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Noir Archive Volume 2: 1954-1956 (9-Film Collection)
The films in this set are: Bait (1954), The Crooked Web, Cell 2455 Death Row, 5 Against the House, The Night Holds Terror, New Orleans Uncensored, Footsteps in the Fog (all 1955), Spin a Dark Web, and Rumble on the Docks (both 1956).
An oddball little movie directed by and starring Hugo Haas, a bush-league Orson Welles who nonetheless helmed 20 features between 1933-62, Bait (1954) reflects most of Haas's directorial quirks and, though not without interest and entertainment value for seekers of the outré like this reviewer, is justifiably minor and forgotten. Blonde bombshell Cleo Moore and John Agar, the latter in an amusingly awful performance, co-star in this cut-rate reworking of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
The movie opens with a strange prologue. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, lit by a single spotlight, ascends a long flight of stairs that resemble what it probably actually was, a stairway hugging a barren soundstage wall leading up to where the studio lights are worked. At the top of the stairs, however, the actor signs a bunch of autographs for admirers and introduces himself to the movie audience as the Devil, here taking the form of a famous actor. "A rather good one," he adds, which no doubt amused Hardwicke's family. He then leads the movie audience into a rather run-down screening room where he introduces the story.
Unemployed farmhand Ray Brighton (John Agar) throws in with middle-aged Serbian Marko (Hugo Haas), who claims to have discovered and misplaced a rich gold mine deep in the mountains. For a 50% stake, Ray, accompanied by his dog, Mike, agrees to help Marko look for the mine.
After several fruitless weeks Ray is exhausted, loses his temper and is ready to pack it in when abruptly he finds the lost mine near the simple cabin they inhabit. (The location scenes were filmed in overworked Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park. It's a bit odd to see a cabin, outhouse, and water pump in the thick of it.) Marko immediately blurts out that the gold is his and his alone, and tries to renege on the deal, but changes his tune when he realizes that he's going to need Ray's help to get it all out.
Instead, Marko plots an elaborate scheme, though it's not clear if Haas intended for the audience to understand Marko's plotting all along or rather have his actions remain mysterious until the climax. In any case Marko, noting Ray's attraction to waitress Peggy (Cleo Moore), regarded as a slut around town because of a seemingly illegitimate son (she claims, and the film clearly expects the audience to believe her, that she was married but the paperwork was lost and her husband died in the Korean War soon thereafter), sets the plot into motion. Marko, feigning kindness toward Peggy, surprises her with a marriage proposal and she, with no place else to go after being harassed by her boss (Emmett Lynn), reluctantly agrees.
From there Marko begins playing mind games with Ray and Peggy, all but pushing the mutually attracted pair into each other's arms while expressing jealous outrage at their actions the next. As winter sets in the three find themselves virtually cut off from the rest of the world until the spring thaw.
Bait is an eccentric movie. The prologue with Hardwicke (also heard later in the film as the little voice putting thoughts into Marko's head) adds nothing though it's a visually interesting little vignette, possibly included because Hardwicke had provided the prologue and other narration to George Pal's popular The War of the Worlds the year before.
Hugo Haas had been a star of Prague's National Theater and a rising film comedian-director there in films of the middle-1930s until the rise of Nazism forced the Jewish jack-of-all-trades to flee to America. He found success in character parts, usually playing villains, and with that income began financing modest little B's like Bait, which he also co-wrote. Most of these films, though moderately successful, were not well regarded then as now, to the point where Haas is sometimes likened to a foreign Ed Wood. That's not entirely fair, as Haas was a generally good actor, and his directorial style is at least competent if full of pointless little flourishes that are more distracting than effective.
One supposedly alluring scene has her sprawled across a bed while cutting her toenails (sex-y!) while a later seduction with Agar occurs while he's teaching her how to roll cigarettes. Other strange choices: To set up the story, Ray explains his decision to help Marko to a bartender named Webb (Bruno VeSota), in which Marko is described as heavy-set. VeSota at the time probably weighed 400 pounds while Haas was probably less than half that weight, which is a little like Oliver Hardy describing pal Stan Laurel as chubby.
