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Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 8-Capers Noir

In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.   

In this, the eighth in my limited series of film observations, I thought I would give a shout out to one of the more exciting noir themes: the caper. I have to admit that crime does appeal to me, ( I should be very specific here, crime in film), especially in black and white films, especially when great planning is a key ingredient, great planning and human foibles.

Both of my selections this time are excellent films. One, the 1950 thriller, The Asphalt Jungle, was helmed by John Huston, a seasoned pro at the top of his game. The other, the 1956 classic, The Killing, was guided by Stanley Kubrick, close to the beginning of his stellar career.

There of course have been a wealth of caper films but for my money, my hard-earned and never gained by committing a caper money (although, as a teen, I did speculate on crime but that was, thankfully, adolescent bravado), these two films head the list.

I may mention a few of the other interesting caper films along the way just to name drop. We will see.

Caper Noir: The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle has an outstanding opening montage.  The look is of a desolate city. Cops are on the prowl. Crime is out of control. Our antihero is on the lam. The city, stark, drab, looking possibly bombed out, is actually Cincinnati. Our ambulatory fellow in flight enters a café with signage: American Food on one outer wall and Home Cooking on the front. The café is next to Pilgrim House (not to be confused with Provincetown’s Pilgrim House which I wasn’t but I had to google it.) We are in an empty heart of America.

Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is suspected of pulling a ton of lone gunman heists. Moments in, we have no doubt that he is a stick-up artist. And that he has associates.  James Whitmore as his food joint restauranteur/buddy, Gus Minissi, is a standout.

We soon learn that Dix is pretty much a hard case gunsel with not much going for him but his toughness.                                                      

The conspiracy comes together. There are a range of participants. Among them are the smooth money man, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), and the brains, the one who has the complex vision and skill, Doc Irwin Riedenschneider, played by Sam Jaffe. Jaffe inhabits the calm and focused skin of Doc Riedenschneider and was the only actor in the film to garner an academy award nomination (best supporting actor) losing to the excellent George Sanders in All About Eve. Coincidentally,Calhern, who plays the desperate crime financier in the Asphalt Jungle was nominated that same year for Best Actor in The Magnificent Yankee, a film about Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes.                                            

To return briefly to Sam Jaffe, whilst in this film he portrays a brilliantly criminal mastermind with (spoiler alert) devastating carnal tendencies, I best remember him as the High Llama in the classic paradise found and misplaced film version of James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon.

Returning briefly to Doc Riedenschneider’s downfall, the actress who assisted his carnal demise was Helene Stanley who had a varied film and private life, modest in some regards but she was briefly married to Johnny Stompanato and also served as the model for Disney’s Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

The Asphalt Jungle is singularly  blessed with an early  performance by Marilyn Monroe as a femme fatale. She is a thumb sucking fatale of course at this stage of her career but she enlivens the film, gives a sort of boudoir excellence that plays well against the dark, bleak urban setting.


The plan
  Marilyn and Calhern


A couple of small asides on two actors who ever so briefly appear in the film early on. The police have picked up Dix on a vagrancy charge and he and two others are in a lineup.

One of the other two felons, William Doldy, is played by an excellent character actor, Strother Martin. It was his second film, and uncredited. Martin would appear in some outstanding films later in life.

Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke

In 1969 he was in three of the great westerns, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and True Grit. He had a notable role as fraudulent guru in 1966’s Harper, one of two films made from the works of superior mystery writer Ross MacDonald, both starring Paul Newman.

The following year he uttered one of the great cinematic lines as the prison warden in Cool Hand Luke : “What we have here is…. failure to communicate.”

Henry Corden plays Karl Smith, the other man in the lineup. I should note here that the three fellows in the line-up are all different heights. The cops have a witness to what we know is the stick-up Dix has done. The robber was tall. Corden was 6’1”. Martin was 5’ 5”. Hayden was 6’ 41/2” but seemed much taller standing next to Martin who was in the middle of the other two.

Corden was in the early stages of his career and spent much time in television. He gained immortality as he provided the voice of Fred Flintstone, was even doing the voice months before his death at age eighty-five in 2005.

The Asphalt Jungle was based on the W.R. Burnett novel. Burnett authored a host of books, and a number were made into quality films. Little Caesar and one of my favorite films, High Sierra were products of Burnett’s vast talent.

 I should also note that there are at least three film adaptations of The Asphalt Jungle.  A western, 1958’s The Badlanders, staring Alan Ladd, Cairo, made in 1963 and starring George Sanders, and a blaxpoitation film from 1972, Cool Breeze.

Caper Noir: The Killing

Stanley Kubrick’s, The Killing, is a magnificent piece of work. Also starring the great, gruff, take no prisoners actor, Sterling Hayden, it is another ensemble crime masterpiece that unfolds with alarming alacrity.

In this film, Hayden is the linchpin, the driving force, the organizational big cheese. He is the planner and brooks little disagreement. As you will see, assuming the film is new to you, while he has or forms close relationships with a few of the participants, they are all operating independently. Within that individualistic motif, there are many separate but moving parts. Like a criminal Rube Goldberg machine, Hayden’ s character, Johnny Clay manipulates/buys/shapes his brilliant game of theft.

The femme fatale here is one of the best, Marie Windsor. Her acting is sleasy great.

Marie Windsor and Sterling Hayden

Most of all, the ensemble company is brilliant, equal in my view to the fine assemblage in The Asphalt Jungle. Two standout performances are rendered by character actors, Jay C. Flippen, and Elisha Cook Jr.

Cook had already made an indelible mark in holiday essaying two powerful role in two iconic films.

Elisha Cook Jr.


In The Maltese Falcon, he played a vicious yet somewhat inept foil for Bogart’s Sam Spade. In Shane, he played the doomed farmer an son of the Confederacy, Stonewall Torrey

Another great character actor was Jay C Flippen. Flippen had a long career in a range of entertainment sectors including being a song smith and sports announcer. In a host of classic post war noir and westerns (especially the films of Jimmy Stewart) he was a standout.  He spent much of the last decade of his life in a wealth of television appearances.

Jay C. Flippen


As the film unfolds, its documentary quality draws you in. The voice over keeps you and the conspirators on track and on time.

Time is the key.

And so are the players. And they are a collection of misfits. Things quickly start going awry. Each has his own foible and as they unfold, the crime, their crime, falls into disarray. So, a quality about caper films is the rise and fall of the participants.

At one point in the film, we find our selves in a chess, checkers, and scrabble club. The scene was filmed in the iconic New York City location known as the Flea House. This slight but entertaining diversion showcases another of the conspirators:  Maurice Oboukhoff, played by Kola Kwariani, also known as Nick the Wrestle who was a habitue of the Flea House

One final character actor to note here (and I am leaving out some other sparking ones) is Timothy Carey. He plays Nikki Arcane, a hired assassin. Carey was a fascinating character in his own right.  Feel free to check him out.

Timothy Carey


Final Thoughts: Each of these excellent films depict a criminal subculture that engages, reveals, and ultimately exposes their (spoiler alert) downfall. Caper films are often exciting and worth a viewer’s time. A couple of other noirish classics I would like to leave you with are Richard Fleischer’s 1950 heist film, Armored Car Robbery, and the somewhat obscure 1958 film, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, with Steve McQueen in an early role. There are countless others to delve into but these two offer a nice contrast. Fleischer was a master filmmaker and packs some great plot twists and location shots into Armored Car Robbery.

Charles Guggenheim, the producer/co-director of TGSLBR, went on to an excellent career as a documentary filmmaker and was nominated for a dozen Academy Awards for his work  winning in two.   TGSLBR was based on an actual crime and even utilized some of the same police officers involved. Though an interesting footnote in the caper genre, ultimately it is a lesser albeit curious project.

About The Author

Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia.  He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards.  In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled          

Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

During the pandemic, his poetry appeared in five poetry anthologies, including the recent release of Word Weaving’s syllabic verse, The Moons of Autumn. His entry in the 2021 Owl Canyon Hackathon was published in the anthology, From The Corner of My Eyes.      

He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including In 200 Words or Less, a local monthly column in Denman Island’s The Flagstone, Drawn Towards the Sun, a prequel to his first novel, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.    

A much younger Bill Engleson SFU circa 1967/68

Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 7 Seriously Right-Wing Noir

In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.   

