March 27, 2014

The Bad-Good Good-Bad Guy: Dan Duryea in The Underworld Story

Nobody could deliver a line quite like Dan Duryea. My favorite comes in 1949’s Manhandled, when his slimy, gum-chewing private detective brags, “You’re not talking to a cluck Charlie. You’re talking to a guy who knows all the angles.” It wasn’t his wittiest line, nor was it the most hard-boiled or sarcastic, but it said a mouthful about Duryea’s screen persona. After all, the lanky blonde actor made a name for himself in the forties and fifties playing a series of pinstriped hustlers, leering hoods, and—believe it or not—two-fisted misogynists. His sardonic losers always thought they knew the score, but by film’s end were seldom on the right side of the law, if they were even breathing.
Yet in the period following the war, as the hopeful forties gave way to the uncertain and confused fifties, and as the fears of a disillusioned public began to creep into the movies, Duryea’s ability to contrast antisocial behavior with boyish charm, to “know all the angles,” or at least pretend to, made him more valuable than ever in Hollywood. He was uniquely able to actualize the audience’s itch to play those same angles, to grab a handful of that easy money, to flout those shiny post-war promises that most of them had missed out on anyway. And if the right property came along, Duryea might even get to play the good guy.
That property turned out to be 1950’s The Underworld Story, a nearly forgotten and oddly titled film (it has next to nothing to do with gangsters) that, thanks to the Warner Archive, is now widely available. No mere programmer, the United Artists production is one of those rare low-budget pictures that offer a frightening snapshot of its time—of everyday Americans, their optimism sapped, struggling to get by in a new world amidst the tumult of progress. The film is complex without being complicated, though a detailed synopsis would require much more space than I’m allotted here.
In a nutshell, it tells the story of Mike Reese, a venal big city reporter with a chip on his shoulder. Reese’s editors set him up as the fall guy after one of his stories gets a mob stoolie executed on the steps of city hall. Given a pink slip and blacklisted, Reese leaves town and buys into a sleepy suburban paper, but soon finds himself back in the thick of current events. A wealthy socialite has been murdered, and her maid—a black woman—is wrongfully accused of the crime. It just so happens that the murdered woman is the daughter-in-law of Reese’s former publisher, and the killer is the mogul’s spoiled son. Regardless, Reese believes the maid to be guilty, and burns through the majority of the running time playing both ends against the middle in an effort to line his own pockets. But as the story uncoils and the truth finally becomes clear to him, Reese is forced to make a decision between his own rank selfishness and the girl’s life.
Director Cyril Endfield turns in an intelligent and beautifully constructed film. It’s smart, well-paced, and looks gorgeous—Stanley Cortez’s lighting and camera work holds up against that of any iconic film noir. Endfield coaxed great stuff from his entire cast, but Duryea in particular shines—The Underworld Story is one of the best roles of his career. Endfield wrote the screenplay himself, adapting a story by Craig Rice (pseudonym of mystery writer Georgianna Craig) with assistance from Henry Blankfort. The resulting script is foreboding, laconic, and brimming with razor-sharp dialogue. It undertakes a range of issues, including the power of the fourth estate to manipulate public opinion, the capacity of the wealthy to influence the judicial process, the country’s never-ending struggle with racism, and the capriciousness of small town morality.
However, if the project represented a zenith for many of its principals, for a few the nadirs to come were life-changing. The film’s multi-layered criticisms of the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee are so apparent that even the committee members themselves couldn’t have missed them. The Underworld Story goes so far as to give its lone black character, Molly (played by Mary Anderson, a white actress), the wrongly accused and persecuted murder suspect, the same surname as HUAC member John E. Rankin, the racist and bombastic congressman from Mississippi. Thus, it’s no surprise that Endfield’s film (along with his other incendiary 1950 piece, The Sound of Fury) drew the government’s ire: screenwriter Blankfort, actor Howard Da Silva, and Endfield himself would soon join the ranks of those defamed by the blacklist.
