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Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema VII

by Glenn Erickson May 31, 2022

Kino’s Noir boxes offer interesting noir-adjacent crime and mystery pix. This seventh return to the well of darkness brings up the organized crime ‘meller’ Chicago Confidential with Brian Keith and the more ambitious The Boss, starring John Payne and written by Dalton Trumbo. The third show The Fearmakers is a real oddity. Starring Dana Andrews and directed by Jacques Tourneur, it’s a political conspiracy tale about manipulating opinions with fraudulent polls. It sounds a lot like the fractured state of modern America, 65 years later. With commentaries by Jason A. Ney and Alan K. Rode.


Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema VII
The Boss, Chicago Confidential, The Fearmakers
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1956-1958 / B&W / Street Date June 7, 2022 / 249 min. / available through Kino Lorber / 49.95
Starring: John Payne, Gloria McGehee, Brian Keith, Beverly Garland, Dana Andrews, Marilee Earle.
Directed by
Byron Haskin, Sidney Salkow, Jacques Tourneur

Kino treads the dark side of the filmic sprockets in Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema VII, three newly-remastered crime and suspense thrillers from the latter half of the 1950s. We’ll keep the arguments about Noir definitions bound and gagged, as we’ve got two generic gangster films here, plus an odd sociological item that treads into political territory. None are masterpieces but each has guaranteed entertainment value, and performances by favored stars.

All three pictures were released by United Artists productions, and two are from producers contracted to deliver ‘X’-many assembly line programmers for ‘X’ dollars. Those two may have been destined for second-feature status, but they aren’t ‘house-emptiers’ intended to free up seats for new patrons.

Kino provides a pair of expert commentaries that triple our interest — Alan K. Rode and Jason A. Ney’s excellent tracks blend academic content with thoughtful editorial observations.

 


 

The Boss
1956 / 1:85 widescreen / 89 minutes
Starring: John Payne, William Bishop, Gloria McGhee (McGehee), Doe Avedon, Roy Roberts, Rhys Williams, Joe Flynn, Robin Morse, William Phipps, Gil Lamb, George Lynn, Bob Morgan, Percy Helton, Charles Horvath, Florence Lake, Maurice Manson, Stafford Repp.
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art Director: Frank P. Sylos
Film Editor: Ralph Dawson
Original Music: Albert Glasser
Written by Ben Perry as a front for Dalton Trumbo
Produced by Frank N. Seltzer, Walter Seltzer, John Payne (uncredited)
Directed by
Byron Haskin

The first show is an ambitious show with a decent pedigree — producer Walter Seltzer’s name would appear on a number of hits in the next 20 years. This show teams him with the noir stalwart John Payne, who was looking to become a producer himself. The competent director is Byron Haskin, and the screenplay is an under-the-table job by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, four years before Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas brought him in from out of the cold.

The Boss is by far the best of the three pictures in this set — it’s a complex mini-epic about civic corruption that closely follows the story of Tom Pendergast, the political ‘boss’ of Kansas City in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s sustained by a strong script with some unusual angles, and an exceptionally good cast. Byron Haskin’s direction isn’t subtle, but it hits every story point well. Dalton Trumbo’s under-the-carpet-written screenplay is indeed hard-hitting.

Star & co-producer John Payne easily carries the lead role of the brutal, hotheaded ‘town boss,’ aging to gray hair and an angry face that Alan Rode rightly describes as resembling Lee J. Cobb in cigar-chomping mode. The surprise in the movie — which links it to Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond — is that Payne’s villain never mellows, just grows harder and meaner. There’s no last-minute remorse or atonement — when all is lost he just sullenly admits defeat.