This time, the time of my seventh offering in my limited series of film observations, I thought I would sharply swerve into the far-right lane and dabble in what I have frivolously and unimaginatively decided to call right-wing noir. Seriously right-wing noir. There may be no such animal but there are films that do proffer a political tone, that attempt to inform, or, possibly, to confuse those wallowing in the centre of political thought:  One of these choice exposés is the Gordon Douglas directed 1951 film, I Was A Communist For the FBI (which subsequently generated a radio series) and a second is a John Wayne Movie that may not quite fit the noir mould but has its own duke-it-out charm, or harm, the Edward Ludwig helmed 1952 effort, Big Jim McLain. As you can tell by the years of release, both films landed smack dab in the heyday of Senator Joe McCarthy, his second wave House Un-American Activities Committee assault on Communism, his interrogation/bashing of such Hollywood luminaries as Orson Welles and Lucille Ball, as well as writers, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett. By 1954, America had temporarily come to its senses and the Senate censured McCarthy by a vote of 67-22 for “conduct contrary to Senatorial tradition.”

It is hard to imagine that same level of accountability happening in today’s political divide.

That last sentence by the way is a poor attempt at humor.

I will also include a few thoughts on a third film, 1949’s The Red Menace. It fits more securely into the noir genre than Big Jim McLain, but because I succumbed to the temptation to have a little fun with John Wayne (whose movies I totally admire and enjoy regardless of what his political inclinations might have been), a third film with more noirish credibility seemed appropriate.

Seriously Right-Wing Noir: I Was a Communist for the FBI

As this film begins, we are up to our belly button in the narrative. The FBI is tracking a communist agitator, Gerhardt Heisler, as he travels around the country proselytizing, organizing. His next destination: Pittsburgh.

The main protagonist in I Was A Communist for the FBI, a title incidentally which pretty much gives away the theme, has already immersed himself in his duplicitous mission as the movie begins. He is in deep undercover mode. Based on a series of Saturday Evening Post interviews with Matt Cvetic, the film attempts to replicate Cvetic’s immersion into Pittsburgh’s Communist underground. By the time we meet Cvevic, stolidly portrayed by Frank Lovejoy, often a supporting actor who seemed to revel in playing hard-ass characters, he had been at his task awhile. Matt Cvevic is a pariah within his own large family. At one point early on we are witness to a family gathering and the awful strain that Cvevic’s assumed political leanings have placed on his family.

There are compensations for Cvevic. Or, at least, for his Lovejoyian doppelganger. One is his dalliance with Dorothy Hart, an actress with not a particularly lengthy film pedigree but who managed a range of interesting roles including Howard Duff’s girlfriend, Ruth Morrison in one of the great noirs, The Naked City, and her final role as the tenth movie Jane to Lex Barker’s lean interpretation of Tarzan in the 1952 jungle delight, Tarzan’s Savage Fury.

In I was a Communist for the FBI, her character is somewhat deceitful, a communist version of a femme fatale. She does it quite well.

Hollywood had little appeal to the “luminous” Ms. Hart. She is quoted as follows: “Acting wasn’t enough. I felt some of the movies were mediocre. I wanted to do something important with my life, so I began working with the American Association for the United Nations. It was very, very fulfilling. I’ll never regret having given up Hollywood for it. “

Dorothy Hart and Frank Lovejoy

There were other fine cinematic moments for Lovejoy during his career. He supported Bogart in Nick Rays brilliant 1950 mystery drama, In a Lonely Place, and a couple of years later, starred in a tidy little thriller noir, The Hitch-hiker, a film directed by Ida Lupino.

Seriously Right-Wing Noir: Big Jim McLain

As noted above, Big Jim McLain is not really a film noir. More a bit of a hybrid. However, purist definitions aside, it is a black and white film, which counts for something although there are a number of excellent noir filmed in color.

Events in BJM mostly happen in the daytime in Hawaii. The bad guys are “commies” and HUAC investigators, Big Jim (John Wayne), and his sidekick, Mal Baxter, (played by James Arness, who, I should note, appeared with Wayne in a handful of other films (Island in the Sky, Hondo, and The Sea Chase) before becoming his definitive character, Marshall Matt Dillon, in the long running television series, Gunsmoke,) are deployed to Honolulu to seek them out.

Big Jim and Mel Arrive in Honolulu


While engaged in that worthy activity, Big Jim get romantically entangled with the fetching Nancy Olson who is employed by a suspected Communist medical practitioner. In some respects this romantic entanglement occupies a significant portion of the film. Wayne and Olson appear to be having a rare old time throughout, ostensibly making a movie but also makin’ whoopee.

John Wayne and Nancy Olson


Of course, there are some exquisite noirish moments in Big Jim McLain, and if they challenge the popular definitions, who’s to complain.

A Flashy Summary Hot Off the Presses

One set piece is quite entertaining. As Big Jim seeks out a communist, he encounters Veda Ann Borg, his quarry’s landlady. Borg almost always was consigned to play delightful and brassy types. She outdoes herself in this film and provides some of the film’s best moments. Politically, she was somewhat to the left of the Duke, as was Nancy Olson (both women were democrats), but clearly Borg was having fun in this film.

Veda Ann Borg and the Duke


During their investigation, Big Jim goes to the famous leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai to interview a reformed communist, Mrs. Namaka, played by actress Soo Yong.

Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement

She sees her career as a nurse serving the leper colony as penance for her years as a red. This scene includes a beautiful baby, born to leper parents. Mrs. Namaka explains that infants are taken away at birth (though the parents are allowed to see their child through glass), Some months later, the children, all the newborns, are sent away to be adopted.

 Soo Yong


There are other absorbing minutes in the film, not the least of which is the appearance of one of the major communist party members, an elegant if sinister fellow played by Alan Napier who years later would gain more fame as Alfred, butler to Adam West, aka Bruce Wayne aka secretly TV’s Batman.

Alan Napier


As is my habit, I will leave the conclusion of the film to the viewer. But don’t be surprised if these nefarious commies have up their sleeves an epidemic that they want to spread. And also don’t be surprised if the producers pull out as many patriotic stops as possible as the movie winds up.

I will mention an odd fact that, for a more successful worldwide distribution, the producers changed the films name from Big Jim McLean to…wait for it…Marijuana.

Marijuana-aka Big Jim McLain


Seriously Right-Wing Noir: The Red Menace

The Red Menace was a quickly made programmer. It aligned nicely, if a tad excessively, with the post-war resurgence of HUAA. It starts in a bleak noirish manner, a couple in a car speeding through the night,

Hanna Axmann-Rezzori and Robert Rockwell

pausing for gas, afraid that the world they are fleeing is about to squash them…and then the voice-over and we go back in time, a Veteran of WW 2, the male half of the fleeing duo, complaining to a Government agency that a real estate scam has cleaned him out.

From there, the pace quickens. He gets targeted, taken to a communist bar (yeah, I know, but there it was) and then somewhat seduced by a fervent, young, and literate communist beauty played by Barbra Fuller.

The Vet, played by Robert Rockwell, is probably best known as Mr. Boynton, Eve Arden’s fellow teacher in the classic comedy series, Our Miss Brooks.

Robert Rockwell

There are a few quite interesting sub-narratives in the film. One of the characters, Sam, is black and seems to be the key propagandist. He is a  friend of a communist poet, who dies.  Sam’s loyalty to the party changes after the death of his friend.  Draft headline for the Toilers, the Communist’s news organ,  starts out as “Decadent psycho poet a suicide.” and becomes, “Dead Poet a Hero.”

Bosley Crowther’s review from 1949 accurately describes a great deal of the characters in the story:

“There is Mollie O’Flaherty, for instance, a “party girl” in more ways than one,


Barbra Fuller

who believes in Marxist doctrine because of her impoverished youth. She is in love with Henry Solomon, a revolutionary poet and intellectual. There is Sam Wright, a Negro student who works for The Toilers, the party newspaper, whose notion is that communism will improve conditions for his race. There is also Nina Petrovka, a sad-eyed European refugee who got into the party because her father was a Communist. All of them soon are disillusioned by the intolerance and brutality that they see in the operations of the party and their leaders and, in one way or another, they break out. The most effective demonstration of charges against the Communists that the film provides is the disclosure of how the party allegedly abuses and intimidates those members who endeavour to break away. And for this, at least, the picture has a certain validity. But its credibility is diminished by the fustian representation of the leadership, played with villainous expressions by Lester Luther and


Betty Lou Gerson

Betty Lou Gerson. In the roles of the discontented members, Robert Rockwell as the ex-GI and Hanne Axman as the refugee are moderate, and Duke Williams is effective as the Negro boy, but the rest are specious and over-zealous. And they all speak much more than they act, for the script is a complex of speeches with dramatic action virtually nil. “

Betty Lou Gerson, incidentally, is most well known as the voice of Cruella de Vil, the villainess in Disney’s The One Hundred and One Dalmations.

