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Noir-vember 2014: The Good Die Young

Posted by martinteller on November 15, 2014

“What have I got for my trouble? Stone deaf in one ear, half blind and only one hand! What sort of a man does that make me?!”

Four men meet in a London pub and become friends.  Joe Halsey (Richard Basehart) is an American clerk who has abandoned his job to fetch his wife Mary (Joan Collins), who has been trapped in the emotional clutches of her poisonous, manipulative mother (Freda Jackson).  Mike Morgan (Stanley Baker) is a boxer who has just fought his last bout, but a broken hand leads to gangrene and it has to be amputated.  Now Mike has few prospects, especially after his wife Angela (René Ray) has used their nest egg to bail out her no-good brother.  Eddie Blaine (John Ireland) is an Air Force officer about to be stationed in Germany… but he goes AWOL when he suspects his actress wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is having an affair with her co-star (Lee Patterson).  Lastly, there’s Miles Ravenscourt (Laurence Harvey), a “gentleman” who depends on his wife Eve’s (Margaret Leighton) wealth to maintain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.  But she cuts him off, tired of paying for his extravagant spending and gambling debts.  All four men are in a tight spot, but Miles has a plan.  A criminal plan.

Another Brit-noir, this one a heist-gone-wrong movie.  But the film takes its time getting there… in the intro we see the four men in a car, arming themselves with pistols.  Then we go into flashback and it’s well over an hour before we return to this scene.  The movie is more interested in studying how good people (well, three good people and Miles) get into a situation that causes them to make bad decisions.  These are down-to-earth guys with the best of intentions, but circumstances — and the slick-talking Miles — drive them to desperate measures.  Like many noirs, it focuses on the struggles of returning veterans (or in Eddie’s case, active servicemen).  It’s like The Best Years of Our Lives with a darker edge.  The film also makes the point that the most unscrupulous of the men (Miles, obviously) got his military honors via dishonorable means.

I mainly wanted to watch this for Gloria Grahame, who gets second billing in the cast.  But clearly her high-ranking credit was mainly for her star appeal.  She has maybe eight minutes of screen time in all, although she makes the most of it.  Or maybe I’m blind to her weaknesses… the screen just seems to crackle when she’s on it, all sass and seduction with the sharp edges poking through.  Ireland holds up well against her, though, trying to hold on to something he’s not sure he should have ever wanted in the first place.  The rest of the cast acquit themselves quite well also, with Stanley Baker as a particular highlight.  Mike’s thread is the most compelling, and also seems to claim the best cinematography (boxing scenes are always good for dramatic shots), but each is captivating to some degree.  I like Basehart and Collins is an appealing presence, but Freda Jackson runs away with the scene any time she appears, boiling with resentment.  Harvey (top-billed) is perhaps too slimy and I would have liked a little more restraint in regards to his character, and while Leighton is fine as his long-suffering wife, she fails to leave much of an impression.

Director Lewis Gilbert, perhaps best known for his 007 films (all during the terrible Roger Moore era, but we won’t hold that against him), doesn’t give the movie quite enough oomph.  As interesting as these characters are, it does take too long to get to the action.  When the heist finally comes, it’s a bit too rushed.  Perhaps this lends itself well to the chaotic nature of the event, but a little more care in the pacing would have given the climax more tension.  In all, though, this is an enjoyable work with good writing and generally strong performances.  It just needs a dash more style to stand out from the pack.  Rating: Good (79)


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