Thursday, March 8, 2007

There is such a thing as too evil.

I'm officially a Richard Widmark fan. I first saw him in No Way Out, in which he played a vile racist opposite Sidney Poitier's interning doctor. Last night I watched another piece of noir called The Street With No Name where he was the dapper leader of a gang of thugs. Oh. He was evil. I've rarely seen evil played so well, so coolly, so brutally. And in these two characters there was underlying cowardice as well, and Widmark just absolutely hit the nail on the head. I would say that as an actor he's definitely on par with James Cagney in the bad guy role. So now I've just added a whole bunch of his movies to my Netflix queue. Apparently he did a lot of westerns, and while I'm not really a fan of the genre, I will certainly watch a good western now and then.

But about The Street With No Name. Its opening theme and the first 15 minutes or so seemed straight out of a newsreel documentary about the FBI. It was like "J. Edgar Hoover: Crime Scene Investigator!" When they showed trainee Gene Cordell (played by Mark Stevens, the lead dude) at a shooting range, they gave him posters of Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson to shoot at. Cordell is recruited to investigate a series of robberies and murders that the authorities think were carried out by the same gang, so he goes undercover as a seedy drifter type, with another agent covertly looking out for him and relaying any information back to the Bureau. Going under the name of George Manley (heh), he's given a full fake criminal background and documents.

Cordell wanders into a gym where bets are taken on boxers. Upon scanning the crowd of onlookers, he spots a group of well-dressed men who seem to be overseeing the operations. (And they were rather pretty in their suits and fedoras, I must say. 'Specially this one guy in a dark pinkstriped suit...but more about him later.) And then the movie really starts when Alec Stiles (Widmark) makes his entrance, all cool and sinister, and you know by his look that he's the big boss around here, and he happens to own the gym, too, so all that gambling money is his. Cordell needs to get in good with him somehow, so he starts heckling one of the fighters. Stiles challenges him and says he'll give him $5 for every round he goes with that boxer. Cordell says make it $10, and it's a deal. After holding his own in the ring for two rounds, and after some banter with Stiles, Stiles decides to look into him via his super-special screening process. One of his thugs has already gone through Cordell's pockets and stolen his fake Social Security card. And from that, Stiles finds out all he needs to know, thanks to secret connections in the police department.

Stiles runs a tight little gang of thieves. He welcomes Cordell into it after he "passes" the screening process (that fake criminal record was convincing, I guess), and gives him a roll of cash to buy himself some new clothes, because he says, "I like my boys to look sharp." And he's kind of hot when he says that. Speaking of hot, the guy in the dark pinstriped suit from earlier, his nickname happens to be Shivvy because he carries a pocketknife. He's played by actor Donald Buka, and I wish I'd taken some screencaps because he was so pretty.

Stiles shows his brutal, neurotic side fairly early when he's seen habitually inhaling menthol, and then while at home he snaps at his wife for leaving the window open ("You open that window again and I'll throw you out of it!"). He also reams one of his guys for giving a stolen fur coat to a girlfriend. He's prone to smacking people's faces with precision whenever he loses his temper. All this is worthy of an ideal bad guy. But then suddenly the character loses all its appeal when you see for sure that, yeah, wow, he's bad, in a scene where he (falsely) accuses his wife of tipping off the cops to a big heist. When she smacks him, he goes ballistic, straddling her on the bed and pinning her arms while he hits her again and again. Now, the camera pans up a little so we don't actually see his hand strike her, but I was like damn, man. I think that's the turning point where you believe that Cordell will really be in trouble if he's ever exposed.

Widmark definitely carried this movie, but overall, it was really, really good. The engaging character actors, the tight scenes, and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography make for an entertaining, fast-paced 90 minutes. Two minor issues I had with it were, as I said before, the dry and dated opening sequence ("We're the FBI and we are so awesome!"), and the boxing scene, which I thought went on a bit long. At least they looked like they were actually hitting each other, though.

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