Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Made for humble Eagle Lion by the fairly obscure Bernard Vorhaus, The Amazing Mr. X is also known under the more apt but rather generic title The Spiritualist. The original title is schlocky, the cover art even more so. But don’t let that fool you. Despite these shortcomings the movie is a tad more sophisticated than we may expect. The Amazing Mr. X is a unique and slightly loony hybrid of genres. Though it starts like a horror movie, the picture’s dynamic changes pretty quickly. It is in fact part Gothic, part horror, part Noir, part fantastic thriller and part cynical reflection on the gullibility of desperate people. The movie can’t be pigeonholed but these mismatched elements come together amazingly well. 

For the longest time only available as a mediocre quasi-bootleg copy, the film has finally been rescued from public domain hell by Columbia and given the full restoration treatment.

Whatever we choose to call it, I found the film utterly haunting. Some reviewers called it a turkey but I don’t see the reason for it. It all comes together beautifully. No doubt it’s occasionally over-baked and feverish, and there’s a few implausible chunks of plot for the viewer to either swallow or choke on. But those are features not flaws. There is something beautifully sorrowful and melancholy about it, in no small measure helped by Alexander Laszlo’s lush score, with support by two of Chopin’s soulful Nocturnes.

What puts this movie heads and shoulders above other B movies of its kind (e.g. The Inner Sanctum Series) is the moody atmosphere created by cinematographer John Alton who was hired to add a touch of class and magic to the proceedings. Alton was the master of shadows, darkness and gloomy nights where the headlights could hardly reach beyond the end of a cigarette butt. He imbues the film with a misty and unearthly glow, making the most of the seaside setting. The wild water of the ocean, the relentless crashing waves, windswept beaches and the hazy moonlight steep the movie in a dreamy aura filled with haunting images and a phantasmal mood that mirror the torrent of emotions experienced by those who can’t let go of the past because the dead still have a claim upon them.

The movie has some lovely little unexpected touches here and there. A tip of the hat has to go to private eye Hoffman (Harry B. Mendoza) who's not your run-of-the-mill PI. The actor who played Hoffman was actually a real magician and he makes good use of his sleight of hand abilities in the film. He knows the tricks of the trade and has made it his mission in life to expose phony psychics. Hoffman is always looking for someone’s card up the sleeve. When he begins to produce an endless stream of cigars while keeping up an effortless conversation, it’s a little gem. Hoffman is just a bit part, but it adds so much to the film.

We also get a little nod to Edgar Allan Poe in the shape of a cool little black Raven (who may be a crow) who is very attached to his master Alexis.

Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), a young widow, lost her husband Paul two years ago in a car accident. She lives in a seaside cliff-top mansion and one night starts to hear voices in the dark. It is as if the sea outside her window is calling her name. Christine believes her husband is attempting to communicate with her from beyond the grave. She is rattled and goes for a stroll on the beach where she runs into a dark, suave and debonair stranger, self-professed medium Alexis (Turhan Bey). He convinces her that he can communicate with Paul’s spirit though her new finance Martin (Richard Carlson) is more than skeptical. Soon Christine’s much younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) falls under Alexis’ spell and all of a sudden, Paul comes back from the dead. That’s something Alexis hasn’t counted on. It seems he has raised more spirits than he can command. 

Turhan Bey - an actor previously unknown to me - is perfect as Alexis. He’s a sham spiritualist who targets desperate grief-stricken people - well-heeled of course - haunted by their memories of loved ones lost. He has the phony spook racket down to a science. At his residence, he has created a spellbinding setup of ghostly shenanigans. It resembles a carnival fun house with secret passageways, two-way mirrors, crystal balls, trap-door cabinets, strange projections, automatic doors and marvelous set decorations including a large image of a "third eye”. During his dramatic séances disembodied heads and hands fly around magically. Playing up the theatrical angle, Alexis seems to live in the metaphysical realm of shadows and spirits, far removed from earthly wants and desires.

Alexis’ clairvoyance stuns his clients. Somehow, mysteriously he knows about their background and is able to read and pinpoint their innermost thoughts, fears and dreams.
To Christine’s surprise and shock, he knows things a stranger could not possibly know, details about Paul’s death in a burning car and her new fiancé’s little idiosyncrasies.

