Murder, Inc. (1960) ***

A gangster trend hit the mean streets of Hollywood at the start of the 1960s. But in the absence of big box office hitters like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, these were all B films with unknowns or low-ranked stars in the leading roles. Whereas Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931), The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949) were fictionalized accounts of hoodlums, the gun-toting movie spree kicked off by Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and Al Capone (1959) was based on the real-life gangsters who had terrorized America’s big cities in the 1920s and 1930s.

By the end of 1960, moviegoers had been served up an informal history of the country’s best-known mobsters from Ma Barker’s Killer Band (1960) and Pretty Boy Floyd (1960) to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and Murder Inc (1960). The infamy of the criminals was so comparatively recent that moviemakers assumed audiences had a wider knowledge of their exploits and the context of their crimes.

Murder Inc tells how underworld kingpin Lepke Buchalter – Tony Curtis played him in the more straightforward biopic Lepke (1975) – set up a system of killing dissenters in the ranks for the entire American Cosa Nostra (aka The Syndicate) in a way that prevented those ordering the murders being connected to those committing them, the same kind of protective cell operation used by terrorists. He created a separate organisation of hitmen.

This quasi-documentary, with occasional voice-over narrative, focuses on three characters – the quiet-spoken Lepke (David J. Stewart), hitman Abe Reles (Peter Falk) and singer Joey Collins (Stuart Whitman) who becomes involved to pay off a gambling debt. Later on, the focus switches to Brooklyn assistant district attorney Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan), against a backdrop of massive police corruption, investigating the murder epidemic this deadly enterprise has created. The films jumps around too much to be totally engrossing but it is certainly an interesting watch.

The two main villains could not be more different, Lepke representing the new school, a businessman, ordering killings but never participating, and for such a tough character tormented by a delicate stomach. Reles is old school, relishing opportunities to murder, and raping Collins’ honest wife Eadie (May Britt) in part because she treats him as scum. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for Joey especially as his wife takes the brunt of the violence.

In an Oscar-nominated performance Peter Falk (Castle Keep, 1969) steals the show as the chilling, venomous killer, the kind of nonentity who rises to prominence only through his penchant for homicide. Swedish star May Britt (The Blue Angel, 1959) isn’t far behind with a portrayal of a strong woman saddled with a weak husband. As the milk-drinking hood, David J. Stewart (The Young Savages, 1961) was as scary in his pitilessness as his more overtly violent underling.

Stuart Whitman (The Commancheros, 1961) is almost acting against type for he was later known for rugged roles. Henry Morgan (It Happened to Jane, 1959) gave his portrayal of Turkus similar characteristics to Lepke, appearing as a quiet individual, concerned with details,  except that he was incorruptible.

You might spot some interesting names in the cast. Simon Oakland (Bullitt, 1968) is an honest cop, Vincent Gardenia (Mad Dog Coll, 1961) is a lawyer, comedian Morey Amsterdam (The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1961-1964) plays a hotel manager, Sylvia Miles (Oscar-nominated for Midnight Cowboy, 1969) has a bit part and singer Sarah Vaughan is a singer.

For some reason, this movie starred a number of actors in leading roles who made few screen appearances. This was the only movie of the decade for May Britt, David J. Stewart made only three movies during the same period, and Henry Morgan only made three pictures in his entire career, this being the last.

The movie boasted two directors. Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) was replaced  by Burt Balaban (Mad Dog Coll, 1961) when the threat of strike action by actors and writers in 1960 forced the 18-day shoot to be cut by 10 days so it’s hard to say who was responsible for which scenes, although the film does boast some unusual aerial shots.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Castle Keep (1969) ****

A bit more directorial bombast and this could have matched Apocalypse Now (1979) in the surrealist war stakes. Never mind the odd incidents surrounding a small unit of G.I.s  taking over a magnificent Belgian castle towards the end of World War II prior to what turned out to be the Battle of the Bulge, this has on occasion such a dreamlike quality you wonder if it is all a figment of the imagination of one of the characters, wannabe writer Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.). Throw in a stunning image, for the beleaguered soldiers at the start, of a horsewoman charging by in a yellow cloak, so out of place that it carries as much visual impact as the unicorn in Blade Runner (1982), and we are in definite cult territory.

