Thursday, January 30, 2020

Noir City XVIII #5: To the Victor Go the Spoils

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

It's tradition that I get a picture with the Noir City Poster Dame every year. I make sure I'm dressed up on the day I anticipate I'll have my shot. On Friday, I shall once again be in full Noir Attire as I eagerly await receiving a signed poster from this year's star, Ms. Victoria Mature! Yes, she's the daughter of Noir City regular (and one of my Mom's childhood crushes), Victor Mature. English noir night kicked off with a great mini-movie featuring Ms. Mature opposite her dad (through the magic of cinema, of course). It opened with the soon-to-be-long-lamented 20th Century-Fox logo and fanfare and ended with a cliffhanger they better resolve between now and Sunday!

Before a strikingly beautiful 35mm print of Mature's 1957 trucker thriller The Long Haul unspooled, Ms. Mature told some great stories about her Dad. She also sang a song from one of his films. We denizens of Noir City also belted out a familiar ditty: We all sang Happy Birthday to Victor Mature on what would have been his 107th birthday. Lest I forget, Ms. Mature repeated one of Papa Mature's most famous anecdotes and no, I'm not going to repeat it. You shoulda been there to hear it yourself!

The last time the Matures visited Noir City, it was for the Noir City XVI screening of I Wake Up Screaming. You can find my piece on that (and more pics of Victoria Mature) right here. This time, Mr. Mature plays Harry Miller, an American ex-pat who longs to return to the good ol' USA after his stint in the military. His Liverpudlian wife, Connie (Gene Anderson) however, doesn't want to go back despite a cushy job awaiting her husband. She'd rather take their son to spend a few months in her hometown. To sweeten the deal, she tells Harry that her Uncle Casey has a trucking job he can do to make ends meet while he's trapped in the Beatles' hometown. "I'm going from working for Uncle Sam to working for Uncle Casey," says Harry. 

In the pantheon of uncle types, Uncle Casey is the Corrupt Uncle. And he's not the only family member whose actions remind us that one should never work with family. The trucking company that employs Uncle Casey also gave a job to the corrupt brother of this film's femme fatale, Lynn. Lynn is portrayed by an uber-blonde and uber-hot Diana Dors. She's the moll of company boss Joe Easy (Patrick Allen), a man whose name just screams "noir villain."

When Harry busts up some guys trying to steal contraband from Uncle Casey's truck, he discovers that Uncle Casey is in on the take. And since the fish stinks from the head, Joe Easy is also in on the fraudulent and felonious activities. Easy is also quite abusive to Lynn, leading her to run off with Harry in his truck en route to Scotland. When they have to stop at a hotel for the night, director Ken Hughes directs the sequence with maximum suspense and sexual tension. One look at vulnerable Lynn and Harry's a goner.

Harry marital fidelity isn't the only thing that's gone with the wind--so is his entire truck! Sensing that he's been, um, had by Lynn, he storms right off into unemployment. Nobody will hire him to drive, and nobody will insure him if he is hired. Nobody, that is, except Joe Easy, who not only was behind the truck theft, but also has a bigger, more dangerous shipping deal for Harry. If he drives a truckload of stolen furs through treacherous territory to a boat headed for America, he can have a free ticket to ride home. Harry turns it down, at first, but you just know he's gonna have to drive that truck sooner or later. 

Considering his name, you'd think Joe would like to do things nice and easy. But it's apparent early on that Joe never ever does anything nice and easy. He does it nice and rough, two words to explain the scenes of Harry driving that huge truck through situations that evoke memories of The Wages of Fear. Fur doesn't explode, but enough of it is capable of crushing a man flatter than a pancake. Had Hughes directed his 1968 feature Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the relentlessness he applies to the fur truck heist, Dick van Dyke wouldn't have gotten out of that car alive.

I was a bit surprised by how The Long Haul handles Harry's adultery. Connie quickly finds out and confronts her husband. Later, when she meets Lynn under the worst of circumstances, she takes a swing at her. As the man in this triangle, Mature gives a great, conflicted performance. He's tough, tender and, by film's end, resigned to the cruel fate we've come to expect in Noir City. Dors is also quite good here. Her last scene culminates in a sad lament rather than a hot bullet. 

The only person who gets a happy ending is the guy awaiting the hot furs. 'Tis bitter irony indeed!

Before he was Quilty, Dr. Strangelove, Chauncey Gardiner and Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers was Lionel Meadows, owner of a chop shop fronting as a legitimate car business. And he was evil! You've never seen Sellers like this--he's so vile in 1960's Never Let Go that he made me think of Ben Kingsley's brilliant turn in Sexy Beast. Sellers isn't as good as Kingsley, but it's equally shocking to see him turn to the dark side with reckless abandon. Meadows is a rapist, an animal killer and doesn't mind using a broken bottle to go after anyone who pisses him off.

This nasty piece of work gets entangled with John Cummings (Richard Todd), a salesman for a beauty company whose car was nicked by one of Meadows' minions early in the film. Cummings' car is the key to his future success--or so he thinks. The guy is a rather incompetent dreamer who never sees things through and expects the world to bend to his mediocrity. Cummings becomes obsessed with getting his car back by any means necessary. Even after Meadows causes one witness to commit suicide, breaks into Cummings' house and menaces his family, beats him to a pulp and repeatedly threatens him, Cummings keeps coming back like a bad slasher movie killer. You almost expect him to yell "DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR!?" as he breaks into Meadows' garage.

And it's an ugly car! Good Lord! It's so ugly, Cummings doesn't even have it insured for theft. So unless the cops get it back, he's gonna spend years paying for a car he doesn't own. Of course, he can't make those payments if he's dead, but that's not going to stop this fool. While it's actually quite fun watching Todd adamantly portray his character's obsessions, I secretly rooted for him to get his ass kicked right out of the screen. Director John Guillermin seems to have some affection for single-minded beasts of burden--he directed the 1976 version of King Kong--and that sympathy leads Never Let Go to end on a hopeful note that I'm not sure it deserved. Still, Sellers is the selling point here. He keeps the tension ratcheted up to insane levels, pulling us through the type of ringer we just love getting squeezed through here in Noir City.

A few quick words on the second feature of Czech Noir night, 90 Degrees in the Shade. This British-Czech production directed by Jiri Weiss was made with the same actors in two versions, one English and one Czech. We witnessed the English version starring Anne Heywood as a woman involved in an illicit affair with her boss. When a new auditor shows up to take inventory of the store, we slowly learn that Heywood and her sleazy lover are involved in a messy plan to make cash by selling expensive booze and swindling their parent company. Despite being the star of nunsploitaion movies (and naked in this one), Heywood is easily upstaged by Czech actor Rudolf Hrusínský as the auditor. He's the most interesting character in the film, and Weiss gives us a lot more of his backstory than one would expect. He even teases that Heywood might give this rather homely looking man something far stronger than a drink. 

The story wobbles back and forth between past and present, and while the tale of the corrupt lovers fits the noir bill, I kept wanting to see more of Hrusinsky and his process. He's intimidating in a Columbo kind of way--he knows they did it but he can't yet put his finger on how--and I found my attention waning a bit when he was offscreen. It's rare that I'd choose the geeky dude over the femme fatale, but that's the direction the liquor poured from the flask here in Noir City. 

Next time: Japan and Germany Do the Noir Thing
Last time: Buona Boring, Mr. Antonioni

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