Alexis’ success is easy to explain. He’s a charming and charismatic charlatan with the carefully cultivated image of a mystic.
He understands psychology 101 and knows how to push the right buttons. His strongest ally is his victims’ desperation and romanticism. He has a penetrating insight into the human psyche and and tells his clients exactly what they want to hear. A skilled magician can easily fool those who want to be fooled. Gullibility is a weakness easily preyed upon. 
He doesn’t neglect the practical side though. He plants his accomplice Emily into his targets’ houses as a maid so she can feed him all the information he needs.

There’s something of the Svengali about Alexis. He quite smartly wets people’s appetites and then leaves them dangling wanting to know more. "I cannot tell you how I know these things...but it hardly matters, does it? Since we're not going to meet again…”, he says to Christine. And she’s hooked.

It is to Bey’s credit that his Alexis doesn’t end up as a one-note caricature. He’s a well-rounded character with more depth in him than even he thought possible.

Two years after Paul’s death, Christine is still shuttered in her grief and can’t let go of his memory. 
Some reviewers have called her character a bit dim for falling so easily for a fraud, but for me she’s simply emotionally unbalanced and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s easily duped by Alexis’ apparent clairvoyance simply because she so desperately wants to believe that Paul is alive. Lynn Bari, so often the evil temptress, turns in a likable and sensitive performance as a woman who doesn’t know if she’s going crazy or being haunted by a ghost. 
It is an exploration of the classic Noir theme of a person’s desperate desire to recover a lost past. The presence is too bleak a place for Christine. The past is where happiness lies, or so she thinks. It will turn out to be an impossible dream with bitter consequences.

Nowhere is the past’s controlling influence more evident than in Paul’s towering portrait that looms large in the living room. Life-sized portraits play a big role in many (Noir) films (most notably Laura, Scarlet Street, The Lodger, The Two Mrs. Carrolls) and there’s always something unsettling about them, especially when the subject in the picture is dead. These portraits are like ghosts from another time. They're a way for the dead to keep an eternal watch, and - more importantly - a hold over the living from the beyond. Their eyes follow us around, sometimes questioning, sometimes reproachful, sometimes daring but never ignored. 

Paul’s portrait dominates the room, yet Christine’s immortal beloved is not a soothing but a menacing presence. Paul’s gaze is fierce and gripping. When Christine accepts Martin’s engagement ring, Paul is literally there between them starring at them disapprovingly. Christine can’t let go of the past, and the portrait won’t let go of Christine.

Christine sister, Janet, is at first only too keen on exposing Alexis as a fraud and rescuing her sister from his clutches. But it’s not long until she falls under the smooth operator’s spell. He’s not above laying the smarmy charm on really thick. Her common sense goes right out of the window.

There is a case of serious sibling rivalry on display. Christine, the elder, basically brought her young sister up. There don’t seem to be any parents in the picture. Janet confesses when she was younger she was jealous of her older sister because every man was only paying attention to her. The short but very telling opening scene can easily be missed. The shadow of Janet advances on Christine's turned back, and in her hand is something that could be mistaken for a gun. It turns out to be a hairbrush, but it gives us a clue about their future relationship.
Alexis holds both both women in a thrall though in different ways, and their rivalry comes to a head when Janet falls for Alexis.

All seems to be going swimmingly for Alexis, nonetheless there’s one thing that didn’t figure in his plans. Paul didn’t shuffle off this mortal coil years ago. At a séance at Alexis’ house he materializes out of nothing and no-one is more surprised than Alexis.
Alexis’ deception turns out to be far from the cruelest, he has nothing on Paul’s devilish machinations. Paul’s plan is to bring his wife to commit suicide by literally driving her crazy with drugs and then luring her to the cliffs expecting her to fall or jump to a watery grave. That would free the way for Alexis to marry Janet and all three of them could live happily ever after off Christine’s considerable fortune. If Alexis doesn’t want to go along with his machinations, well, there’s always a cell waiting for him at the state pen. The police would be immensely interested in his dubious séances. The dead who don’t stay dead make a beastly nuisance of themselves.

But Alexis doesn’t play. He may be a fraud who tries to squeeze as much money out of gullible suckers as possible, but there’s a line he doesn’t cross and that’s murder.
It’s interesting that the guy we think in the first half is the bad guy is replaced by one who is much more sinister and truly despicable. It changes the horror movie dynamics of the plot into something decidedly mundane. Murder for cold hard cash. 

