(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: based on the novel by William P. McGivern/Abraham Polonsky/Nelson Gidding; cinematographer: Joseph Brun; editor: Dede Allen; music: John Lewis; cast: Harry Belafonte (Johnny Ingram), Robert Ryan (Earl Slater), Shelley Winters (Lorry), Ed Begley, Sr. (Dave Burke), Gloria Grahame (Helen), Will Kuluva (Bacco), Kim Hamilton (Ruth Ingram), Richard Bright (Coco); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Wise; United Artists; 1959)

“A powerful film noir that underscores socially conscious issues.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A powerful film noir that underscores socially conscious issues. It’s a dark caper yarn that is unsettling because of the racial tensions it uncovers and how downbeat is the story–a reflection of the hidden angst in the 1950s that went under the radar and didn’t burst open until the next decade. Harry Belafonte bought the rights to the novel by William P. McGivern and had his own company work on the script. When director Robert Wise (“West Side Story”) came on board, he suggested the script be given a tougher edge. Writers Nelson Gidding and the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (using the name of his friend John O. Killens to write under) worked on changing the previous optimistic ending whereby the color of money brought about racial harmony to one that has the white bigot ex-con and the troubled black musician burned to a crisp in an explosion when they can’t reconcile their differences despite the money. After they dissolve their shotgun partnership that was based on greed by having a shootout in an oil refinery (a volatile ending that is something like that in White Heat), their burned corpses becoming indistinguishable in the wreckage.

The film is best remembered for the stunning black-and-white atmospheric photography by Joseph Brun and the enriching moody jazz score provided by pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Dave Burke (Ed Begley, Sr.) is a middle-aged bachelor ex-cop, kicked off the NYC force after 30 years for refusing to rat on his crooked colleagues to a crime commission. He’s living with his German shepherd in a depressing hotel and has schemed to cross over to the other side of the law and make one big score to retire on by robbing an upstate bank in a small town. He invites for muscle power the unstable war veteran and ex-con Earl Slater (Robert Ryan), serving time for manslaughter, over to his apartment to offer him a partnership on the heist. Slater only comes in when Burke tells him it’s an easy job and there’s at least $50,000 there for him, and when he gets it into his head that he wants some independence from being just a kept man by his live-in girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters). The third partner is another amateur thief, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a club jazz singer with a big gambling problem–he owes the openly homosexual mobster Bacco (Will Kuluva) $7,500 and doesn’t have the means to pay it. When Bacco threatens to harm his ex-wife and young daughter, unless he pays the money immediately, the reluctant Johnny feels there’s no choice but to do the heist.

The piece of cake heist gets badly botched: the white Earl has an open hatred for blacks that can’t be controlled and this causes an uneasy friction between him and the black Johnny, the souped-up getaway car gets spotted by a gas station attendant, Johnny has to give his name that he witnessed a car accident in town, and when Burke exits the bank alone to get the car after the robbery he is spotted by a cop and stopped (Johnny was supposed to exit in his waiter’s outfit according to plan, but Earl refused to trust the black man with the key to the car).

It’s sour stuff and not able in its ambitious efforts to say as much about racism as it perhaps thought it did (too much of it was obvious and too easy to point your finger at), but it is efficiently filmed by Wise and well-acted by the splendid cast. There are quirky moments that remain with you. It’s hard to forget Ryan’s upstairs neighbor played by a hot Gloria Grahame, asking how it feels to kill someone just before they make love.