Cinema Station

The Turning Point (1952) | November 30, 2010

The Turning Point, what a bad title for a hell of a picture. This one crept up on me. I didn’t know it was good till it got better and better and then that big end title came up and an occasional question filled my mind: how many great films like this lurk in the shadows?

It’s a crime picture. Not noir. Not exactly gangster either. It’s one of those movies about shutting down a syndicate. It bares a lot in common with The Phenix City Story, directed by Phil Karlson. Both are about intelligent righteous men out to shut down an overbearing syndicate of crime. In each film, the crusader’s fathers play important roles, both tied to the bosses, both eventually woven into the tragedy and complexity of the situation. The pictures have a common bond of upholding the law. The only difference is that The Turning Point is a hundred times the movie The Phenix City Story tried to be.

To sum up the story, Edmond O’Brien plays a do-gooder lawyer with a cop dad who makes it his agenda to shut down organized crime. He brings with him a pretty assistant and love interest (Alexis Smith) and lots of ideas about the importance of law. His old buddy from college happens to be a reporter in town; the role is played by William Holden.

As O’Brien starts to go after the mob, Holden finds some dirty things out about his friend’s father, while he can’t help falling in love with Smith and she can’t help it either. After certain tragedies and disasters, the tables turn as the crusader becomes disillusioned and the cynic journalist must convince him to keep fighting.

What’s good about the picture, what really nailed me is that it has the perfect combination of guts and heart. It’s a tough picture: tough things happen in it and it doesn’t pull punches. Sure, it’s a movie “about” something, but even the bursts of dialog about justice don’t detract from the real, hard things happening on screen. The affair between Holden and Smith is just right, a love that creeps in on them, inevitable if inconvenient. The movie isn’t overshot or over-lit; we get a black and white city and people in it and bad things happen to them in daylight and darkness, in a plain world. The ending cuts right to the bone. It’s a shootout at a boxing ring where Neville Brand shows up for the last ten minutes of the picture as a cold blooded assassin. And if ever a picture proves that old Hollywood wasn’t predictable, this is it. At least, it reminded me.


Neville Brand (left) in The Mob

The movie was directed by William Dieterle, my official introduction to the German emigrant who worked many genres. I should mention also that it comes from a novel by Horace McCoy, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (also adapted into a terrific movie). But however many names belong to this picture and however good they are (and they’re good by the way), the movie belongs to William Holden.

There’s something about Holden I can’t stay away from. What draws us to actors isn’t always easily definable. Here he plays a character familiar to his body of work: the cynic. I think he played a cynic better than anyone in cinema. But there’s more to it than that. His characters may see life as a joke, a game board where good and bad luck are dealt in no particular order, but there’s usually something that pulls him away from his habitual doubt. In Sunset Boulevard, it’s the fated romance with Nancy Olson; he gets a glimpse at a real relationship outside the cobwebs and nightmares of Hollywood. He rises to the top only to be dive headlong into a swimming pool with bullets in his back. In Union Station, another crime film, he plays a detective who considers acts of bravery to be foolish, especially when a patrol cop dies in a daring attempt to catch a crook. Of course, at the climax, he cannot help himself and he too steps out into the line of fire. In Bridge on the River Kwai, he’s full of nothing but cynicism, sick of the army and its absurdities. It might be self-preservation and survival that gets him back into the jungle, but there’s something else charging through his veins when he storms out onto that river and tries to keep Alec Guinness from stopping the bomb. There are more, more that I probably haven’t seen, Stalag 17 is another and even The Wild Bunch, where the old Holden takes one last chance at glory when he could’ve rode away rich and alive. I feel it bears kinship to the last act of Sydney Carton in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: a man moving in one direction, perhaps very selfish, makes a vital decision to sacrifice himself.

Whatever it is, I attribute it to Holden (an accidental part of his character that continued to seep on screen or a reflection of his taste and choice of screenplays). He was a hell of an actor and as I said before, The Turning Point, beyond its title, is one of hell of a picture.

-TM

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