Friday, 2 November 2018

Four excellent psychopath movies: They Made Me a Fugitive, He Walked by Night, Experiment in Terror and The Sniper

They Made a Fugitive (1947) is one of the most effective British noir thrillers I've ever seen...

...Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, with cinematography by Otto Heller, a script by Noel Langley, and starring Trevor Howard,  the lovely Sally Gray (aka Constance Vera Browne, Baroness Oranmore and Browne) and Griffith Jones, it is an absolute "must see" film. The three stars turn in BAFTA-worthy performances - Trevor Howard is in top form as a bored, disillusioned, unemployed former RAF man who joins a criminal gang; Sally Gray plays a spunky girl who falls in love with him; while the distinguished Shakespearian actor Griffith Jones does a splendid turn as Narcy (short for Narcissus - the script is exceptionally literate), the gang leader who is evil personified - literally not a single redeeming feature.

A good Trevor Howard performance is hardly a rarity, but his depiction of a classic noir antihero - a basically decent but not overly bright man who takes several wrong turns -  is a humdinger, positively reeking of resentment, confusion and anger. If Howard is good, then Griffith Jones is a revelation. He doesn't give the impression of a classically-trained actor slumming it: for a start, his accent doesn't start as cod-cockney before shifting back to posh after five minutes - there's a horrible, nasal, estuarine, queeny, semi-refined nastiness to it, which sounds strangely modern, and it doesn't waver for an instant. The scene where Narcy beats up "nice girl" Sally Gray after she shows defiance is a genuine shocker - in fact, the violence throughout the film is more graphic and convincing and expertly-staged than anything to be found in British movies until the '60s. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, but this scene - where there's more menace than actual violence - will either repel you or make you want to watch the whole thing:
This next sequence will give you an idea of how odd, how off-kilter the film is. Trevor Howard has escaped from prison, where Narcy has deliberately landed him. Starving and filthy, he bursts into a strange house, where an unexpected sub-plot ensues:
Seriously, one of the best British films of the era, and one that deserves to be much better-known. 

Mention Richard Basehart to most people of my generation, and - if we've heard of him at all - we think of him as the submarine commander in the '60s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (beep...beep). Younger folk might remember him from the '80s series Knight Rider. Which seems unfair, because he was a terrific actor who was excellent in a number of strand-out movies, including Fellini's La Strada (in which Basehart, coached by his Italian wife, actually speaks Italian), Moby Dick (he's Ishmael), The Brothers Karamazov (Ivan), Decision Before Dawn, Reign of Terror (a brilliantly fanatical Robespierre), Fourteen Hours... and He Walked by Night (the film I want to talk about).
He Walked by Night is a 1948 noir thriller loosely based on an actual case, shot in a semidocumentary style. Basehart, in his third movie, plays a ruthless, efficient, utterly conscienceless criminal psychopath who manages to evade capture thanks to his knowledge of police procedure, picked up while working as a police radio technician before being drafted. Basehart creates a thoroughly believable psychopath, acting everyone else off the screen in the process - there's a scene in which he has to perform surgery on himself to remove a bullet which is best watched through splayed fingers. A taut, tough little movie elevated by tight direction, excellent noir cinematography, and a brilliant central performance - a top notch print is available on YouTube:

Blake Edwards isn't exactly the director one would look to for a dark, tense psychokiller movie - after all, this is the man who brought us Breakfast at Tiffany's, Operation Petticoat, The Great Race and endless Pink Panther movies.  But Experiment in Terror (1962) is an absolute dilly. Ross Martin is superb as the asthmatic killer/extortionist/pervert who tries to terrorise bank employee Lee Remick into stealing $100,000. Although 1962 is late for noir, the cinematography is distinctly noirish. The theme music, by Henry Mancini, is outstanding - and is probably better known these days than the film itself. The lengthy sequence near the end in which the FBI and the police try to identify the killer in a packed San Francisco baseball stadium is simply the best handling of this particular scenario I've ever seen - and the final scene, where FBI agent Glen Ford pursues the killer in the now-deserted stadium was evidently "borrowed" by Don Siegel for Dirty Harry:
Here, the psycho sets about kidnapping Lee Remick's daughter (a very young Stephanie Powers):
The film is available on YouTube, but - sadly - you'll have to pay to watch it. Well worth it, though!

Also available to view on YouTube at a price is The Sniper, a 1952 film which, like the others mentioned in this post, I'd been unaware of until a few weeks' ago. Like Experiment in Terror - and Dirty Harry - it's set in San Francisco (as I also watched Vertigo again this week, and the Joan Crawford/Jack Palance noir Sudden Fear last week, I feel as though I've been on a visit to the city).

A deliveryman who hates women, particularly brunettes (the suggestion is it had something to do with his mother), and who has spent time in a prison psychiatric ward, starts picking off victims around the city - at first, he targets specific women who he believes have slighted him, then becomes less fussy. The difference between him and the psychos in the films mentioned above is that they all enjoy being psychos - this man realises he is mentally disturbed and tries, without success, to contact the psychiatrist who treated him in prison, then deliberately burns his right hand on a hotplate, and then, after his killing spree has started, sends the police a note begging them to stop him (but doesn't include his address, which might have helped). There's probably no need to point out that Dirty Harry also features a sniper bumping off random women around San Francisco: but, unlike the Clint Eastwood film, The Sniper is a classic 1950s centrist "therapeutic state" movie, in which the killer is a victim of mental illness who would have been treated by experts and possibly cured if only the public services weren't rushed off their feet - a doctor who bandages the killer's burnt hand realises something isn't right and is about to send him upstairs to the psych ward, but has to release him in order to deal with the victims of a major accident. Here, the psycho - played by Arthur Franz - gives vent to his hatred of women: 
Director Edward Dmytryk, who'd been responsible for Murder, My Sweet (the American title of the movie version of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely - my favourite adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel) and Crossfire (the Robert Ryan/Robert Mitchum noir about anti-semitism I wrote about in a previous post) does a great job here. Perhaps his success at imbuing the film with tension partly stemmed from the fact that it was his first assignment after being de-blacklisted when - after serving a prison term as one of the Hollywood Ten - he changed his mind and testified against his erstwhile communist buddies: Adolphe Menjou, who plays the detective in charge of catching the sniper, was one of Hollywood's most vocal anti-communists. Must have been an interesting - if not particularly relaxing - shoot. I'll leave you with the trailer:

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