Friday 25 April 2008

Tight Spot (1955)

Phil Karlson is a name I've seen but knew nothing about. I may not even have noted that he was a director and I haven't seen a single one of his films but he seems to be one of the great names in B movie films noir. I'm catching up nicely on my noir and I have most of the classic A pictures under my belt now, but there are a lot of obscure classic B pictures well worth the effort of tracking them down and I'm still scratching that surface. I need James Ellroy to write a long article on the subject with a lot of namedropping of titles, directors, cinematographers, actors, the whole works.

Karlson's highest rated film at IMDb may be a Sidney Toler Charlie Chan called Dark Alibi, but he was known for his films noir like The Phenix City Story, Kansas City Confidential, Scandal Sheet and 99 River Street, made throughout a creative spurt in the fifties. He garnered a lot of acclaim in the B movie world but didn't make it rich until the Joe Don Baker version of Walking Tall in 1973, which he didn't just direct but had a solid and very astute financial stake in.

There are names here I do know though. The lead is Ginger Rogers, though she's getting on in years with a lot more pounds on her than when she did everything Fred Astaire did, in high heels and backwards. In fact she looks pretty scary from a lot of angles and while I'd like to believe that it was a deliberate attempt to look the part, that's just what I'd like to believe. What I really believe is that she tried to look as good as she could but couldn't do better than Jack Lemmon in drag or maybe Kathleen Turner trying to play Julie Andrews. She can still act though, and does her best with the material which is as stagebound as the you'd expect given that it's based on a play called Dead Pigeon.

She's Sherry Conley and it doesn't take long for her to be moved from prison, where she's serving a term for harbouring a criminal, to a hotel room, where the government can try to persuade her to assist them in a case they're prosecuting against a mafia kingpin called Ben Costain. The prosecuting attorney is Edward G Robinson; the mafia kingpin is Lorne Greene, of all people; and the cop assigned to protect her is Brian Keith. Those are pretty good names to have in a film and they do a fine job, but they're stuck with the material.

It isn't even bad material and unfolds pretty well all things told. The thing is that in the main it's about a woman stuck in a hotel room waiting, waiting, waiting. With lobster thermidor on the menu, it's a lot more appealing than prison but the doors are just as closed. Leonard Kantor, who wrote the source play, obviously tried to put everything he could into it but it's an uphill struggle given that it's like watching a couple of cops on stakeout with an odd shootout or terrible hillbilly song on the TV to break it all up. It inevitably ends up being all about the dialogue and how solidly the actors can use it to engage our interest.

The good news is that everyone does pretty well, the bad news is that they could have done with more moments to shine. Ginger Rogers doesn't really get any moments, so has to try to make the whole performance shine with hardboiled emphasis and tough sarcasm. Robinson gets less moments than he's used to but simply doesn't have a clue how not to be great. This may be one of the worst performances I've seen him give and he's still magnetic to the eyes. It's simply impossible not to watch him, even when he's simply standing by while other people shout at each other.

Brian Keith gets the best moments, with some awesomely dead pan sarcasm. The whole scene in the honeymooning couple's room is wonderful writing and Keith and the other cop, whoever played him, brought it to joyous life. Lorne Greene seethes and smarms his way through his role with a tough voice and dead eyes, half Al Pacino and half William Shatner. It's completely unlike what any Bonanza or Battlestar Galactica fan would expect.

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