The Red Menace ends quaintly in a small Texas town (a town incidentally which when googled, appears to not exist…if it ever did.)

The hero, Bill and the heroine, Nina, stop over in Talbot and throw themselves on the mercy of Law Enforcement and Government and heroine. They encounter the folksiest sheriff you’d ever want to meet. He asks them to tell him their story and to take their time because, “You know there’s lots of things we ain’t got here in Talbot but time ain’t one of them.” We have a “thing” where I live called the Slow Islands Movement. The imaginary town of Talbot, Texas, would fit right in.

Some Final Thoughts:

Film is an excellent vehicle to educate. It is also most certainly an excellent vehicle to entertain. It is also, sadly, sometimes a weapon. These three films in my view manage, in varying degrees, to serve to educate, to almost succeed in entertaining, and absolutely could, in the wrong hands, or the wrong eyes, whose ever hands or eyes those might be, but I am thinking of the easily led and manipulated, that these films might become weapons of, shall we say, mass hallucination.  But I guess that is one of the functions of film, to hallucinate us, treat us to others ways of being…

About the Author

Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia.  He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards.  In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

During the pandemic, his poetry appeared in four poetry anthologies.

He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including a local monthly column, In 200 Words or Less, a prequel to his first novel, Drawn Towards the Sun, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.

For more information, check his twitter, @billmelaterplea, and his occasionally updated website/blog

Bill Engleson peering into the mirror of his life, reflecting on all that has occurred.

Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 6 Newspaper Noir


In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.   

In this, the sixth in my limited series of film observations, I want to pay homage to the reporter. Reporters feature predominately in noir. They are even more prevalent in police procedurals. Sometimes the line blurs.

I have selected two quite different films that both feature reporters. One honours the profession. Even if the main protagonist begins as a cynic, he evolves, becomes transformed. This classic is called Call Northside 777 and was directed by the always excellent Henry Hathaway. The second film is a formidable exploration into journalistic opportunism. Alternately known as Ace in the Hole and The Big Carnival, its director, Billy Wilder was an amazing fellow. Both fine cinematic powerhouses were shepherded by film artists.

Newspaper Noir: Call Northside 777

For reasons only a psychiatrist might be able to answer, Call Northside 777 is one of two films I have watched a dozen times at least. The other is the original King Kong.

Oh, make that three. The Maltese Falcon is solid and frequent comfort film food as well.

Call Northside 777, a film rooted in actual events, begins with an excellent documentary montage that incorporates both real and fictional footage is cinematic license at its best. 

And effective.

It is initially set in the early thirties.

The fading days of Prohibition.

The narrative begins with a sudden violent crime. It’s a miserable winter day in Chicago and a neighbourhood cop is warming up in a back room of Wanda Skutnik’s Speakeasy.

Robbers enter.

We then are witness to the sudden violent shooting of the policeman, the suspects fleeing, the immediate police response.

the shooting

Frank Wiecek, played by the excellent noir actor Richard Conte, and his friend Tomek Zaleska are shortly rounded up and pretty swiftly convicted thanks to Wanda’s eyewitness testimony.

The prison doors slam shut.

The years move on.

10 years later, James Stewart is newspaperman P.J. McNeal. I should note here that Stewart’s character is based on Chicago Sun-Times reporter James P. Maguire, who wrote the original story on which the movie is based.

McNeal gets a new assignment. He reluctantly follows the orders of his Editor, played by Lee J. Cobb. Someone is offering $5,000 for information about the old shooting.

Tillie’s Ad

McNeal is a jaded reporter. He’s seen it all before. He tracks Tillie Wiecek down. Frank Wiecek’s mother has been scrubbing floors for over a decade constantly seeking enough money to pry loose what she believes is the truth: that her son Frank is innocent.

The story is written and McNeal milks it for what he thinks its worth. However, it takes on a life of its own. Bad Pun Alert: A life sentence of its own.

McNeal and Tillie meet

For my money, this film has many of the attributes I look for in a quality noir. Though missing a duplicitous femme fatale, (although there is variation on this theme in the guise of Wanda Skutnik- performed with gloriously grotesque skill by character actress, Bette Garde) it does have a protagonist who grows morally/ethically as the tale progresses. McNeal is aided by a loyal spouse, played by the tragic Helen Walker, and we catch glimpses of their life together, a beer after work, an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table, a snarky but flexible boss, an actual city (in this case, Chicago, is featured) in all its dismal black and white beauty.

McNeal and Wife

The strength of this film, aside from the acting, the location, the intensity, is how McNeal unravels the mystery. Every time I watch it, I enjoy it more.

McNeal and the Warden

Of course, the film is mostly set in the forties. The technologies are antiquated. Still, it is an investigative thriller, gritty, yet with an honesty about love and time and fear…well worth seeing especially for McNeal’s transformation from skeptic to advocate, and for what most will find a satisfying ending.

McNeal, Wanda Skutnik and “friend”

Newspaper Noir: Ace in the Hole

There is an argument to be made that Billy Wilder, the writer, producer, and director of the 1951 film, Ace in the Hole, is one of Hollywood’s most talented auteurs. Certainly, as others have noted, he wrote/co-wrote and directed two of the most influential and award-winning film noir, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.                                         

Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas as fallen-on-hard-times big city reporter Chuck Tatum, is passing through Albuquerque.

Full of himself, even in his dilapidated state, he pitches his credentials to the publisher of a small paper, the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin.  Though Tatum is obnoxious and cocky to a fault, the publisher, played by one of the great character actors, Porter Hall, hires him.

Tatum and photographer

A while later, while on assignment with a young co-worker (an assignment to cover an annual rattlesnake hunt),Tatum and his Jimmy Olsen-like companion pull into a full-service Tourist Trap, gas station, greasy spoon, (desert-style) and trinket emporium. It is a fortuitous stop for Tatum. The owner is stuck in a hole in the earth a short distance away.

Criterion Confessions: ACE IN THE HOLE - #396
Chuck Tatum and trapped Leo Minosa (played by Richard Benedict)

The light goes on for Tatum. Though not to my knowledge based on any one real person, the event he stumbles on has been compared to two real-life tragedies: The first occurred in 1925. W. Floyd Collins, a skilled spelunker, got trapped inside Sand Cave in Kentucky. A Louisville newspaper, the Courier-Journal sent reporter William Burke Miller to cover the story. Miller covered the story so well, so creatively that he eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage. As a footnote, John Prine has a fine song on this story as well.

A couple of decades later, in April 1949, a similar rescue operation caught the public’s imagination when three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into a decommissioned well in San Marino, California.

These true stories had to have been in the mind of writer and director Billy Wilder as he wrote the screenplay for Ace in the Hole.

The story that falls into Tatum’s lap, and his manipulation not just of the innocent victims, including Leo’s wife, Lorraine,

Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa) contemplating profits

played by the wonderful Jan Sterling, whom he encounters at the small desert outpost but also of the story itself, his consuming desire to control all aspects, the creation of the ”carnival” of attendees at his nightmarish news fabrication, his blatant opportunism, all of this is best savoured by a viewing of the film.   

Tatum viewing his “Carnival”.

Newspaper Noir: Final Thoughts

As with most human enterprise, journalism is practiced by a range of personalities. Certainly, the past few decades of cable news have given a painfully valuable insight into the depths of exploitation and personal tragedy which many journalists are capable of mining. On the other hand, many victims of tragic circumstance have become more than willing cohorts.

I believe these two films represent polar opposites…in one, (spoiler alert) an innocent man is finally liberated. In the other, though there may be just desserts in store for Chuck Tatum, his like always survive. And multiply.

I hope you have enjoyed the column. I have provided some links. There is one for the film, Call Northside 777, but only a link for the trailer for Ace in the Hole although it is available on YouTube to rent.

About the Author

Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia.  He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards.  In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including a local monthly column, In 200 Words or Less, a prequel to his first novel, Drawn Towards the Sun, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.

For more information, check his twitter, @billmelaterplea, and his occasionally updated website/blog


Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 5—Killer Noir


In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, hopefully a pandemic, and so many other things, can be or are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access. In my fifth in this limited series of film observations, I thought I would take a step back from noir that addressed social and political concerns and focus on something a tad sleazier. Well, by some measure sleazier: killers in noir. The reason was simple enough. The Coronavirus has levied death in large numbers around the earth in 2020 and continues with a vengeance in 2021. While there are still wars going on and people dying as a result, we have been paying most of our attention to Covid-19. Perhaps that is as it should be. How much grief for the earth can we be expected to absorb? How many tears can we offer? Even as I write this, as I attempt to justify a passion for old films, I am captured by images of the dispossessed fleeing Africa in the most unstable and congested of vessels, being swallowed whole by the unmerciful Atlantic Ocean.