Christine has to wake up to a harsh truth. Her past was a lie. Paul was never the wonderful husband she took him to be, but a gold-digging Bluebeard with a habit of bumping off wives for their inheritance. When the dead return, they not only defile their own image and memorial, they are a source of utter terror.

In the end Alexis is not beyond redemption and not quite the scoundrel he - and others - thought him to be. He saves Christine when she tumbles down the cliffs and ultimately takes a bullet for Janet when Paul wants to shoot her.

Of course the ending is Code-imposed, both Alexis and Paul must die, though it also becomes clear that before life can go on ghosts and illusions - both imagined and real - must be laid to rest. Christine can only be free if her fool's paradise is destroyed. Her whole past was a construct of wishes and rose-colored memories. 

Before he dies Alexis admits to Janet who he's come to love: 
"Don't cling to the past. I lived by feeding people's desire to escape the present, but you can't escape for long.”
Life is in the present. Alexis doesn't want Janet to make the same mistake as her sister. The dead must lie in their graves, easy or not.

The Amazing Mr. X is an incredibly watchable movie despite its occasional shortcomings and certain indisputably campy interludes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

“Put in hours and hours of planning. Figure everything down to the last detail. Then what? Burglar alarms start going off all over the place for no sensible reason. A gun fires of its own accord and a man is shot. And a broken down old cop, no good for anything but chasing kids, has to trip over us. Blind accident. What can you do against blind accidents?" Doc Riedenschneider
The Asphalt Jungle was directed by the great John Huston for MGM, a studio whose bread and butter were lightweight musicals and wholesome fare. Louis B. Mayer hated the movie, saying “I wouldn’t cross the street to see garbage like that”. Most people begged to differ. By 1950 even MGM had to acknowledge the sign of the times in a changing postwar world. Socially-conscious Dore Schary was about to take over the studio as Mayer had become the lion in winter.

The Asphalt Jungle is atypical Noir insofar as there are no femmes fatales, no private eyes, no constantly wise-cracking tough guys here. Make no mistake though, this caper movie is as bleak as they come. It has doom written all over it and from the beginning we know how this is going to end. There's a feeling of utter desolation about it.
The best crime films and Noirs always manage to transcend the constraining parameters of their genre and dig below the surface. Jungle is serious drama about postwar disillusionment.

Just released from jail, criminal mastermind Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is already putting the next perfect heist into action. He just needs the help of some local crooks. Low-rent bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) sets him up with crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich, played with deliciously smarmy relish by Louis Calhern. He’s the money man who’s supposed to bankroll the operation.
They hire “hoodlum” Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) as the muscle for the job, hunchbacked diner owner Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) as the getaway driver and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) as the safecracker. Unbeknownst to them, Emmerich is hatching a double-cross with his henchman Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter). Married Emmerich plans to take the loot and skip town with his mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe in her breakout role). At first all goes according to plan, but things start to unravel fairly quickly. Poor Ciavelli catches a bullet in a freak accident and the cops are onto them almost at once. Dix kills Brannom in self-defense, Emmerich has to dispose of the body and the police start to ask inconvenient questions. From then on it’s all downhill. 

The Asphalt Jungle is usually credited as the movie that launched the Noir sub-genre of the caper film and it set the template for all the ones to follow (The Killing, Rififi, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, Ocean’s 11).

The picture is divided into three Acts. Act One: gathering of the team; Act Two: planning and execution of the heist; Act Three: the aftermath and fall-out, with each member’s human failing becoming more and more evident.

Jungle was a critical success. An excerpt from Variety’s film review reads:
 “An audience will quite easily pull for the crooks in their execution of the million-dollar jewelry theft around which the plot is built.” 
This statement puts the finger right on the pulse of the problem. Heist movies are expressly designed to defy the Code’s suggestion that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be on the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” They manipulate the moviegoer into sympathizing and even identifying with the criminals. But pulling for the crooks was a big no-no under the Production Code.

