Essential: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)

It starts with simple atmospheric opening credits. Helen McCord (Dorothy McGuire) is on the long winding staircase of the mansion where she is employed as a servant. At one point she hears the wind howling outside and covers her ears. This is ironic since she’s mute and unable to make sounds of her own. Later when she’s targeted by a serial killer, she will struggle to cry out for help.

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The first murder takes place in town. Siodmak presents a group of locals watching a silent movie. The camera tilts up to the ceiling and we see a woman about to change her clothes in the room above the theater. A man is hiding in the closet. We just glimpse his eye. Then there is a shot of her outstretched arms putting on a piece of clothing, being caught off guard by the killer.

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A physician named Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) shows up, but there’s nothing he can do for the woman who’s been pronounced dead. He notices Helen and offers to take her home. They travel by horse and buggy to the remote country estate where she lives and works for an invalid woman named Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also staying at the mansion with Mrs. Warren are her stepson Albert (George Brent) and her son Steven (Gordon Oliver). One of these men is the killer. Not Dr. Parry.

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As Dr. Parry and Helen ride towards the estate, it is clear he is smitten with her. In their relationship he does all the talking, but not all the communicating since she is still able to express her feelings. He drops her a short distance from Mrs. Warren’s home. As she approaches the front gate, a storm comes up. What makes this so interesting is how Siodmak skillfully weaves the more idyllic aspects of life in 1906 Vermont with danger that seems to exist in hidden places. Close-ups linger on Helen’s delicate features, and her mannerisms indicate a fragile quality.

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The other characters at the house are depicted in contrast to Helen. Besides Mrs. Warren there’s Mrs. Oates the clumsy housekeeper (Elsa Lanchester); and a strict nurse (Sara Allgood) that Mrs. Warren drives to distraction. We are also shown a young secretary named Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who is romantically involved with Mrs. Warren’s son Steven. When Blanche becomes the killer’s next victim, Helen believes Steven might be responsible. She enlists Albert’s help, not realizing he is the actual culprit.

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There are effective camera set-ups inside the mansion. Especially when Siodmak and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca zoom in on Albert’s eye watching Helen. Then they show Helen who symbolically has the mouth area of her face blurred. Over the soundtrack is heard the sound of thunder outside. These are very stylized images of activity in the house, mostly from the point of view of a homicidal voyeur, as only Siodmak could create and film them.

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The last sequence is the most spectacular part of the movie. Helen realizes Albert is the killer, and she tries to get away from him. Upstairs Mrs. Warren has realized what extreme danger they are all in now. She has been bedridden for most of the story. But she is able to summon her strength and carefully lifts herself out of bed. Then she gets a gun.

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Mrs. Warren reaches the top of the stairs as Helen is ascending in an attempt to get away from Albert. Mrs. Warren observes what is happening. She is very sick and about to die, but she manages to successfully aim and fire the gun. Albert has been shot in the chest and spirals all the way down to the bottom of the staircase. Steven suddenly shows up and Mrs. Warren dies in his arms. Meanwhile Helen has screamed in horror, suddenly  reclaiming her voice. She makes her way to the phone to call Dr. Parry. Never before has anyone been so happy to hear from her.

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THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE airs occasionally on TCM.


Essential: THE SUSPECT (1944)

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Robert Siodmak had a significant career in Europe before coming to Hollywood in the 1940s. The darker themes of his work make the stylish director stand out from others. He signed with Universal in 1943 and his techniques became so popular his services were sought by other producers. Occasionally, Universal did loan him out. But his best pictures occurred at his home studio, where he was allowed to be more creative and where his background in German expressionism influenced his output.

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At first Siodmak directed some B horror entries, then he was handed important A-picture assignments. PHANTOM LADY was his first noir at Universal. The story was a murder mystery which featured Ella Raines. Siodmak would direct Raines several more times, mostly notably in THE SUSPECT alongside Charles Laughton.