Returning WW1 veteran Matt Brady (John Payne) comes home to Kansas City an unnamed midwestern burg, angry that his older brother Tim (Roy Roberts), an alderman, wants to run his life. Matt is also angry at his best friend Bob Herrick (William Bishop) for expressing interest in the same girl, the charming Elsie Reynolds (Doe Avedon). In a single night of fighting and drinking, Matt ruins his personal life: stone drunk, he all but forces the inoffensive ‘plain’ Lorry Reed (Gloria McGhee) to marry him. Tim dies, seemingly from the stress of dealing with his younger brother . . . who takes over the political office and begins a career of graft and corruption.

Bob marries Elsie instead. He comes back from college with a law degree, and becomes Matt’s partner in crime and political schemes. Matt stays married to Lorry but keeps her locked away; he ignores her and channels his anger over losing Elsie into his reckless gambling and corrupt backroom deals. He promotes his associates to public office, commits election fraud and uses his accrued political clout to takes over a cement business. But Matt must ally himself with out-and-out gangsters like Johnny Mazia (Robin Morse of Rock All Night) and Mazia’s loose-cannon henchman Stitch (William Phipps). A bloody shootout at the railroad station gives reformer Stanley Millard (Rhys Williams) the leverage needed to bring Matt Brady to heel.

The Boss plays out in sober earnest what Preston Sturges had made into a comedy for the 1940 The Great McGinty. Matt Brady throws elections by inventing voters taken from cemetery tombstones; he brazenly hands out favors and stacks city hall with his lackeys. In no time at all the governor is on his payroll. The main titles play out over an illustration of a ‘Boss Tweed’- like puppeteer, pulling strings.

 

Payne is excellent, even though the Matt Brady character never changes from being openly angry and resentful of everything in his personal barony of corruption. The actors around him are exceptionally good. Far from being ‘plain,’ TV actress Gloria McGhee (above left  ) expresses this dismay of a hapless woman forced into a horrible marriage, who tries to love a thoroughly unlovable man. John Cassavetes saw something in McGhee (real name McGehee) and hired her for his A Child Is Waiting.

The unheralded William Bishop and former model Doe Avedon (above right  ) had abbreviated film careers but are also better than good. The relationship between the two corrupt partners is more believable than in most ‘crime dynasty’ epics — Dalton Trumbo’s handling of relationships is less like older Warners crime pix, and more like the later Scorsese gangland stories. The obvious conflict of both men loving the same woman, does not motivate the plot. The political Trumbo makes Boss Brady a creation of a society that allows personal power to get out of hand. Were there ever really benign ‘city bosses’ like Spencer Tracy in the sentimentalized The Last Hurrah?

Any fans of William Phipps out there?   The star of Five makes a surprisingly convincing murderous psycho with hardly a minute of screen time. Roy Roberts is equally effective as a political bully who runs his alderman duties out of a saloon.  Of special note is the minor actor Robin Morse, whose big-city racketeer is perfect, just spot-on. If he hadn’t died so soon, Morse would have fit perfectly into the Godfather movies. All of the secondary characters make a major impact without a great deal of screen time. Do we credit this to writer Trumbo or director Byron Haskin?

 

With its cruel marriage story, dynamic characters and fast-paced storytelling, The Boss is a superior film of its kind. The cinematography is good, if in no way noir-expressive. There’s an excellent bar fight up front and a massacre on a staircase that reminds us of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Commentator Alan K. Rode made the De Palma connection too. Editorially the massacre is something of a mess. Rode explains that the censors, for some reason, forced the producers to not show William Phipps’ machine gun, so the editors’ assembly is a continuity-challenged head-scratcher.

Alan Rode’s commentary relates the true-life underworld history of Kansas City under Boss Pendergast. The capper to that story involves the secondary character played by Joe Flynn, later of McHale’s Navy fame. Flynn’s ‘Ernie Jackson’ is pushed into public office by Brady’s political machine, but stays clear of any criminal wrongdoing and eventually becomes a congressman. The reason why Jackson retains a presence in the story is that he’s based on future President Harry S. Truman. Alan Rode’s information about Truman’s connection to Kansas City corruption, even if just tangential, is truly eye-opening. As Harry S. Truman, Joe E. Flynn even wears the right kind of eyeglasses. What’s next, Rose Marie as Hilary Clinton?