Huston flaunted that Code mightily. In Jungle he gives us destitute characters who are complex and deeply human. Huston doesn't judge his characters in regards to morals but presents them as they are, as people whose backstories are worth knowing. The criminals are NOT the dregs of society - murderers, psychos and amoral thugs - as so often portrayed in other movies. They’re normal people who just happen to steal for a living. After all, as Steve Cochran said, a guy has to make a living some way, even if he is a gangster.
Eddie Muller put it like this: 
These crooks were humanized, not demonized.… They're not hostile hoods looking for a way to wield power, they're disgruntled city dwellers driven to score some breathing room.”
Huston’s felons don’t have lofty aspirations. Ciavelli doesn't crave a penthouse or fancy cars; he wants enough money to move his family out of a tenement. Doc dreams of retiring to Mexico where he can ogle pretty girls to his heart’s content. Dix needs money fast to pay off his gambling debts before he can buy back the beloved family horse ranch in Kentucky that was lost during the Depression. Dix’s girl Doll (Jean Hagen) just wants him, unconditionally. Gus would do anything for Dix because Dix doesn’t treat him - a cripple -  like a pariah.

It’s crooked lawyer Emmerich who puts it eloquently with uncanny insight: "Crime is simply a left-handed form of human endeavor". He insists that criminals are perfectly normal people. "There's nothing so different about them”. It is "respectable citizen" Emmerich who'll turn out to be the real rat.

Only one note rings false in the movie but that’s not Huston’s fault. The PCA was miffed that Jungle featured a dirty cop and they made Huston put in the obligatory “crime does not pay” sermon as a concession to the Production Code. Huston added a scene in which John McIntire's blowhard and preachy Police Commissioner Hardy drones on about the crooks’ viciousness and the cops’ righteousness…lest we forget who’s who. 
Still, Huston would get the last laugh. Hardy comes off as an unpleasant prick. He calls Dix “a hardened criminal…a man without human feeling or mercy”, but the audience knows that this is not true. Everything we see on the screen flies in the face of that assessment. The crooks may not have much in common beyond an opportunity that’s too good to pass up, but they look out for each other. They have a sense of honor, they live by a code. They don’t betray their friends.
Huston stayed within the confines of the Code while really giving it the finger.

“If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town!”
The film opens with a shot of a bleak and decayed urban environment, a smog-choked nameless Midwestern city. Empty desolate streets, abandoned run-down factories and stores, rubble-covered back alleys… It may be 1950, but from the looks of it this town never recovered from the Depression, never made it out of the past. Postwar prosperity has passed this place by. Only the breadlines are missing. It's like a Mad Max Universe, only cops and robbers roam the streets.
This is no shiny metropolis, it's a city where opportunity is slim and poverty is a given. It produces an environment ripe for criminal activity. 

In Noir the city is (in general) a Great Foul Place that pollutes people. It is full of sin, corruption and temptation. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the urban sprawl was steamrolling over the country's rural roots and the Depression devastated rural America. People migrated to the city in search for work and became exposed to the dark side of the urban jungle. Many people yearned for the idyllic past that likely never was.

Country settings are the counterpoint to this city corruption. Dix believes he would never have become a crook if his father hadn't lost the farm. The bucolic life is salvation. That’s how Dix sees it. It will cleanse him of what he has become. "First thing I'm gonna do is take a bath in the creek and wash this city dirt off me," he tells Doll. Doll flinches slightly at the words because she knows she’s part of the city grime.

In Jungle the protagonists have a deep longing for a better life which is the driving force for their actions.
A strong sentimental streak runs through the movie. For such a notoriously unsentimental genre, strangely enough there is a hidden - and often not so hidden - romanticism in many Noirs. A nostalgic yearning for something important that one once possessed. And no risk is too big to chase after the rainbow to recapture it.

Lamentably, the best-laid plans of mice and gangsters go up in smoke. The heist goes wrong. And not just any heist but THE heist, the last big one that should have set the gang up for life. As so often in Noir, the one last shot at salvation leads to ruin. 
The execution should have been watertight but the devil is in the details. One little slip-up during the robbery sets in motion the domino effect that brings the gang down.  
The invisible puppet master of the universe is pulling the strings again. Call it what you want. Destiny, kismet, chance, monkey wrench, blind accident or Fate. It is inescapable.

The vast (supporting) cast is marvelous across the board and delivers fully fleshed-out nuanced performances. Everyone is fatally flawed and/or burdened with a personal weakness that will trip them up. The great thing is that Huston afforded each character a measure of compassion, no matter how corrupt they are. Even Emmerich.

Safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli’s motivations are easiest to understand, he’s the most sympathetic of the group. He needs to feed his family.
Hunchback Gus is a misfit, but is loyal to a fault to the few friends he has. He’d do anything for Dix.

Dix is obsessed with reclaiming his family’s horse farm in Kentucky. Unfortunately he simply can’t kick the habit of betting on horses and losing. So he sticks up small businesses to get out of the red again. 
He used to be a different man once, in a galaxy far far away. Dix's passion for the past - when life was beautiful and good - is strong, even if the past was never as idyllic as remembered. The past is a fantasy, an idealized utopia. Doc sees that much more clearly than Dix: “You can always go home but when you do…it’s nothing”.

His sort-of girlfriend Doll loves him beyond reason, but he can’t return her devotion as his entire life is fixated on that farm. Going back will cleanse him of the corruption of the city, and that’s why he can’t look towards a future. But Kentucky was a lifetime ago.
The problem is Dix fails to be honest and look within himself. He doesn't want to take responsibility for his shortcomings, the way Doc does. It's easier just to blame the City.

Doll is a showgirl out of a job, broke and with no place to go. She has some of the most moving and poignant scenes in the film and her pathetic desperation is hard to watch at times. She clings to her romantic illusion that Dix loves her as much as she loves him. Another useless pipe dream.

Though Hayden and Calhern got top billing, for me it is Sam Jaffe who steals the show. Smart, educated and methodical, Doc Riedenschneider is an aging criminal mastermind, just out of prison after a seven-year stretch. Doesn’t matter. He has planning heists down to a science so he goes right back to it. This time around it's a meticulously plotted million-dollar jewel heist. Not a tough guy by any means, he still shows remarkable calm and professionalism under pressure when confronted with setbacks. When Emmerich’s muscle pulls a gun on him, he’s cool as a cucumber. He can keep his mind on the job and not lose his nerves. Most of the time.
There’s just one thing: Doc has a fatal weakness for ogling young girls. This will be his downfall. It is to Jaffe’s credit that his Doc does not in the least come off as a dirty old man. His Old World manners and refinement simply make him an absolute charmer. Doc is class through and through, as opposed to Emmerich who Doc sees right through.

In the end it’s Doc who ends up with most of the jewels. But they’re worthless now, the jewels are too hot and no one dares fence them.
Doc’s downfall is the most ironic and avoidable. On his way out of town he stops at a roadside bar where a pretty teenager jives to the jukebox. It’s the best scene in the film. Her dance is sexy and mesmerizing. So far Doc has taken every hurdle, his goal is nearly achieved. Now he wastes valuable time indulging his passion. It seals his fate. The cops close in quickly and all is over for Doc. 

He takes it stoically and philosophically, even asking the cops for a (post-coital) cigar! Doc has long ago acknowledged his weakness and now calmly accepts his fate when he knows that it is his own fatal flaw that brought him down. He’s a pro, better luck next time. It simply wasn’t his night. But the audience can be sure that Doc savored every second in that dive bar. For him, it was worth it. "One way or another, we all work for our vice."

Alonzo Emmerich is the corrupt lawyer whose entire life is a fraud. Presenting himself as an urbane, sophisticated and rich man who has it all, in reality he’s simply broke and desperate for money. He’s lived way beyond his means (“Every time I turn around it costs thousands of dollars…ten thousand here, ten thousand there”) and it cleaned him out. But he likes the good life, including expensive hobby Angela who has him wrapped around her little finger. Emmerich’s sterling reputation comes in handy when he wants to cheat people. With little in the way of a conscience, he’s not above resorting to crime and he takes to it like a duck to water. If he has to double-cross his partners and maybe kill them, so be it. His fall is the lowest because he used to be at the top. When the game is up and his life comes crashing down, he cowardly shoots himself.

It is only fitting that the film that opened with a desolate urban jungle closes on a vision of the green, green grass of home. A mortally wounded and hallucinating Dix - a dead man walking -  finally makes it to the Promised Land. He dies in his field of dreams surrounded by horses who come to nuzzle him. He’s back home where he belongs…in the past. It’s poetic and cruel at the same time.

Ultimately it was all for nothing. Nobody actually got what they wanted. The jungle swallowed them all up. Nobody walks away unscathed and nobody walks out forgetting what has just happened. Even if you survive, you don’t win. That holds true for even the most minor characters. Emmerich's sick wife will find out what her husband really was, Mrs. Ciavelli has to raise her child alone, Doll has lost the man she loves.

