Tuesday, November 13, 2012

My Crime Beat Column: Cinema Crime Wave: A Look Back At The Great Crime Films

I recentIy passed by the street in South Philadelphia where the Colonial movie theater used to sit. The old movie house was torn down some years ago and an apartment complex now sits on the site.

I spent many hours of my childhood in the 1950s and 60s in that theater. I saw Dr No and the other Sean Connery-James Bond movies there. I saw John Wayne in The Alamo there. (I found it interesting that the old Duke was recently named the number three movie star in a Harris poll, despite the fact that he died in 1979).

I also saw a good number of crime films there.

In the 1960s and 70s, a block away from the Colonial, was a Cheesesteak sandwich shop that didn’t sell cheesesteaks or anything else. The store was a well-known front for the headquarters of a Cosa Nostra capo named Frank Sindone, who oversaw all loan sharking in Philadelphia and South Jersey. While moviegoers enjoyed crime films in a darkened theater on 11th Street, the true-life criminals were meeting just down the block on 10th Street.

Although the vast majority of South Philadelphians were and are honest, hard-working and law-abiding people, such as my parents, South Philly was and is known as the hub of organized crime in the Philadelphia area. As an aspiring writer, I grew up in South Philly with an interest in both reel and real criminals.

So as a lifelong student of crime, I was certainly drawn towards Crime Wave: A Filmgoer’s Guide to the Great Crime Movies (I.B. Tauris, 288 pp. $22.50). The book, written by film critic Howard Hughes (not to be confused with the eccentric billionaire), offers a companion book to one’s crime film home collection.

As Hughes notes in his preface, the world of crime is full of unpleasant people, yet crime movies hold a special place in cinema audiences’ affections. The movies Hughes chose to cover in the book are those he considers seminal Hollywood films, both in their genre and respective eras.

"Crime Wave includes the classic gangster flicks of the thirties and forties, often detailing bootlegging, robbery and smuggling: The Public Enemy, High Sierra, White Heat," Hughes wrote. "I also trace the development of the post-war film noir style, from The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly to the knowing post-modernism of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential."
"There are tough B-movies from the thrifty fifties, such as The Big Combo; tales of gangster revenge (Point Blank and Get Carter) and Quentin Tarantino’s genre-referential Pulp Fiction. There are heist and caper movies, epitomized by The Asphalt Jungle and Ocean’s Eleven. Also discussed are lone, rule-breaking cops (Dirty Harry), buddy cops (Lethal Weapon), global crime (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), blaxpoitation action (Shaft) and even a gangster love story: Bonnie and Clyde."

"And of course there are the four great gangster epics, directed by Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and Francis Ford Coppola: GoodFellas, Once Upon a Time in America, The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II," Hughes writes in the preface to the book.

And as Hughes tells his readers, in the book’s chapters you’ll come into contact with the crime movie stars like Jimmy Cagney on top of the world, Humphrey Bogart pursuing the black bird, Sterling Hayden prowling the asphalt jungle, Lee Marvin escaping Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood feeling lucky, Michael Caine spilling blood on the Tyne, Joe Pesci getting whacked and Robert De Niro being a wiseguy.

For me, Jimmy Cagney was one of the best cinema gangsters. Although he was a short man, he had great film presence. The baby-faced dancer and former boxer from the Lower East Side of New York was superb in The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. He was a cocky, strutting tough guy. He is unforgettable.

An older, heavier Cagney revisited the gangster film in 1949 with his brilliant performance in White Heat, which Hughes states is Cagney’s greatest film. I’m inclined to agree. "Top of the world, Ma!" The film is a must for all crime film buffs.

Hughes does a good job of explaining the background to the crime films, from their inspirations from other films, novels and true stories, to the people behind the scenes of the film’s production. From studio bosses to the directors, writers and money men, we see how the films developed into the classics we love today.

I especially enjoyed his chapter on 1971’s Get Carter. Michael Caine was terrific as a British villain out to avenge his brother’s death. Caine, like Cagney, grew up among real hoods and said that up to Get Carter, British gangsters were portrayed as stupid or funny and he knew some who were neither.

His Jack Carter character in the film is a mean guy with a mission. Those viewers only familiar with Caine in his more recent elderly roles may be surprised at his dark side. Caine is all psychotic killer here.

As Hughes points out, the director, Mike Hodges, references great detective fiction in the film, with Caine reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely on a train and there are two rival gangs, as in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, with Carter, like the Continental-Op, trapped between the two.

Mike Hodges also directed Caine in another somewhat lighter crime film the following year. 1972’s Pulp also references detective fiction, but in this film, Caine portrays a writer of pulp crime fiction. I love the film and get a kick out of the jokes at the expense of writers. When Caine is hired to ghost-write the autobiography of a movie star/gangster (sort of a latter-day George Raft), he gets involved in murder and political intrigue on the island of Malta.

I love Caine’s voice-over narration, which does not quite match what viewers see on the screen. (The voice-over talks of his drinking champagne but Caine is seen clearly drinking beer). This is a device later used to less effect in a Tom Selleck crime comedy.

"The writer's life would be ideal," Caine tells us. "But for the writing."

When Caine points out a relevant fact to the movie star, the actor asked him how he knew this.

"I write crap like this every day. It's my job." Caine, the pulp writer, replies drolly.