The Boss was announced as an acknowledged biopic of Boss Pendergast, but by the time of release the connection was being denied. Maybe some ‘of the boys’ dropped by the production office with an offer nobody could refuse.

 


 

Chicago Confidential
1957 / 1:78 widescreen / 75 minutes
Starring: Brian Keith, Beverly Garland, Dick Foran, Douglas Kennedy, Paul Langton, Elisha Cook Jr., Gavin Gordon, Phyllis Coates, Jack Lambert.
Cinematography: Kenneth Peach
Art Director: Albert S. D’Agostino
Film Editor: Grant Whytock
Original Music: Emil Newman
Written by Raymond T. Marcus front name for Bernard Gordon, story by Hugh King from a book by Jack Lait, Lee Mortimer
Produced by Robert E. Kent
Directed by
Sidney Salkow

Chicago Confidential is a lower-case United Artists item from the movie mill of Robert E. Kent, a prolific writer on all kinds of programmers starting in the late 1930s. Kent wrote some good RKO B’s in the 1940s, some slightly bigger pictures in the ’50s and then a long string of budget genre pix for Sam Katzman, Edward Small and others. This gangster story is one of the many ‘city confidential’ & ‘city exposé’ pictures that filled late ’50s double bills. Each begins with a city in the hands of organized crime. A hero or two clean up everything with some killings and a flood of convictions. That’s why America is corruption free, ya know?

The actual writer of Chicago Confidential is the blacklisted Bernard Gordon, who had nothing to say about it in his autobio except that he tossed it off while working for Columbia’s Charles H. Schneer. Gordon had a much better memory for his work on Sci-fi oddities. The cast looks pretty attractive now, but the star Brian Keith was not a big name in 1955. The great Beverly Garland was mostly doing Roger Corman- level work. Both of them treat this little movie like a worthy opportunity. No hungry actor turns their nose up at a leading role.

This is a standard ‘Racket Busters’ tale that’s careful to give the impression that organized crime is an isolated problem, and that an honest Attorney General with guts can clean it all up in a weekend. In other words the show is about as ‘noir’ as a fairy tale. Considering the resources at the command of journeyman director Sidney Salkow, it’s not a bad show, just very, very familiar.

We’re told that old-style racketeers were run out of Chicago years before, but now they’re trying to take over the unions. Honest Union president Artie Blane (Dick Foran) sends his accountant to the States’ Attorney General Jim Fremont (Brian Keith) with evidence of racketeering. Naturally, the accountant goes alone, on a dark night, so that the mobsters can frame Blane for his murder. Crooked Union official Ken Harrison (Douglas Kennedy) will be able to start funnelling the vice rackets under cover of Union activity. To strengthen the frame Harrison’s thugs convince the alcoholic dockside bum ‘Candymouth’ Duggan (veteran Elisha Cook, Jr.) to perjure himself. To destroy the alibi provided by Blane’s secretary and fiancée Laura Barton, they threaten witness Sylvia Clarkson (Beverly Tyler of Voodoo Island) and make a fake audio recording with voice impressionist Kerry Jordan (Buddy Lewis). Attorney Fremont decides to investigate further, and the fireworks begin.

 

A mix of claustrophobic interiors and decently shot nighttime exteriors, Chicago Confidential is a by-the-numbers affair just good enough not to make excuses for itself. Henchmen Anthony George (billed) and Jack Lambert (unbilled) make the mobster stuff look authentic. Who knows how billing got handed out, for Phyllis Coates (Lois Lane in TV’s Superman) also has a substantial part but goes unbilled. Elisha Cook Jr. has a good eight minutes of screen time to reprise his patented fall guy-loser; he’s always great. 