Oddly, and somewhat inappropriately perhaps, writing about two lonely outlier cinematic killers and films about such creatures might seem almost a positive act. Yeah! Quite odd. I’ll concede that. So, as I write about film, about anything, I remain aware of the real world and its horrors. I have a desire to write. I also bear a duty to stay in the here and now. For this column, there were quite a few choices available of subject films, but two delightfully modest and seedy (seedy in only the best way) examples in particular came to mind quite quickly, two that I suspect are not as well-known as they deserve to be: the 1952 Arnold Laven film, Without Warning and the Alfred Werker/Anthony Mann jointly directed 1948 thriller, He Walked by Night. Both films feature lone wolf killers. Actually, that is not totally accurate. One killer has a dog companion. The other, dogless, petless, does have a neighbour child with whom he engages on occasion. She is not really a companion but serves to humanize him somewhat. In addition to those two connections, they each seem able to communicate in their respective work spheres, one a gardener/landscaper, and the other an inventor/technician with a light-fingered touch.

I should note here that a third film, Edward Dmytryk’s 1952 thriller, The Sniper, also immediately came to mind, but I opted simply to make a note of it here along with a link to the trailer. 

It does bear an uncomfortable similarity to more modern-day mass shooters, those forlorn school, church, and assorted other venue cluster-shooters who have emerged in significant numbers these past two decades but were not unknown even further back in time. I featured one of Dmytryk’s films, Cornered, in an earlier instalment, Hiding in Plain Sight. Killer Noir: Without Warning There is little mystery in Without Warning. It has no big stars to speak of. And stars probably were not necessary to the telling of the story.

Actor Adam Williams portrays the protagonist, Carl Martin. For much of his career, Williams was a supporting player. Moderately interesting, in this film, his wife at the time, Marilee Phelps, plays an undercover police woman and barely escapes with her life (cinematically speaking.) Moments in, its police procedural roots start showing.  For much of the subsequent journey, we follow both the police investigation, the gathering/discarding/processing of information, and the two worlds of the killer, his workaday world, and his murderous machinations, his killer’s world. As we watch him in his hilltop home neighbourhood, we are short months away from witnessing the tragedy of a soon to be bulldozed community, the marvellously lost Chavez Ravine. Eventually the neighbourhood became the home of the former Brooklyn Dodgers. Though Without Warning is not a study in gentrification, it’s greater value may be that it has left us with images of a community that is no more. This adds considerable worth to the film. In fact, that is a major quality of numerous film noir or films almost-noir that were filmed on location. We get the feel of the community, the streets, the businesses, the homes, the way life was once lived. 


These two real-life images give a sense of the community fightback as well as the means of destruction employed. It was a lengthy battle and though new housing was promised, ultimately a huge portion of the neighbourhood became Dodger Stadium. As for the film, there is lovely jazz score by Herschel Burke Gilbert that carries us along into the city, the unfolding night. As it begins, we shortly arrive at a no-name motel. A body is discovered. The wheels of law and order begin a careful journey to catch the killer. The narrator’s deep rich voice (not Reed Hadley who narrates He Walked by Night but Gene Wood’s sonorous tone) keeps up fully informed about the steps taken by police. Wood, in later years would be the off-screen voice on countless Game Shows. Our murderer is a hunter. And a bit of a gardener as we learn shortly…though the gardening shear he carries to terminate his victims gives a fairly obvious clue early on He is an amiable sort…most of the time. He has relationships. None too intimate. Carmelita, a child who lives nearby is upset. Her doll has broken. Its heads snapped off. He tries to repair it. He is easily spooked. Fred, who runs the garden supply business he frequents is friendly with him…his blond-haired daughter is visiting…husband’s gone overseas…Korea perhaps…she spooks him.

As the story unfolds, the noose of justice tightens. As noted, our villain is drawn to the daughter of the garden supply owner. We are meant to identify with her, her innocence. Her simplicity.

While the plot is anything but complex, we do notice that there is serendipity at play. The killer has favourites, but he is also flexible. As I hope I have made clear, this is not a particularly great film. Still, it has its historical merits and is well worth an hour and a bit of your time especially for those Chavez Ravine images. Killer Noir: He Walked By Night He Walked by Night is a somewhat more intricate film then Without Warning. As well, though I can’t say with any confidence that Without Warning was based on fact, the producers of He Walked by Night leave us little doubt that it is rooted in a real and tragic series of events. The film begins very Dragnet-like. Almost ‘This is the city. Los Angeles California.’ Almost, but not quite. As he did in several films, actor Reed Hadley provides the narration. His deep resonant voice lent an air of documentary authority to a number of superior noirish movies including The House on 92nd Street, Boomerang, and Canon City. Though Jack Webb is featured in the film, it is not his movie. However, many authorities argue that Webb’s role in He Walked by Night was the catalyst for his later creation of Dragnet. But this film is very much a police procedural. And like Without Warning it begins fairly early with a terrible crime.

In this case, a police officer on his way home, drawn to a suspicious fellow on a dark street, is shot and killed. From there, we get glimpses of the killer. Played by Richard Basehart very early in his career, the killer, alternately known as Roy Morgan and Roy Martin,  seems to be a purveyor of electronics. Posing as an inventor, we quickly determine that he is more than likely a thief. As for the shooting. this movie crime originated as a real crime. This officer, Loren Cornwell Roosevelt, a California Highway Patrol, was shot nine times at the end of his shift Wednesday, June 5, 1946. 

The killer, Erwin Walker aka Machine Gun Walker, was eventually captured, sentenced to death, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, hours away from his execution, he attempted suicide. This eventually led to his transfer to a state hospital where he resided for a dozen years. Then, given a clean bill of mental health, his death sentence was commuted in 1961. A decade later, he was freed and died at the ripe old age of ninety-one in 2008. Not bad for a cop killer.

As much as I sometimes believe movies are real life, He Walked by Night does take a few slight turns away from it precipitating crime.

As both Without Warning and He Walked by Night are relatively short films clocking in at seventy-seven and seventy-nine minutes respectively, the action is reasonably fast paced. Especially He Walked By Night. Without Warning, having as it does a protagonist who is a gardener, there is a more plant-like pace. He Walked by Night is, by contrast,  frenetically paced. And darker. 

Perhaps the biggest leap away from the actual event is the beautifully done escape by the killer.  Trapped in his auto court room, he has a handy escape plan and makes a run for it, ending up in the delightful storm drains of L.A.

There the excitement is shadowy, violent, perhaps somewhat predictable. 

A favourite Sci-Fi film, Them, was also filmed in a similar watery hole in the Los Angeles ground. Whether giant ants or whacked out killers, sewers and storm drains offer little reprieve from extinction.

Killer Noir: Final Thoughts. You will notice should you watch the film that though the protagonist in Without Warning fits most definitions of a serial killer, this is not particularly the case with the character played by Richard Basehart in He Walked by Night. Neither in fact are mass killers. By that I mean, Adam Williams character kills women one at a time. Of course, murder of any kind is reprehensible. He fits the basic definition of a serial killer, that is, three victims or more. Basehart’s character kills in a more situational setting. He doesn’t necessarily plan to kill anyone, but he is more than ready if circumstances demand. And they did. I don’t know if I have tempted you to watch these two little films or driven you away. As a film lover I have often watched films many others would not enjoy. It is a burden I carry. A very minor final thought: Harlan Warde in addition to appearing in both Without Warning and He Walked by Night also had a bit role in The Sniper. I find that interesting. 

About the Author

Bill Engleson

I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

Tales From The Silver Screen Part 4: Political Second Acts

In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.   

In this, the fourth in my limited series of film observations, I want to focus on two hard hitting social issue films, one from the late 1940’s and the other from the early 1950’s. The twist for me, an element of both films, is that both starred actors who went on to interesting careers as politicians. Republican politicians. Californian politicians. One even became President.

As for my two selections, they both have perspectives that still simmer today: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, and Stewart Heisler’s Storm Warning.

Border Incident

I do not remember the first time I saw Border Incident. It was certainly less than ten years ago. I have watched it a few times since, especially since the 2016 American election that spent so much time dissecting Donald Trump’s animus to those who live south of his border and who have, as they have done for decades, sought sanctuary and a future in an often unwelcoming and,  at best, ambivalent country.

Border Incident begins with a documentary-like narration about the business of agriculture in California, the brilliance of the water system, and the need for laborers. Farm workers.