Dan Duryea’s task in The Underworld Story was formidable. He had to create one of noir’s more subtle protagonists, a cynical, manipulative, and morbidly opportunistic reporter, his idealism forgotten somewhere among all the column inches and carriage returns (Yes, Mike Reese will undoubtedly bring to mind the character of Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s famous Ace in the Hole [1951], but The Underworld Story reached screens almost a full year earlier). Yet unlike Duryea’s heavies of the forties, this character had to take a sharp turn back towards the light, and bring a skeptical audience along for the ride. The Reese of the first two-thirds of the film is a scoundrel of the first order: a man who will exploit any situation for the sake of a payoff. Duryea’s tremendous range and feel for the part are most evident in two scenes involving Becker, a seedy defense attorney (Roland Winters).
The first—which shows Reese at his worst—happens over a T-bone lunch in the city, as he tries to convince the disinterested mouthpiece to take Molly’s case. Becker deflects him with a stack of fresh headlines that already have her head in a noose. “If she was white she wouldn’t stand a chance against these,” he says. Reese parries with money, offering to split the forty thousand dollars raised by the defense committee fifty-fifty. “She’ll hang,” sighs Becker. Reese’s response, “So she’ll hang,” is so callous that it stops the lawyer cold, a forkful of steak frozen in mid-air. Duryea knows that Reese must eventually turn the corner, but he also realizes that the payoff will be better if the audience harbors some doubt. The lunch scene is the linchpin in his character development—Duryea wants us to hate him.
Yet Reese’s primary function in the film is redemptive, and his moment of transformation— new territory for Duryea—comes during his next encounter with Becker. This scene takes place at the penitentiary, where the two men meet in order to persuade Molly to cop to a reduced charge of manslaughter. She flatly refuses, knowing that a guilty verdict at trial will mean the death penalty. In her anger she compares Reese’s schemes to those of a slave trader, and rises to leave. “Even if you die?!” he shouts in bewilderment, to which she fires back, “All I have left is that I’m innocent. I won’t give it up!” This is the film’s big moment, when the fact of Molly’s innocence finally obliterates Reese’s cynicism.
After she departs with the matron, the camera’s attention returns to him. Duryea underplays it—perfectly. His profile lit starkly against the shadows, he hems and haws, toying with his hat as he asks Becker to accept all of the committee’s money—including his cut—in order to give Molly a proper defense. Becker says the whole wad may not be enough. “How fat can you get?” scoffs Reese, the book on his cynicism slammed shut. Duryea makes the transformation so believable that by film’s end it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.
What still matters about The Underworld Story and Dan Duryea’s vivid performance is the extent to which the character of Reese had to resonate, at least in a few ways, with post-war movie goers—people who could drum up the cost of a double feature easily enough, but had somehow missed out on the gravy train that everyone was so damn sure of back in 1945. Duryea understood their frustrations, and he becomes a proxy for the audience, fulfilling their desire to act out—to mouth off, to do the wrong thing, to get rich quickly. A self-centered knucklehead who still manages to save the day must have been a welcome, even liberating presence on the screen.
And although Duryea’s career playing the heel was typically thankless, he is now rightly regarded as one of noir’s essential performers. If his jaded screen persona is uninhibited by rules and morality, it’s only so the audience can bask in all that delicious freedom—at least until the end titles and house lights nudged them once again into conformity. ■

