drab characterisations which the actors can only do so much with, the thieves include the great Derren Nesbitt, who has a strange plastic Auton quality that always makes him uncanny and watchable (he’s magnificent as the oily blackmailer in VICTIM). Sewell would cast him again in BURKE AND HARE (NOT a distinguished film — but one I kind of want to watch properly).

Nesbitt, tragicomically, blew his savings on his dream project, sex comedy THE AMOROUS MILKMAN, a contender for worst British film ever, and also appears in two more of the worst British sex farces you could ever hope to unsee, NOT NOW DARLING and OOH, YOU ARE AWFUL. He even cameos in RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, for old times’ sake. But he should never have been put in a comedy. His thick-lipped wax mask of a face stifles the laugh response. (Producer Art Linson, mulling over a casting idea with his wife: “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” Mrs. L: “I don’t know, but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”)

When Nesbitt puts a stocking over his head for the robbery, it’s too much — he already looks like he has a stocking over his head, somehow.

The ending is a magnificently timed kick in the teeth for both characters and audience.

So, yes: a double bill of STRONGROOM and CASH ON DEMAND would be an excellent idea. Run them near Christmas, ideally, and have this one first: it isn’t remotely Christmassy.

Dick’s a Square

Posted in FILM with tags , , on September 29, 2021 by dcairns

Been a while since we had one of these.

Dick O’Clock

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2021 by dcairns

“Terrible news,” said Billy Wilder. “Bob Rossen made a good picture.”

Frustratingly the anecdote doesn’t tell us which picture Wilder thought was good, but the line is funny enough that it could stand recycling, so maybe Wilder applied it whenever Rossen made something decent — ALL THE KING’S MEN, THE HUSTLER…

“This film has no story,” said Fiona, but in fact Rossen’s debut, JOHNNY O’CLOCK has a lot of plot, it’s just that it all plays out in dialogue, characters talking about people and events that are offscreen. Two murders take place before the climax, but we don’t see either happen.

But it’s entertaining. The talk is good. The people, Dick Powell and Thomas Gomez and Evelyn Keyes and Lee J. Cobb and Ellen Drew (unusually but effectively cast as a sexy bad girl) and Nina Foch, are all very flavourful. The bits players are colourful — people like Shimen Ruskin and a girl called Robin Raymond, who has an interesting scene. She plays a hatcheck girl. The previous hatcheck girl, who was touchingly sweet, is dead. RR plays her replacement, who is crass, vulgar and stupid. She plays it enthusiastically for laughs, and gets them, but the dramatic point of the scene is Johnny’s melancholy — he misses the previous girl. So it’s a scene that manages to head in two directions at once, and miraculously reaches both destinations.

Mostly it’s a kind of mash-up of elements that worked in other movies just beforehand, or else slightly later movies reworked the same stuff and made this one seem familiar, prewatched. If Dick Powell went through the wrong door he’d find himself in THE GLASS KEY or I WAKE UP SCREAMING.

I feel like the movie would work really well for the drunk or high viewer — the story often seems a tad cloudy and you could get into that. William Hurt watches a movie stoned in THE BIG CHILL and he says “I think the guy in that hat did something terrible,” and “Sometimes you just have to let art… flow over you.” I had a couple gin and tonics but I started too late to really disassociate from the wispy narrative.

I did get into a strange routine about Momo’s expensive cat treats, which are supposedly duck and raspberry flavour. “They have to catch a duck while it’s eating a raspberry. Then they get it in the duck press and compress it down until it’s just one tiny treat. When Momo eats them they expand to almost full size. He’s sturdily built, luckily. A flimsier cat would burst, and you’d just have a bunch of ducks and raspberries.”

Fiona here –

I was also involved in these musings, which were centered around Momo’s almost constant shouting.

The expensive treats are to placate him and shut him up. We’re terrible parents. I started with “I’d eat those cat treats.” The duck and raspberry combo sounded tempting. Then Mr Crayons launched into his baroque monologue about the creation of the treats.

We then strayed into another area of interest regarding the Shutting Upness. David suggested a special electronic chip like Snake Plissken wears in Escape From New York. Every time Momo attempted to enthusiastically vocalise through his big, fat mouth, the collar would shock him into quietude. Or blow his head off. It has to be said, sometimes the thought of Momo’s head exploding is a rather attractive one. We’re terrible parents.

To round things off, it’s my belief that the fact we have these strange conversations is the secret of why we’re still together after twenty seven years. That and being married by Norman Lloyd. When you’re married by Norman Lloyd, you STAY married.

JOHNNY O’CLOCK is one of the best films in the Columbia Noir 3 box set. I contributed an essay on THE DARK PAST.