Shortly, we meet our two heroes, Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy, Federal policemen from opposite sides of the border. They have worked together before and there is an excellent camaraderie.


The challenge is clear. People from Mexico are not only being smuggled into California to slave away as farm laborers, they are, whilst on their way home to Mexico, being robbed and murdered. To cut off the head of the murderous people-smuggling snake, Montalban will go undercover as a bracero.  Murphy will also go undercover, basically trying to keep tabs on Montalban’s journey. As Montalban’s boss summarizes, “It’s a good plan. Since the criminals’ work in a circle, we’ll cover the circle.”

The two men enter a grim, seemingly hopeless world, a twilight zone of shadows, of dark deadly times. The smugglers are heartless. The braceros are slaves. John Alton’s cinematography captures the agonizingly endless passage through the desert night. Though not everything always goes all that well, the gang, such as it is, is mostly efficient. The cheap labour, including Montalban’s cop, reaches their destination. Plans do go awry, however. Villainy always seem to have these types of interruptions. We can be thankful for that.

Da Silva, McGraw, Montalban, and the leg of actress Lynn Whitney who appears in both these films

Eventually though, before the villains earn their just desserts served to them on the proverbial platter, this dark film takes an even more treacherous turn than we might have expected from a late 1940’s movie. On the other hand, just a few years earlier, the world learned a few terrible lessons about the capacity of mankind to go beyond evil: Hitler’s Death Camps, his “final solution” for one. The unleashing of the A Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for another.

So, whatever does happen towards the end of Border Incident, it pales in comparison to the holocaust. Nevertheless, it has a quite personal ending and carries a cinematic punch.

The dangers of noir agriculture

Supporting Cast: Border Incident has a rich field of great character actors. Howard Da Silva is stupendously smarmy in the film. A couple of years later, this talented thespian was victimized by the HUAC blacklist.

James Mitchell, an actor who didn’t appear in many films (he had a later thirty year run in the soap opera, All My Children…and no, I never watched it) appears in Border Incident as Juan Garcia, an everyman seeking a better life.

Also appearing in the film is one of the all-time great noir actors, Charles McGraw. McGraw could play hero or villain with barely a change of expression. He starred in one of my favourite noirs, The Narrow Margin. Of note, he also starred in the short lived 1955-56 nine-episode series, Casablanca…eschewing the Bogart role.

Although the rest of the Border Incident ensemble cast is spot on, I would like to mention one other:  Alfonso Bedeyo. If you have had the opportunity to watch John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will remember Bedeyo. He was Gold Hat…famous for spouting, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”


Storm Warning

Storm Warning is a fascinating film. Its portrayal of the KKK is quite frightening and yet, even with all the hooded night riding (or driving) and grown men being boys engaged in semi-anthropomorphic behaviour, somehow it misses the full mark This may have been intentional. However, intentional or not, it hits an interesting noirish target. From the moment Ginger Rogers gets off the bus, irritating her manager who hopelessly reminds her that she has responsibilities further down the line, the stage is set. Ginger wants to meet up with her sister, a youthful looking Doris Day (even though she was twenty-eight or so at the time, so I guess she was still fairly young) who has recently gotten hitched.

Big sister is checking out the new guy.

Ginger arrives in the southern town at a nervous moment. Something is off. As she seeks help to find her sister, doors are closed. The locals are abrupt. The scene as she walks towards the hamburger joint is classic noir. Lights. Shadows. An altogether eerie night. Moments later, walking the dark streets, stores and streetlights are turned off in sequence. And then, in a second, just as she rounds a corner, a dozen hooded Klansman drag a man out of the County Jail. They whip him. He runs. And is shot. He drops at her feet. Stepping back, further into the dark, she witnesses the Klan run up to the fallen man. Cowering in the shadows, she conveniently is able to see that two of the Klan have removed their hoods.

Delicious noir burger joint scene

Interestingly, after the KKK flee, Ginger appropriately rushes up to check on the poor fellow on the ground. Off in the distance, lights come on in the jail. Ginger takes flight. Not quite the actions of a good citizen.  Anyways, she runs through the dark city streets. Earlier she had asked directions to the town recreation centre, the place where she knew her sister worked.                                        

From thereon, soap. Fifties soap. A little dirt of course. Early on it is revealed that one of the Klansman is Ginger’s new brother-in-law. Steve Cochran. Cochran is classic passive aggressive. A handsome fellow by port-war standards, he often played tough guys with squirmy tendencies. He does not disappoint this time.

Steve Cochran and Ginger Rogers

After Ginger is introduced to her new brother-in-law, recognizes him as one of the Klansman, this potboiler begins to boil over. 

We meet Ronnie Reagan at this point. He is the DA. Burt Rainey. This is not the first lynching. They know it is the Klan. The victim this time was a reporter. A northern reporter. The officials know everyone is afraid. As one cowering citizen says, “Please Mr. Rainey. Don’t ask me any questions. I don’t want to lie to you…a mob that did what those people did tonight would burn me out like that,” and he snaps his fingers.

Reagan (as D.A.) chatting with bowlers and Klan alike at the local recreation centre

As Rainey talks with one of his investigators, that fellow mentions that he used to belong to the Klan. His reasoning is simple enough: “I thought it was something to do good. You know, to help people…” When asked why he quit, he says. “Found out it was a lot of bunk. A bunch of hoodlums dressed up in sheets.”

Back at her sister’s house, the tension is palpable. We watch Ginger’s stare. She is clearly angry, afraid, indecisive. Finally, she confronts her new brother-in-law. The fat is in the fire. The cat is out of the bag. One of those, anyways. After some hysterics, Ginger agrees to scurry out of town in the morning. Cochran’s character goes for a walk…a run through the dark streets…to the Rec Center. Bowling Alley Noir at its finest. A wonderful set piece. Pins crashing. The whole town seems there. Everyone looks guilty.


Rogers, Day, and Cochran in a pivotal family conference

The treadmill of discovery rolls on. Ginger is interviewed, acknowledges that there were hooded men. She is kept in town to testify at the inquest. The Klan in this movie, deadly though it is, turns out to be something watered down, something separate from the real world.  Its racial xenophobia is underplayed. It is almost as if the characterization by the script writers is that they are are, as Trump so pathetically declared a couple of years ago, “very fine people on both sides.“

Rogers with “some very fine people.”

Is there a happy ending? No. It’s noir. But it has an ending. There’s some comfort in that.

Some Political Second Thoughts:

Murphy and Reagan followed somewhat similar theatrical and political paths. In fact, Murphy served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild (A labour union formed in the early 1930’s to improve the lot of performers and reduce the strangle hold of the major studios in the lives of those performers.) from 1944-1946. Reagan served as President of SAG for two time periods (1947-1952) and a return engagement for one further year, 1959.

Ronald Reagan

Though Reagan was a democrat early in his career, he transformed over the years into a Republican. He garnered a huge public profile by being the host of General Electric Theater, a weekly television anthology series that ran from 1954-62. This exposure enhanced his public profile and no doubt aided his entry into politics. Reagan served as the Governor of California from 1967-75. He tried to parlay his political credentials in 1976 when he sought the Republican Party Presidential nomination. He barely lost to Gerry Ford who subsequently went down to defeat to Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter’s quest for a second term. Reagan served as President for two terms from 1981-89.

George Murphy

Murphy was elected senator from California in 1964. He was defeated in his 1970 re-election attempt by Democrat John Tunney, son of famous prizefighter, Gene Tunney.

In  1965, in response to a public statement by Murphy about the willingness of Americans to do farm labour, folksinger/satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song that captured and perhaps partially sunk Murphy’s career. Murphy’s early years as a song and dance man was mentioned humorously by Lehrer.  

Ricardo Montalban

A final note, perhaps gratuitous.  Montalban’s first feature role was in Border Incident. That same year, he had a small role in the comedy musical western, The Kissing Bandit. Though not a song and dance man like his Border Incident co-star, he danced well enough in that film. And his green ensemble…to die for.

My conclusion:

Both these films certainly tried to deal with serious social issues. While neither really solved the issues they portrayed, they undoubtedly have given us a window back in time. Even with their flaws, that should be appreciated.

Thank you for your time.

Bill Engleson looking back…or forward

About Bill Engleson:

I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

I write flash fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews and have two larger projects that ever so slowly get my dwindling attention including my first novel’s prequel, Drawn Towards the Sun

My occasionally added-to-website/blog is

Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 3–Hiding in Plain Post-War Noirish Sight


In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.

