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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Forgotten Noir, Vol. 1
Forgotten Noir, Vol. 1
VCI // Unrated // April 25, 2006
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Review by DVD Savant | posted May 1, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

VCI takes a leap upward with this pair of obscure crime thrillers masquerading under the "noir" moniker. One's a nifty little program picture shot on location in Oregon. The other is one of those puzzle pictures that's a partially dubbed international version of a German film. Both have interesting actors and are good fodder for film nuts. The American film has a revealing commentary from the film's assistant director, where he "names names" and talks straight about problems on location with the Teamsters ... the subject of the film's exposé!



Portland Expose
1957 / 72 min.
Starring Ed Binns, Carolyn Craig, Virginia Gregg, Russ Conway, Larry Dobkin, Frank Gorshin
Cinematography Carl Berger
Art Direction David Milton
Film Editor Maurice Wright
Original Music Paul Dunlap
Written by Jack DeWitt
Produced by Lindsley Parsons
Directed by Harold D. Schuster

This modest but not cheap Allied Artists programmer is a good example of efficient, if fairly artless, commercial filmmaking in the mid- 1950s. After the Kefauver Commission publicized the existence of organized crime rings operating across the country, a new crime subgenre emerged. Films claiming to be ripped from the headlines were titled with the name of a city followed by "Exposé" "Story" and "Confidential." This picture actually was filmed in Portland Oregon, although a couple of dozen second-unit cutaways and a few location shots with one of the main actors would have done the trick. It's a lively, formulaic one-man-against-the-mob tale.

Synopsis:

Honest tavern owner George Madison (Ed Binns of Night Moves) accepts one pinball machine into his establishment and is soon up to his neck in gangster activity. The mobsters work out of a Union Hall and are supported by a nationwide syndicate. George tries every avenue to get his business back on the level, and fails. After a degenerate thug (Frank Gorshin) tries to rape his daughter Ruth (Carolyn Craig), he sends his family away and joins forces with special investigators and honest Union men to bring the mob down. He starts taping compromising conversations, as the crooks bring in prostitutes and drugs from out of town and shutter his tavern so it can be converted into a full-on casino. All is going well until good-time girl Iris (Jeanne Carmen) feels the tape recorder under George's suit coat ...

Portland Expose is fairly realistic compared to Television crime films of the time. Many of these films are roughly patterned after early 50s noirs like Captive City and The Turning Point, where an individual risks life and limb to oppose the mob. Although victory is usually won, innocent supporting players are tortured and murdered in the process. The main message imparted by these pictures is to never, never testify against anyone. Phil Karlson's 1955 films Tight Spot and The Phenix City Story teach these lessons well. In one a "protected" witness is killed by a sniper with a high-powered rifle on the courtroom steps. In the other a dead child is thrown on the front lawn of a reform candidate, with a note reading "This will happen to your kids too."

Tough guy and upright citizen George Madison realizes he can't buck the racketeers and so decides to fight them with a tape recorder. The gambit works well until he has a little "wire" problem similar to the one suffered by Richard Lynch in Peter Yates' The Seven Ups .... the mobsters catch him in the act. It's a realistic depiction of the process, even though carrying a bulky tape recorder sounds like a really bad idea ... what if he got loud feedback at the wrong time?

We're used to pinball machines as harmless arcade games but in this picture they're a magnet for corruption. Expect audience titters when George's tavern, newly stocked with pinball games, is crowded with well-dressed couples ... playing pinball.  1 Soon thereafter, we see collections being made at various clubs. A woman hands over a bankroll in front of a large house, implying prostitution (gasp!) activity. A faceless Mr. Big type mentions "illegal surgery," which I assume means abortions, not tonsilectomies. Exposé films often try to give the impression that unseen kingpins, perhaps noted politicians, are behind the rackets.

George tries to keep his family out of the picture both before and after he starts his one-man vigilante campaign. The effects of second-hand vice are spelled out quite well. Young Ruth Madison (Carolyn Craig of House on Haunted Hill) feels left out when her dad's roadhouse tavern becomes an adults-only establishment. The family business gives her boyfriend Ben the idea that she's a loose girl. Ruth is threatened in a fairly raw rape attempt by an enjoyably rabid Frank Gorshin, who makes the most of a small but showy role. He's also by far the best stunt actor in the picture -- he really takes a punch well.