The Underworld Story (1950)
Written and Directed by Cy Endfield
Based on a story by Georgianna Craig
Cinematography by Stanley Cortez
Starring Dan Duryea, Gale Storm, Herbert Marshall, and Howard Da Silva
Released Through United Artists
Running time: 91 minutes

I originally wrote this piece for 
Noir City, the quarterly magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, and it is included in the recently released Noir City Annual 2013Do yourself a favor and order a copy from Amazon here. The book is crammed full of the best in noir writing, and the proceeds go to the preservation of the original prints of these great films! 

February 19, 2014


I’m beginning to appreciate the inventive ways that George Blair uses his camera so much that I find myself paying more attention to his technique than I am to the story he’s trying to tell. That’s not to say that Blair’s films are bad, because they certainly aren’t. His crime programmers for Republic Pictures are undeniably cheap, inarguably brief, and patently unbelievable, but my journey through his filmography has introduced me to several enjoyable films that, while broadly forgotten by (or unknown to) most film noir enthusiasts, undoubtedly deserve a place in the noir conversation. 1944’s End of the Road is an excellent example of his work.

Edward Norris plays Bob Kirby, a reporter for Living Crime magazine. Serious noirists will best remember Norris from the spectacular and outrageous 1946 B movie Decoy. In this film, Kirby’s grumpy, cynical editor dispatches him north to the Q to get an interview with one Walter Gribbon, recently convicted and sentenced to the death house for the murder of his girlfriend Nora. After their meeting Kirby becomes convinced of Gribbon’s innocence and launches his own investigation, even though his refusal to smear the condemned man costs him his job. He quickly comes to suspect Chris Martin (John Abbott), one of the Nora’s coworkers, and orchestrates a complicated plan to get him to confess. Kirby’s scheme eventually pays off, and in pure throwback fashion he gets his job back with a big raise. Oh, he gets the girl too. After all, there’s always a girl. 

We are in film noir territory here, even though the movie ends well and Kirby is a completely cardboard good guy. The visuals are solid: black, moody, and stylish. Shadows from venetian blinds striate practically every wall. In an important scene that takes place in Martin’s room, the neon light of the hotel’s sign throbs incessantly through the window, disturbing the murderer’s sleep. This visual device was still years away from being a cliché, and Martin actually takes a moment to lament the light’s debilitating effect on his state of mind. This sort of neurotic fixation is heady stuff for a 51-minute Poverty Row program picture from 1944—film noir was everywhere.

More on Abbott, he really makes this thing work. Where Edward Norris falls short as a noir protagonist, Abbott totally delivers, and actually manages to wring a great deal of pathos out of his limited screen time. His mounting sense of desperation and alienation is compelling, particularly when he is unable to find a job after quitting the florist shop in the wake of his crime. His motivation for strangling Nora had been entirely financial—she refused to loan him money. The notion of a man being unable to find work in the peak wartime economy of 1944 would not have gone unnoticed by End of the Road’s theatrical audience. Even a little picture such as this one portends the labor uncertainties to come when the boys returned home.

One key sequence is also critical in establishing the film’s noir credibility. In it, Kirby attempts to unsettle Martin with the help of the German shepherd that was in the flower shop at the time of the killing. Night after night, Kirby stands vigil with the keening, forlorn dog outside Martin’s window. Martin becomes so unraveled at its wailing that he abandons his apartment and flees to Los Angeles. The dog functions as a reminder of Martin’s crime, returning from “out of the past” to terrify him. This acknowledgment of the psychological underpinnings of a murder is impressive for an early-cycle film noir, and plays clearly towards 1940s audiences’ armchair fascination with Freudian psychology. Abbott’s performance is strong enough that we empathize with him and begin to believe that Kirby’s persecution is cruel. The British-born actor’s work here ample proof that in spite of whatever else might be wrong with a film, when the actors give honest, committed performances, it’s awfully difficult not to like the final product. Unfortunately for me, the print of the movie that I watched was so dark through this section of the movie that I was essentially only able to listen to Martin’s flight from the grieving animal to the train station. I’m certain that had the quality of the print been a little better, Blair would have made it well worth paying attention to.

I’m usually not that interested in the more technical aspects of filmmaking, but much of what Blair does is difficult to ignore. In my essay on Federal Agent at Large I suggested that Blair reminded me of Otto Preminger, though I’m beginning to reconsider whether or not the resemblance isn’t to the Jaws-era Steven Spielberg. Blair and cinematographer William Bradford (an Oscar nominee for the very rare film Women in War) keep the camera moving—though not usually on a crane like Preminger or tracks like Ophüls. Instead we get a steady combination of pans and zooms, along with several brief tracking shots. It’s a fine exercise in low-budget filmmaking—Blair gets through several scenes with just a single camera, using a prizefighter’s mix of combination shots to keep our eyes in motion. And his scene transitions are marvelous: wipes, extreme close-ups, and a rapid 180° pan that might make your head spin.