When World War 2 ended, most soldiers returned home. Europe at that point was a chaotic caldron of refugees and defeated as well as occupying forces. Most of the refugees were innocent victims dispossessed from their various homelands. Cities had been devastated, many bombed into oblivion. The countryside had not been spared and much good growing soil had been razed by the pointlessness of war, the fields of blood, and the endless battles.

While there are many films that speak about life after the war, including two personal favourites, the multi Academy Award winning The Best Years of Our Lives and a somewhat similar albeit lesser known  film, Till The End of Time, a gem actually released before its cinematic doppelganger, both which follow a set of vets reintegrating into a peacetime America, there were other films that offered a glimpse into something darker, something much more sinister.

In this column, I want to take a peek at two stark little film noirs. Each offers a deep dive into the shadowy world of fugitive war criminals, villains who, of necessity, need to leave their old lives behind and assume a brand-new identity. The two films are the Edward Dmytryk directed 1945 thriller, Cornered, and Orson Welles’ 1946 suspense mystery, The Stranger.

index x

The Costs of War: Prices Paid, Debts Owed

Wars end. Usually. Past lives finish. One horror is over; recovery, the attempt to return to a semblance of normal, begins. So many millions of people dead. By one estimate, 70-85 million souls perished in WW 2. Of the living, many millions, up to 11,000,000, are on the move, homeless, lost.

But there were others, hundreds certainly, perhaps thousands, who were war criminals. They too had been uprooted, compelled to go on the run.

Cornered and The Stranger take a slightly different point of view to unearth, or, more accurately, run to ground war criminals in the aftermath. I have always been drawn to films that get to the heart of recovery from disaster. The social order, once firm and fathomable, has forever changed. No doubt the war caused much disruption but adjustments were made, sacrifices given, losses mounted, and always the prayer that it would it eventually conclude. And then, it did.  First in Europe, then in the East.


One Canadian celebration

There are also iconic images that capture the mood of war ending and sharing it with the world. This Alfred Eisenstaedt image below is beloved around the world. But it was not all parades and puckering.



Cornered has a heavy-going introduction. Hindered by a bureaucracy that won’t let him return to France in a timely manner to find his young wife’s grave and, possibly, a measure of revenge, the protagonist, Laurence Gerard, rows across the English Channel, scuttles his rowboat, seeks old compatriots in the ruins of France, snarling frequently as he launches his long journey to justice.


Gerard’s quarry is Marcel Jarnac, a Vichy collaborator, a mass-murdering war criminal. Allegedly dead. One of those convenient deaths where some grave doubts about the authenticity of his expiration date exists. In any case, Gerard assumes Jarnac is still alive, journeys to Marseille, then to Berne, and then, as a reward for his superior sleuthing wiles, travels to Buenos Aires. There, seemingly by happenstance, he is approached by travel guide, Melchior Incza. Is he just a guide or something more sinister?

Incza, deliciously, sleazily played by the great character actor, Walter Slezak, worms his way into Gerard’s, if not confidence, then into his orbit.

Incza conveniently drops the name, “Jarnac”. This leads the duo to a hoity toity Buenos Aires soiree where the dangers are both viscerally noirish and not a little sultry.



“A fine party. A fine party, I promise you,” waxes the salivating Incze. “Few people have the talent anymore. My friend, Herman Goering had it, for one. Before the war, of course. Ah, those were parties.”

Girard, played by former song and dance man, Dick Powell, is not a pleasant man, even though he is Canadian. As a Canadian, I find that mildly refreshing. A number of reviews of the film note the darkness that surrounds Powell’s interpretation. He is a post-war poster boy, angry, driven, obsessed with revenge. Powell’s previous film is one of the great noirs, Edward Dmytryk’s, Murder My Sweet. In that film, Powell, playing hard-boiled detective Phillip Marlowe, in a film based on Raymond Chandler’s, Farewell My Lovely, made great strides in proving he had dramatic chops and had outgrown a decade and a half of musical comedy.  In fact, the producers changed the title from Farewell My Lovely to Murder My Sweet because the book title sounded too much  like a romantic comedy.


Welles, The Stranger, begins with a shot of a door opening. There is a sign. Allied War Crimes Commission Dept. 12.


The scene is set. The film, shot sometime late in 1945, is the first to seriously address the evil of concentration camps. Clearly it was as topical as film could be.

The next few scenes get us caught up in the chase. The world is the canvas. The mood of the hunt is as visually ferocious as we saw in Cornered.

Where will we land, we wonder?

After such a noirish journey, we are suddenly thrust into a bright, sunny Connecticut college town. Harper. A bus pulls up and two gentlemen exit. There are numerous suspicious glances. The hunter and the bait. This we know. Inside the local coffee shop/news counter, a brace of locals is positioned.


The hunter, Edward G. Robinson, our Mr. Wilson, busies himself with chitchat. The Bait goes to a telephone. Next to the phone, a hand-written sign implores, Gentlemen Do not Deface Walls! Use Pad.” A call is made. We immediately understand who the quarry is. Unlike Cornered, where Jarnac is a wisp, an inkling, almost a ghost, Franz Kindler, the quarry in The Stranger, is almost immediately revealed. He is none other than a respected university professor, Charles Rankin. To top it off, on the day our hunter and bait arrive in this most tranquil of academic communities, the Nazi, and not just any Nazi, but an architect of mass-extermination, is about to marry the daughter of a respected Judge. At one point, the Nazi cat is out of the bag though it takes Mr. Wilson a few hours to reach the correct conclusion. In the middle of the night he recalls the point made by Rankin: “Who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew.”



What follows is a grotesque dance of deception, discovery, death, and dénouement.  In other words, fairly common noir results.

The Stranger is a most unsettling film. There is even a film within the film. At one point, Mr. Wilson shows excerpts from the 1945 US War Department documentary, Death Mills. The short bits shown by Wilson are difficult to watch. Even as he shows the film to Loretta Young, playing a bride who is very slow to accept that she has married evil personified, one has to be concerned about the effect on the viewer. I’ve provided the link to the 21 minute doc but be warned.

A concluding thought:

By most measures of longevity, any Nazi war criminals still not accounted for are probably not amongst the living. A few do pop up cinematically, most frequently as zombies in film of that genre although they do resurface, like JAWS, in more mainstream films.  (*See my seriously, actual last thought comment).

For the curious, Wikipedia has a list of most-wanted Nazi war criminals last updated in 2018.

One of them, Helmut Oberlander, is still in Canada. Oberlander has been ordered deported but apparently the ravages of time are saving him from that order being acted upon.


Another concluding thought:

John Demjanjuk: On a personal note (more of a personal awareness note, I suppose) I became fairly aware of the secret lives of Nazi war criminals all through the 1980’s and 1990’s when the Demjanjuk case occupied a huge slice of the news.

john demjanjuk

Demjanjuk’s journey to justice, to finally pay his unpayable debt to countess victims, was epic. It literally took decades and even then, he was permitted to spend his final year of life in a nursing home. However, it was not in America where he had lived and prospered for decades. Rather his final year was spent in Germany where he waited, and finally met, the grim reaper.

Valerian Trifa: As I wrote this post, I encountered the name of a war criminal new to me. There are of course many I know nothing about. Trifa, as a younger man, was a propagandist whose words led/assisted in a murderous pogrom against over one hundred Jews. Trifa became a cleric in the Romanian Orthodox Church and after the war, immigrated to the States where, in time, he became Archbishop of the Romanian Orthodox Church in America and Canada. His is a complex story and I’ll leave a link.

Bruno Dey: The day after I completed the post (I thought) it was announced that Bruno Dey, a teenage guard at the Stutthof Concentration Camp had been found guilty of 5232 counts of accessory to murder and one count of accessory to attempted murder. Because of his age at the time he committed the crime, his trial was held in juvenile court in Hamburg. His sentence: two years suspended.

The article mentions a trial for a second guard at Stutthof is in the works.

*Seriously, the actual last thought:

In 1978, Ira Levin’s imaginative novel, The Boys from Brazil, was released in film form. Gregory Peck, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and James Mason starred. Peck won the questionably dubious role of Joseph Mengele.

Though the film is more flavoured with the horrors of eugenic science possibilities and is definitely not noir, I mention it to reflect on how, in the 1970’s, Nazi villains were still alive and kicking. Cinematically, at any rate.

A more noirish film from the seventies’ is 1974’s The Odessa File. Based on a great thriller from Frederick Forsyth, we bear witness to a Third Reich that never gave up, never accepted defeat and that clearly, in 1963, where the film begins just as the world is learning about the assassination of JFK, is planning a comeback.

Fact of fiction, it is a heck of a movie.

