Sunday, February 20, 2011

Snake in the Alley: Lee Van Cleef's Film Noir

Very bad, very big trouble;
probably a publicity still
from Guns, Girls, and Gangsters

[The following was contributed to a blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Film for a Film Noir Foundation Restoration Drive:

All fans of movie villains know—or should know—the name and the face: Lee Van Cleef, the veteran character actor who snaked through over 90 movies and 100 TV appearances. One of the movies’ most enduring and endearing bad guys, he’s mostly remembered for starring in spaghetti westerns, especially his superbly creepy turn as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—his terrorizing of the poor farmer at the opening remains one of the most unnerving portrayals of stalking evil I’ve seen on screen.

If snakes could walk, they’d all strut like Lee Van Cleef.

For awhile after, Van Cleef became a big star in Europe, his high-boned sneer appearing in movies of varying—and declining—quality. In the years before stardom, though, Van Cleef enlivened many a crime drama with his handsome reptilian coil and low menacing growl. His steely presence and hawk-like visage lit up even the worst movie or TV show. The camera simply loved him, even though bigger stardom never really came his way, like his many fans—including me--hoped it would. (Even David Thomson writes a fond tribute in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film.)

Two of Van Cleef’s most notable roles were in two famous noirs from the 1950s: The Big Combo (1955) and Kansas City Confidential (1953).

In The Big Combo, Van Cleef plays Fante, one of a pair of gay hit men (the other, Mingo, is played with puppy-like winsomeness by Earl Holliman). The two perform wet work for gangster Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), who, in turn, is being obsessively pursued by Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde).

(In an interview some years ago—and I’m working off memory here—Holliman admitted he and Van Cleef were well aware of Fante and Mingo’s relationship, even wearing each other’s pajamas.)

Fante and Mingo are relatively small prey in this cat and mouse game, but both Van Cleef and Holliman are helped by Phillip Yordan’s script, Joseph H. Lewis’s direction and, maybe, best of all, John Alton’s superb black and white cinematography. Alton—who also shot  the main dance sequence of
An American in Paris—created one of the starkest palettes in film noir, shooting in high contrast black and white in nearly every scene, especially the violent ones—absolute black shadows cut with white light and blasts of smog. The whole film smells like a an alleyway garage. (Visit this site to see some of his striking work).

Alton marvelously exploits Van Cleef’s unique presence. In some scenes—especially in the torture scene involving poor schmo Brian Donleavy—Alton lights him to look like exactly like an alley rat. Van Cleef is such a strong personage, we’re a little sorry to see him killed, as he mostly was in picture after picture.

Van Cleef had a much chewier—and more delightful role—two years earlier in Kansas City Confidential, a crime drama starring John Payne, Preston Foster and Colleen Gray. Confidential is a trip to what I call Bad Guy Heaven, because two of Van Cleef’s accomplices in this heist-gone-wrong picture are bulldog-faced Neville Brand and sweating, wall-eyed Jack Elam, two other fine villains from that golden
era of character actors. All three make for a perfect Three Bad Stooges.

Van Cleef has easily the best role as the wonderfully sleazy Tony Romano, one of the three thieves hired by chief bad guy Foster to pull off a heist and then hide out at a Mexican resort to divide the loot there. Tony Romano is a romantic manqué: an idiot drenched in the delusion that he’s smart and sexy
catnip to the ladies and cleverer than both his treacherous boss and good guy Payne.

It’s a delightful role for Van Cleef—the best from that period in his nearly 40-year career--and he plays this cheerfully brutal moron like he was born to it, while cinematographer George Diskant never misses a chance to frame the actor’s handsomely cruel face to full advantage. (Visit his fan site and take note of the large number of women who post there).

While a limited actor, Van Cleef is such fun in this movie, it’s frustrating to realize it didn’t immediately open the door to bigger things—say in Zachary Scott-type roles as fiendish romancing cads. Much too soon, he fell to the back row with his fellow character villains, sometimes in support of lesser players in boring movies. 

Lee Van Cleef was more professional actor than ambitious star-artist, a man who went where the jobs were and always tried to do his best, the most professional of actors and one of those I most love to hate.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


Vanwall said...

I'd like to throw in his best protagonist part: Travis, the ambivalent "Barquero", a pretty darn neo-noir Western. Van Cleef is wonderful in that one, and even tho Warren Oates is an amazing wack job, and Forrest Tucker steals the scenes he's in as canny mountain man, Van Cleef has so much screen presence you can't wait to see what he says or does next.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Hi Van: Thanks for commenting. "Barquero" is certainly an interesting movie with quite a few things going for it, esp. the performances by everyone (Kerwin Mathews is good, too). However, the set-up isn't convincing. I find it hard to believe that Oates's gang could not find another crossing point on the river, considering the flat landscape (a Grand-Canyon-like environment might have made it more plausible). Also, the final shootout makes no sense. The screenplay is also quite ambitious and maybe sprawls more than it needs to. I got the impression they were somewhat spurred by "The Wild Bunch."

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Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks so much, SAQUIB! Sorry, I took so long to respond, but I'm in the midst of preparing my next novel "Butchertown" for publication in a few weeks. I hope I keep entertaining you and thanks again!