Pickup on South Street (1953)

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Opening Statement

 

A spy, a hooker & a pickpocket walk into a police station…

 

Review

 

Skip McCoy is a cannon, a pickpocket who works the crowds in busy New York city. While pursuing his usual line of criminal work, he steals some items from a woman’s purse. Little does he know that the woman is a courier for a communist spy ring and he just stole a piece of microfilm that they will do almost anything to get back. Also interested are the G-Men looking to arrest said spies. Both parties suspect he’s involved and Skip will have to think fast to get out of this mess. Complicating things are his growing feelings for the girl who was the unwitting courier for the gang.

 

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Skip at work. Moving in.
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He has no idea what kind of dynamite is in that purse.

Pickup on South Street is a 1953 film noir directed by the famously independent Sam Fuller, who was also a crime beat reporter in New York and a combat infantryman in WW2.

 

Fuller’s own experiences give the film a gritty, street level realism that stands out even in the famously gritty film noir genre. All of the characters in this film have agendas, scams and their own motivations that never completely mesh with anyone else’s.

 

Skip, the pickpocket, played by Richard Widmark is just looking to survive in a tough city. he’s already a 2 time felon, one more conviction or even a misdemeanor will send him up state for 20 years. So he’s very uninterested in helping to investigate a group of spies. He starts as an anti-hero at best, at one point snarling “Don’t wave your flag at me” to an FBI agent trying to appeal to his patriotism.

 

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Skip being a smart-ass, as usual.

Candy, the woman he robbed, played by Jean Peters in one of her best roles, thought she was just doing a favor for an ex-boyfriend by dropping off a package. She suspected it was probably something illegal, but she had no idea that she was a courier for an international spy ring. Her attempts to work her charm on Skip to get the film back and his acidic replies, are some of the better parts of the film.The chemistry between the two leads is electric and provides a needed mid-film jolt.

 

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Candy, not happy after being slugged, again, by Skip. If looks could kill.

Another great performance is Thelma Ritter’s character Moe, who earns a living as a professional information broker, ie a stool pigeon. She also serves as a sort of surrogate mother to Skip and provides part of the catalyst that turns him from indifferent crook to spy hunter by the climax of the film.

 

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Moe Knows.

The backstory on the production of Pickup on South Street is almost as interesting as the film itself. Before Jean Peters was cast as Candy, Shelley Winters, Betty Grable and Marylin Monroe were all considered and rejected for various reasons. Betty Grable apparently wanted the role badly, but also wanted a dance number that Sam Fuller thought (correctly IMHO) would destroy the flow and authenticity of the film. Fuller liked Monroe’s acting, but felt her beauty and sex appeal would distract from the rest of the story and wouldn’t be believable. Jean Peters provided the right combination of toughness, street smarts, and sex appeal for the character.

 

Sam Fuller also had multiple battles with the Code censors over the level of violence and overt sexuality in the film. You can tell from the final product that Fuller was able to preserve much of the film’s character. The main changes seem to be an overly optimistic happy ending and some deliberate vagueness in the story about what Candy’s actual profession is (hint: Not a Sunday school teacher). Fortunately these concessions don’t affect the quality of the finished product.

 

The film is one of the most violent I’ve seen from the era, with several brutal murders, beatings and a final fight scene that is spectacularly choreographed and filmed. Fuller’s street experience shows in the portrayal of how tough life on the streets can be for the poor and criminal. You can feel the desperation and sense of vulnerability of many of the characters as they struggle to make it another day.

 

Verdict 4 gavels out of 5 Classic in the film noir genre, with a bit of espionage and romance mixed in to keep things interesting.

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The new Magnificent 7 film

I just saw the new Magnificent 7 film. Overall it wasn’t too bad, typical summer blockbuster fare. Like most remakes/reboots, whatever the studios want to call them nowadays, it’s bigger and louder than the original. The cast is likeable and once the 7 are assembled, the film picks up pace a bit, albeit somewhat unevenly. The story’s villain changes from a bandit criminal gang in the 1960 Magnificent 7, to an amoral gunfighter/robber baron backed up by the local sheriff.