Hodges and Caine were set to make another film together based on the life on British traitor and spy Kim Philby. According to Hughes, Philby, an upper class twit then living as a defector in the Soviet Union, vetoed the casting of Caine.

Hughes quotes Caine as saying, "It seemed he didn’t like the idea of someone of my class playing him, which I thought was spoken like a true communist."

Hodges would go on to direct Clive Owen in Croupier, another interesting crime film with a writer for a protagonist. Perhaps because Owens wore a tuxedo as a casino croupier in the film, the speculation began that Owens would or should play James Bond. Although I thought Daniel Craig was fine as James Bond in Casino Royale – I think he was widely accepted in large part because the producers made a true thriller rather than a cartoon – I believe Owen would have been far better as he fits Ian Fleming’s physical description of Bond.

Owen is now set portray another of my childhood fictional crime heroes, Philip Marlowe. He is said to star in a series of films based on the tough, wisecracking private detective of the 1940s from the novels by Raymond Chandler. I’m looking forward to seeing the films.

In his chapter on global crime, Hughes chooses the 1969 James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS). Hughes notes that of all the actors to play Bond, George Lazenby is the least remembered and OHMSS is the most overlooked of the Bond films.

"And yet in its depiction of Bond’s battle with corruption, extortion and organized crime on a global scale, OHMSS has aged much better than its contemporaries and remains one of the most elaborate and exciting crime thrillers of the sixties," Hughes writes.

The film is one of my favorites and I wish that Connery had started in it, as I would have loved to seen him with Diana Rigg and Telly Salvalas as Blofeld. But I always thought Lazenby did a fine job, all things considered. He was not an actor and he was following Connery in the role. Had he stayed with the series, he would have become a better actor and I’ve no doubt he would have made the role his own. (And we would not have had to endure Roger Moore’s lighthearted and lightweight portrayal of Bond).

"Bond is a crime-busting secret agent on a grand scale – a very distant relative of the G-man heroes of old," Hughes writes.

Lazenby looked like Bond and he was very good in the fight scenes. But it was the director, as Hughes rightfully points out, that made OHMSS one of the best film adaptations of the Fleming novels. Peter Hunt, who served as the editor of the previous Bond films, was faithful to the novel and truly captured the feel and flavor of the Fleming/Bond world.

In OHMSS, we find Bond chasing Blofeld, the head of the international criminal organization SPECTRE, when he comes across a woman intent on killing herself. Bond saves her and discovers that her father is Marc Ange Draco, the head of the Union Corse, one of the biggest crime syndicates in Europe. He is pleased with Bond and tries to bribe him into marrying his daughter Tracy (Diana Rigg).

Bond of course refuses, stating that he doesn’t need the money and he has a bachelor’s taste for freedom. Just see more of her, Draco pleads, explaining that she has been self-destructive but he senses something in her changed when she met Bond.

Bond asks if he knows the whereabouts of Blofeld, who is a competitor of sorts to Draco. Draco claims not to know and says that if he did, "I would not tell Her Majesty’s Secret Service," he sneers. "But I might tell my future son-in-law."
OHMSS is a dark film, Hughes writes, beginning with an attempted suicide and ending with a wedding-day murder. Although From Russia With Love is my favorite Bond film and novel, OHMSS is one of the better films in the series and if Connery had been in it, it may very well have been the best.

"Its all right," Bond tells the passing police officer as he sits in his car, cradling his bride who had just been shot and killed by Blofeld.

"There’s no hurry you see… we have all the time in the world."

Hughes offers a chapter on another of my favorite films, 1967’s Point Blank. Like Caine’s Carter, Lee Marvin’s Walker is one bad guy. He’s out for revenge and to get his money while systematically bringing down a crime syndicate in John Boorman’s classic film. Marvin, a Marine veteran of the WWII war in the Pacific, was the perfect hard-looking antihero.

Hughes also offers a chapter on 1971’s Dirty Harry, one of my favorite Don Siegel crime films. As Hughes rightly notes, this was the most influential cop movie of the 1970s. It captured the mood of the country as many Americans believed that criminals had more rights than crime victims and that the police were hampered by liberal laws. Clint Eastwood was excellent as Dirty Harry, the cop they gave all of the dirty jobs to. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for any of the sequels.

Hughes also writes about Siegel’s other great crime films, such as 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff, which also starred Eastwood. I also liked 1968’s Madigan with Richard Widmark and Harry Guardino, a good character actor who also appeared in Dirty Harry. (I was told that Guardino was our second cousin on my mother’s side).

There are also interesting and informative chapters on other great films and on films that I’m not so keen on, such as Pulp Fiction and Ocean’s Eleven.
Tarantino, it seems to me, is all style and pop culture references, and not much else. And the less said about Ocean’s Eleven and the sequels the better. For that matter, I didn’t particularly care for Frank Sinatra’s original film either.

Hughes also writes chapters on The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and what I consider the best crime film ever made, 1990’s GoodFellas. I’ve written about these great films before and I will again in another column. Unlike Hughes, I would not lump Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America with these great films. I would add Scorsese’s Casino.

So if you are a crime film aficionado, Howard Hughes’s Crime Wave, with its photos, listings of movie credits and informative background material, should be a part of your library.                                                                            

The above column originally appeared in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2007.

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