Monday, November 14, 2016

Appointment With Crime (1946)

Appointment with Crime starts with the crash of a storefront window.  Lowlife thug Leo Martin (William Hartnell, the original Dr. Who) reaches in to grab the jewels there, but has his arms pinned there by the heavy metal emergency bars as they come smashing down.  His two accomplices in the care drive away in a panic, leaving him alone to face the law.

His screams of pain ring out, "My wrists! My wrists!"

A brief flashback shows the plans being laid out for this theft gone wrong.
Gus Loman (Raymond Lovell), the leader of the little gang, reiterates to Martin the simplicity of the part he has to play in their aptly-named smash-and-grab operation: "One smash, two grabs, and flee away! Just remember, we won't let you down, *whatever* happens!"

But when the only thing smashed and grabbed are his own wrists, Martin soon discovers the insincerity of Loman's promise, and ends up with several years in prison to stew about it, letting hate and vengeance rot in his gut.  By the time he gets released, Martin has been transformed from young punk to a vicious beast who deserves to be ranked among the most jaded brutes in noir.  There's hard-boiled and there's Leo Martin, a hand grenade slipped into a carton of hard-boiled eggs- looks tough, feels tough, but with a dangerously explosive interior.

Upon release, Martin looks up his old friends and tries to get back in with them, but Loman turns him down with a sneer, telling him he's been out of the game too long and times have changed.  How can he keep up with the modern pace of the criminal world? So Martin set off on a spree of his own to prove them wrong.

Once he's established his prowess, he returns to complete his revenge on the old gang.  First, he elaborately arranges his alibi - that he has spent the night at a dance hall with one of the girls there, Carole Dane (Joyce Howard - who also was they met in the dark), only leaving her once to get some two glasses of orangeade for them (drinks which he had previously purchased and hidden behind some potted plants).

Then, he kills the getaway driver who had left him hanging, and frames Loman with a gun that carries his prints. Either blackmail or prison time; either option is fine with him.

Unfortunately, in the plotting of this set-up he makes two fatal mistakes. One is that the gun turns out to be the property of the city's biggest crime boss, Gregory Lang (Herbert Lom).  The second involves the apparent popularity and limited supply of orangeade as a drink at the dance hall. As a result he is soon being hunted by both sides of the law.

On the side of the law is Inspector Rogers (Robert Beatty), an intelligent, persistent, but fair-minded policeman who very quickly suspects Martin is the guilty party. but seems to hope Martin will come clean and help lead him to the rest of the gang. Somewhere in between the law and Martin is Carol Dane, who does her best to defend him.  There is clearly a bond that forms between them, but except for a few scenes, such as one in which Inspector Rogers is trying to persuade her she is being manipulated and used by Martin, this relationship is a bit under-explored by the film.

The criminal side is led by Herbert Lom's character, a cunning, but icily detached mastermind who sits around in his den with cigarette holder and smoking jacket with his fey adviser, Noel Penn (Alan Wheatley) who is equal parts cruel and clever, with a penchant for calling everyone "darling" while fingering the keys of his piano.

And performing all the dirty work is Jonah Crackle, an atypical hit man, who we first see carrying out  Penn's plan to eliminate the bungling Loman for being so stupid as to allow himself and Lang tangled up in the murder and making Lang subject to the blackmailing demands of Martin.
Then we see him torturing Martin to find the whereabouts of the incriminating gun, experimenting with different methods until he pinpoints Martin's weakness and exploits it, threatening to crush his wrists again in a press.

Martin relents and promises to tell Lang where the gun is hidden, but then strikes a deal with Lang to get work for him on a train heist in exchange for money and the location of the gun.  The train heist naturally goes badly for him as the converging forces close in on him at last- criminals attempting to use the chance to eliminate him, and police finally trapping him as he attempts to get away with the loot and the girl, who he has taken on the train with him.  

In some ways this film is more of a gangster movie than what one might think of as noir.  It has an unusual distinction of casting a murderer as a protagonist - the ultimate definition of an antihero. Despite his lack of redeeming characteristics, his enemies are painted in even worse light, so the audience must root for him to beat them, at least until the point near the end when we see him turn on the girl,  who was so kind, forgiving, and trusting of him, and use her as a human shield. Omly at that moment does it become satisfying to see the cruelly iron way in which he is caught-  once more pinned by his wrists in a window, howling like the trapped beast he is, "My wrists! My wrists!"

Direction and script for the film are both adequately provided by John Harlowe, from a story by Michael Leighton.  The music is tautly strung through the picture by the future popular mood music creator George Melachrino, here credited with his first credited film score.  Tense and grim are the best words to describe this drama, and it supplies enough of both those elements to make this a worthwhile view for noir fans looking for something new and different on the fringes of the genre.

** out of 5

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