Gun Crazy (1950) Review

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

I’m generally not the biggest fan of film noir, but once in a while I’ll see one that really tickles my fancy. Gun Crazy is one of those movies. The story is about two firearms-obsessed crack-shots – Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) – who fall in love and go on a crime spree. Does this sound like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to you? It’s certainly an important precursor to that landmark picture.

Gun Crazy is an interesting dive into the United States’ fascination with firearms. It’s a fine character study, too, being a b-movie that looks like an a-movie, thanks to its production values. The budget was low, but the strong cinematography and acting do a great deal to elevate the proceedings. The runtime is only eighty-seven minutes, so it trucks along at a good pace.

This feature has more action than your average film noir, which is probably a key reason why I enjoyed it more than most examples of that style. The body count remains relatively low, but many scenes still involve somebody taking out a pistol. One of the best sequences in the film is a one-shot robbery scene that must’ve been pretty ambitious considering the low budget.

No, I don’t love this one more than the aforementioned masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s still a very entertaining, stylish little flick. This thriller even has a non-criminal character named “Clyde” – Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis). It lives up to its lurid title and its sensationalistic tagline (“Thrill Crazy…Kill Crazy…Gun Crazy“). Even if you’re not a noir person, this one still might be worth tracking down.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Unknown (1927) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 63 minutes (original version), 49 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent drama-thriller The Unknown was one of ten movies that actor Lon Chaney made with director Tod Browning. Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is a shady circus knife-thrower with no arms (he tosses the blades with his feet) who’s willing to do anything to win the love of Nanon (Joan Crawford). First, Chaney had no legs in The Penalty (1920) and now he’s performing without any arms! What a trooper!

Lon Chaney is in top form here. He appears to be a top-notch contortionist, performing activities with his feet that one would normally do with their hands. A trip to the Trivia page on IMDb for The Unknown reveals that he occasionally had a double in this picture, the actually armless Paul Desmuke, for scenes that required that extra bit of talent, like those involving playing a musical instrument with the feet. This is incorporated seamlessly into the finished film.

This is a somewhat twisted movie, but, with a current running time of only 49 minutes, it does feel a little undercooked at times. A longer version existed at one time. That being said, the climax is appropriately tense and the overall picture certainly isn’t boring. As with many Lon Chaney flicks, this one revolves around a romantic triangle where he plays the grotesque figure.

The Unknown is definitely a one-of-a-kind movie, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as some of the other features starring Lon Chaney. Maybe the long-lost footage would improve the finished product. It’s a macabre treat (though not a horror film, as some have suggested), but I think it needs those missing sequences to soar. That being said, I’d still recommend it.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Ace of Hearts (1921) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent 1921 drama-thriller The Ace of Hearts may have been an attempt to recapture some of the magic from The Penalty (1920), another crime film that also starred Lon Chaney, was directed by Wallace Worsley, and was based on a work by pulp novelist Gouverneur Morris. There may be a reason why this movie isn’t as fondly remembered as The Penalty, but it’s still worth a watch. The story is about a secret society, of which Farallone (Lon Chaney) is a member, that is plotting the killing of a wealthy individual, and the assassin being chosen by the random dealing of cards (ace of hearts gets to carry out the mission).

The Ace of Hearts‘ biggest strength is its atmospheric nature, with many scenes having a strong nocturnal energy. The image of Lon Chaney waiting outside of your apartment window in a nighttime rainstorm is powerful. The picture feels pretty padded-out, even with a running time of only seventy-five minutes, but the feature does build up to a successful climax, even if it has some unsure footing along the way.

This film does have a prominent romantic triangle in it that feels a little silly, but it’s largely forgiven by the time the flick ends. You see, the backroom secret society has one female member – Lilith (Leatrice Joy) – and two of the potential assassins – Farallone and Forrest (John Bowers) – are madly in love her, both wanting a chance to be the hitman in order to show their devotion to “the Cause.” Farallone – Lon Chaney’s character – mostly just stands around looking glum in a ridiculous hairdo.

The Ace of Hearts may not hold up that well when compared to a couple of Lon Chaney’s other movies, like West of Zanzibar (1928) or the aforementioned The Penalty, but, despite an occasionally slow pace, it should have enough merits to make it worth tracking down for fans of “The Man with a Thousand Faces.” It has an interesting story with a nice payoff. Check out the audacious main title sequence, which simply shows the ace of hearts playing card (instead of text) when the title should be shown.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Timecop (1994) Review

Director: Peter Hyams

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is tasked with preventing the abuse of time travel, when he finds himself fighting against corrupt American politician Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), who’s been using that technology to accumulate funds for a Presidential campaign. As of the writing of this review, Wikipedia says that this is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s highest grossing movie where he played the lead role. Does it live up to that title?

When it comes to action, Timecop is definitely not the be-all-end-all Van Damme picture. The fights are actually pretty good, but the most elaborately choreographed ones are not saved for last. The ending confrontation feels forgettable in comparison to some of the set-pieces that preceded it. This feature’s finale focuses more on the emotional stakes than the physical ones, though that’s not to say that there’s no death and destruction during the third act.

