High and Low (1963) A rich businessman (Toshiro Mifune) must decide if he’s willing and able to pay ransom for his servant’s kidnapped son. Director Akira Kurosawa takes a standard Western thriller structure (adapted from a book by Ed McBain) and builds a complex story about Japanese society and class structure in a race-against-time procedural, and all of it has universal and timeless appeal. Rich, diverse characters and fine acting bring to life the tension in the Gondo family and the frustration and dedication of the police, and all the gorgeous, unexpected images are suitable for framing.
Tell no Tales (1939) Another ransom kicks off the action in this fast, light, noirish action-mystery, when an editor (Melvyn Douglas) tries to solve a sensational kidnapping case in order to save his newspaper from being shut down. He draws on his powerful and political connections as well as his investigative reporter experience as he follows the trail of one counterfeit bill from dives to wakes to casinos to ritzy homes. The fun of his romance with one witness balances nicely with the hardboiled vignettes of colorful characters and their messy lives.
Highway 301 (1950) Gangsters live it up with their women and then plot one last big heist (that’s always the one that gets you in the movies). Stylish, exciting crime story with creative visuals, shocking violence and imagery that will remind you of later crime classics, like a hospital visit to silence a witness, as in The Godfather. The women range from sassy to smart to sensitive, as they lose their men and try to escape or rat out the gang, and Steve Cochran gives a volatile psycho-criminal performance so good he’d scare Tony Montana and his little friend.
The Leech Woman (1960) A rare and secret African ritual keeps women young and desirable, as long as they feed off a steady supply of sacrificial males. An old woman (Coleen Gray in a fantastic performance) has a cruel husband she happily uses to turn back her beauty clock, but she soon finds it tough to lure enough men to keep her looks from deteriorating. Great, creepy, fun film that shifts from domestic drama to dangerous safari to the story of an increasingly monstrous, predatory woman created and doomed by a society that values the superficial and casts aside females of a certain age.
Hard Times (1975) Depression-era boxer (Charles Bronson) is the golden goose for a huckster (James Coburn) who needs a winning fighter to win him some fast cash. Bronson’s guarded, quiet slow burn paired with Coburn’s charisma and reckless showmanship makes this a great buddy movie. Their trip through the New Orleans underground bare-knuckle fighting circuit with its giant egos and opponents results in as many warm and funny bonding moments as there are thrilling fights and devastating punches.