Whether post war noir or seventies blockbuster, films that remind us about the capacity of man to commit horrendous acts of evil serve to give us a constant heads up to our responsibility to call out that evil. I think both The Stranger and Cornered represent an earlier post war effort to do that. They certainly are worth a look.

I have provided a you tube link to the full version of The Stranger but only a trailer link to Cornered.

Thank you.


Bill Engleson in a reflective moment

About Bill Engleson:

I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

I write flash fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews and have two larger projects including my first novel’s prequel, Drawn Towards the Sun

My website/blog is




Tales From The Silver Screen: Part 2 Black and White 1949

In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.

The COVID-19 pandemic had, for the past few months, temporarily muted much of the racial dissonance that exists in the US of A. Reporting on it hasn’t gone away, especially reporting on the three most egregious examples, the deaths of  Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the widespread agonizing responses/accelerations of anger and angst in communities around America.

Still, we continue to be overwhelmed by the tsunami-like spread of the Coronavirus in the States and around the globe. Interestingly, frighteningly, data is slowly coming out about the disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and First Nations peoples who have become infected by the virus. The relationship between race and poverty, and of course, health services, are hardly counter-intuitive to many. That morsel of self-evidence aside, the films I will examine in this post speak a little at least to a centuries-long pandemic of intolerance that has barely begun to subside.

With that rather shallow summary of the state of the world, I want to present and discuss two outstanding films produced in the US of A in 1949: Intruder in the Dust and Pinky.

Part 2: Black and White in 1949

I was two-years-old when these two films were made. I am now seventy-three. My knowledge of the black experience has been largely formed by film, literature, and what used to be called, before 24/7 cable broadcasting, the evening news.

My ignorance of the American experience aside, I am in no way saying that Canada has not had its own experiences of racial division and xenophobic violence. Far from it.


Both Canada and the United States share a dreadful history, a protracted history of oppression and subjugation of minorities. When I look back at memories of my home town, a town I confess I did not examine very closely when I was growing up, I can see how insidious the racism, the blatant segregation was. Insidious as well was the lack of understanding I had about all of it. I can blame it on the times, I suppose, but no matter the cause, I regret how little we knew back then or, perhaps, how little we preferred to acknowledge.


Nanaimo Indian Hospital

My modest examination of these two excellent films will be fashioned through an aging Canadian lens. That will certainly colour the result. On the other hand, I try not to make too many assumptions or assertions. Consider this an amateur’s sampler.

Both Intruder in the Dust and Pinky originated as novels. William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust was published in 1948, and Quality, the source novel for Pinky, was written by Cid Ricketts Sumner and published in 1947. I have read Faulkner’s novel but not Ms. Sumner’s book.

10376835                               index


Within a couple of years of publication, the two books were transformed into what appears to me to be, decades away from those times, as trailblazing films. Each address, in similar yet quite different ways, aspects of the racial gulf in America. Each offers an intense journey into the lives of the principal characters.  Each leaves us, or at least me, second-guessing as to what might happen next in that unknowable landscape that exists once the cameras have stopped rolling, once the scriptwriters have headed home, once we have left the theatre wondering how these vividly imagined worlds will manage when left to their own devices.



Intruder in the Dust is, at its core, the story of a crime. Much more is unfolding, of course, but when xenophobia and murder are mixed in, you have all the ingredients you need for a heck of a thriller. Filmed in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford Mississippi, it only takes a few celluloid seconds to be swallowed whole into the immediate aftermath of a sudden death. A white man is murdered: a black man has been arrested. As we follow the story down its dark and conflicted path, tension mounts. The accused is a solitary soul, a man out of step with those in the white community who want black men to know, to remember their place. The accused, Lucas Beauchamp, simply does not conform. For one thing, he owns his own property. For another, he walks proudly, a lonely man, perhaps, but sure and steady.


Juano Hernandez, in a breakthrough role, offers us a gripping and gallant portrayal of Lucas Beauchamp. For my money, Hernandez’s imposing presence is the best part of this excellent film. He demands respect in a world that refuses to offer it. He stands his ground, gives value when needed and withholds it to make a proud man’s point.

While the town simmers, while Lucas Beauchamp’s guilt is not challenged by many, a few faintly glimmering lights of compassion, of reason, of thought, emerge: a teenage boy, Chick Mallinson, played by Claude Jarman Jr., a young man  struggling to understand the world he lives in; his young black friend, Aleck, played by Elzie Emanuel,

N.B. Elzie also very briefly appeared in a powerful little 1951 film, The Well, that explores racial strife in a small American town. It was nominated for the Robert Meltzer Award in 1952. (See below for more details on Meltzer.)

partnering in the investigation; and an old woman, Miss Eunice Habersham, feisty, (and played by the frequently  delightfully cranky actress, Elizabeth Patterson, who some years later gained even more admirers playing Mrs. Trumbull, an initially crotchety, eventually sweet neighbour of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.)

A frivolous aside: I confess that when I hear Miss Patterson’s character’s name Habersham, I hear Miss Havisham, Dicken’s fine Great Expectations creation.


Dickens and my frivolity aside, the three sleuths conduct a most unorthodox investigation.  Suffice it to say, their middle of the night reconnaissance in a rural graveyard unearths a most unpleasant but welcome truth.

I only want to give you a taste of what you will find in this movie or any of the movies I plan to lightly touch down upon. Anything else would be a spoiler.  Trust me though, the tension continues.


Unlike the rapid tempo with which Intruder in the Dust begins, Pinky starts almost leisurely. A train whistle blows, smoke funnels out its stack, and as it passes from our view, we notice a worn fence shaping a modest dwelling. A second later, we see Jeanne Crain walking along a country road, a lane really, edged by a similar fence.

Pinky has returned home.


As Patricia (Pinky) Johnson’s story slowly unfolds, we learn that she has returned for a brief visit with her only family, her grandmother, Dicey (a winning performance by Ethel Waters.) And more of her truth comes out. In the north, where Pinky had gone to train as a nurse, she has been passing for white. She also has a lover, a white doctor who wants to marry her.


Forced into a crisis of conscience (her lover does not know her secret) she has fled home to weigh her options. Once there, she comes face to face with all the prejudice her new life had shielded her from. She is a known quantity. In some respects, she is neither white nor black and is mistreated by both communities. To complicate matters, her grandmother asks her to look after Miss Em, an elderly white neighbour (played by the always excellent Ethel Barrymore) who is quite unwell and who lives in a stately mansion. Pinky has no interest in the assignment but relents.


There is so much happening in this melodrama that to reveal anything else would not serve any eventual filmgoer who might imbibe. I will say that, somewhat like Intruder in the Dust, the legal system is called upon to address a singular act. This action leads to court and a most interesting judicial outcome.

Awards: The worth of a film is sometimes measured by the number of awards it garners. Intruder in the Dust received its fair share of accolades. Noteworthy amongst them were Juano Hernandez’s NYFCC Award nomination for best actor (losing to Broderick Crawford’s stellar performance as Willie Stark in Robert Rossen’s, All The Kings Men) and  a win (albeit in 1951, two years later than its release date) in a now-retired BAFTA category, the BAFTA United Nations Award (awarded 1949–1976).

As for the tributes that were bestowed on Pinky, the three female stars of Pinky each were lauded by nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Jeanne Crain as Best actress and Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters as Best Supporting Actress. No wins but still a fine acknowledgement.

Incidentally, both films shared a nomination in one short-lived category, the Writers Guild of America’s Robert Meltzer Award (Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene.) The story of Robert Meltzer, his short life and his death during WW2 and the subsequent honour afforded him by the Writer’s Guild of America and the reprehensible assault on his memory by HUAC in 1951 is captured here by his grandniece, Jennifer Bowman, in her blog, From This Perch.

A note about Elia Kazan: I imagine that many moviegoers back in the day would have had some inkling about the movie. Certainly, they would have been somewhat aware that the director, Elia Kazan, had rarely shied away from socially responsible, controversial films. I reviewed his next film, Panic in the Streets, in my previous column. Earlier, Kazan directed two of my most favoured films of 1947, Boomerang, a fascinating examination of political corruption and the ethics of criminal prosecution (and based on an actual 1924 criminal case )  and Gentleman’s Agreement, a multi-Academy Award nominee and winner that searingly dealt with anti-Semitism.

Kazan would go on to direct such classics as On the Waterfront and East of Eden. He would also earn the enmity of peers and colleagues by naming names as a witness in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.

A further note: One of the things that ties these two films together is the powerful performances of two black actors, Juano Hernandez and Ethel Waters. Some years later, they starred in a 1961 episode of Route 66, Goodnight Sweet Blues.

