Thursday, December 26, 2002


I avoided watching this movie for a long time, but I'm very happy I finally did. Although I like mysteries and thrillers, and noir of the 40's (and the neo-noirs of the 70's and 80's), I'm not a big fan of 50's films or of the more "realistic" crime movies that sprang up in that decade. So, since I wasn't expecting much, this was a real joy to discover. The storyline is familar: an old man gets out of prison and decides to pull one last heist. He pulls a small gang together and the heist is carried off, but the forces of fate and justice conspire to bring all concerned to bad ends. In this case, the acting, writing, and direction are all top-notch, making this much more character-driven than I expected.

The focus (especially at the beginning and end) is on Sterling Hayden as a dull-witted "hooligan" with a gambling problem. The idea of a big jewlery robbery appeals to him as he plans to leave the big city (Chicago? Columbus? It seems to be set somewhere Cleveland and Lexington, Kentucky) and try to buy back the farm he grew up on. Jean Hagen is a revelation as his on-again, off-again girl. The character is tough but vulnerable, and Hagen is brave to do an emotional scene looking terrible, with mascara stains and a missing false eyelash. Sam Jaffe is the old doctor who masterminds the robbery, and James Whitmore and Marc Lawrence are good as peripheral hoodlums. The real standout in the cast in Louis Calhern (the ambassador in DUCK SOUP, and Buffalo Bill in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN) who I usually think of as playing stodgy businessmen. Here he is a big-shot lawyer in financial trouble who offers to bankroll the heist (despite being broke) and fence the jewels; he gets someone else to front the money, then plans to abscond with the haul. Calhern keeps a calm facade most of the time, but we see the sweaty desperation in his eyes, thanks to Calhern's great acting and John Huston's directing. In fact, the direction is subtle but stylish throughout. It's not exactly mainstream noir story material, but it has a sharp noir look, with lots of shadowy city streets and nighttime activity. In fact, it all seems to take place at night except for the great opening (a foggy big city dawn) and the sad closing with Hayden and Hagen thinking that maybe they've beaten fate as they arrive at the end of their road to buy the Kentucky farm. Brad Dexter (who just died this month) has a small but nice bit as a "muscle" man for Calhern, and Marilyn Monroe is good as Calhern's mistress, who calls him "Uncle" throughout, adding yet another creepy touch to the proceedings. This movie has continued to influence today's writers and directors (see THE USUAL SUSPECTS and RESERVOIR DOGS), and is pretty close to a crime-movie masterpiece.

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