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Laughton was a close friend of the director’s, and under Siodmak, he would give a carefully understated yet poignant performance. He portrays a henpecked husband driven to murder his overbearing wife (Rosalind Ivan). Raines plays a sweet young woman that Laughton befriends. She becomes a very necessary diversion, as well as a catalyst when Laughton decides he must break free from his unhappy marriage.

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The film is set in early 20th century London, and the period touches are expertly handled. Everything from costumes and hairstyles to set design seem authentic. And the performances convey an understanding of how people acted at the time, especially when community busybodies suspected an upstanding neighbor might be seeing someone else on the side. The wife manipulates the local gossips to subject her husband to humiliation so he won’t stray.

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In addition to Ivan’s vicious scene work, the story is bolstered by the efforts of Henry Daniell who plays a blackmailer. Daniell figures out Laughton got rid of the nasty old battle axe, but his silence comes at a price. Laughton tries to keep Daniell quiet, but the greedy blackmailer wants more money, and Laughton refuses to keep paying him. So Laughton kills again, and there’s a truly suspenseful scene when he doesn’t have enough time to dispose of Daniell’s body. Laughton hides it behind a sofa just as his son and the son’s girlfriend arrive home.

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While they are chatting the girlfriend feels something under the sofa and puts her hand down there. It turns out a cat is playing with the dead body. But until she pulls the cat out from under the piece of furniture, we are led to believe, as Laughton does, that his crime is about to be discovered. Laughton’s reactions are outstanding. The camera work Siodmak uses to keep us as unnerved and in as much suspense as Laughton also helps a great deal.

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Of course our sympathetic antagonist will be found out before the end of the story. In the last sequence Laughton has married Raines, and they are going to Canada to start a new life. But the police have been nipping at Laughton’s heels. There is a nice cat-and-mouse moment between Laughton and an investigator just as the ship is about to sail. There is no such thing as a perfect crime, but there is such a thing as a perfectly directed performance. I suspect that anyone who watches the film will find it just as enjoyable as an episode of Columbo.

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THE SUSPECT may currently be seen on YouTube.

Essential: LITTLE BOY BLUE (2017)


There are two sides to every story and this production does not present them. LITTLE BOY BLUE is a British miniseries from late last year that focuses on the death of Rhys Jones, a suburban boy whose brutal murder rocked a nation.

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Writer Jeff Pope relies mainly on the Jones’ version of events, in addition to information from media reports as well as transcripts from the trial. Initially we see Rhys and his family before the murder living a simple daily life. Then after he is killed, their world turns upside down and the lead investigator is introduced. This leads to our seeing the perpetrators, a gang of older boys who were in the middle of a drug transaction when Rhys accidentally got in the way. These subplots use the facts of the case, but they are clearly devised to make the viewer feel sorry for Rhys’ family. I guess that’s understandable given the situation, but Pope might have done better to provide us with an unvarnished look at society, and why this crime happened in the first place.


I would have preferred to see the story a bit more from the point of view of the boys that where charged, as well as their families. All the lower class characters in this tale are presented as untrustworthy and unreliable, out to cover things up. There is no sympathetic rendering of the struggles they face; not even the mothers are presented in any kind of sympathetic light. One of the mothers ultimately does the right thing and tells the truth in court, but a lawyer quickly tries to discredit her statements as false because she’s supposedly a known liar.


As for the detective assigned to the case, we are told at the end he became friends with the victim’s family. So obviously all the scenes in which he appears are going to be slanted to make him look heroic. During the investigation he often clashed with a female superior, so she is depicted as someone who interfered with the investigation. Basically she is cast as the villain, because she didn’t do more to help the Jones family get justice against the perpetrators more quickly.

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Because this is a miniseries, it was designed to air in four separate installments. The production itself is too long. Four full hours is way too much to devote to this story. Each of the four one-hour installments I watched had at least 15 minutes that could have been cut. Meaning this could have been told in a much more compact three hours if the narrative had been tightened.