This particular episode of that iconic coming of age, hitting the road and seeing America show is considered one of the best. Aside from the two Caucasian stars, almost everyone one in the episode was black.


The Memphis Naturals

Also, Ethel Waters was nominated for an Emmy in 1962 for her Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. She didn’t win but was the first black actor to be so nominated.


George Maharis, Martin Milner, and Ethel Waters

Final remarks: Admittedly I have wandered around a bit in this column. I would like to end with a link to Ethel Waters singing Stormy Weather. Though it would be a stretch to suggest that the song reflects the angst and anger that festers in America, and any solutions are way beyond my retirement pay grade, the song does offer a mood of timeless loss that some may be sharing these days.

Thanks for reading .

Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 1 Epidemic Noir

Cinematic by Bill Engleson

In this series, depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting, I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.

Given the current COVID-19 rampage, and my rather melancholic, long-time predisposition to be an epidemic junkie, this first essay will draw on two thrillers from 1950:  Elia Kazan’s, Panic in the Streets, and The Killer That Stalked New York, a more obscure film, by director Earl McEvoy.

When I began to give some thought to this post, I did a quick google search for ‘Epidemic Noir’ and discovered something close, Contagion Noir. Contagion Noir popped up back in 2011 when the movie, Contagion, was released, and was subsequently reviewed on the blog,  This site is a wildly engaging book and film noir encyclopedia and I highly recommend it. The one essay, Contagion Noir, addressed the two films I want to talk about so it’s possible I will be covering territory already covered. That has never stopped me before. Even in duplication, I will try and be creative and original in my approach.

With that caveat fessed up, lets begin.


On a New Year’s Eve back in the early 1990’s, a few friends and I celebrated by watching a couple of films I had selected on my now long-departed VHS player. One of those films was Panic in the Streets. Photographed in New Orleans and starring Richard Widmark as a Public Health Doctor and Paul Douglas as a grumpy New Orleans cop, the film begins with a marvelously jazzy musical night ride in the city, a ride that ends on a dark, somber back alley street, a street where your gut tells you anything might happen. The camera sweeps upstairs to the second floor where six guys have been playing poker. Rather suddenly one of them, a sweaty, feverish fellow, ahead in the winnings and apparently just off a boat from somewhere, has the temerity to want to leave the game. This does not sit well with his compatriots. A few of the players follow him out into the lonely night, eventually catching up to him and pummeling him unmercifully. Then, without warning, Jack Palance, Blackie to friends and foes alike, the alpha male of the motley group, unhesitatingly caps the foreigner. Twice.


Clearly, these guys take their poker seriously. More seriously than life. And, wouldn’t you know it, in no time we discover that the haplessly plugged foreigner had Pneumonic Plague.

Fortunately, Richard Widmark plays a take charge Public Health Doctor, a Dr. Fauci kind of guy, but younger. In no time, he convinces a gathering of cops and politicos (including a very take-charge Mayor) that they have 48 hours to find the person or persons responsible for plugging the dead guy before they have an epidemic.

He cites a real life 1924 Pneumonic Plague incident.

Then he hits them with a powerhouse soliloquy. “Pneumonic plague can be spread like a common cold…You have forty-eight hours. Shortly after that you have the makings of an epidemic. I may be an alarmist…but I have seen this disease work. I’m telling you if it ever gets loose it can spread over the entire country…and the result will be more horrible than any of can imagine.”

The balance of the movie is the chase and the conclusion. Why would I say much more and spoil it for you?  I will mention the odd tidbit of plot but that will be it.


While The Killer That Stalked New York has a few domestic moments, all fraught with duplicitous tension, I might add, Panic in the Streets, for all its darkness, has some lovely moments of marital and parental harmony. And a really cute kid to boot, eight-year-old Tommy Rettig, who would go on to star in Lassie in the mid-fifties, age out of cinematic Lotus land in the early 1960’s, and, eventually, become something of a Computer programming legend.

Another mid-fifty child star also appears very briefly in The Killer that Stalked New York. Billy Gray, who spent the four years from 1954-58 as Bud Anderson, the only son in the prototype fifties family show, Father Knows Best, was an incredibly busy twelve-year-old in 1950, having roles in a dozen movies and TV series, including a walk-on in one of the great noir’s, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place starring Humphrey Bogart.

Immediately after Billy Gray’s walk on (the Mayor is reffing a pickup baseball game with some kids and gets called away to deal with the epidemic, so he asks “Pinkie” to take over)  the Mayor agrees to vaccinate 8,000,000 New Yorkers for free. There follows a beautiful montage of inoculation. Everyone gets the needle, starting with the Mayor. A Newspaper Heading reads “MASS VACCINATIONS BEGIN.” In a Barber Shop, men argue over the need. One Trumpian fellow says, “Two Cases of Smallpox don’t make no epidemic!” This character then says, “Nobody can get it unless he rubs up against someone who’s got it.”


On a musical note Panic in the Streets offers some great jazz and blues scores and the shots of home life are filled with the gentle sweet sounds of Glenn Miller’s, I Know Why and So Do You. .

The Killer That Stalked New York is not quite as musically blessed.

While Panic in The Streets is a top-notch location movie with a wealth of emerging stars, a great score, and, even, eventually, the recipient of an  Academy Award for Best Writing , Motion Picture Story, The Killer That Stalked New York is, by some standards,  a slighter lesser effort. Still, it has significant credibility in my book (yes, the one I am still writing.)

It begins,  as you will see if you watch it, assuming You Tube doesn’t take it down with a slightly deceptive image of a huge shadowy woman hovering over the New York skyline, clutching a pistol, though sadly not in this poster, but still looking menacing, even more menacing than Jack Palance. If that’s possible.


The story, based on a real life incident a from a couple of years earlier, , moves along at an infectious pace. The “killer” is returning from Cuba being tailed by a Treasury Agent. Clearly there is a traditional crime unfolding. Soon though, we watch the health of the “killer” painfully, feverishly portrayed by Evelyn Keyes (who made her first serious  cinematic bones as Scarlet O’Hara’s younger sister,) start to decline. We bear witness to those whom she comes in contact with, encounters in her desperate journey to get to her philandering hubby and partner in crime. We watch her sad scurrying through the streets of New York, frantically, almost obliviously unaware of her own tragic tale.

At one point, a friendly cop (someone who ups her anxiety, we can tell) intercepts her, and guides her into a nearby clinic. She has a caring moment with an ailing child, a child about to enter hospital for whooping cough, Pertussis, a deadly child killing disease at the time. The physician at the clinic (played by the dashing William Bishop who died much too young and who was in a favourite comedy from my childhood, It’s a Great Life,) checks Keyes out quickly, gives her a bottle of some unnamed medication, and sends her on her way. I should note here that after he dispatches her, he does a modest job of washing his hands -not even close to twenty seconds. In a subsequent scene at the hospital, he and a colleague do an exemplary job of the same activity (and the colleague gives it almost to a full minute.) A bravado performance of hand washing.

From then on, the story unfolds with the snap and crackle of a well-honed B flick. As in Panic in The Streets, a flurry of inoculations occurs. Both of these epidemics, smallpox and pneumonic plague, are classics, each having made numerous stops down through the years unlike COVID-19.

Both Panic in the Streets and The Killer That Stalked New York have a grand array of supporting actors, many who have few or no lines but who lend a realistic aura throughout.

One actor in fact, Dan Riss, is in both films. In New Orleans, he’s an irritating newspaper man who needs to be restrained from publishing the story that will panic the city. In New York, he’s a detective/public health investigator tracking down viral contacts. I imagine the redemption was comforting.

A few other actors who stand out for me in TKTSNY are Walter Burke as a larcenous bellboy and Jim Backus, as a lecherous nightclub owner (and just beginning his long running career as Mr. Magoo.)

Final Thoughts

I don’t want to ruin the endings for anyone. And I admit that here and there, I went off on a few tangents. That is part of the delight I find in writing about old films. Tangents. There are always tangents. Both film noirs were shot on location. Panic in the Street, as stated earlier, was shot on location in New Orleans. The Killer That Stalked New York, was, not surprisingly, shot on the streets of the Big Apple. As I write this, one of these two cities is an epicenter for COVIC 19 and the other is on its way up the COVIC 19 nightmare ladder. Both movies and their real life urban-counterparts are peopled by positive role-model politicians. I like to think that in some small way, these films might provide local, state and federal politicians of today with some smart and principled role modelling. Clearly some of our leaders don’t need the instruction. Others clearly do.


Bill Engleson (2)


About Bill Engleson:

I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.

I write flash fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews and have two larger projects including my first novel’s prequel, Drawn Towards the Sun

My website/blog is