One of the unusual elements is that, in this unexpected respite from battle, the soldiers are defined by character traits rather than dialogue or bravery as would be the norm. This ranges from baker Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) taking over the village boulangerie and bedding the baker’s wife (Olga Bisera), mechanic Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) diving into a lake to rescue a Volkswagen he has adopted and the troops receiving a lecture on art history from Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal).

Commander Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) is not only brilliant in the art of war, but calmly  mentors Beckman through a firefight with an enemy airplane, teaches local sex workers how to make Molotov cocktails and, evoking ancient aristocratic tradition, enjoys conjugal relations with the conquered countess (Astrid Heeren), whose impotent husband (Jean-Pierre Aumont) encourages the relationship since the castle needs an heir.   

There is wistful revelation, Beckman clearly hankering after his turn with the countess, a trainee minister who wishes he had the courage to join the boys in the brothel, the young soldiers there being treated as children rather than customers. And there are juvenile pranks – moustaches are painted on statues, wine bottles used for ten-pin bowling practice.

But the surreal moments keep mounting up. The Volkwagen, though riddled with bullets, refuses to sink in the lake, a hidden German reveals himself by playing the same tune on a flute as one of the enemy, the countess often appearing as an ethereal vision.

Through it all is rank realism. Falconer knows a German previously shared the countess’s bed. The count will do anything to safeguard his castle and maintain the family line, even to the extent of incest, since his wife is actually his niece. But above all, while his troops believe the war is at an end and enjoy the pleasures at hand, Major Falconer prepares for rearguard action by the Germans, filling the moat with gasoline, planning to pull up the drawbridge and control the high ground. The battle, when it comes, is vivid and brutal, the initial skirmish hand-to-hand in the village before the Germans advance to the castle.

Burt Lancaster (The Swimmer, 1968) is superb, far removed from his normal aggressive or athletic persona, slipping with pragmatic ease from the countess’s bed to battle stations. War films in the 1960s were full of great individual conflicts often won on a twist of ingenious strategy but seldom have we encountered a soldier like Falconer who knows every detail of war, from where and how the enemy will approach, to the details of the range of weaponry, and knows that shooting dead four soldiers from a German scouting mission still leaves one man unaccounted for.

Patrick O’Neal (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) also leaves behind his usual steely-eyed screen persona, here essaying a somewhat timid and thoughtful character. Peter Falk’s (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) baker is a beauty, a man who abandons war, if only temporarily, for a second “home,” baking bread, adopting a wife and child. In a rare major Hollywood outing French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont (Five Miles to Midnight, 1962) carries off a difficult role as a count willing to accept the humiliation of being cuckolded if it improves his chances of an heir. In one of only four screen appearances German actress Astrid Heeren (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) makes the transition from a woman going to bed with whoever offers the greatest chance of saving the beloved castle to one gently falling in love.

There is an excellent supporting cast. Bruce Dern (Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969) makes the most of a standout role as a conscientious objector.  You will also find Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, 1967), Al Freeman Jr. (The Detective, 1968), future director Tony Bill (Ice Station Zebra, 1968) and Michael Conrad (Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang, 1968).

Two top-name writers converted William Eastlake’s novel into a screenplay – Oscar-winning Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, 1966) and newcomer David Rayfiel who would work with Lancaster again on Valdez Is Coming (1971) and with Pollack on Three Days of the Condor (1973) and Havana (1990)

Sydney Pollack (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), who had teamed up with Lancaster on western The Scalphunters, 1968), does a terrific job of marshalling the material, casting an hypnotic spell in pulling this tantalising picture together, giving characters space and producing some wonderful images, but more especially for having the courage to leave it all hanging between fantasy and reality.

Expressions like  “we have been here before,” “once upon a time,” “the supernatural” and “a thousand years old” take solid root as the narrative develops and will likely keep spinning in your mind as you try to work out what it’s all about.