My main issue with the film is why someone thought it was necessary in the first place. Westerns are practically an endangered species in theaters now. Why remake a 56 year legendary film?

Especially since every aspect of the new film will be compared to it’s fore-bearers, the original Magnificent 7 and the equally legendary Kurosawa film Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) the 1960 Magnificent 7 is based on. This where the film runs into problems, it’s good, but not great enough to erase comparisons to it’s predecessors.

The modern edits to the story include a new revenge sub-plot involving Denzel Washington’s character that does little more than confuse the plot. The primary villain is a walking  collection of TV Tropes, shoot the messengerrobber baron and card carrying villain to name a few.

Another issue is the army of villains, who seem to have more in common with a World War 2 Banzai charge than a mercenary band. In the film’s climax, they are shown rushing repeatedly into murderous crossfire, dynamite mines and deadly booby traps with nary a flinch or sign of retreat.

The film gives no motive for this behavior. Fear, greed, misplaced loyalty? The plot gives no sign of anything to justify their continuing to attack as most of their comrades are mowed down in ill advised frontal assaults on the town.

The film also suffers from the typical modern summer blockbuster ailments of overly loud (to the point of clipping out the theater’s speakers) soundtrack and bloated editing. Many scenes go on at least a few beats too long, which quickly adds up and makes the film feel longer than the 1960 Magnificent 7, despite being roughly the same run time. Overall it feels like less is done with the available time.

On the plus side the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful panning shots of prairies, forests and mountains.

Overall I’d say it’s probably worth seeing in theaters, especially if you’re a fan of the genre or of one of the actors. The beautiful cinematography and likeable cast rescue it from a muddled plot and sometimes plodding pace. Just don’t expect anything special. Otherwise, wait for the budget showing or for the inevitable video release.

Robert Odierna 2016

DCI Banks

DCI Banks

Hi everyone,

I just realized that I inadvertently flipped my review order. I was planning to review DCI Banks first.

Review

DCI Banks is a show I’ve just started to watch. A police procedural from our friends across the Atlantic, ITV. DCI Banks is based on author Peter Robinson’s novels. The main protagonist DCI Alan Banks is a study in tenacity. A determined major crimes detective for a Yorkshire police department. What Banks lacks in resources or superhuman insight; he makes up for in sheer determination. Ruthlessly working leads and not afraid to step on toes to get the arrest.

The show starts with the death of a police officer responding to a domestic violence call. His partner brutally beats the killer, Marcus Payne, into a coma. When detectives arrive, they find that they injured man had the bodies of 4 missing women locked in a basement dungeon. DCI Alan Banks is determined to find out if a fifth missing girl is still alive.

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A major side plot in this initial show is the investigation of the officer. Since she beat the suspect into a coma with her police baton, the departments Professional Standards division wants to prosecute her for excessive force.

Making the investigation is DS Annie Cabbot, a very ambitious and aggressive detective.

Unlike shows such as Sherlock, Bones or Poirot; the characters in DCI Banks are not superhuman, they are deeply flawed individuals struggling with their own weaknesses as well as the interpersonal issues that plague any workplace.

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Banks and Cabbot, not exactly best friends at the moment.

This is where DS Annie Cabbot is an interestingly different take on the hero sidekick role. She is rude, abrupt and abrasive. She often clashes with her bosses and definitely has her own agenda. This has made her a deeply controversial character among fans of detective fiction. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I like the difference. While not perfect for every show, it’s refreshing to see this type of character asserting her independence even if she spectacularly messes up on occasion. Naturally Banks and Cabbot clash almost constantly during their initial team up, being more similar than either would care to admit.

