John Alton

T-MEN (1947)

T-Men 1947

T-Men is one of those semi-documentary films (like Call Northside 777) that brown noses the feds, but viewers expecting an over-staged presentation of federal prowess will be surprised. These “semi-documentary” films are usually not my bag, but this one is seriously dark and downright ruthless in parts. It also never romanticizes the life of a U.S. Treasury agent. It does quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a fair amount of newsreel propaganda and even a “public service announcement” from the Secretary of Treasury acting as prologue, but T-Men feels way more like a brooding underworld noir than stiff government kitsch.

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THE BIG COMBO (1955)

The Big Combo 1955

Sometimes the girl on a gangster’s arm is more important than the billfold in his pocket. Nothing is truer in the world of Mr. Brown, a somber, carnal crook who gets off on owning Susan Lowell, a stunning blonde who’s essentially held captive by Brown. Sniffing at Brown’s polished heels is persistent flatfoot Leonard Diamond. While he insists he’s spending the tax payers’ money to take down Brown’s big “combination,” it’s really his overwhelming lust for Susan that’s driving him. The Big Combo is director Joseph H. Lewis’ other masterpiece (alongside Gun Crazy). While on the surface it may seem like a pretty straightforward gangster flick, this bad bitch is a potent brew of cruelty and sex.

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WITNESS TO MURDER (1954)

Witness to Murder

Why won’t anybody listen to Barbara Stanwyck?! Witness to Murder had the unfortunate timing of being released shortly before Rear Window. Both films share a similar paranoid peeping tom premise, but Witness to Murder lacks Hitchcock’s polish. The film received positive reviews, particularly for John Alton’s camerawork, but Rear Window completely overshadowed it in the long run. There’s plenty to enjoy here though, including a devilishly wicked performance by George Sanders as a refined sadist.

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RAW DEAL (1948)

Raw Deal 1948

(No not the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick from the ’80s)  Raw Deal is a pretty underrated gem of the classic noir cycle. It was made the same year as T-Men with many of the same principal talents. While that film had a social realism thing going on, Raw Deal goes right for the hypothetical throat. It’s a tale of betrayal amongst a group of crooks and the two women who strive for the love of Joe (Dennis O’Keefe). On the surface it reads like a standard revenge story, but thanks to director Anthony Mann and DP John  Alton, Raw Deal plunges into a hallucinatory realm of violence and cynicism that’s as disenchanted as the hardest noirs oughta be.

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