Unbelievable story. Darn good B moviemaking. Give End of the Road a chance, if you get the chance.

End of the Road (1944)
Directed and produced by George Blair
Screenplay by Denison Clift and Gertrude Walker
Cinematography by William Bradford
Starring Edward Norris, John Abbott, and June Storey
Released by Republic Pictures

Running time: 51 minutes

February 3, 2014


“To beat somebody with your fists doesn’t make you anybody. On the other hand, a shiv gives you real authority.”

What a great line that is—hardboiled and hopelessly nostalgic. The character that says it in Republic’s Federal Agent at Large is a nervous twitch called Jumpy. Nostalgic? Of course. What kind of hood totes a knife? One circa 2014 stop-and-frisk and you’re off to Rikers. Then again, maybe by 1950 the nostalgia was wearing thin. Late in the picture Jumpy learns the hard way not to bring a switchblade to a gunfight.

Lots of people, even devoted crime and noir fans, consider Poverty Row stuff like this practically unwatchable, especially considering the atrocious prints that collectors have access to. Not me. This is my favorite end of the pool. The water here may be a little cloudy, but the temperature suits me just fine. Beside, who can’t fall in love with this kind of dialogue? Here’s another one. “Guys like you, they all come to the same end— in the pen or in a ditch.” That’s courtesy of the film’s big-shot heavy, “Mr. Upstairs.” He’s giving the title character, an undercover T-man trying to hustle some diamonds in exchange for a gambling stake, some free advice. 

You ready to watch this yet? I thought so.

Jumpy. Mr. Upstairs. The dame? Call her Solitaire. With character names as delicious as these, the plot practically becomes secondary. Here it is anyway. The Feds send Mark Reed (Kent Taylor) down Mexico way to get to the bottom of an elaborate gold smuggling ring. Seems like a gang of hoods, run by Mr. Upstairs, have blackmailed a university archaeology professor (Robert Rockwell) into sneaking the gold through customs hidden inside artifacts from his dig. Reed infiltrates the gang and things unfold about as you’d expect them to—until a whopper of a surprise at the end almost pushes the movie into film noir territory. (Not quite though.) There’s almost no chance you’ll track this down and see it, so I don’t mind spoiling: There’s no sunset to ride off into for agent Reed. Just when you think he’s about the turn the tables on Mr. Upstairs, the old man uncorks a revolver and ventilates him. Borrowed from T-Men? Maybe, but eyebrow-raising nonetheless. 

Star Kent Taylor acted in Hollywood for five decades, but he’s a forgettable hero. Likeable but bland, he reprised Chester Morris’s Boston Blackie character on television for three years in the early 1950s. Dorothy Patrick actually gets top billing as Solitaire, the is-she-or-ain’t-she-a-bad-girl nightclub owner. Patrick accounts for most of the film’s verve. She was coming off a strong showing in the 1949 Oscar heavyweight Come to the Stable, but her career never took off as it should have. Film noir fans will undoubtedly recognize her as the girl Friday in 1949’s Follow Me Quietly. Bag of potatoes Robert Rockwell is billed third. He and Eve Arden spun Our Miss Brooks’s into some small measure of immortality, but then the cast falls into obscurity. All the fourth billed star, Estelita Rodriguez, has to offer is a pair of songs.

This is a little movie, 59 minutes long and relegated to sound stages and the back lot. Just like Anthony Mann’s T-Men, it ends with a gun battle on a big ship tied up in Long Beach. Federal Agent at Large isn’t a knock-off though, the budget wouldn’t have allowed for it. Make no mistake, we are in bad movie territory here. But look past budget and production values and you’ll find something to like. Director George Blair (Lonely Heart Bandits, Destination Big House) didn’t have much to work with beyond a routine script peppered with a few great lines, but he managed several competent moving-camera shots and starkly lit nighttime interiors and exteriors. The brawls and gunfights are far from boring, and the way the film establishes its flashback structure and voiceover narration (minimal) is quite original. If you manage to watch this and can’t find anything to like, then at least get a load of the poster. If you don’t like that, something’s wrong with you.

