Monday, May 29, 2006

B-Noir Triple Bill!: Armored Car Robbery (1950), Follow Me Quietly (1949), The Clay Pigeon (1949)

It was a Richard Fleischer weekend at Film Forum, offering up two minimalist police procedurals and a paranoid precursor of The Manchurian Candidate. Armored Car Robbery led off and was the most polished of the three. This lean heist film begins with a looming closeup of the obsessive-compulsive ringleader Dave Purvis (William Talman) at L.A.'s Wrigley Field. He's timing the cops approach after they're called in - and we're thrust immediately into preparations for the titular robbery. Squirmy hoods are recruited (one of them is the Sam Fuller axiom Gene Evans) for the job, which is outlined on a window shade. Neat! Purvis' character is the only one given detail - specifically his attention to detail, cutting out shirt labels, never writing things down, killing whoever could squeal. Talman brings it off with an icy disdain for the rest of humanity - the buxom blonde Yvonne Ledeaux (Adele Jergens) the notable exception, and whose moment of conscience dooms them both in the end. Aside from the opening flourish, Fleischer keeps shots clean and balanced, usually in medium shots with minimal camera movement, occasionally some panning to keep things in frame. The script is swift and rich: there's a wonderful scene of a grieving cops' widow matching the grieving partner's stoicism line for line. With minimal fuss, they reinforce each other's mask of strength while bonding over their sorrow. In a five minute scene no less. The writer is Gerald Drayson Adams, who also wrote the much looser and comedic noir, The Big Steal.

Follow Me Quietly boasts a story credit by Anthony Mann, which immediately caught my eye, but it's far less of a film than Armored Car Robbery, much of the blame lying with the flaccid performances. There a serial killer stalking some fair city, who calls himself "The Judge", strangling random citizens during rainfall. The case has dragged on for months, and the lead detective is getting tense. Unfortunately he's a bit of a doofus. William Lundigan plays this cop as a good natured oaf when the script demands more of a wounded loner type. The scenes where he is asked to feign overwork and depression don't come off - he's mildly put out rather than descending into madness. There is some nice sexual wordplay between him and the aggressive yellow-journalist Dorothy Patrick in an apartment scene though, the kind of light comedy Lundigan is obviously more gifted at. The script should have been seriously re-worked to fit his talents. The climactic chase scene, however, is highly memorable, starting with a pair of fabulous POV shots of the killer noticing the emptied out street in front of his house, followed by a close-up of his crumbling face. Fleischer wrings a remarkable amount of tension from this - evoking the criminal's thought process in three succinct shots.

The Clay Pigeon bucks the cops and robbers trend for a blacked out disgraced former prisoner of war freakout. Jim Fletcher wakes up from a coma and discovers he's charged with treason for ratting out his friend in a Japanese POW camp. He, naturally, would prefer not to believe this, so he breaks out, kidnaps his dead friend's wife, and tries to set things straight. Woozy flashbacks and conspiracies abound, as Fletch espies his Japanese torturer in a Chinese restaurant - setting off a series of violent chase scenes - the wife bites his hand in close-up and chairs get smashed over prone backs. A direct forebear of The Manchurian Candidate in its use of post-traumatic stress syndrome as a springboard for murderous conspiracies, it's smaller scale but just as paranoid. There's more fat on this one than on ACR, but the stylistic flamboyance makes up for it, as when the flashback of his friend's murder dissolves to a gun barrel, or the brilliantly placed reflection of a train bearing down on him.

Flesicher's the big discovery of the series for me so far - aside from Crime Wave, which is, you know, perfect.


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