Pressure Point (1962) ****

Central to this under-rated tale of psychopathy and racism is one extraordinary scene, possibly the most exceptional bar-room sequence ever filmed. In the annals of imaginative repulsion, it ranks alongside the rape committed by Alex and his “droogs” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It begins with mere intimidation as an unnamed young man (Bobby Darin) begins to etch into a bar counter the lines and symbols of Tic-Tac-Toe (a.k.a. Knots & Crosses or Noughts and Crosses). Discovering tins of paint, the man and his gang proceed to cover the entire bar – floor, walls, ceiling, even tables – with the same symbols.

The humiliation is ratcheted up a notch when the gang leader forces tavern owner (Howard Caine)  to lie on the floor behind the counter where he cannot see the bar hostess (Mary Munday), rigid with fear, being tormented. Using lipstick rifled from her handbag, the man decorates her face in the same fashion before pulling down the back of her dress and doing the same there. Fortunately, the rest of the scene, presumably ending in rape, is left to our imagination.

Italian poster showing image from the Tic-Tac-Toe scene. A variation of this was shown in the main image which removed the domineering man and concentrated on the humiliated woman.

Other potent scenes show how the man arrived at his crazed state, smothered with affection by a weak mother (Anne Barton) who has taken to bed in order to escape his drunken, raucous father (James Anderson) who taunts his ineffective wife by flaunting in her face his casual pick-ups and making love to them in the same room. Indicative of the lonely child’s disturbed personality is that when he invents an imaginary playmate, it is to have someone to subjugate, making his fictional friend lick his boots.

Imprisoned during the Second World War for sedition, the man, suffering from blackouts and nightmares – in which he imagines himself clinging to the edge of a giant plughole before being swept away by a torrent of water from the taps – becomes a patient of a young, also unnamed, doctor (Sidney Poitier) whom he subjects to racial abuse.  The doctor, physically bigger and more imposing than the patient, would like to simply give him a good thumping, but his profession necessitates that he treats this objectionable person as just another patient. And eventually they come to enough of a concord that the patient accepts treatment although the doctor suspects that his core personality has not changed.

The U.S. poster was different to that used in Italy. This is pretty much a straight rip-off of “The Defiant Ones” (1958).

The movie is layered with themes other than psychopathy and psychiatry. While the racist element is to the fore, including the doctor’s need to prove himself in a white man’s world, and the lack of diversity in this particular medical field at that time, director Hubert Cornfield also explores the growth of right-wing extremism among the disaffected who see no contradiction in still espousing traditional American values, for example giving the Nazi salute while singing in all sincerity the national anthem. The African American doctor has to come to terms with lack of objectiveness when dealing with such an abhorrent person.

The movie flits between scenes between the two protagonists staged in a stagey manner and  expressionistic almost dreamlike sequences representing the patient’s upbringing such as being menaced by his butcher father among the swinging carcasses of the store. The patient flashbacks are shown without dialogue, explanation given in voice-over by either the patient or the doctor.

The father torments the mother by bringing a casual pick-up to their bedroom.

Reliance on visual dexterity, however, detracts from the tension and director Hubert Cornfield (The 3rd Voice, 1960) is also hampered by an unnecessary framing device which results in the story being told in flashback – leading to a conflation of flashbacks: the older Poitier explaining his earlier problems dealing with a difficult patent and listening in turn to the patient’s own life story. So the pressure indicated by the title is often undercut and does not build as much as you might expect. Critical reaction in those days pivoted on the racism elements, but a contemporary audience is almost certainly going to be as influenced by sequences involving the patient, so the picture automatically becomes more involved and Cornfield’s visual mastery more appreciated.

You can detect the influence of producer Stanley Kramer. In his capacity as director he had explored psychiatric therapy and anti-semitism in Home of the Brave (1949) and racism in The Defiant Ones (1958) also with Poitier. As producer he was responsible not only for selection of the original material, based on a short story The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert M. Lindner, but also imposed the framing device, which Kramer wrote. Those scenes relate to another psychiatrist (Peter Falk) coming to a much older and experienced Poitier for advice after hitting a brick wall with a similarly repugnant patient, Poitier telling the story of his treatment of the Bobby Darin patient as a way of showing that even the worst patients are treatable.