The script gives the Muscles from Brussels one or two solid one-liners, but most of the comic relief is handled by Bruce McGill, who plays Eugene Matuzak, one of the higher-ups at the time travel agency. I mainly know this actor as “that one guy” from FDR: American Badass! (2012), but his attempts at providing levity are successful here. Does all of the time travel science and whatnot make sense in Timecop? Well, you’re asking the wrong person. I can’t wrap my brain around all of this complicated, scientific stuff, so I just ride with it. It’s fine in a turn-off-your-brain-and-watch-stuff-explode sort of way. It takes a high-concept idea and follows through with a fairly run-of-the-mill execution.

One can think of Timecop as a fusion of the time travel elements from the Terminator series and the sci-fi law enforcement parts of RoboCop (1987). Unfortunately, it can’t reach the high peaks of its apparent inspirations. As far as Van Damme films go, this one’s pretty average, but this average is higher than the normal score a movie starring, say, Steven Seagal would get. There are certainly better JCVD flicks out there – like The Expendables 2 (2012), Double Impact (1991), Legionnaire (1998), and Hard Target (1993) to name just a few – but this one will do in a jam.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hard Target (1993) Review

Director: John Woo

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Runtime: 97 minutes (standard version), 99 minutes (unrated version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target was the first film that director John Woo made in the United States. It’s not Woo’s best movie, but I think it holds up very well. In this frenetic action-thriller, unemployed Cajun tough guy Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) crashes the party of a group of wealthy goons who hunt the homeless for sport in New Orleans. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, as it’s revealed in the opening sequence.

The snake-punching action scenes are the reason to watch, almost needless to say. Realism makes no cameo appearances, with the combat being as over-the-top as possible (are all the guns firing high-explosive rounds?). The squibby carnage is choreographed with John Woo’s usual panache, and it’s a delight to watch Van Damme make mincemeat out of over a couple dozen baddies. Most of the violence comes from firearms, but the Muscles from Brussels gets the opportunity to show off his hand-to-hand fighting moves on occasion.

Yes, it’s a shoot-’em-up flick (and a mighty stylish one at that), but the rest of the motion picture’s moving parts work effectively enough. The simple story is immediate and gripping, while the heroic characters are engaging. Wilford Brimley shows up as swamp-dweller Douvee, and his scenes really light up the screen. The villains, including Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo), are slimy and easy to hate.

The rating description for Hard Target by the MPAA says that it is rated R “for a great amount of strong violence, and for language [italics mine].” Don’t threaten me with a good time, MPAA! An unrated cut also exists. Anyway, this terrific action movie is one of Woo’s better Hollywood works, even if it is unsubtle as Hell. Of course it ends with “Born on the Bayou” by Creedence Clearwater Revival playing on the soundtrack! It’s just that sort of film.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Penalty (1920) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1920 crime-drama The Penalty was the breakout film for iconic movie star Lon Chaney. A San Francisco gangster named Blizzard (Lon Chaney), who had both of his legs unnecessarily amputated after an accident as a child, plots his revenge on the physician – Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) – who mistakenly robbed him of his legs and against the city of San Francisco as a whole. It’s not a horror movie, like some say, but rather a grotesque drama, the kind that Chaney seemed to specialize in.

In order to play a double-amputee, Lon Chaney wore a special harness, allowing him to walk on his knees. The effect is virtually flawless, although the strain of the performance apparently damaged Chaney’s knee muscles for the rest of his life. With this knowledge, it makes every second that Blizzard (Chaney’s character) appears onscreen feel painful. This is definitely his show, but it has the interesting touch of having a female undercover agent – Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) – try to infiltrate his den of sin to bring it down.

As wonderfully pulpy and sinister as The Penalty is, it is slightly marred by a weird, anti-climactic ending. I won’t spoil it here, and it’s certainly not horrible, but it is bizarre and causes the picture to fail to live up to all of its potential. Given that the feature was released during the First Red Scare, there is some minor xenophobic content (where foreigners are not to be trusted), but it doesn’t have much of an impact on my overall impression of the work.

Sent to theaters at the beginning of the 1920s, this silent film has aged surprisingly well. It’s actually quite excellent. Not everything about it makes sense, but its intimidating mood, reasonably concise story, and fantastic performance from Lon Chaney do not lie. One of the first mobster movies, it still may be one of the better ones.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1930) Review

Director: Jack Conway

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 72 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Gather ’round, ladies and gentlemen, and hear Lon Chaney in his only role in a talking motion picture! Yes, Chaney made only one sound movie before tragically passing away from throat cancer at forty-seven. This is a remake of the 1925 film of the same title, so the plot may sound familiar: cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Ivan Linow), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Lila Lee) team up to plan some heists out of a pet shop.

This one is several minutes shorter than the silent original, so it chugs along at a slightly faster pace. The physical action is perhaps a tad more dynamic here, and, while it still has a courtroom finale, this one’s a hair more interesting. That being said, it’s very similar to the 1925 feature, so contrasting the two films isn’t easy.