As for the acting, Haas isn't bad and neither is Cleo Moore, who as the saying goes is easy on the eyes. But John Agar is hilariously awful. In the introductory scenes, Agar falls back on that toothy, dimple-faced grin he often used when trying to appear genial, but which instead actually made him appear rather demented. Then he's alternately despondent and short-tempered, later consumed with gold fever, and his grotesque overacting only makes one long for Tim Holt. He's a bit better later in the film, confused and impatient by Marko's pussyfooting and contradictory behavior regarding Peggy, but for the most part Agar's acting in Bait is among his very worst.
A crackling little B-movie, The Crooked Web (1955) is indicative of the modest but lively movies Columbia Picture's second features unit, Clover Productions, was capable of during the 1950s. Despite the occasional turkey, these unpretentious, efficient pictures frequently offer a lot of bang for their buck.
The Crooked Web began shooting under the title "The Big Shock," an apt moniker. A noir-crime thriller, it has two impressive plot twists within the first twenty minutes. Formula B-movies rarely catch this reviewer off-guard but thanks to the performances, direction, and even the casting, both caught me completely by surprise and their impact is felt for the remainder of the picture.
The movie opens in Los Angeles, where ex-G.I. Stan Fabian (Frank Lovejoy) operates a drive-in restaurant and is dating one of his waitresses, Joanie Daniel (Mari Blanchard). Joanie's moody brother, Frank (Richard Denning) drives up, hoping to borrow $3,000 for a mysterious deal he's made in Chicago. Joanie, however, wants nothing to do with her deadbeat sibling, and cautions Stan against helping him.
Stan, however, is intrigued, learning that Frank is raising money with partner Ray Torres (Steven Ritch) to return to Germany where during the war they discovered and secretly buried a fortune in gold, a fortune just waiting to be dug back up again. Stan, anxious to get in on the deal so that he can marry Joanie and provide her with financial security, pressures Frank to cut him in.
It's here that The Crooked Web delivers an impressive one-two punch, all before the twenty-minute mark. (MAJOR SPOILERS:) Frank sneaks into Joanie's room and the two embrace. They're not brother and sister after all but lovers secretly plotting against poor, gullible Stan. A few scenes later, it's revealed Frank and Joanie are not con artists after Stan's nest egg but rather partnered detectives on a year-long sting operation against Stan. While in the army himself, Stan ran a black-market racket in postwar Berlin and gunned down several MPs while protecting his inventory. The story then follows the threesome as they make their way first to Chicago, then Berlin supposedly to uncover the loot but with Frank and Joanie actually trying to get Stan confess to his crimes.
The Crooked Web generates a surprising amount of suspense, first suggesting one kind of story then changing gears twice before finally getting underway. Frank and Joanie have to do a lot of fancy footwork to avoid blowing their cover. Several times Stan almost catches them in an embrace, and in one good scene Stan discovers a special police badge given Frank for use in Germany. Frank does a good job covering his tracks but does Stan believe him?
The casting helps. Around this time Denning played both heroes and heels, with the actor fairly fresh from his role as the despicable financier in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Frank Lovejoy usually played by-the-book good guys, often detectives, in movies like House of Wax and The Hitch-Hiker (both 1953), while Mari Blanchard excelled in femme fatale roles, she having recently appeared as the voluptuous but temperamental Queen of Venus in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953). In The Crooked Web, the film opens with the three actors all playing to type, to audience expectations, only to have the script pull a bait-and-switch, much as Frank and Joanie pull on Stan.
They must have been fun roles for its three leads to play, with Denning a louse-turned-hero, Blanchard an ingénue-turned-tramp-turned-heroine, and Lovejoy the square-jawed hero-turned-cautious-murderer-on-the-lam. Usually a bit bland, Lovejoy is unexpectedly good here, subtly generating suspense and even a bit of sympathy as he slowly becomes suspicious of his girlfriend and her "brother." Good editing seems deliberately ambiguous: it's not clear whether Stan catches sight of Frank and Joanie when they kiss, for instance.
Nathan Juran, who sometimes directed movies under the name Nathan Hertz, and here is billed as "Nathan Hertz Juran," was an art director at Universal-International before he changed careers and became a full-time regular director. Along with actor-turned-director Fred F. Sears, Juran was among Clover's busiest traffic cop directors.
The picture intrigues for other reasons. Lovejoy's character seems to have been named Stan so that the opening scenes could be shot at Stan's Drive-In, a real restaurant located in East Hollywood, where Hillhurst Avenue, Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevards all converge. The restaurant is gone, but in some shots across the street one can see the Vista Theater, a historic landmark since restored and still showing movies. (For years I lived close by, up Hillhurst near Los Feliz Boulevard.)