In the first segment we get shots of the mother doting on her son. She is shown ironing and putting clothes into his dresser drawers. We also see her and her husband discuss what color to paint a living room wall. As well as lingering shots of soccer balls in the backyard. In the second segment the police review video footage of the killing with nothing new being figured out. A montage or lap dissolve compressing these non-events would have been sufficient. The third segment features the police on their computers– at one point the director and editor cut to a keyboard as a police officer debates typing something. Why? There’s no reason for all the wasted screen time. Then we have the courtroom scenes in the fourth segment where the action seems to pause so we can see the mother praying for justice.


The filmmakers do not seem to know how to tell the story more expediently. It’s like their primary goal is to just fill up screen time. There are also a lot of long tracking shots outdoors, meant to convey realism. Some of these work rather well. Especially in the first part where the victim is killed.


After a while the long outdoor shots become an artistic nuisance. In some cases you can tell the actors have to wait to deliver their dialogue because they’re placed ahead of the camera crew waiting for the microphones to catch up to them so their dialogue can be audibly recorded. As a result we get a stilted and belabored presentation of a story that is entertaining only in how transparent its biases are and how transparently artistic the people behind the camera are trying to put this over on the viewers. Rhys Jones deserved better.

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LITTLE BOY BLUE can be streamed on BritBox.



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As most people know this was Steven Spielberg’s feature film debut, and it flopped at the box office. It does not stick to the facts of what happened to Ila Fae Dent (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Bobby Dent (William Atherton) in early May 1969. First of all, their names are changed; and their journey across Texas was significantly shorter than what is depicted in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Also the real-life incident was fraught with great uncertainty and more danger than what is seen on screen.

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Spielberg fudged the facts to increase the movie’s entertainment value. He had a comedy actress in Goldie Hawn, so he turned the situation into a light-hearted anti-establishment road movie. The film could have been much more suspenseful if he’d just stuck with the facts. Another thing that brings it down– Spielberg decided the officer (Michael Sacks) they kidnap should become their buddy on the lam. He added a line at the end where the officer defends them after they’ve been brought to justice, which is incredibly unrealistic.

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In the movie the couple takes the officer hostage because they want to prevent their child from going to a foster home. In real life there were two children from Ila Fae’s previous marriage, and they were staying with their grandma. So she was not about to be prevented from seeing them. Also, in real life, the couple kidnapped the officer by luring him to an abandoned cabin so they could get a ride, though they had no idea of where they intended to go. Bobby Dent did not break out of prison, as we see dramatized in the film; he’d already been released after serving time. And of course, the real Ila Fae did not look anything like Goldie Hawn.

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The captain (Ben Johnson) did allow them to keep driving, while dozens of cop cars followed at a safe distance. They were permitted to stop for gas more than once, get snacks and use the restroom– things Spielberg pokes fun at on screen. After the incident was over, the captain told the media he just wanted to make sure they didn’t hurt anyone so that is why he did not blockade them.

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The real-life chase only lasted five hours, but Spielberg has stretched it out to two days. A sequence where they spend the night in a used car lot is intended to provide “romance on the run” but strains credibility. Ultimately Bobby Dent was ambushed by an FBI agent. Ila Fae was then taken into custody, while the officer they kidnapped survived unharmed. The last part of the film depicts Bobby’s fatal shooting, but it’s staged with creative license and dragged out for about five minutes. In real life it all came to a very abrupt end.

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THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS airs occasionally on TCM.

Essential: ONE FOOT IN HELL (1960)

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Made near the end of Alan Ladd’s career, ONE FOOT IN HELL is tougher than most westerns. It’s about a man named Mitch Barrett who seeks revenge on a town for the death of his wife. Aaron Spelling co-authored the screenplay and he gives Ladd plenty of opportunity to demonstrate a range of emotions, which the actor does with skill.

