Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1959. HarBel Productions. Screenplay by Abraham Polonsky, Nelson Gidding, based on a novel by William P. McGivern. Cinematography by Joseph C. Brun. Produced by Robert Wise. Music by John Lewis. Production Design by Leo Kerz. Costume Design by Anna Hill Johnstone. Film Editing by Dede Allen.
This atmospheric, exciting noir thriller has been cited as a favourite by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville and L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy, who rightfully celebrate its superb direction and fascinating, in-depth exploration of character detail.
Harry Belafonte, who also produced, plays a nightclub entertainer who is drowning in gambling debts, having a difficult time connecting with his ex-wife, who has long given up on him, and spending a few moments a week on outings with his young daughter. In another part of town, war veteran and small-time hood Robert Ryan has marital woes with his unhappy wife Shelley Winters and has to deal with the quirky, nosey neighbour upstairs (Gloria Grahame, perfectly cast as usual) while also suffering from money troubles as well.
The two of them are brought in to meet shady Ed Begley, who offers them the chance to solve all their financial strife with the perfect robbery: every week, a local bank receives payroll deposits from local businesses and its employees stay up late to process them, during which they always receive a delivery of coffee at the same time and at the same side door. Begley knows that if they exploit this tiny vulnerability, they could make off with all the cash, but the two men aren’t buying it and are hesitant to get involved. When their debts become even more of a pressing concern, however, they change their minds, and despite the fact that Ryan is racist and can’t stomach the thought of having to treat Belafonte with any manner of equality or respect, the three of them set about planning the perfect crime.
The screenplay, penned by blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky (whose proper credit was restored more than thirty years after the film was released), does an incredible job of holding your interest despite the fact that things never actually get around to the planning and execution of the crime until the last half hour. Before that, it is an absorbing, richly photographed voyage into the dingy world of low lives, brimming over with character and mood, perked up by a musical performance by the silky-voiced star and the few moments of relief provided by the complex female personalities (among them a bit performance by a debuting Zohra Lampert).
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Film Promoting International Understanding