Foreword: I must point out I'm indebted to Tony D'Ambra's review of this film (linked here), as he was the inspiration to see this film in the first place. I can't even hope to add any sort of new idea to the fold, but I do want to emphasize my admiration for both Tony's review and for the film.
In Robert Wise’s fatalistic film, written by blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, we see the ugliness and dark side of film noir, not just in a cinematic way, but in a socially destructive way. It stars Harry Belafonte as Johnny, a night club entertainer who’s in debt to the mob due to his gambling addiction, and Robert Ryan as Earle, a racist con-man who is desperate for cash and respect from his wife Lorry, played by Shelley Winters. Ex-cop, Dave, played by Ed Begley recruits both men for a heist job he has been planning (which will set them up nicely for many years) in a small town in the Hudson Valley of New York. He needs both men, but when Earle finds out his partner for the heist will be a black man, he’s completely against it. Realizing his desperation, though, he decides to reluctantly join the plan. Johnny is not without his racial prejudices either, turning the film into a socially potent film noir. Premonitions of violent gunplay in the presence of kids playing with squirt guns on the street presages the violent climax.
Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte give brilliant performances as two men who can hardly stand each other, but attempt to set aside their prejudices for the greater good of the heist. As in all heist films, the set-up is terribly important. Shooting in small town, upstate NY, the cinematography by Joseph C. Brun during several sequences in the film is simply stunning of the
Hudson River and the mountains in the background. During the actual heist itself, there is a wonderful choreography of sequences that stir up the suspense, as we realize before the robbers do, that something is about to go wrong. There is a deep sense of melancholic fatalism at work in the film. We sense early on that both of these men have ugly personality issues and are doomed. Earle cheats on his wife, has a violent streak, and has a deep sense of self pity that does not flatter him. His racism is the icing on the cake. Johnny is not much better. He’s cheated on his wife, gambles too much, and is no longer living at home. Although he visits his daughter and takes her to the park, he’s distracted by threatening mobsters who want cash. His racism seems more born out of self defense and prior history, but it’s racism nonetheless. Ed Begley’s Dave is the only one that can keep Johnny and Earle from tearing each other apart.
Wise chose to film in standard aspect ratio, shunning the oncoming neo-noir aesthetic for a more traditional look, while still maintaining an aura of cool. His work on editing Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) seemed to have influenced him quite a bit, as the use of deep focus, low angle and Dutch angle shots are very Welles-ian, but they’re used here to striking, not gaudy effect. Of particular note is the chase around the fuel tanks and pipes at the end, as shadow, harsh light, and odd depth-of-field emphasize the paranoiac dread. Wise’s film is deeply realist in nature, containing neither heroes nor anti-heroes for that matter. It’s simply ugly people playing the ugly game of life and losing.
Wise continues to impress me, with work across multiple genres, something that other American directors, like Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann did. After working on film noirs, westerns, and sci-fi films, Wise made a huge name for himself with the stupendous West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). What I notice about all his films, is the deep respect for the audience. I know some don't agree with that! I think he gives us what we can believe in. Film noirs like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow allow the audience to believe these are real people making fatal decisions. In West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), despite the cinematic unreality of musicals, Wise captures the sincerity of the characters, which makes us feel that these musical worlds are much like ours, containing people we believe in and admire. If you can make masterpieces in the film noir and musical genres, there’s a real understanding for what makes movies tick.