All the mob need do to make George capitulate to their demands is to mention the possibility of throwing acid in his daughter's face. In the big finale they melodramatically threaten to do it anyway. Their favorite ploy is to leave victims on railroad tracks to be run over, which must cause problems if the cops keep finding bisected people right outside Union Headquarters. Other details are more convincing; when George "joins" the mob, the script accurately portrays him living in fear of possible future threats. To gain further leverage, the mob has cops already on the mob payroll arrest George on a narcotics rap. They keep the records locked up, so as to have the charge hanging over his head indefinitely.

Comedy actor Joe Flynn is a crime investigator entrusted with several expositional speeches. Ed Binns' wife is played by the veteran character actor Virginia Gregg, who supplied the voice for old Mrs. Bates in Psycho.


VCI and Kit Parker's good thriller Portland Expose is presented in an above average enhanced B&W transfer with clear audio. It's a pleasure to watch. The music score uses sound-alike cues for hits like Night Train and others. A stentorian narrator opens and closes the picture telling us how nice Portland is and how honest 99% of Union bosses are. But the overall tone makes a strong link between Crime and Unions, a gambit still used by politicians to weaken confidence in organized labor.

This feature has a selection of "trailers" that appear to be a set of television spots of varying lengths, with an audio track missing a voiceover narration. A stills and artwork gallery shows off the very effective pulp-fictiony image of teenager Ruth holding her suitcase and looking tough, like a girl who's just learned the hard facts of life.

A great extra is the commentary by Linsdley Parsons Jr., the film's producer. It's mixed a little too quietly but is a treasure trove of inside info on Monogram and Allied Artists, Steve Broidy, filming in Portland and avoiding havoc with the teamsters, who threatened the production. Parsons even names the men and the specific bank that financed his production company, and that of his father, a tightwad who repeatedly hired him for six jobs and paid him for one ("You're getting experience"). Parsons does goof by saying the film is 1:33; both of the features in this double bill are properly formatted wide screen, as can be ascertained from the text blocks in the title sequences.



They Were So Young
1954 / 80 min. / Mannequins für Rio
Starring Johanna Matz, Scott Brady, Raymond Burr, Ingrid Stenn, Gisela Fackeldey, Gert Fröbe
Cinematography Ekkehard Kyrath
Art Direction Hans Sohnle
Film Editor Eva Kroll
Original Music Michael Jary
Written by Jacques Companéez, Felix Lützkendorf, Kurt Neumann and, uncredited, Dalton Trumbo, Michael Wilson
Produced and Directed by Kurt Neumann

In 1953 Hollywood director Kurt Neumann (Destination Moon, The Fly, Kronos) returned to Germany for two films, each made in two versions. The King Bros.' color (and perhaps 3-D) Rummelplatz der Liebe (Circus of Love) was made in a German version and also in English, with different actors, as Carnival Story. Neumann then made two versions of this story about white slavery in Brazil for Robert Lippert. Mannequins für Rio became They Were So Young in English.

The film is an escapist adventure mixed with an ugly truth revisited in John Boorman's film The Emerald Forest: On the rivers deep in the interior of Brazil are illegal brothels to service the workers cut off from the big cities, and some of the women in them aren't there by choice. Of course, this being a 1954 movie with a U.S. citizen as its hero, the subject matter is both sensationalized and sanitized.

Synopsis:

Eve Ullmann (Johanna Matz) and Connie Vorhees (Ingrid Stenn) are two European beauties scouted as models for a slick fashion operation run out of a mansion in Rio de Janeiro. When they find out their employers expect them to consort with rich gentlemen, they try to run away. Connie is beaten and Eve threatened. Eve escapes again and begs American engineer Richard Lanning (Scott Brady) for help, claiming she's in the middle of a terrible conspiracy. Richard complies, taking Eve to his employer, plantation owner Jaime Coltos (Raymond Burr). But Coltos may be more closely aligned to the fashion salon than either of them suspect.

German crime movies took off in the 1950s with sordid tales about drug operations and prostitution rings, most of which were not exported to the U.S. because of their adult content. They Were So Young is an attempt to make a more palatable product using a couple of American names as marquee bait. The movie basically works, with reservations. Like Portland Expose the script is rather good and the subject matter is interesting. Neither does it look cheap. The cast may not have traveled to Brazil but they found a few acres of tropical forest somewhere, and there is some excellent second unit work in Rio (unless a Spanish town is being cleverly substituted).

The IMDB says that both blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson worked on the script for the English language version, and its a good one. Dialogues are natural and only a few non-sequiturs stick out. When Eve goes to the Rio police she doesn't give them a coherent reason to believe her story. Much later, Richard Lanning accepts Raymond Burr's explanations but never questions Burr's phony story about broken pumps and a flooded mine.