At the end of heist movies there’s always a sense of waste and futility, never more so than here. To paraphrase another movie, the future is a blind alley with a big barred gate at the end.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Highway 301 (1950)

The German Poster
Highway 301 was directed by Andrew L. Stone for Warner Bros. It’s a a fast-paced little crime movie with tight direction, barely any filler shots and a certain polish to it. This is no bottom-of-the-barrel Poverty Row production.

Not too surprisingly, notorious NYTimes film critic Bosley Crowther got himself all lathered up about the picture. He hated it and called it a “cheap gangster melodrama” and a “straight exercise in low sadism”. A Film Noir of the Week reviewer called Bosley Crowther a “high-toned windbag” in his The Big Steal review, an assessment I tend to agree with. Bosley missed the mark on this one, as he so often did.

The plot is simple. The movie is about a gang of bank and payroll robbers led by vicious and trigger-happy George Legenza (Steve Cochran). They’re known by the bland moniker the Tri-State Gang because they pull heists in three states. Legenza just busted his way out of the State Pen - probably the psych ward -  and now returns happily to a life of crime. Cochran is at his nasty and brutal best. Everybody who stands in his way is dispatched immediately and efficiently.

Up till now, Legenza and his gang have rather been small-time. All this is about to change however with the last big heist, THE heist that’s supposed to be the retirement fund. Unfortunately the holdup goes wrong when the spoils turn out to be nothing more than cut money, on its way to Washington for burning. Legenza is angry and just for revenge he shoots the inside man on the job. Somebody has to be held responsible for the mess-up. But this heist has finally given the police some clues to work with.

Highway 301 was made by Warner Bros., whose house special in the 30s had been gangsters with tommy guns. The picture is a throwback to Warner’s roots. It is gangster movie mixed with docu-drama plus the occasional Noirish touch. 
Stylistically 301 is plenty Noir, even if its soul isn’t. Noir here is used mostly for atmospheric effect, with realism and a healthy dose of brutality thrown in.

The 30s gangster movie had always been sold to the public as a morality tale. “Crime does not pay, boys and girls!” Wink, wink. But contrary to its purported message, Warner showed the gangster life in all its glory… while ostensibly wagging a finger at crime. Hoodlums could gleefully wallow in the cesspool of humanity as long as they got theirs in the end. Eddie Bartlett, Rocky Sullivan and Rico were hell raisers who shot their way to the top and lived it up high style just to draw their last in a dirty gutter in the end. The truth however was, the gangsters’ lives looked pretty nice. Fast cars, even faster women and money to blow in swanky nightclubs seemed vastly more alluring than living on $40 a week in a shabby tenement. Gangsters lived it up while the rest of the country was starving. It all sounded too seductive. Crime doesn’t pay. Really, I think there are those who’d disagree with that. Dying in a hail of machine gun fire was a small price to pay for some fun.

As opposed to the traditional gangster movie, Highway 301 shows the lives of the Tri-State Gang members in a very un-romanticized way. There’s hardly any glamour to be found in their cramped digs, cheap motels and second-rate nightclubs. Those guys aren’t on their way to the top, they’re on the road to nowhere. The audience had to know from the start that crime didn't get you anything.

The 50s favored stories that praised the forces of authority in their fearless struggle against enemies of society and the state. There’s usually a clear-cut distinction between good guys and bad guys. Focus is on a broader social canvas. Exposing evil like communism and organized crime was important. The stentorian lecture at the start of so many 50s crime dramas - that Classic Noir had spared us - drove this point home with a vengeance.  

In fact, 301 doesn’t feature any Classic Noir themes, but one. No suckers or troubled souls who go over to the dark side out of desperation or lust and obsession can be found here. Legenza’s motivations are straightforward and prosaic: money. Killing is strictly business, absolutely detached and unemotional, it doesn’t affect him one way or the other. He’d make the perfect hitman.
There’s no complexity in the plot and no depth and ambivalence in the characters either. The movie goes straight for violence and action. I’m OK with that.

Of course we do get the moralistic sermon at the beginning warning us against moral turpitude. Apparently, the audience needed to be scared straight before the hoods could get their sticky paws on them. “Crime is an empty career” is one of the platitudes spouted by a humorless flatfoot who’s preaching from the pulpit here.

