Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I have mentioned before, several times in fact, that I like old movies, usually mysteries or crime movies.

By the way, when I write “old movies” I am not referring to movies from the 1980s or ’70s, which might qualify as “old movies” today. I mean really old, like from the 1950s and ’40s, and even some in the ’30s.

They are so much fun because they usually are just over an hour, maybe and hour-an-a-half long, so you don’t waste a lot of time or you can catch a couple in one sitting. Often, they are funny in an unintentional way, like when a guy with a .38 handgun shoots from a speeding car and actually hits someone he is chasing (or trying to escape from) in the speeding car in front of him.

It’s also interesting to see how when the cops are chasing the hero, who has been falsely accused (of course) of some misdoing, the cops never make it around a tight street corner and their car overturns while the hero makes a successful getaway. Running into a fruit cart is a constant end for the cops.

These movies often are available through Netflix or can be found on occasion on Turner Classic Movies on TV, never in prime time but at odd hours in the night or Saturday mornings. Thanks to the DVR, I have been able to record several of them and thought I’d give you some reviews. Maybe you can DVR them if you see them on the schedule. Or if you happen to be up at 2 a.m.

I have a friend who reviews DVDs he has picked up in the Red Box video dispensers, so why not?

Starting with:

[ DILLINGER POSTER ]This poster is available at movieposters.com.

There have been a couple of versions of movies on John Dillinger, the bank robber from the 1930s who was the first criminal to earn “Public Enemy No. 1” status from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. At least three (including a made-for-TV affair) have actually had the title Dillinger.

The one I refer to here was made in 1945.

It’s in black-and-white, of course, which adds to the fun, but what really makes it worthwhile (in my warped view) is the liberties the screenwriter Philip Yordan (who won an Oscar in 1955) took with telling the story.

The 1945 film Dillinger gets (loosely) a few things right about the guy:

1. He robbed banks.

2. He escaped from a small-town jail by carving a “gun” out of wood.

3. He was shot outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, where the movie Manhattan Melodrama was playing, after a woman in a “red” dress identified him to federal agents. Dillinger, both in real life and the movie, was shot in an alley, though I doubt the agents were holding Tommy guns as portrayed in the movie. Oh. I put the “red” dress in quotes because the dress was actually a shade of orange that appeared red under the lights of the theater’s marquee. As said earlier, this one was in black-and-white so it didn't matter.

Other than that the movie goes off in all directions with Dillinger getting introduced into his life of crime when a waiter at a bar embarrasses him with a young lady by not accepting a check to pay for a couple of beers. A check?

Dillinger, played by an actor named Lawrence Tierney, goes around the corner to rob a grocery store, is caught, and sent to prison.

There he meets what will be the nucleus of his future gang, inmates who he helps escape from prison after serving out his own term. (There is an element of truth in this part as well. Dillinger did arrange for the escape of some of the prisoners he had met while incarcerated and they became members of his first gang.)

The makers of this movie didn’t bother to do any filming on site, that’s for sure. Though Dillinger in real life did most of his damage in Indiana and other nearby Midwestern states, in the movie mountains can be seen in the background of many outdoor shots. I’m from Indiana. Take it from me. There are hills, but no mountains or pine trees in the valleys in Indiana.

Also, I can find no reference to Dillinger shooting any of his gang members, as is done in the movie. Of course, he also returns to that bar and knocks off the waiter. (Full disclosure: I have often wanted to do the same thing.)

Ah, Hollywood.

This poster is available at movieposters.com.

Several movies also have been made about Al Capone, the most notorious of all crime syndicate leaders. The one that does the best job detailing the gangster’s life is the 1959 film Al Capone starring Rod Steiger.

Aside from a fictional love interest with the widow of an unintended victim who had stumbled across another killing Capone engineered, the movie pretty much hits  all of Capone’s career highlights, including his trip to Miami Beach during the time of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Side note I: Capone was married when he moved from New York to Chicago and stayed married until his death, though apparently not faithful. He died of syphilis.

Side note II: The 1967 docudrama, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, is worth watching, too, though Jason Robards is not as effective as Capone as Steiger.

Steiger’s Al Capone is a bit longer than the other crime movies I have watched (104 minutes) but it’s well worth it.

This poster is available at movieposters.com.

Finally (for now), there is a series of crime movies that I really was happy to stumble across by accident. They came out in the 1940s and are based on a CBS radio program called "Crime Doctor."

That’s also the title of the series’ first film made in 1943. The ensuing productions, with three exceptions, all have the words “crime doctor” in the title, such as Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case, Crime Doctor’s Warning, etc.

Though you can watch them in about any order, the first does set  up the premise for all that follows. A man is thrown from a moving car in the opening scene. Instead of dying on the roadside, however, he is picked up by some college kids driving by. We know they are college kids because the guys are wearing straw hats and waving college pennants and the girls are all giggling.

After being taken to a hospital he has a bad case of amnesia. A friendly doctor takes him in, and -- to shorten things a bit here -- he goes on to study medicine and becomes a psychiatrist who specializes in criminal cases.

Warner Baxter (an Oscar winner for the 1929 film Old Arizona) plays the hero, who adopts the name Robert Ordway from a plaque bearing that name at the hospital where he was taken.

By the end of the first movie, he knows who he is and confesses to his crimes, but he has done so much good and has become so prominent, even serving as state parole board chief and rehabilitating many criminals, he remains out of prison and is a well-honored and respected man.

In the rest of the movies, he seems to have unlimited access to police headquarters and ongoing police investigations, which is convenient.

Besides enjoying the “period” aspects of the film -- the way everybody wears jackets, ties, and hats, smokes cigarettes, etc. -- the Crime Doctor stories are fun because the criminal is not unveiled until the end so you can play along and try to pick out the real villain.

Of course, you never all the information that you need to solve the case, but it’s still more interesting than knowing the perpetrator from the very beginning, because in those cases you know the bad guy is always going to wind up caught.

That’s what detracted from the Colombo series of Peter Falk in later years. As entertaining as Falk was in the series, the stories would have been much better had the criminal not been unveiled until the end.

That’s it for these movies. Maybe I’ll write about Dick Tracy and the Green Hornet movies/serials later. Or maybe not.

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