Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Pickup Alley a.k.a. Interpol (Warwick/Columbia, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Pickup Alley, a 1957 British production from an independent called Warwick, released through Columbia, and originally called Interpol when it was released in the U.K. because it dealt with the efforts of the international police agency to coordinate the law-enforcement efforts of its member countries against drug smugglers and dealers. The star is Victor Mature, older and seedier than in his glory years but in ways that actually add to the authenticity of his characterization (much the way the visible aging of Robert Taylor added to his credibility in films like Rogue Cop and Party Girl). He plays Charles Sturgis, a federal narcotics agent who was an excellent cop until his sister, who had infiltrated the drug trade at his request by pretending to be an addict, was murdered by super-dealer Frank McNally (Trevor Howard, chillingly effective in one of his rare out-and-out villain roles). Then he became a crazed vigilante and proved increasingly difficult for his nominal bosses to control. The film opens in New York (surprisingly credibly reproduced for a film made by a British studio) but it jaunts around the world as Sturgis gets a lead on McNally when his lieutenant, Salko (Alec Mango), is nearly killed by Gina Broger (Anita Ekberg), a basically decent person who has got caught up in the gang as one of McNally’s couriers.

Broger shot Salko with a gun she grabbed to protect herself from being raped by him, so we know the homicide was justifiable, but she knows she’s enough of a part of the demi-monde the police won’t believe her and that gives McNally a hold over her she can’t shake — especially since for the middle third of the film both Gina and the audience are led to believe she actually killed Salko, and it’s only when he turns up alive only to be genuinely dispatched later that we learn she didn’t. The film jets around Europe to Lisbon, then Rome, then Athens, before it high-tails itself back to New York as Sturgis traces McNally, Gina, and a shipment of $3 million worth of heroin around those countries and finally catches up to it on a ship where it’s been concealed inside a refrigerator the captain (a relatively new hire for the line) insisted on taking along with him even though it meant delaying the ship’s departure from Athens to New York. Pickup Alley is sometimes referred to as a film noir, which it is visually — director John Gilling and cinematographer Ted Moore get some beautiful chiaroscuro atmospheric shots and use oblique camera angles effectively — but it isn’t thematically: Gina Broger is the only character who has the potential for the kinds of emotional and moral conflicts that drive the great noirs, and neither John Paxton’s writing nor Ekberg’s acting actually dramatize any great internal torments for her, though Ekberg turns in a coolly competent portrayal that will surprise anyone who knows her mainly as the big-breasted joke Fellini turned her into in La Dolce Vita. What’s most fascinating about Pickup Alley is that it seems like an early-1970’s movie about a decade and a half early — Mature’s character is strongly premonitory of Dirty Harry in his cheery disregard for legal nuances as he goes after the baddies, and the overall conception is closer to The French Connection than any previous movie made about the international drug trade.

There are a few jarring shortcuts — like the use of the same set for the seedy bar to which the morally dubious characters repair to listen to overly loudly recorded jazz and either buy or sell drugs (down to the same record album always appearing on a shelf over the cash register!), though in the London scenes there’s a contrast drawn between this bar and the respectable nightclub the good guys go to (where they hear a blonde chanteuse named Yana sing a nice song called “Anyone for Love”) and it was fascinating to watch how a movie actually made in late-1950’s Britain dramatized the club scene of the day so soon after seeing the 1980’s version of the 1950’s London club scene in Absolute Beginners. Pickup Alley is one of those maddening films that had much more potential than it actually realized, and for that I mostly blame director Gilling, who had very little of a sense of pace; and screenwriter Paxton, who moved his plot around the world to surprisingly little effect — Charles joked that the only thing the set designer seemed to do to represent which country we were supposed to be in was change the lettering on the signs advertising the various businesses in each city. Pickup Alley was an O.K. movie with an interesting lineage — one of the producers was Albert R. Broccoli (grandson of the Italian agronomist who hybridized the cauliflower and the artichoke to produce the vegetable that bears the family’s name to this day), five years before he made his name and his fortune making the first of the James Bond feature film and launching a movie franchise which incredibly is still going today. (Broccoli has a connection to Absolute Beginners as well; it was filmed in the big studio he built with the profits from the Bond films.) But the basic plot premise had been done better earlier (To the Ends of the Earth, 1948, with Dick Powell as the obsessed nark) and would be done better later in The French Connection.