301’s public service announcement to keep on the straight and narrow is delivered by no less than three real governors! These blowhards assure us with a completely straight face that this movie could actually stop some juvie from turning to a life of crime. It goes something like this: “Kids, this movie, THIS MOVIE, saved me from a life of crime. It will SAVE YOU TOO!”
It’s a howler. J. Edgar has a lot to answer for.

Mercifully, it’s short. Just pretend the first four minutes are all a bad dream. Because once the cringe stops, we’re finally on track to a mean and sadistic little flick that the censors slept through. Old Bosley was right, the flick is sadistic, but he said it like it’s a bad thing. 301 is plenty entertaining.

The picture is Cochran’s show. An extremely good-looking man, Cochran was also a good actor who never got his due. Cochran had an air of easy violence and sexual menace about him which practically predestined him to play tough guys or scumbag psychos. But he was perfectly believable playing against type in Tomorrow is Another Day as naive man-child who has to learn the ways of the world. 

His real-life escapades could easily outshine his on-screen antics. He certainly lived fast and died fairly young. His amorous exploits are the stuff of legend. He was a heavy drinker and was involved in a number of highly-publicized brawls and fights. Run-ins with the law were a common occurrence. Somehow I get the feeling that he loved his bad boy image more than anything. In the 60s, his lifestyle was catching up with him and led to his premature death at 48. Details about it are bizarre and mysterious. He hired an all-girl crew - who knew nothing about sailing - for a trip from Acapulco to Costa Rica. Three weeks later his body was found. Cochran had been dead for ten days and his body was badly decomposed. The women claimed they had been adrift at sea. The official cause of death was ruled to be a lung infection. Make of that what you will.

Legenza’s personality dominates the gang and Cochran’s performance dominates the movie. He’s in top form as an ice-cold and terrifying psycho without a conscience. Legenza doesn’t believe in taking prisoners. His method of dealing with people who don’t see things his way are rather direct and well, final. He won’t be crossed or disobeyed.

Oddly enough, the gangsters have their women with them when they’re “working”. Not a smart move. The only one who doesn’t mess things up is Mary Simms (Virginia Grey). Grey deserves honorable mention as wife of a gang member. She’s wise to what is going on, but doesn’t care. Her portable radio is all that’s important to her. Grey was an actress who was usually relegated to supporting roles as nice best friend, betrayed girlfriend or faithful wife. Here she gets to be amoral. As long as the money keeps coming in, she’s fine with whatever her man does. 

Women cause a lot of problems in 301 (don't they always), but for Legenza it’s nothing that a 9 millimeter couldn’t take care of. When his latest squeeze Madeleine gets plastered, she starts to shoot her mouth off. But it’s clear to her she’s said too much for once. In a very suspenseful sequence she tries to escape, but there is no escape. “Going someplace, sweetie?” Legenza gloats when he catches up with her.
He guns her down in brightly-lit nighttime in front of an elevator attendant, sending her tumbling down the stairs. Legenza knows the witness won’t talk.

Lee Fontaine (Gaby André), a French-Canadian girl newly-married to one of Legenza’s underlings, is another headache for him. Lee married her husband after a very short courtship and has no idea what he and his friends are up to. She is naive and very much in love, but she’s not stupid. She catches on soon enough, and after her husband is shot, Lee too tries to escape.

In another suspenseful sequence, Legenza stalks Lee through night-time Richmond. We can see real terror here. Lee knows she’s trapped and realizes she is utterly alone and helpless. Finally she manages to catch a cab, just to realize the driver is Legenza…who puts a bullet into her at point-blank range.
This scene is shot beautifully with evocative shadows on empty streets and high heels clicking on rain-slicked pavement. Warner’s backlot stood in for the streets of Richmond, VA. It's a little lesson in Noir. 

Miraculously - too miraculously - Lee survives and will cause some more trouble for Legenza. She just won’t die. In true Noir tradition, it’s a woman who is Cochran’s downfall, just in a different way this time. Legenza goes to the hospital where she’s lying to clean up some unfinished business. He doesn’t smell a rat. Of course the cops are there and it all ends in a shootout. Legenza is dying on the train tracks, riddled with bullets, watching the speeding train come closer. It packs a punch.

A nice little movie, worth seeking out.