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Mitch Barrett goes crazy due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, and we’re supposed to sympathize and even applaud his brand of vigilante justice. The whole town did not actually kill his pregnant wife, but none of them would help when she had a difficult delivery. She lost the baby and then lost her life. So Mitch is grieving badly, and he unleashes his anger at the ones he holds most responsible. This includes a hotel manager, a store owner and a lazy sheriff.

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Ladd seems to enjoy the dramatic possibilities of the story. His older-looking appearance adds to the grittiness of the film. There are shocking scenes where Mitch murders the sheriff then takes over his job. He gains everyone’s admiration as the new lawman, acting as if he’s forgiven them for the death of his wife. But of course, Mitch hasn’t really gotten over it, and becoming sheriff is just an opportunity to take the law into his own hands.

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In addition to Ladd’s revenge-minded character, we have a drifter named Dan Keats, played by Don Murray. Dan Keats is an alcoholic ex-soldier in need of money. There is also a prostitute (Dolores Michaels) in search of a better life; as well as a suave pickpocket (Dan O’Herlihy). It’s a unique ragtag group, and each one plays a key role in the given scenario. Eventually these people join up with Mitch to rob the town bank.

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Of course, things don’t go smoothly. But Mitch will not go down without a fight. The story reaches a climax inside the local saloon, where Mitch is gunned to death. I won’t tell you who shoots him, because it’s very surprising. After Mitch is killed, Spelling’s story does provide a happy ending, or at least a partially happy conclusion, when Dan Keats and the prostitute decide to reform. They agree to do their time and then reconnect when they get out.

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It’s not the best film ever made, but has several things going for it. There are a lot of great outdoor scenes. It’s photographed in CinemaScope and in color with Fox’s typically good production values. The theme of a man taking on those who’ve wronged him is one Ladd would revisit in 13 WEST STREET, a noir where he fights delinquents. In this story, Ladd battles more “respectable” folks. He has gone to hell, and hell can’t handle him.

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ONE FOOT IN HELL is directed by James B. Clark and can be streamed on Starz.

Essential: THE HANGMAN (1959)

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When Robert Taylor was TCM’s Star of the Month a few years ago, THE HANGMAN was one of the few titles on his resume the channel didn’t air. The actor made it in the late 50s. He’s older, but still in good shape and still every inch the star. Taylor like most aging leading men had turned to westerns, and the genre suits him just fine.

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The film is directed by Michael Curtiz, nearing the end of his Hollywood career. And the screenplay is one of Dudley Nichols’ last efforts (he died six months after THE HANGMAN was released). Costars include Fess Parker whose amiable charms are a nice contrast to no-nonsense Taylor; as well as Tina Louise and Jack Lord who had worked together in GOD’S LITTLE ACRE a year earlier. Lord is particularly good; he’s given the villain role but manages to be quite likable on screen.

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Taylor plays a marshal named Mac Bovard who doesn’t care for the nickname people have given him. It was earned because of his ability to track down fugitives and bring them to justice– usually the men he rounds up are found guilty and hanged soon afterward. The situation is something Mac wants to put in the past, and after catching a guy named Butterfield (Lord’s character), he intends to head west and start a new career as a lawyer. The problem is that Butterfield is using an alias and the only one who can positively identify him is a former girlfriend known as Selah Jennison (Tina Louise).

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It’s obvious Mac and Selah will fall in love, when Selah accompanies the lawman on his journey to apprehend Butterfield. But it’s hardly a conventional romance because she decides to betray him and help Butterfield escape custody. Complicating matters is Buck Weston, the friendly sheriff played by Parker.

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Buck has also taken a shine to Selah, and he wants to marry her. After she’s forgiven for betraying Mac, she must choose between the two men. The characters don’t really hold grudges very long in this story. Mac has a change of heart after he recaptures Butterfield and ends up letting him go. Something that impresses Selah and makes her choose Mac over Buck.