Federal Agent at Large (1950)
Produced by Stephen Auer
Directed by George Blair
Written by Albert DeMond
Cinematography by John MacBurnie
Starring Dorothy Patrick, Kent Taylor, and Robert Rockwell.

December 19, 2013


One of the joys of cultivating an interest in film history lies in the discovery of a marvelous yet forgotten film or filmmaker, such as Hugo Haas and his 1954 film noir The Other Woman. The Jewish-born Haas was an established comedic actor in his native Czechoslovakia who also successfully wrote, produced, and directed his own films. In 1938 he fled the Nazis for France, then finally settled in America and spent the war years doing stateside radio broadcasts in his native language. (Haas’ brother Pavel, a well-known composer, would die in Auschwitz.) Haas worked to improve his English and resumed acting in the mid-forties, and although he worked regularly in Hollywood, and even gave acting lessons, he couldn’t achieve the fame he had enjoyed in Europe. He was an ardent admirer of Chaplin, and envisioned himself succeeding in the same writer-director-star mold as the famous comedian. Wanting desperately to regain his status as a filmmaker, he used his life savings to launch his own company, Hugo Haas Productions, through which he brought to the screen a fascinating string of ultra low budget crime pictures. From 1951 – 62 he wrote, produced, directed and starred in a dozen features, many based on Czech source material, which he considered cinematic calling cards. The “written, produced, and directed by” title board of most are emblazoned with his signature. Yet in the case of The Other Woman, ostensibly a crime thriller but really a movie about the movie business, Haas’ deep-rooted frustration with his status (or lack thereof) in Hollywood bubbles to the surface in moments where he castigates the industry establishment and its collective failure to embrace his talents.

Haas’ American films are remembered today primarily for his R. Crumb-like obsession with casting buxom blonde bombshells. He directed and starred alongside Cleo Moore in seven pictures, including The Other Woman. Moore was a Louisiana girl of epic proportions who worked as a cover model for men’s magazines and, in the wake of Marilyn Monroe’s success, made her mark as a B-Movie vixen. She and Haas are inexorably linked in collective memory, and while Moore wasn’t a terrible actress she also wasn’t a strong lead, and it’s worth considering how differently Haas’ films might be received today if he hadn’t so slavishly cast her in them. In Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s brief analysis of The Other Woman they actually claim, quite erroneously, the pair were married. Yet surely it’s unfair to dismiss Haas as a from-hunger purveyor of drive-in cheesecake. The Other Woman demands otherwise. Despite its obviously low budget production values and cast, it’s a polished, highly personal film with a nuanced, clever script that doesn’t compromise its own dark underpinnings — even if the story of blackmail and murder is hackneyed. What elevates The Other Woman over similar potboilers is how Haas uses the story and visual tropes of film noir to comment about his personal life in Hollywood.

The story is routine: Sherry Steward (Moore) is working on a film set when she gets a shot at a fill-in part. Although the role only calls for three lines, she blows it. Humiliated and seething, she blames her failure on director Walter Darman (Haas), and decides to gets revenge. Sherry eventually drugs Walter and convinces him they enjoyed a night of raucous sex, which resulted in a pregnancy. He never believes her, but is terrified that a scandal will ruin him. Sherry demands $50,000 to stay mum, but doesn’t realize Walter hasn’t got the money — his career is in a shambles. His pictures are deemed too hopelessly “artistic” to make a profit and his studio chief father-in-law wants to cut him loose. Walter reckons it makes more sense to simply murder Sherry, and does. The police see right through his alibi, and Walter soon confesses.