The most notable flaw with this version of the story is that Harry Earles’ dialogue is frequently difficult to understand. Maybe silent movie-style intertitles were needed? Nah, I’m just kidding about that. The pacing probably could’ve been better, but, as it stands now, it’s an improvement over the original. It’s a preposterous, little movie, but it knows that it’s a little crazy.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, before the enforcement of the Production Code, this nifty, slightly twisted crime-thriller is recommended for Lon Chaney fanatics…and not just because it was his last feature. It feels more streamlined than the 1925 silent film that it’s a remake of and the ludicrous premise is enough to keep it afloat. So, check out The Unholy Three if you ever get the chance.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1925) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent, 1925 version of The Unholy Three could be seen as director Tod Browning’s warm-up for Freaks (1932). Here, four (yes, four) criminals – cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch) – join forces to commit a series of robberies out of a pet shop. Now, how do you like that for a plot?!?

As one might expect after reading that synopsis, this flick can get pretty absurd at times. I mean, this quartet of outlaws even own a killer ape. It’s not quite a comedy, but this crime-drama doesn’t demand that you take it too seriously. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of its silly premise. It’s hard not to get a kick out of Harry Earles’ character, dressed as a baby, chomping a cigar.

The major downside of the silent version of The Unholy Three is that it ends with a courtroom finale. I’m generally not a fan of those sorts of conclusions, and this is no exception. It wasn’t exactly a fast-paced picture to begin with, and now we have to endure a bunch of people talking before a judge? Oh well, it doesn’t hurt the overall film too much.

It’s not perfect, but this oddity might be worth watching for fans of Lon Chaney or those looking for the weirder side of silent cinema. Does the idea of this movie appeal to you, but you’re apprehensive about viewing a film without sound? Don’t fret! Five years after it was made, a sound remake of the same title (also starring Chaney) was sent to theaters.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The War of the Worlds (1953) Review

Director: Byron Haskin

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Horror, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Decades before director Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), there was a similarly-titled sci-fi picture that covered the same ground. Martians have invaded Earth, and humanity finds itself waging a seemingly losing battle against the extraterrestrial invaders. Largely set in the 1950s United States, this one feels like a bunch of aliens crashed into a Norman Rockwell painting.

Elements of this science-fiction-horror feature may seem hokey by today’s standards, but I think that it’s got it where it counts. The lead character, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), may not be the kind of hero you’d expect from a 1950s film, but it totally works in the context of the movie. There’s a fair amount of action once things get rolling, and the flick is bleaker and darker than one might anticipate from an American production of this time period (although it’s certainly not as moody as it could’ve been).

The most notable hit-or-miss aspects of The War of the Worlds are the special effects. They won an Oscar, with some of the destruction looking quite impressive for a 1953 movie. However, not every effect is flawless, and some of the visuals have definitely dated…if they ever looked good at all (during the scene where human artillery is firing at the Martian war machines, it looks like someone tossing fire-crackers at miniatures). The aliens themselves also present a problem, since they look more cute than terrifying.

This sci-fi-thriller, which may reflect the Cold War paranoia of the time, runs a brisk eighty-five minutes, so time is rarely wasted. Modern audiences will find some parts of the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds to be cheesy or quaint, but I think that the picture’s desperate tone and focus on physical mayhem save it from being a useless 1950s relic. To be honest, I prefer the 2005 film directed by Spielberg, but this one is still worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tenet (2020) Review

Director: Christopher Nolan

Genre(s): Action, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 150 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Director Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi actioner Tenet was supposed to be one of those films to bail out the struggling movie theater industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. The picture follows a secret agent, simply referred to as “the Protagonist” (John David Washington), who must stop a group of terrorists from using time-inversion technology to threaten the planet. It’s a long, puzzling ride…is it worth the trip?

The admirably ambitious Tenet is, unfortunately, a confusing feature. With characters traveling forward in time and others backwards in time at the same time, it’s hard to keep abreast of. The complicated-for-the-sake-of-complicated nature of the film doesn’t really make me want to watch it over and over again, it just sparks apathy. Perhaps the time-inversion stuff would’ve worked better in smaller doses.

There is some nice action here, though. The opening sequence is the highlight, but numerous chases, fights, and moments of miscellaneous mayhem are littered throughout the (overlong) runtime. There’s certainly an I-haven’t-seen-that-before factor in play here, but the movie’s wildly intricate plot largely means that these scenes must be enjoyed in isolation from any compelling story.

I suppose that Tenet will appeal to those who like ambiguous mysteries in their cinema and try to watch the same flicks repeatedly in order to dissect every last detail. This movie is a lot less easy to follow than Christopher Nolan’s own Inception (2010), and it suffers from that. Although it occasionally dabbles in James Bond-style antics, this work feels like it’s intentionally trying to “lose” the audience in its complex storytelling.

My rating is 6 outta 10.