It was a clever way to add a lot of production value at no extra cost. The picture opens with an establishing shot of the "Stan's" sign, a towering neon affair, and all over the place are menus, soda machines, and other drive-in paraphernalia with "Stan's" written all over them (probably worth a fortune to collectors today).
The rest of the film is moderately less successful. On the road, the trio dumps a body in "Lake Michigan" and drives around Ohio, terrain that resembles the High Desert above L.A. a lot more than the Midwest.
An action-packed crime noir, Cell 2455 Death Row (1955) exemplifies the unacknowledged considerable skills of its director, Fred F. Sears. A prolific if minor former actor from the mid-1940s through the early ‘50s, Sears turned to directing at Columbia, working at a furious pace, helming nine - count ‘em, nine - feature films in 1956 alone. Indeed, he seems to have literally worked himself to death, dying on November 30, 1957 at the very young age of just 44. His last five movies were released after he died.
Sears wasn't just fast - he was good. Though today most film fans know only his sci-fi work, from the popular Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) to the terrible The Giant Claw (1957), Sears's work in other myriad genres, all potboilers, was considerably better and much underrated.
Cell 2455 Death Row is one such example. Though basically a throwback to ‘30s Warner Bros. gangster films - one can easily imagine James Cagney in the main role - it incorporates modern concerns about juvenile delinquency and packs enough exploitative, non-stop action for three movies. It probably had a shooting schedule of no more than 20 days, yet has probably three times as many cuts as the average mid-‘50s feature.
Based on condemned death row inmate Caryl Chessman's same-named autobiography, William Campbell stars as Chessman, renamed (presumably for legal reasons) Whit Whittier. From his death row cell in San Quentin, Whittier recalls his long life of crime following a car accident that crippled his mother, whose medical bills send the family spiraling into poverty and petty crimes for young Whit to keep the family fed. As a teenager Whittier is portrayed by William Campbell's younger brother, R. Wright Campbell, primarily a screenwriter.
Recruited by bad girl Jo-Ann (Kathryn Grant in an unconventional role, to say the least), Whit joins a gang impressed by his driving skills. He soon takes over but the gang lands in reform school. Unrepentant, Whit moves up the crime ladder as soon as he's released on parole, and spends the rest of his life ping-ponging between prison sentences and escalating crime sprees, climaxing with a string of "Lover's Lane" robberies and rapes.
A brisk 77 minutes, Cell 2455 Death Row is almost breathlessly paced, with something like three major car chases, the most spectacular one a nighttime chase with Whit behind the wheel of a car whose entire backend in on fire, its fuel tank ready to explode at any minute. With a death wish, Whit continues to race through Hollywood alleyways with the car lighting up the neighborhood like a rocket. The film pushes the limits of the Production Code; though the word "rape" is never uttered, Sears's discreet-exploitive direction imply the most violent and ugly of Whit's dirty deeds, which unnerve even "Doll" (Marian Carr), his longtime girlfriend.
William Campbell is star-makingly good. He'd already played the co-pilot in The High and the Mighty (1955), a huge hit, but never quite made it into the upper-tier of leading players. Best remembered for his long association with Star Trek - he memorably played the title character in the first season classic "The Squire of Gothos" - Campbell in Cell 2455 Death Row is excellent, especially narrating his character's story. At this point in his character Campbell's facial expressions and voice mannerisms suggest a young Jack Nicholson. His younger brother is also fine in the film's early scenes, their sibling resemblance an effective touch.
The cast includes lots of familiar faces, most as members of Whit's ever-changing lineup of fellow hoods: Vince Edwards, Buck Kartalian, Jonathan Haze, and Joe Turkel among them. Kerwin Mathews turns up briefly as a Southern-accented reporter.
(Spoiler) The real Caryl Chessman was finally executed in May 1960, after nearly 12 years on Death Row.
It's a stretch to call 5 Against the House (1955) noir; rather it's more like a warmed-over Rififi as enacted by the cast of Archie comics. Climaxing with the heist of a Reno casino, it's a clumsy precursor to innumerable later Hollywood movies like Oceans Eleven (1960) but hasn't dated well. Certain aspects of the production are interesting, however and some hold the picture in high regard.