Neither Brian Keith nor Beverly Garland hold back; Garland is wholly convincing in scenes of emotional distress. The budget is not too lean for a Robert E. Kent show. Eight or nine ‘B girls’ take part in a mob operation rounding up barflies for the mob’s Human Trafficking scheme. All the underworld violence is shot at night, with a reasonable level of competence.

 

Kent’s production company for this show is ‘Peerless Productions’; his other late ’50s productions also bore the company names ‘Vogue Pictures’ and ‘Edward Small Productions,’ after the producer who reportedly bankrolled much of his activity. The prolific Sidney Salkow was a busy B-picture director in the ‘forties and even more active in TV in the ‘fifties. When he came back for a feature or two, it was often for Edward Small, as with Twice Told Tales. On the U.S.- Italian co-production The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, he had to share credit with Italo director Ubaldo Ragona. Chicago Confidential doesn’t have the edge over TV crime shows of the time, several of which were more atmospheric and stylish.

 


 

The Fearmakers
1958 / 1:85 widescreen / 85 minutes
Starring: Dana Andrews, Dick Foran, Marilee Earle, Veda Ann Borg, Kelly Thordsen, Roy Gordon, Joel Marston, Oliver Blake, Mel Tormé.
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Art Director: Serge Krizman
Film Editor: J.R. Whittredge
Original Music: Irving Gertz
Written by Elliott West, Chris Appley from the novel by Darwin Teilhet
Produced by Martin H. Lancer
Directed by
Jacques Tourneur

The Fearmakers is certainly an eye-catching title for a thriller. This well-intentioned but talky and static drama has a great deal in common with the epochal paranoid suspense classic The Manchurian Candidate, which came four years later.

Things have changed with ‘pollsters’ since James Stewart’s abortive faux-Capra drama Magic Town — successful pollster Alan Eaton (Dana Andrews) went to fight in Korea, was captured and partly brainwashed, and after being repatriated received a ‘cure’ at an army hospital. But he comes back to Washington D.C. to find that his company Eaton & Baker Associates was sold out from under him by his now-deceased partner. The new owner Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran of The Mummy’s Hand and Chicago Confidential) now uses the company to secretly deliver slanted and deceptive opinion polls to what ever company or political client will pay for them. Alan’s inquiries are stonewalled by the milquetoast executive assistant Barney Bond (Mel Tormé), because McGinnis is faking polls to help fellow-traveler Dr. Jessop (Oliver Blake) promote a no-nukes society — the aim of which is to weaken America’s defenses.

Connecting with a loyal Senator (Roy Gordon) and a helpful reporter (Joel Marston) Alan tries to get the goods on McGinnis. As expected, the villains catch on and decide that both Alan and secretary Lorraine Dennis (Marilee Earle) must be eliminated. The final showdown takes place at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

 

The film’s premise has a strong topical angle, in today’s information environment where ‘truth for sale’ helps to keep our government deadlocked. Despite the presence of the fine director Jacques Tourneur (reportedly on hand as a favor to Dana Andrews) The Fearmakers barely feels like a theatrical film. It’s essentially a radio show with ninety seconds of action (all using doubles and rear projection) at the finish. For almost the entire running time, the characters make declarative statements in tiny rooms with no windows. The ‘prestigious’ polling company has only two employees. We’re way ahead of the story at all time. Do you think that the man who just happens to chat up Alan on his plane flifht, might be a pacifist traitor?   Alan’s room & board hosts (Veda Ann Borg & Kelly Thordsen) are obviously in on the conspiracy (but are an amusingly exaggerated dysfunctional couple).

Dana Andrews is of course the voice of rationality and moral strength. We listen to his lectures about pollster integrity and the way public opinion can be swayed by loaded poll questions, the kind that are now a constant presence on Facebook. Smiling glad-hander Dick Foran is convincing as an apolitical opportunist interested solely in the fees he earns to rig the system. He doesn’t care that he’s selling out America’s atom defenses against the Commies.

