Monday 2 March 2015

I, the Jury [1953]

I, THE JURY is an American film noir that was written and directed by Harry Essex and originally released in August 1953.  It stars Biff Elliott, Peggie Castle and Preston Foster.  The first cinema adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel it features his infamous character Mike Hammer, here seeking vengeance for the murder of an ex-service buddy.

I'll confess I was expecting this to be rubbish: it's almost always overlooked in favour of Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY [1955] which has a better cast, a better director and is undeniably the better film.  However, what surprised me was that I, THE JURY is a genuinely good film in its own right.
Some of John Alton's superb use of light and, more importantly, dark
I think there are three main reasons for this.  First, and foremost, is the cinematography of John Alton which is at times breathtakingly beautiful.  I know I say this a lot but one of the (many) things I love about genre movies is the never-ending ability to surprise.  In this instance it is the discovery of something beautiful far from its usual haunts.  I don't mean this sound superior but your average man in the street would be hard pressed to define what a cinematographer is, much less be able to name any.  If he had heard of any they would almost certainly be those worked chiefly in relatively recent colour films.  Even among film buffs who know their history may cite Gregg Toland, Nick Musuraca, Lee Garmes or Lucian Ballard before John Alton.  This is partly because he quit the business when he was only in his mid-fifties and partly because there isn't one truly outstanding film on his CV.  But make no mistake he was one of the very best.

Light and ominous shadow
Not having read Painting with Light, his book about the art of cinematography, I'm not in a position to impart much information about how Alton achieved his results but I do know that he regarded black and white as colours and that he believed that the decision as to what to light in a scene was less important that the decision as to what not to light.  You might say then that his motto could have been 'Don't be afraid of the dark'.  It may be part of the reason he retired so early that his approach was much more suited to the black and white era.  Indeed his approach was almost uniquely suited to the shadowy world of the film noir, a genre which was at its zenith in the 1940s and 50s.

An artistic separation of black and white.
Alton's cinematography is what lifts I, THE JURY out of the the morass, particularly in the last half hour as Hammer closes in on his quarry.  The scenes in Hammer's otherwise deserted office building are stunning and, in my view, a clear influence on Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER [1982] which was shot by Jordan Cronenweth and has itself been describes as a future noir.  If for no other reason you should try to see this movie for its photography which is the work of a master at the peak of his powers.

A selection of shots that recall BLADE RUNNER

The second reason why the film works is that it has the classic film noir elements in place: an unconventional but essentially decent private eye; a femme fatale; a crime that is merely the tip of an iceberg; and cynicism.  Mike Hammer is not a fully rounded character like Philip Marlowe; in fact he is not much more than two personality traits - a hair-trigger temper and a propensity for violence.  He gets results by physical means whereas Marlowe is more cerebral.  Still, people liked Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle and they were similarly blunt instruments with disregard for bureaucracy and procedure.
Mike Hammer (C) dishes out a pasting...
Hammer's willingness to brutalise pretty much anyone who crosses his path is a nihilistic philosophy and consequently it is the violence which constitutes the third reason why the film works.  Of course by today's standards it's tame but nevertheless one can imagine it was shocking in the context of its time.  The violence isn't in the form of shoot-outs but punch ups: long, brutal punishing fights that look ugly, as cinema violence should.

...and prepares to receive one.
If I'm honest the film has faults.  One is Biff Elliott as Hammer: to put it bluntly, as Hammer would, Elliott is not much of an actor.  Okay so Hammer is not a multi-faceted character but Elliott never hints at any depth or complexity; he's certainly proficient at the physical stuff but he can't emote worth a damn.  It's a shame because such a mediocre performance kind of holes the film below the waterline.
Biff Elliott as Mike Hammer.  Or 'Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer', to give him his full title
Fortunately, Peggie Castle as the femme fatale Charlotte Manning is really good and there are some excellent character actors in the supporting cast, including Nestor Paiva and an uncredited Elisha Cook Jr. The script has a couple of laughably bad moments: one I can't mention without giving the game away but the other is absolutely priceless and comes when Hammer first sees the dead body of his pal Jack. Watch out for it.

Hammer and Bobo (Elisha Cook Jr)
Elliott didn't have much of a film career but kept working into 1980s, mostly on TV and B-movie genre pictures.  Of interest to delirious film fans he's in THE NAVY VS THE NIGHT MONSTERS [1966], a Mamie Van Doren picture that was produced by Jack Broder who also gave the world BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN VAMPIRE [1952] which has the most literal and the most baffling title I've ever come across.  Elliott is also in the John 'Bud' Cardos sci-fi / horror picture THE DARK [1979] which may or may not feature on these pages at some future point.

Peggie Castle as Charlotte Manning.  It's just occurred to me that she looks a little like Scarlett Johansson
Peggie Castle is another sad Hollywood tale: a beautiful, talented actress she mainly appeared in second rate films and had a long battle with alcoholism.  Sadly it was a battle she lost in 1973 aged just 45.

Writer-director Harry Essex was very much a writer first and director second.  Frankly he doesn't do much on I, THE JURY other than let John Alton get on with it, which is probably why the film looks great but has such a poor performance at its heart.  Essex only directed three other features although two of them probably qualify as delirious: OCTAMAN [1971] and THE CREMATORS [1972].  He has a lot of writing credits though including two genre classics: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON [1954] and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE [1953] the latter of which you can read about here.