November 25, 2008

ABANDONED (1949)



It’s jarring to experience a classic era film like Abandoned that deals bluntly with an issue that remains controversial sixty years later. Films such as this provide a necessary and welcomed reality check for those of us who are easily entranced by the plastic sheen and fake nostalgia of the typical Hollywood studio product.


In postwar Los Angeles the dime-a-dozen girls who arrive in droves are like cattle to the indifferent denizens of the City of Angels. Abandoned explores just one of the many ways that those girls are treated like a cheap commodity — to be exploited, discarded, and forgotten. Abandoned what? Babies. This is a film about the money that can be made by taking newborns from their terrified mothers and sold quietly to the childless rich. The young mothers themselves? What’s one more Jane Doe in the city morgue book?


Although the setting is never mentioned by name, the opening credits of the film run over a nighttime backdrop of L.A. City Hall, accompanied by a narrator’s familiar admonition that what happens in Abandoned can happen anywhere in the United States. Abandoned could be called an exposé film, but from the outset it is placed visually and thematically smack within the universe of film noir. The story opens with Paula Considine (Gale Storm) entering the missing persons bureau late one evening in the aforementioned City Hall. She’s there to file a report on her sister, who fled to L.A. to have an illegitimate child far away from judgmental eyes. The male lead, cynical reporter Mark Sitko (Dennis O’Keefe) is the first character to encounter Paula Considine upon her arrival at the missing persons bureau. We never learn why he’s hanging around city hall at night, but when he sees Considine he isn’t initially drawn to her story, but rather the shapeliness of her legs. His concern for Considine and her problems goes no farther. To him she’s a naïve yokel, and in his zeal to make some easy time he can barely restrain himself. It isn’t until he learns that she is in serious trouble (and that there might be a story in it), that he takes a cold shower and offers to help.


The heavies in Abandoned are sleazy private investigator Kerric (Raymond Burr) and his employer, elderly Mrs. Donner (Marjorie Rambeau). Donner is easily one of the most cold-blooded and memorable noir villains, and makes for an intriguing variation on the femme fatale. She speaks of murder and the sale of human flesh with a casualness that even gives Kerric pause. The girls she exploits represent nothing more than “units” of stock ready to be killed and thrown away on a whim, along with their babies if necessary. And make no mistake, Mrs. Donner is certainly aware of Little Lindbergh and the ‘short walk from the cell to the gas chamber.’ It’s the Nihilistic attitude with which she conducts her affairs that make her enterprise all the more shocking, and distinctively noirish. She acquires victims by handing out free bibles at ‘wayward girls’ hospitals, and with offers of things coveted by the young: money, clothes, and kindness. The veneer of respectability and class she presents accentuates the depth of her evil: an old woman with a cane, motherly, cultured, and wealthy. The notion that danger and evil lurk just underneath the surface in someone who might be your neighbor or grandmother are essential characteristics that make a character like Donner truly frightening.


In the tradition of many noir films, the plot of Abandoned is intricate and convoluted. The story zips along and was built on a foundation of sharp dialog and good direction. Newman does a fine job of creating a tense atmosphere and building suspense from the opening shot of city hall to the expressionistic finale. William Daniels’ cinematography deftly weaves striking exteriors of L.A. with more stylishly contrived set pieces and almost-invisible rear projection. The climactic scene, an intricate sequence staged at a dark and deserted construction site, is definitive visual expression of film noir. Abandoned is a fine contemporary film in a beautiful sixty year-old package.

Abandoned (1949)
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Director: Joseph M. Newman
Screenplay: Irwin Gielgud
Starring: Dennis O'Keefe, Gale Storm, Marjorie Rambeau, and Raymond Burr
Released by: Universal International
Running time: 78 minutes

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