The mistakes are a major difference in this show. None of the characters are perfect crime fighting machines, clues are missed, office politics sabotages investigations, critical points are argued over and the show rarely ends in a drawing room reveal. The show also does not flinch away from showing the psychological damages of violent crime on all involved, this becomes a major plot line in the first series.

The villains are mostly your usual mugshot line of violent serial killers, with a few fascinating variations. There are also a few episodes that deal with violent organized crime and human trafficking.

Verdict 3 Gavels out of 5 Despite a few bugs, a pretty good detective show. The extremely flawed characters mark a nice change from the usual super-sleuths of detective fiction. The characters are flawed, human and refreshingly real.

Robert Odierna September 2016

Links

Hi everyone,

Here is a link to a website devoted to an often forgotten aspect of the very visual film medium: Sound. Virtually everything you hear in a modern film from dialog to background speech (walla) to foley (mostly footsteps) is either artificially added or post processed in a hundred specialized ways. It’s a testament to the skill of these artists that films sound as good as they do.

It wasn’t always that way, one of the reasons people find early sound films a challenge is the primitive nature of the sound. Often the only sound system was an open omnidirectional mic. This was also a few years before high quality condensor mic systems escaped from the Navy sonar department and into studios.

filmsound.org is a great resource into this niche but fascinating field of film. From basic how to articles to extensive and detailed interviews, this site is a treasure for any film fan who wants to see how their favorite art form is made.

Harper’s Island (2009)

Harper’s Island (2009)

Opening Statement

25 victims. 1? killer and not one brain among them all.

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Review

 

Harper’s Island is a 2009 attempt at creating a cinematic Frankenstein’s Monster. A complex melange of different genres including murder mystery, suspense, horror and evening soap opera. The result is a lumbering, impressive and sometimes comical faceplant of a series that never quite decides what it wants to be when it grows up.

 

The show starts with a group of people boarding a ferryboat on their way to a destination wedding on Harper’s Island off the coast of Oregon. Local boy Henry Dunn is marrying the wealthy and beautiful Trish Wellington.

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The bride (Trish) on the left
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The groom (Henry) 2nd from left.

Henry’s best friend, Abbie Mills is only here to see the wedding. She has quite a bit of history with Harper’s Island and you can immediately tell she has some serious issues with the whole thing.

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Abbie, the best friend
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The Wakefield murders

Also included in the boat ride o’ death are various relatives and pals of Henry and Trish. This is the evening soap side of the show and will overlap the murder mystery part for the first few episodes.

 

The groom’s friends notice one of the guests is absent, but leave anyway, expecting him to catch up. What they don’t know is that he is already there, tied to one of the boats prop skegs, Naturally when those big props start to turn, we have our first victim.

 

Things then shift to the island, where serial John Wakefield slaughtered 6 women, including Abbie’s mother, 7 years ago, before being “killed” by Abbie’s father, Sheriff Charlie Mills. The tree that he hung their bodies from is still present and gives her a nasty shock when she sees it. (Why anybody would want to hold a wedding in such a place is beyond me.)

 

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Abbie’s father, the local sheriff. A day late and a dollar short as usual.

The next few episodes are filled with wedding plans, practical jokes, drama and drunken hookups with the occasional murder or suicide to keep things interesting. This is the transition to the mystery side of things.

 

As a mystery this one is a bit of a dud. The show heroically attempts to throw you off the scent by hurling red herrings like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets show, multiple people are questioned, arrested and generally clash with the Sheriff as the bodies start to pile up.

 

Problem is the show’s writers can’t help but bang on the serial killer Macguffin. Every other character drops the Wakefield name like they were selling it and it quickly becomes obvious that it will be a matter of when, not if, he appears. Also, while simply watching and not even heavily analyzing the show, I had my suspicions as to who the real antagonist was by episode 7 and was positive about his identity and motivation by episode 10, very disappointing for a murder mystery.

