Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Zero Bull, Fist in Face: Two Anthony Mann White-Knucklers

Turner Classic Movies is further cementing their rep in this neck of the woods as the best station on cable with a month-long retrospective of films by Anthony Mann, one of the best journeyman directors to work in the '40's and '50's.

Today, Mann is best known for a clutch of superb westerns, most in vivid color and featuring James Stewart (Winchester 73 and Bend of the River are two of the best and most famous). But before those oaters, the director slugged it out with lower budgets in the crime and film noir genres. If (like me) all you've seen are his westerns, Mann's journeys into the darker underbellies of pulp cinema are one hell of an eye-opener. The veteran helmsman's conflicted western heroes make even more sense once you see 1948's Raw Deal and 1950's Border Incident: his cowboys were noir archetypes seeking redemption and justice, too (only from a worn saddle instead of the inside of a getaway vehicle).

Raw Deal (no relation to the 1986 Schwarzenegger opus of the same name) was viewed as just another B flick back in the day, but it's acquired deserved cachet among noir fans in recent years. This prizefighter-potent and compact thriller follows Joe (Dennis O'Keefe), a low-level gangster who lays himself out as fall guy to monstrous kingpin Rick (Raymond Burr). Tired of cooling off in the pokey for Rick's sake, Joe escapes the big house with the aid of his tough-as-nails gal Pat (Claire Trevor). Then the couple splits town, with a compassionate (and smitten with Joe, it turns out)social worker, Ann (Marsha Hunt)in reluctant tow. Rick, as befits most Mr. Big types, ain't too trusting, and he plots to doublecross Joe with promises of wealth and smooth sailing to Panama.

The script--while decidedly no masterwork of the form a la Geoffrey Homes'/Dan Mainwaring's screenplay for Out of the Past--wastes nary a beat, and all of the principals deliver in spades. O'Keefe's unassuming, almost schlumpy visage makes him a great noir viaduct of misfortune. Without the sloe-eyed confidence of a Mitchum or the resolve of a Bogart, he makes Joe a plausibly gruff, earthbound and downcast noir pug. Hunt, meanwhile, grounds her should-be-thankless Good Girl archetype with intelligence and vulnerability.

Like any noir worth its blood and bullets, though, the best characters dwell on the seedy side of the street. Underappreciated character actor John Ireland pops up in a cool turn as Rick's most prominent thug, Fantail (great noir character name, that). And just wait'll you get a load of the youthful Burr. Cinematographer John Alton uses shadow to emphasize the actor's massive frame--here's a guy whose mere presence elicits the willies--but Burr plays Rick with loose-cannon sadism and sniveling cowardice in equal doses (spoiler alert: nothin' but NOTHIN' will prepare you for the sight of TV's Perry Mason coolly hurling a blazing flambee into the face of one especially luckless moll).

Beaten-down, frayed-at-the-edges Pat provides the movie's narration and--in the end--its soul. Trevor is heartrending in one of her best performances; you can literally see the hope drain from Pat as the sexual tension between Joe and Ann builds, and when this utterly demoralized tough-girl wearily intones the final narrative, the words hit as hard as any of the rat-a-tat action that's preceded them.

Border Incident cuts things so close to the bone that it makes the already-concise Raw Deal look damn near flabby in comparison, despite the fact that it's actually lengthier. It's a lean and mean (REALLY mean) semi-documentary police drama that follows the paths of two law enforcement officers, Mexican agent Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and US Fed Jack Bearnes (George Murphy), as they infiltrate an illegal immigration ring. Rodriguez poses as a worker, while Bearnes impersonates a stolen-work-permit-carrying thug. And the vermin running the ring mean major (and deadly) business.

This being Anthony Mann and not, say, Elia Kazan or Frank Capra, the director gives no quarter to his viewers, shoving them facefirst into the thick of Rodriguez's and Bearnes's mission. Both men wind up cut off from any backup early on, and Mann deftly squeezes every last drop of suspense from the constant threat of both men's covers being blown.

Decisive bursts of action, violence, and brutality punctuate the cat-and-mouse undercover operations. In less than ninety minutes time , we're subjected to the slaughter of several innocent braceros by knife-wielding bandits, shootings, beatings, torture, the horrific death of one character 'neath the blades of a massive crop tiller, and drowning by quicksand (top that, Quentin Tarantino). Master DP Alton returns to the lens, etching all of this mayhem in darkness so hard and sharp you could cut rocks with it. Like some potent Tijuana Bible with a conscience under its tough surface, this docu-drama packs some serious cajones.

And some direct, solid performances. Montalban makes a smouldering, intense hero (why did it take twenty-five years and a white suit to make this guy a household name?), and Howard DaSilva scores big as the mastermind behind the whole immigrant exploitation scheme. Murphy, meanwhile, makes a convincing undercover guy (his sour puss looks realer than real on a bogus Wanted poster, a detail that Mann relished, I'm sure), and plenty of other great character faces like Arthur Hunnicutt and Arnold Moss slink around the edges gamely.

Raw Deal airs again on TCM this Friday, June 16. It's currently out on bare-bones DVD from Sony Video. Border Incident disappears from the network's schedule, but makes its digital bow on July 18 as part of Warner Brothers’ third Film Noir Classic Collection Box Set. Both movies are lesser-known but first-rate slices of pulp, eminently worth tracking down.