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AUGUST 16, 1999: 

Armored Car Robbery

D: Richard Fleischer (1950)
with Charles McGraw, William Talman, Steve Brodie, Adele Jergens, Gene Evans, Douglas Fowley.

Richard Fleischer's debut film is an underappreciated noir caper film that, at 70 minutes, hasabsolutely no wasted motion in its direction andno wasted space in the plot. Dave Purvis (Talman) is a master criminal who orchestrates a heist at Los Angeles' Dodgers Stadium; recruiting a crew of born-loser stickup men, the job goes as planned until a police car cruising the area shows up sooner than anticipated. A cop is killed in the ensuing shootout, and heist man Benny (Fowley) is mortally wounded. Lt. Cordell (McGraw), after losing his partner, is teamed up with a rookie detective (much to his disgust) and follows a string of clues that the ill-fated crew leaves behind like bread crumbs. Purvis is the boyfriend of Benny's wife, burlesque queen Yvonne LeDoux (Jergens) and is determined to get Benny's share of the loot to her. However, when crook Mapes (Brodie) is arrested, he gives up Purvis and Yvonne both during interrogation, leading the police to flush them out. From its sublimely self-descriptive title to its no-nonsense dialogue and action, this is The Little Movie That Could, one that easily deserves to stand alongside noir caper classics like The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing (indeed, its storyline is quite similar to Kubrick's 1956 film, even down to the ending). This is the type of film that the phrase B programmer was invented for; if only modern-day, big-buck caper films such as Heat or Dead Presidents could have this movie's economy and breathless, excited pacing. Two years later, director Fleischer (son of animation pioneer Max Fleischer) would team up with screenwriter Earl Felton again for The Narrow Margin, and similarities to the later film abound. With casts of reliable character actors and McGraw as a square-jawed, trench-coated detective whose revenge is stoked by his partner's death early on, the two films would make good companion pieces. As for blond burlesque queen Jergens; to quote a striptease audience member, "Woo! Woo!" She inspired one of the film's more memorable lines -- during a phone conversation, "Imagine a dish like that going with a mug like Benny. The naked and the dead." RKO house cinematographer Guy Roe did a great job with the high-contrast location shooting; the daylight exterior shots give an overbaked look to summertime L.A., and the nighttime scenes in L.A.'s decrepit industrial and harbor areas are drenched in inky blackness. At the very least, Armored Car Robbery should be mentioned along with Anthony Mann's expressionist, low-budget noir films like Railroaded and T-Men. Fleischer would, in later years, prove to be a very versatile director, helming such efforts as Fantastic Voyage, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Mandingo, Compulsion, and Soylent Green. --Jerry Renshaw

Permanent Midnight

D: David Veloz (1998)
with Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley, Maria Bello, Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo.

Drug addiction has long been one of film's most curious subjects. Sometimes, it's employed as a moral stepladder of sorts. In other instances, it's a vehicle that transports viewers into society's seedy underground. There are also those films that use it as a vehicle to show the glamorized excess of artists. Permanent Midnight manages to congregate all of these themes and tell the story of slick TV writer Jerry Stahl (a real-life scribe played here by Stiller). As the film opens, the audience meets Jerry working at a fast food joint (part of his rehab work program). A beautiful blonde (Bello) flirts with him in the drive-through window, and soon he's confessing his disastrous past to her in a motel room. He tells her how he wound up in L.A. after his mother's suicide and about his marriage to the beautiful Sandra (Hurley). The past union was merely one of convenience, as the British Sandra needed him to get a green card, and he needed her TV contacts to land a job. Not long after sitting in on meetings, Jerry impresses execs and is writing for a successful show about an alien, Mr. Chompers (a fictionalized ALF). All the while, he's high as a kite, scoring heroin from the barrio, hanging with lowlifes, alienating his beautiful bride (who now loves him), and screwing up his posh employment. Stiller's portrayal is sincere and effective. His pale, blank gaze combined with frenetic grasps at keeping it together make for a credible and often sad performance. He also brings a tragic comedy element to the role with his frequent smart-ass quips and strict adherence to a healthy diet (despite the fact he's jabbing black tar smack into every vein possible). Kudos should also go to the supporting cast (Wilson as a slacker drug buddy, Hurley as the adoring wife, and Garofalo as an emotionless Hollywood agent). Aside from serving as an acting showcase for Stiller, the movie doesn't posture itself too differently than most drug fare, which is somewhat of a letdown. Fortunately, it holds itself together just long enough to get the point across without an abundance of withdrawal fits or redundant needle scenes. --Mike Emery

Die! Die! My Darling!

D: Silvio Narizzano (1965)
with Stefanie Powers, Tallulah Bankhead, Yootha Joyce, Donald Sutherland, Peter Vaughan.

Beautiful young Pat (Powers) pays a visit to the mother of her deceased fiancé hoping to stay no more than a night or two. Things soon backfire, though, when the crazy old battleaxe, Mrs. Trefoyle (Bankhead), decides that, since Pat has a new boyfriend, wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes, and (saints preserve us!) favors the color red, she's the spawn of Satan himself and is duefor some hard-nosed religious conversion. Mrs. Trefoyle puts the young woman under lock and key, uses her maid Anna (Joyce) as an enforcer (leading to a great catfight or two), and is scarcely seen without a small automatic clutched in her shriveled old fist. She runs a tight household, with Bible study at 7am, no mirrors to be found anywhere, and only oatmeal and vegetables for meals (salt and pepper are also the devil's handiwork). As things progress, it's revealed that Mrs. Trefoyle is quite unhinged and is transferring her resentment over her son's suicide onto Pat. Handyman Harry (Vaughan, recognizable from Peckinpah's Straw Dogs) hasa lecherous bent and eyes for the delectable Pat; son Joseph (Sutherland) is retarded and is an oddly extraneous sort of character. Journeyman-level director Narizzano provides pedestrian direction throughout, and the story's pace is rather flatfooted, but it's all Tallulah's show anyway. In her final role, the ancient thesp provides one of the more stupendous displays of overacting of her lengthy career. Did she have a stroke, or was she bombed throughout? You'll find yourself wishing for subtitles as she garbles many of her lines, and jumping for the remote as she goes from whisper to scream over and over. The hapless Pat is left to react to Mrs. Trefoyle, while Joseph shows up occasionally and speaks in pidgin phrases (laying it on a bit thick himself). Maybe it's not a fitting way for a talent such as Tallulah Bankhead to leave the movie business, but it certainly is great fun and high camp (not to mention that it inspired a Misfits song). Screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted the script from Anne Blaisdell's novel, adding it to such impressive credits as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Last Man on Earth, most of Corman's Poe series, Duel, and Trilogy of Terror. Get ready for a steady blast of histrionics if you take this one home and watch it. --Jerry Renshaw

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