 

Another issue is the transition from drama to murder mystery, while at least 1 person has been killed every episode, even at episode 6, characters are still clinging to the upcoming wedding and pretending nothing is amiss. Any sane person would be ready to swim for it if multiple suicides and homicides were going on. Even better, the entire island is strewn with deadly traps including deadfalls, snares and pits. Yet no one seems to have any problems crashing through the forest like a herd of buffalo.

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At this point there have been roughly 6 murders, a suicide and several accidents involving deadly traps. Yet everyone thinks it’s a grand idea to run around in the woods after dark.

 

The slasher side of things works a bit better, by episodes 8-9, things are moving at a much better pace. The problem at this point is that some of slasher film’s least attractive tropes start to appear. Normally logical characters split up and start running into the woods like idiots. Characters illogically put themselves into situations where they can be pinned by the antagonist. Proficient shots miss the hulking killer with shotguns at point blank range, repeatedly. The slasher shows a Michael Myers level of supernatural toughness that jars badly with the semi-realistic murder mystery feel of the middle section of the show. Needless to say, all the rules from Scream start to apply by episode 6 making it that much easier to predict where the show is going.

 

While all of these issues are business as usual in the slasher genre, even expected. They clash badly with the measured, investigative feel of the earlier show.

 

Visually the show is stunning, filmed in lovely Canada, like most proper American TV productions of recent vintage. The director makes full use of the lush forest and dark landscapes of Bowen Island BC.

 

The actors in the production are decent to good. With several developing believable, even likeable characters when given an opportunity. The problem is that there are so many of them and quite a few resemble other performers, Elaine Cassidy and Katie Cassidy (confusingly not related) are especially similar as Abby and Trish. While you quickly figure out who’s who, it can bring you out of the zone for a few seconds until you figure it out. The sheer number of the cast also makes it hard to keep track of things, especially at the start, before the herd starts to thin.

 

The show’s plot is stretched over a 13 episode half season mini-series, which makes it as near anorexic as some of the characters in the show. What would be a passable 2 or 4 hour mini-series is stretched over 8.5 hours, forcing in a large amount of flab and filler. This defuses a lot of possible tension, especially early in the series. This also makes for a lot of wasted scenes and long takes that badly need an editor.

 

Verdict 2 Gavels out of 5 Interesting attempt at blending several different genres. Unfortunately the fundamental differences between these genres make Harper’s Island a confusing mishmash of ideas that never quite work correctly. Decent performances by some of the cast and moments of suspense do redeem it somewhat. Unfortunately the substantial time investment of 8.5 hours and 13 episodes make it difficult to recommend. The show simply takes too long to get going for the payoff to be worth it.

Links: Spymuseum.com

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to point to a non-film site that a friend just showed me: spymuseum.com

If you have an interest in all things espionage, this is a great resource. All of the big time stories are there: classic spy cases like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, spy masters such as Soviet Feliks Dzerzhinsky and CIA legend James Jesus Angleton. There are also many more obscure, but no less fascinating stories such as Rudolf Abel, who’s story was a major part of the recent film Bridge of Spies.

Most of the stories involve the cold war Great Game between the Soviets and the West and their various proxies around the world. Fascinating stuff if you like your history with a bit of intrigue.

Coming Soon

Coming Soon

Hi everybody, here is a list of reviews I am currently working on. A bit of a mixed bag this time, a US TV miniseries, another Brit-mystery and a film noir classic.

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First up is DCI Banks, a recent show from ITV in England. DCI Banks is an old school detective trying to navigate the perils of modern life while breaking in a new team and trying to catch a diabolical serial murderer.

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Next is Harper’s Island, an interesting attempt to blend the drama of an evening soap with the suspense and terror of a slasher film, all while trying to keep it at a network friendly TV-14/PG-13 rating.

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Finally, a personal favorite of mine, Pickup On South Street, a low budget, but feisty blend of film noir and espionage as a pick pocket becomes tangled in the dealings of a dangerous international spy ring after he steals a woman’s purse on a subway.