The actual white slavery going on is initially rather fuzzy. Except for Eve, the models don't seem to mind being hired as clothes horses, and then being told they must 'be entertaining' for the rich men who come to the salon to 'buy dresses.' The girls don't even care that they can't leave the mansion or that a beautiful girl has washed up on the beach under suspicious circumstances. Even our hero assumes that Eve is a prostitute because of a misunderstanding. All of the girls are dancing with strange men the very night of the first fashion show -- did they all sleep with them? It's not made very clear.

(spoilers)

On the river we find out that the villain is one planter among many and runs a system of riverboat pleasure clubs, each stocked with prostitutes, including girls who didn't cooperate at the fashion show in Rio. It's like something out of Pandora's Box and Eve's best friend has already been victimized before a rescue mission takes place. However, all we see are a lot of guys in straw hats dancing with the girls; I guess we're supposed to assume that those sex-crazed workers need to do some steppin' before getting around to serious business.

(still spoilers)

The movie has been whitewashed to protect the good name of both the U.S. and Brazil. Only our hero is an American. Crooked boss Raymond Burr has no accent, but his first name is Jaime. So although in reality American mineral companies run many of the mining operations in South America, we never get the idea in this film that there is any U.S. collusion in vice or any other corruption  2 Also, it's shown that the Brazilian authorities have undercover agents and troops ready to pounce on the slavers as soon as they find an appropriate legal witness. So the movie posits a rural society dominated by horrible criminals (landlords and mine owners) but then turns around and says that everything's under control once the Coltos gang is in custody. Finally, the film adheres to a definite Breen office hypocrisy -- once Eve's friend has been "despoiled" as a victim of the sex racket, she has to be destroyed. Women who have illicit sex just end up that way, no matter how innocent they are. It's an MPAA housecleaning rule.

(End Spoiler)

Scott Brady and Raymond Burr are dependably efficient as the leads, with Johanna Matz utterly charming as Eve. She may have been hired for this because of a bit part she played shortly before in Otto Preminger's The Moon is Blue. The rest of the models are indeed beautiful and show the range of German taste. Ingrid Stenn is particularly good as Eve's best friend Connie. Among the efficient German actors are a young Gert Fröbe as a reluctant riverboat captain, and Gisela Fackeldey as the evil den mother. She has a prominent role in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1970 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

It looks as if this is a genuine English-language version, not simply a dubbed copy. All the dialogue is probably post-dubbed, but Brady, Burr, Matz and some others are definitely speaking English. In the same scene, other actors like Fackeldey are obviously mouthing German. So they either dubbed German over our American actors, or shot another version using a German script. The German version Mannequins für Rio is apparently several minutes longer.

Tech credits are okay except for a few washed out stock shots here and there and an indifferent mix. Some voices feel very dubbed and false, and Michael Jary's score (which sounds a lot like Henry Mancini!) is sometimes too loud, making voices hard to understand. The editor Eva Kroll cut Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and the art director has credits on top German silent classics.

The trailers and posters for this picture play up the sleaze angle, which looks forward to a brave new exploitation world of movies about women in prison, or held as sex slaves, etc. The title pleads for understanding but the graphics emphasize all the fine female flesh on display. That's show biz!


They Were So Young is also an enhanced 16:9 transfer (the original posters say widescreen!) that stays in good shape after a couple of tears in the title sequence. The sound mix is good but a little crowded as explained above.

The effective trailer is on the raw side for 1954; maybe this thing played in art-houses when Seven Samurai wasn't available. Lippert seems to have self-distributed it which perhaps accounts for its obscurity. However, the ample press kit on view shows considerable effort and expense.


VCI's presentation is several levels above previous discs sampled, with snazzy menu animation and terrific graphics. Their generic 'film noir' opening animation is a bit cheesy, but looks much better than what they used to do. The movies aren't really films noir but are certainly entertaining and interesting; I hope Kit Parker and VCI have a Forgotten Noir Vol. 2 on the way.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,

Portland Expose rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Commentary by assistant director Lindsley Parsons, Jr., Bios, trailers, Ad and Still galleries
They Were So Young rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good+
Sound: Good -
Supplements: Bios, trailers, Ad and Still galleries

Packaging: Keep Case
Reviewed: April 29, 2006


Footnotes:

1. Actually, the pinball racket was real, as it provided a steady starter income for mobsters seeking new territories. It's the featured entry medium for the bad guys in James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit, turned into the Technicolor noir Slightly Scarlet for the big screen.

2. This in contrast to the same year's The Wages of Fear. Its take on U.S. industries in South America was so critical, it had to be censored.
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