While there’s nothing outwardly special about the premise, it allows Haas essentially to play himself on screen — a struggling émigré film director trying to create art in a shallow town where the bottom line is all that matters. The cleverest aspect of the setup is Walter’s marriage to the boss’ daughter. The relationship allows Haas to not-so-subtly allude to the nepotism inherent in Hollywood (don’t forget David O. Selznick’s marriage to Irene Mayer), while at the same time creating a filmic relationship that allows for on-screen arguments about the nature of the movie business. The entire arc of the film, in which Haas’ character moves from one sort of prison to another, is also telling. Along the way he falls prey to Sherry, who symbolizes everything bad about Hollywood. In spite of Walter’s efforts to appease her, he never fully understands why she is trying to destroy him — and because of this he eventually finds himself in a prison that he desperately wants us to believe is not of his own making.

Hugo Haas intended The Other Woman to serve as a parable of his own life. The first scene sets the stage as Sherry and a coworker watch Darman coaching an actor on how to properly play a crucial prison scene. Sherry remarks about the harried director, “He’s quite a ham.” The savvy coworker expresses surprise that she isn’t hip to Darman’s background: “Are you kidding? He was a big star in Europe. Here he played bits — just nothing — guess you have to know the right people.”

Yet Darman does know the right people. He’s the producer and director of the film only because of his marriage to the daughter of studio production chief, Charles Lester (Jack Macy). He remains in perpetual disagreement with his father-in-law about what constitutes good filmmaking however — the older man is emblematic of the cookie cutter efficiency of the studio system, while Darman is portrayed as the intellectualized ‘continental,’ more interested in art than profits. The pair tangles over the status of Darman’s current directorial project: “Look Walter, I ran the whole picture twice … I even talked it over with the projectionist — everybody’s opinion is valuable. I admit, there are some artistic shots, but in general it’s a dull picture. I’m sorry, but there’s no beating about the bush when big money is involved. Every time we have these arguments Walter, you put on the expression of a martyr; you’ve been in America long enough to catch onto the public’s tastes.” Offended, Walter lashes out at Lester, at the same time suggesting how Haas really feels about the movie industry’s pandering status quo: “The public’s taste is much higher than you might expect … but it seems to be easier to make pictures for kids and imbeciles — making little delinquents of a whole generation, and the poor adults have to sit through it and suffer. Always the same story, the same characters, the same happy endings, it’s just ridiculous.”

Later, after Walter’s film fails dismally with a sneak preview audience, the two men’s relationship implodes and Lester berates Darman: “In all my thirty years of picture-making I never saw anything like it … I never felt so terrible in my life — I should’ve taken the scissors myself, instead of arguing with a stubborn, art-stricken genius — and cut all the dragging meditations and psychological nonsense … and deep ideas.” When Walter accuses the older man of sabotaging the preview, Lester storms out, telling his son-in-law, “I’m through with you.”

In The Other Woman’s final moments, as Darman finds himself behind a real set of bars, he laments his situation, putting a new spin on Lester’s formula for profitable moviemaking: “How did it happen? How did it happen? Movies. Take a handful of sex, mix it with violence, give it some comedy relief … and a happy ending.” Then, as the end music begins to swell, he lifts his eyes, stares directly into the camera and says, “I’m sorry, no happy ending for this one.” It’s a wonderful moment in the film, and a slickly layered piece of cinema that bookends the opening, when Darman naïvely advised the young actor how to play the very scene he is now relegated to. One is left with the overwhelming conviction that the pretense between fiction and reality has been dropped, and we are no longer certain whether the spoken lines and the prison setting are more relevant to the character, the actor playing him, or the director of the film — all of whom represent different parts of Hugo Haas.

It’s clear that Haas indeed envisions himself as a tragically exiled and underappreciated artist — which he was. It also seems that he suffered, as most artists do, from self-loathing and guilt — it’s essential to remember that he was also a survivor horribly affected by the War. In spite of his personal demons, or maybe because of them, what he accomplished in The Other Woman is meaningful: he gives us an enthralling low-budget film that is part crime thriller, part Hollywood exposé, and part anguished parable of his perplexing Tinseltown odyssey.

The Other Woman is Hollywood.

The Other Woman (1954)
Director: Hugo Haas
Cinematographer: Eddie Fitzgerald
Screenplay: Hugo Haas

Starring: Hugo Haas, Cleo Moore

Released by: Twentieth Century Fox

Running time: 81 minutes