Four college "kids" from Midwestern U in Arizona on summer vacation - de facto leader Al (Guy Madison), wealthy Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), wiseacre Roy (Alvy Moore), and Al's Korean War buddy Brick (Brian Keith) - make a brief stop in Reno, "the biggest little city in the world," the night before the start of the new semester. They only have an hour to gamble or, in Brick's case, flirt with a hot, older woman gambler (Jean Willes), but before the hour's up Roy and Ronnie are briefly detained by police when a man in front of them in line at a cashier's window crudely attempts to rob the joint.
Even-keeled Al convinces the cops that the two young men had nothing to do with the attempted robbery, but the cop's remark that "There's no way [a successful robbery] can be done," plants the seed in Ronnie's mind, to plan and execute the "foolproof" crime. He doesn't need the money; he's just in it for Leopold and Loeb-esque kicks.
Back in Arizona, Al woos nightclub singer Kaye (Kim Novak) while the audience - but not, significantly, Ronnie or Roy - learn that Brick is a loose cannon: suffering from PTSD, Brick nearly beats to death the new boyfriend of his former girlfriend (Kathryn Grant). Brick, Ronnie, and Roy also decide not to let Al or Kaye in on their plans as all five head back to Reno.
Produced and written by Stirling Silliphant (from Jack Finney's novel), 5 Against the House has more plot holes than casino chips. First, it's hard to get past the fact that the four young lads are played by middle-aged actors, with Keith and Moore in their mid-30s and Madison and Mathews not far behind. The audience is also asked to swallow that Ronnie's "perfect crime" could be hatched with but a cursory study of Harolds Club (not Harold's Club), the Reno casino. Ronnie gambles and loses his money during their hour visit, and he and Roy are arrested - hardly time to case the joint.
The crux of Ronnie's plan involves a duplicate stainless-steel cash cart, identical to one pushed around by casino employee Eric Berg (William Conrad), with a hidden reel-to-reel tape recording inside it. What happens strains credibility to the breaking point, with so many variables and potential disasters that it's clear to the audience a whole lotta things could go wrong. It's anything but foolproof.
Without revealing anything, the end of the film is another big letdown, with everything pointing in one direction, but actually delivering another, a tepid anticlimax and an absurdly unbelievable ending suggesting that everything'll turn out just fine for this quartet of misguided college students.
That said, Brian Keith's performance alone nearly justifies the picture, his tortured (and aptly-named) Brick, scarred by his wartime experiences and equally terrified about an uncertain future, knows only that he ain't going back to the VA psych ward, no matter what. Kim Novak is alluring in her first major film role, clearly a big star on the ascent. William Conrad is underutilized though very good in his small part, though star Guy Madison damages his key scenes with Keith with his inexpressiveness. Kerwin Mathews and Kathryn Grant find themselves in the second same film three years before their 7th Voyage of Sinbad, she, with that baby face of hers, being the only member of the cast credible as college age.
Director Phil Karlson uses the Reno and other Nevada locations well. The detailed look inside the real Harolds Club (established in 1935, torn down in 1999) is fascinating. While during the street scenes one can spot onlookers behind barriers anxious to watch the Hollywood production, inside the casino everyone is too busy feeding slot machines and the like to pay them any notice. These might have been directed extras, but maybe all those one-armed bandits and roulette wheels gave them all the direction they needed.
Made, possibly, to beat Paramount's similarly plotted The Desperate Hours into theaters, The Night Holds Terror (1955) is an okay crime noir, based on a true story but marred by clunky, cliché-laced dialogue. (Some reviews claim both were based on the same home invasion incident, but The Desperate Hours was based on an incident involving a family named Hill, while The Night Holds Terror recreates events concerning the Courtier family.)
Gene Courtier (Jack Kelly) is driving through the California desert in his moderately expensive late-model convertible when he picks up hitchhiker Victor Gosset (Vince Edwards) who, at gunpoint, orders him to pull off into a lonely side road where co-conspirators Robert Batsford (John Cassavetes) and Luther Logan (David Cross) plan to rob and kill him.
As Gene has but $10 in his wallet, he convinces the thieves to instead drive into town where he'll sell his car and turn over the cash. However, the car dealership has only $50 in cash itself, and the bank is already closed for the day. The violent trio decide to hold Gene, his wife Doris (Hildy Parks), and their two children, Deborah (Nancy Zane) and Steven (Charles Herbert) until morning when they can claim the money.