Unfortunately we see none of how this works. As in a radio show, the workings of the company are all off screen, save for one three-second blip in which Alan opens a door to hear a pollster mention something about ‘how we’ll handle the Jews.’ That’s sinister enough, I guess. As pointed out by all reviewers, Alan Eaton’s abusive treatment by his North Korean captors gives him residual dizzy spells, that always seem to happen when it’s time for McGinnis to get the upper hand. It only accentuates the weaknesses in the script.

The other cast members don’t mesh well. The senator and the reporter don’t really figure in the story — they’re present only to deliver more suspicion about crooked poll-taking. Marilee Earle’s love interest Lorraine is poorly written, and the actress seems disconnected from the drama. Mel Tormé’s performance is too big, as if he’s still acting opposite Mickey Rooney. The nerdy Barney Bond is so insecure, we don’t buy that McGinnis would trust him to do anything. The klutzy bad guys in Republic Serials manage their evil schemes better.

 

The Fearmakers is technically a right-wing conspiracy picture. The specific threat here supports the conservative notion that there’s no such thing as sincere, constructive pacifism — Jessop’s altruists are traitors doing the work of our Soviet adversaries. But Alan Eaton stresses that the real problem is dishonest information, not politics. McGinnis’s Pollster-traitors could easily be working for the other side, a private company influencing America toward a more autocratic, intolerant political position. That was the subtext of Stanley Rubin and Jack Bernhard’s postwar thriller Violence — a crooked candidate weaponizes disinformation and hate to create a mob-like political base. The The Fearmakers is presently extremely relevant, what with entire corporate cable channels now spewing political lies as ‘news.’

Kino’s commentary is by Jason A. Ney, whose reasoned analysis perhaps goes too easy on the film’s shortcomings, But he nails its political significance without assigning a particular bias (as I just did). Ney does a fascinating comparison with the original ‘Darwin Teilhet’ book, which is set during WW2. The book’s polling company is supporting the Axis through a covert ‘whispering campaign’ to break down wartime morale. I guess a whispering campaign is the forerunner of shady poll-taking?  Unregulated news on cable TV and the Internet makes it much easier to market alternate facts.

This show is not particularly distinguished; of the three on this set it looks most like a project pared down to minimums because the budget wouldn’t stretch. Commentator Ney tells us that this was a bad time for actor Dana Andrews due to drinking problems. Andrews and director Jacques Tourneur had just filmed the superior horror film Night of the Demon and got along very well. Andrews insisted on Tourneur directing, but it’s not clear who was doing whom a favor — this was the beginning of what Andrew Sarris uncharitably described as Jacques Tourneur’s ‘commercial downgrade.’

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema VII gives The Boss and The Fearmakers excellent new 2K scans; Chicago Confidential always looked fine on the MGM cable Channel. Technically there are no problems here whatsoever.

The two commentaries are a big draw. Jason A. Ney and Alan K. Rode are top experts that dish well-researched information and reliable back-stories. Alan’s in-depth coverage of the ‘sin town’ racketeering behind The Boss is eye-opening — how much of America was that corrupt?  Jason digs into the political implications of The Fearmakers with a clarity and reasoning that avoids easy interpretations. The Tourneur movie becomes much more interesting with Ney’s analysis as it’s pretty weak tea, thriller-wise.

The individual keep case covers are interesting as well. The Fearmakers uses the typically sketchy poster art that United Artists was putting on its programmers in the late 1950s. The other two covers appear to source foreign art. Chicago Confidential uses sexed-up images that the film can’t match. The dynamic illustration for The Boss shows a car chase. Not only does the movie not have a chase scene, the cars pictured are 20 years too modern.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema VII
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: The Boss Very Good; Chicago & Fearmakers Good -minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Two new audio commentaries —
Alan K. Rode on The Boss
Jason A. Ney on The Fearmakers
Trailer selection
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three Blu-ray in keep cases in Card Box
Reviewed:
May 29, 2022
(6717noir)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.