Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Those 1950s crime movies

There's something about the crime movies of the late 1950s that I really enjoy. James Ellroy picked a series of these movies when he was one of the Guest Programmers in November, and the movies, despite being fairly small, unambitious movies, are quite good. They have a bit of the sensibility of the noirs, although they're generally much brighter (in terms of physical lighting, but not necessarily in terms of mood) and more realistic, having been shot on location. One that Ellroy didn't pick, but which showed up on TCM this past Monday, is Man In the Vault.

William Campbell, who looks like Tony Curtis having a bad hair day, stars as Tommy Dancer, a young locksmith who likes to spend his spare time bowling. One night, he's approached by the gangster Willis Trent (played by Barry Kroeger), and eventually given an offer he can't refuse: make a key for a certain safe deposit box, and break into that box. It turns out that the box contains a large sum of money belonging to another gangster, Paul de Camp (played by James Seay). Unfortunately, in getting mixed up in all of this, Tommy has seen how crime hurts the wrong people, such as Betty Turner, one of the molls (played by Karen Sharpe), who has fallen in love with Tommy. Tommy eventually decides that he's going to help out Betty, and himself, by taking the money for himself instead of giving it to Trent. This, of course, is a Really Stupid Idea, but one that's necessary for these crime movies. Naturally, the gangsters find out what's going on, and come after Tommy. In one of the more interesting climaxes, the final confrontation between the good guy and the villian takes place in a dark bowling alley, with Tommy behind the pins at one end of the lanes, and the gangster both shooting at him and rolling bowling balls down the lanes.

One of the things that makes thes 1950s crime movies so enjoyable is precisely the fact that they were all made on a lower budget. This gives them a decidedly unglamorous feel, which fits in well with the fact that the crime bosses, and many of the people they deal with on a day-to-day basis, are in fact seedy people. Also, the location shooting adds to the realistic feel, much more than the backlot work you would see in Warner Brothers' gangster movies of the 1930s. Finally, the 1950s ushered in a period of social change that allowed the crime movies to have a darker edge than what the studios could give two decades earlier; however, there was still enough influence in terms of the Production Code that movies weren't yet filled with gratuitously bad language. Although there's naturally quite a bid of violence in crime movies, there isn't the swearing that can make more recent movies almost uncomfortable to watch. Naturally, there's also some sex appeal, in terms of the molls. And one of them in Man In the Vault is played by a young and gorgeous Anita Ekberg. However, the sex is understated. It's obvious that these women are sexually appealing, but we don't have to get any sex scenes to see this.

Most of these 1950s crime movies are in the 75-85 minute range, as they weren't designed to be the prestige movies; as a result, they're relatively fast-paced. Man In the Vault is no different, coming in at the short end of the range. But it packs quite a lot of fun and twists in those 75 minutes. The ending is a bit rushed, but that's probably the only big flaw with the movie. It's available on DVD, of course; I wouldn't recommend it after broadcast if it weren't on DVD. Sure, there are movies that are objectively better, but I've mentioned on a lot of occasions that there are times when it's fun just to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch a little movie. Man In the Vault fits that description perfectly.

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