Producer-screenwriter-director Andrew L. Stone helmed a wide range of movies going back to the late 1920s but during the 1950s became well-known for realistic suspense films that eschewed backlot streets and studio soundstages. For The Last Voyage (1960), about the sinking of an ocean liner following a boiler room explosion, Stone bought a scrapped liner off the coast of Osaka and destroyed her on-camera, her final sinking with the stars scrambling on her submerging decks an incredible sight.
Virtually all of The Night Holds Terror was shot in the high desert north of Los Angeles, including interiors of the Courtier home, a wood-paneled affair. To emphasize this, Stone frequently shoots from low-angles so that ceilings are visible. Other locations - a Thrifty drugstore, at the police department, in the nerve center of the telephone company - follow suit. All this adds considerable verisimilitude.
The other obvious point of interest is the cast: John Cassavetes as the sadistic leader of the gang, Vince Edwards as his sex-crazed lieutenant, and with a pre-Maverick Jack Kelly as the husband trying to keep his family from harm. Characters Jack Kruschen and Barney Phillips were regulars in Stone's films during this time, interchanging the same character names.
Stone's dialogue for the criminals, who use ‘30s Warner Bros. gangster slang, works against the film's inherent suspense and Stone's comparatively realistic direction. Overall, not bad.
Though its title suggests a mondo-type exploitation picture, New Orleans Uncensored (1955) is actually a warmed-over On the Waterfront (1954) directed by William Castle.
Navy veteran and ex-boxer Dan Corbett (Arthur Franz) arrives in New Orleans with dreams of buying a rust-bucket of a fixer-upper boat to ship timber up and down the Pacific coast and start his own line, but first he needs dough. He goes to work for Zero Saxon (Michael Ansara), a racketeer playing "the old shell game" smuggling goods arriving at the docks from overseas. Dan becomes friendly with Alma Mae (Helene Stanton), girlfriend of union rep Jack Petty (Michael Granger), and dock manager Joe Reilly (William Henry) and his wife, Marie (Beverly Garland). Ruthless Zero has guilt-ridden Joe murdered, but - and this is the key problem with New Orleans Uncensored - pitifully naïve Dan can't even imagine Zero is dishonest until the movie is nearly over.
The main point of interest here is that virtually all of New Orleans Uncensored was shot on location, a side of the city essential to its existence yet rarely documented, certainly not in the early postwar period. Further, to good and bad effect Castle elected to cast real politicians and dock workers in key roles, including (as noted in the credits) Al Chittenden, president of General Longshore Workers Local 1418, ILA; police superintendent Joseph L. Scheuering; senior councilman Victor Schiro, fire chief Howard L. Dey; and others. These non-actors add a semi-documentary feel but are also obviously not actors, and their stiff interactions with the more conventional thesping of Franz and especially Ansara (uncharacteristically hammy) is, at times, very awkward.
Franz was an immensely likeable actor, but here his placid, dreamy-eyed smiles for most of the picture get annoying, leaving Beverly Garland with the more interesting role, as a woman aware of her husband's failings but unable to stop him from getting killed off early in the story.
Much better is Footsteps in the Fog (1955), also the biggest-budgeted and best film in the set, a real find. In turn of the century London, everyone feels sorry for newly-widowed gentleman Stephen Lowry (Stewart Granger), unaware that he actually poisoned his sick, domineering wife for her money. However, cockney maid Lily Watkins (Jean Simmons), obsessively in love with Stephen, finds her mistress's poison-laced medicine and, after first testing it on some rats in the basement, blackmails Stephen into allowing her to keep the dead woman's jewels and compels Stephen to appoint her to be the new housekeeper, infuriating the longtime staff, whom she summarily fires.
(Spoilers) Stephen plots to do away with the lovesick maid, but after following her through the thick London fog ("a real pea-souper," someone notes) and clubbing her to death with his walking stick, after Stephen returns home, narrowly eluding the London bobbies on his trail, he's shocked as Lily casually returns home. He's mistakenly murdered someone else. And this is only a third of the way into the story.
