A Fever in the Blood (1961) ****

Blistering B-film from writer Roy Huggins (TV’s The Fugitive) that marries political chicanery to legal jiggery-pokery in a movie that races from one twist to another. In his role as producer Huggins calls upon actors he made stars from the television series he created – Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (77 Sunset Strip), Jack Kelly (Maverick) – and gives Angie Dickinson (Oceans 11) the female lead. Huggins’ brilliant premise is to ignore the dilemma of the man, Walter Thornwall (Rhodes Reason), nephew of a former Governor, wrongly accused of the murder of his wife. Instead the film concentrates on accuser District Attorney Dan Callahan (Kelly) and Judge Lee Hoffman (Zimbalist Jr), both of whom, running for the vacant Governor post, stand to make massive political capital from the publicity surrounding a sensational trial.

Former buddies, Callahan and Hoffman are now bitter rivals after the former had reneged on a promise to support the latter’s bid for the political post. Also throwing his hat into the ring is Senator Alex Simon (Don Ameche) whose wife Cathy (Dickinson) once had romantic yearnings for Hoffman. The only one of the trio who had anything approaching a conscience is Hoffman and that is immediately tested when the Senator offers him a bribe to stand down from the race, which the Judge, after an appeal from Cathy, does not report to the authorities. There is another ploy open to Hoffman. Should he find reason to declare a mistrial, that would sabotage Callahan’s bid since he would not be riding high in the media after convicting a celebrity killer.

The picture jumps from intense politics, the wheeling-dealing and the wrapping up of votes, to a  trial in a packed courtroom very much in the Perry Mason vein with surprise witnesses, shocks, objections sustained or overruled, clever arguments, dueling attorneys, and last-minute evidence. A witness has Thornwall running away from the scene of the crime and when his wife is painted as a nymphomaniac that provides ample motive.  Further evidence pushes the defendant into a worse corner. But all the while over the trial hangs the stink of political machination.

There are another half-dozen brilliant twists not least of which is Judge Hoffman letting conscience go hang and embarking on a couple of dodgy endeavors himself including what amounts to sheer blackmail. The District Attorney, one of the sharpest tools in the box, reacts to every setback with a cunning that would have been criminal had it not been legal. Also hanging there is potential adultery between Cathy and the widowed Hoffman.

The writer in Huggins is a past master at shifting the cards in the deck and this has so many twists and turns it feels like a whole series of The Fugitive crammed into one episode. There is as much self-awareness of the underbelly of politics as in Advise and Consent (1962), as much deceit and corruption, as much principle disguised as honor. But the plot here is so tight, the characters dealing with twists and turns that the movie has no requirement for the depth of characterization that would have been brought to the picture by a Henry Fonda or Charles Laughton. Huggins proves you can have just as much fun without the big boys. None of the stars with the exception of Angie Dickinson made a dent on the Hollywood A-list but they are all perfectly acceptable, and once Huggins tightens the screws plot-wise the last thing on your mind is wishing for a better cast.   

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

Point Blank (1967)****

The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.

Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering  the film’s “true meaning.”

However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.

Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.

But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).

The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.

That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.