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We have learned along the way that Butterfield’s crime involved the death of Mac Bovard’s brother. So for much of the picture’s running time there is a personal need for Mac to make sure Butterfield gets what’s coming to him. But by the end of the story, he realizes a hanging would probably be too harsh, since Butterfield did not actually cause the death and was mostly an innocent bystander. Maybe Mac also lets him go, so that in addition to getting the girl he will no longer be known as The Hangman.

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Paramount did not allocate a huge budget for this western programmer. But given the talent involved, there is a certain pedigree this entertainment has which other expanded “B” westerns lack. In some ways it looks like they’ve borrowed sets that were probably in use for western TV shows of the day, so there is a bit of ordinariness in how the town and the hotel rooms look. They were mainly just trying to tell a good story, and I’d say they succeeded.

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Probably the best part of the film, aside from main cast, is character actress Mabel Albertson. She plays a society woman who appears in a comic relief subplot during the first half. Widow Hopkins comes to town on the same stage as Mac Bovard, and she assumes she might charm him into having dinner with her and spending time together. Mac snubs her, because she’s rather pushy, and he has an important job to do. Mrs. Hopkins then finds out Mac brought Selah Jennison to the hotel on another stage, without benefit of marriage, and she gets a bit spiteful. But as much as her heart’s been broken, I don’t think she’d want to see anyone hanged for it.

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THE HANGMAN can be streamed on Starz.

Essential: THE SNIPER (1952)

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Fans of Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE will find THE SNIPER just as fascinating to watch. Again Dmytryk helms a gritty noir about a killer sought by the law. Given his mastery of the genre, there’s no better person to film the story, something that factored into producer Stanley Kramer’s decision to hire the blacklisted director. This was Dmytryk’s first Hollywood movie after a short period of political exile in Britain where he made two other bleak crime pictures (OBSESSION and GIVE US THIS DAY).

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Adolphe Menjou is cast as an aging police detective in San Francisco, and he turns in a credible performance. But Arthur Franz, as a parolee who takes his hatred out on women by randomly murdering them, makes a greater impression. Franz and Menjou share top billing, but since Franz receives more screen time and has the more compelling role, it feels like his story from start to finish.

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Columbia provided Kramer and Dmytryk with enough money to take the cast and crew to northern California, so there are quite a few outdoor scenes filmed in San Francisco. Long tracking shots add extra realism. Plus we have plenty of tense close-ups where Franz’s character aims his rifle and readies to bring down another unsuspecting victim.

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There are scenes where Menjou and the other officers consult a psychologist (Richard Kiley) after lineups fail to net any results. In their meetings together they try to understand the mind of the assailant. They gather what evidence they have and attempt to determine his next move, as impossible as it may seem.

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Kiley has the most important speeches in the movie, about the definition of legally sane versus legally insane, and he facilitates a discussion about how to cure repeat offenders. Mixed into the debate are comments from Menjou’s superiors on allocating tax dollars for more law enforcement, as well as jabs made at the media for exploiting the hysteria. In this regard, there is much to ponder. Despite the occasional preachiness of the script, Dmytryk is still able to keep the action sequences a priority.

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All the killings are shockingly depicted. When a piano bar singer (Marie Windsor) is slain, she dies in front of her poster outside the club where she works. She is brushing dust off the poster when she is shot. It’s very unexpected. In another scene a floozie hands Franz her phone number and address (dumb thing to do, lady) then is shot through the window of her apartment as she prepares herself for bed. That time we know the murder is coming because Franz sent a warning to the cops.

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There is also the part when a tower painter sees Franz on a rooftop about to shoot some women below. He tries to warn them, but takes a bullet and falls to his death. This leads to an exciting conclusion, with Franz running up a long hill, followed by Menjou and his men in pursuit. They will bring him to justice if it’s the last thing they do. When the cops finally corner him in a boarding house, we get the film’s most memorable image– a sad man holding on to something that will soon be taken away from him.

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THE SNIPER airs on TCM occasionally.