Footsteps in the Fog is a cleverly written, subtle and character-driven crime thriller. Lily's blackmailing of Stephen at first seems to be driven by greed, but instead she's only interested in keeping him close to her because she loves him, murderer or no. He goes along with her plans but not-so-secretly desires beautiful Elizabeth Travers (Belinda Lee), also courted by young barrister David MacDonald (Bill Travers). There's an intriguing undercurrent of strict British class structure at play: she's attractive but also a poor, uneducated cockney maid, and for Stephen actually marrying her is a ludicrous proposition. He's conceited to the point where he all but parades his desires for Elizabeth in front of Lily, assuming that she's either too stupid or too loyal to catch on, yet for all of his scurrilous behavior, he almost becomes sympathetic at the end, a victim of her blind devotion.
Granger and Simmons were big, London-born Hollywood-based stars, and the film is bolstered by the presence of so many other fine British actors. Besides Travers and Lee, Finlay Currie turns up as a police inspector, William Hartnell as a conniving brother-in-law, Peter Bull as a prosecutor, Victor Maddern as a witness to Stephen's murder, and so on.
Though British-made, the film was a co-production with American Mike Frankovich's production company, and the director, surprisingly, was Arthur Lubin, who helmed films of all kinds but is best known for lowbrow comedies starring Abbott & Costello, Francis the Talking Mule, and as the creator of Mr. Ed. His direction is perfectly good, though it'd be hard to make a bad film with a story (by W.W. Jacobs, best-known for "The Monkey's Paw") this solid and unpredictable. It's so dark and contemporary-feeling, in the right hands a remake could be even better.
Another British import, this comparatively low-budget noir was called Soho Incident in the U.K. but released in the U.S. as Spin a Dark Web (1956). It headlines Faith Domergue as an especially heartless femme fatale. It's a potboiler of recycled genre clichés, but is interesting in other respects.
Canadian Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) is a down-and-out boxer who finds work as the latest member of Rico Francesi's (Martin Benson) gang, Bankley hired at the urging of Rico's Sicilian sister, Bella (Domergue). On the very same day Bankley's brought on, a Francesi gang member murders fighter Bill Walker (Peter Hammond) for refusing to take a dive, Bill being the brother of Bankley's girl, Betty (Rona Anderson), and son of his longtime trainer, Tom Walker (Joss Ambler).
While Inspector Collis (Peter Burton) closes in on the gang's activities, Bankley becomes involved with sultry Bella and a phone-delay bookmaking plot similar to that used later on The Sting (1973).
The movie ain't much, partly because Lee Patterson, Rona Anderson, and Peter Burton lack much in the way of screen charisma, and because the story is so routine. However, the relationship between Bella and Rico is interesting. Benson, usually typecast as villains (he played the mafioso killed by Oddjob in Goldfinger), is the extravagantly theatrical figurehead of the gang. In one amusing scene he complains about tasteless English-made spaghetti, but it's Domergue's Bella who's really calling the shots, mainly because she's so unflinchingly ruthless. Her fate just before the fade-out is a real disappointment, given how unrepentantly evil she's been throughout.
The other thing that keeps viewers interested in Spin a Dark Web is the location photography, shot by journeyman director Vernon Sewell via "stolen shots," with mostly Patterson but sometimes also Domergue strolling down real London (and Soho particularly) streets, often night-for-night photography. In the opening scene, Patterson's character slowly walks past the Casino Theatre, then showing This Is Cinerama, which finished its run in late January 1956. Passersby pay little attention to the barely-famous actors, so accidentally the film captures a little slice of London as it existed then.
Another taut and surprisingly political little "B" courtesy of director Fred F. Sears and Sam Katzman's Clover Productions, Rumble on the Docks (1956) fuses elements from On the Waterfront (again) with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the mix is rather good if budget-conscious and occasionally obvious. It's also much superior to New Orleans Confidential. Twenty-year-old James Darren (Gidget, The Time Tunnel) makes an effective screen debut as a juvenile delinquent forced to choose between his uncompromising, emotionally distant union organizer father and the filthy rich racketeer trying to bust the newest local.
On the Brooklyn docks Della (Laurie Carroll) and her kid brother, Poochie (Barry Froner), are assaulted by members of the Stompers, a gang trying to muscle in on the Diggers' turf. The Diggers, led by Jimmy Smigelski (James Darren), drive the Stompers off, but later at a dance at the Settlement House the gang returns to rumble.