This is quite a different Sidney Poitier than you might be used to. Wearing suit and tie, and spectacles, this is a more restrained, measured performance. Poitier’s taboo-busting Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones had not progressed his career that much, still restricted to starring roles in low-budget pictures. But Kramer broke another taboo in Poitier’s favor with this one, casting him a role not initially written as an African American.

Bobby Darin (Come September, 1961) had parlayed his status as hit recording artist into a burgeoning movie career but does not quite display the menace necessary for a fully-fledged psycho. The likes of Richard Widmark would have been a more convincing adversary. Peter Falk (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) has a small one-tone role. The jazz-nuanced music by Ernest Gold (Exodus, 1961) is worth a listen. And if someone can tell me who designed the striking credit sequence I would be very pleased.

Incidentally, the title of Lindner’s short story is ironic. Patients pay for one hour of a psychiatrist’s time but in reality only receive 50 minutes in order for the professional to achieve a swift turnaround and keep his/her appointment timetable scheduled to the hour. Tic-Tac-Toe, in case you are unfamiliar with this two-person childhood game, consists of drawing lines to create nine squares and filling those with either a zero or a cross. The object of the exercise is to create a complete line of either symbols.

Catch-Up: Sidney Poitier films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Long Ships (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Duel at Diablo (1966).

Machine Gun McCain (1969) ***

Armed robbers lack the finesse of a jewel thief or burglar when it comes to pulling off a major heist. Rather than resorting to the weaponry of the title, they are more inclined, as John Cassavetes does here, to plant bombs, both as a diversionary tactic and within the target building, in this case a Las Vegas casino.

Although boasting Hollywood leads in Cassavetes and Peter Falk and rising Swedish leading lady Britt Ekland (The Double Man, 1967) and wife of star Peter Sellers, this was an Italian-made gangster thriller with the usual abundance of location work. Minus the romantic complications of A Fine Pair (1968), it concentrates on the machinations of the central characters. And it is a pretty lean machine. The robbery takes place against the background of warring Mafia chieftains, West coast boss Falk trying to muscle in on a Vegas casino without being aware it is controlled by the New York hierarchy. Cassavetes does not realize the robbery has been set up by his naïve son on behalf of Falk. Ekland is on board as a kind of mostly mute magician’s assistant, helping Cassavetes.

Little dialogue comes Cassavetes’ way, either, which plays to his strength, that glowering intense unpredictable weasel-face, whose reactions are less likely to be emotional than violent. Falk gets the dialogue and little help it does him, his goose is cooked when he has the temerity to shout at the New York kingpin. 

Yet this slimmed-down documentary-style hard-nosed picture in the vein of Point Blank (1967) manages several touching moments, even more effective for completely lacking sentimentality. When Cassavetes’ son is knifed in the back, the gangster finishes him off with a burst from the titular machine gun rather than see him suffer. His old flame Gene Rowlands, making too brief an appearance, has a wall covered in newspaper headlines of herself with Cassavetes when she was his moll and she accepts without enmity the new woman in his life and she proves the toughest moll of all when confronted with Mafia gunslingers.  

The planning of the heist is well done, no explanatory dialogue, just action on screen; there’s a car chase; and the gangster dragnet is unexpectedly powerful. Gabriele Ferzetti (the railroad baron in Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is excellent as the calm authoritative New York boss, Falk a bit too excitable, and Florinda Balkan (The Last Valley, 1971), in her third screen role, has a small part as a traitorous moll. Ekland is surprisingly good with not much to play with, a couple of lines here and there but still emoting with her face.

Cassavetes, who always claimed he was only acting to fill in the time between directing  (Faces, 1968), and as a means of financing them, was at a career peak, Oscar-nominated for The Dirty Dozen (1967) and male lead in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). He had just appeared in another Italian gangster movie Bandits in Rome (1968). Cassavetes and Falk would go on to have a fruitful partnership over another five films. Falk and Ekland had played opposite each other in Too Many Thieves (1967). Falk also had an Oscar nod behind him for Murder Inc. (1961) but his career was about to go in a different direction after the TV movie Presciption: Murder (1968) that introduced Columbo.

Trivia trackers might also note a score by Ennio Morricone. Though not one of his best, a few years later he would deliver one of his most memorable themes for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) for the same director Giuliano Montaldo.

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