Elsewhere, Jimmy's Polish-immigrant father, Pete (Edgar Barrier), a former longshoreman who opened a modest printing shop after racketeers broke his back, is approached by the man responsible for his injury, gangster Joe Brindo (Michael Granger). He offers Pete a $3,000 bribe to stifle criticism of Brindo's union-busting but Pete refuses. This appalls Jimmy - the family needs the money - and an angry Pete tries to knock some sense into his boy, hitting him with his cane while Pete's mother (Celia Lovsky) helplessly looks on.
As Pete and other community leaders try to establish a new local free from Brindo's influence, Brindo begins wooing Jimmy with quick and easy cash, hoping to use the boy as leverage against his father.
Based on a novel by Frank Paley, Rumble on the Docks was adapted by Lou Morheim, later a prolific story editor-producer for television, and Jack DeWitt, best known for his screenplay to A Man Called Horse. DeWitt may be slightly more responsible for Rumble's attributes considering that he wrote the very similar and quite good Portland Exposé (1957) a short time later, and without Morheim's help. (Though Devil's Advocate Sergei Hasenecz suggests, "Maybe it was similar because he got it all from Morheim the first time?")
In any case Rumble on the Docks integrates its union battle and teenage angst stories fairly well. Morheim and DeWitt wisely fashion Pete as a pillar of the community but not a very good father, making Jimmy's attraction to pock-faced Brindo's glamorous world more logical than it would be otherwise. The writing leans on some obvious but nevertheless effective devices. Jimmy has a telescope that he keeps on the roof of his building, gazing at better neighborhoods in the distance, a metaphor for his yearning for a way out. (In one scene the bad guys attempt to steal the telescope, figuratively blinding him of his life's goals.) There's also an attempt to make the other members of the gang individuals. Chuck (Robert Blake, wasted in a small role) is slightly more responsible, while Wimpy (Don Devlin, father of writer-producer Dean Devlin) is mentally unbalanced, first bringing a knife to one fight then upping the stakes by recklessly packing heat later on.
The struggles of the longshoreman have a political edge rare for Columbia's B-picture unit, exemplified in one organizer's explanation of why kids like Jimmy are drawn to thugs like Brindo:
"While we're breaking our necks trying to make a living, the goons and the racketeers have all the power and the money. They walk around nice and clean, smelling of cologne. We don't smell so good to our kids."
At 82 minutes and featuring better than usual production values for a Sam Katzman movie, Rumble on the Docks is a bit classier than the usual Columbia "B," though it's still fairly cheap and budget conscious, with a limited number of set-ups and rear-screen process shots in lieu of location filming in New York. (The dock scenes were filmed in nearby San Pedro.) Instead of advertising it along the lines of Best Picture-winner On the Waterfront or even Rebel Without a Cause, the U.S. poster art is more along the exploitative lines of films made in the wake of Blackboard Jungle (1955). The struggles of the longshoremen aren't even hinted at.
Though Edgar Barrier is a bit hammy as the father, James Darren is quite good as his son - very natural, sometimes intense, and always appealing, though Laurie Carroll and Barry Froner are a bit too homogenized to make much impression as Jimmy's girl and her admiring brother. However, Michael Granger is good in a difficult part: smooth-talking Jimmy into breaking the law and "treating him like a son" one minute, but ready to dump him like yesterday's newspapers whenever the need arises. Timothy Carey makes the most of his role as Brindo's lieutenant.
Video & Audio
The nine features, with running times of between 76-90 minutes apiece, are spread across three Blu-ray discs. All are in their correct widescreen aspect ratios with the possible exception of Bait (1.37:1 standard), which may have been shot "flat" but likely released in cropped widescreen. The others are all 1.85:1 except for Spin a Dark Web, a British import cropped at 1.66:1. All the transfers look very good, albeit often with that grainy, occasionally soft look emblematic of Columbia's ‘50s titles. The lone color film, Footsteps in the Fog, was either shot in three-strip Technicolor or that company did the release prints. I've been unable to confirm which, but regardless the color and sharpness are most impressive, save for part of one reel in which the matrixes are noticeably misaligned. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is fine, and optional English subtitles are offered on this Region "A" disc with no Extra Features.
Another terrific set of fair-to-excellent, largely unknown film noir, Mill Creek and Kit Parker Films' Noir Archive: Volume 2, 1954-1956 is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.