April 13, 2009

THE TATTOOED STRANGER (1950)




“He looks like a guy I know.”

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A man strolling in Central Park finds a ladies’ glove on the dog walk. He spots a woman reclining in a nearby sedan and approaches to ask if it belongs to her. The problem is she can’t answer — she’s dead of a shotgun blast to the gut. The shocked man blares away with the car’s horn to attract the nearest cop (one is actually nearby). Thus begins 19050’s The Tattooed Stranger, a low budget (but shot on location) police procedural that comes two years on the heels of the incredibly successful The Naked City. Although the film is limited in some ways by its ultra-low budget, it remains of interest today because of its honest and unflinching depiction the New York City slums, and the matter-of-fact cynicism of the cops who work them.


The bulk of the action in The Tattooed Stranger is concerned with the investigation of the murder, both the forensic and detective work that go into nailing the killer, as well as establishing the identity of the Jane Doe dead girl. In this regard the film still manages to be compelling — and to rise above similar B efforts: the cops seem to actually apply an understandable thread of logic to their work, and don’t ask viewers to look the other way while they make B-movie leaps in logic. They make sound deductions based on the chain of evidence, and the cinematic quality of the investigation never strays too far into melodrama. In fact, the film goes out of its way to depict the frustration of the interminable, seldom seen grunt work that all too often adds little to the solving of a crime. 

Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze. That’s what really makes The Tattooed Stranger so exciting. It positively reeks with it. This is most evident in the Naked City-inspired location shooting, where we find the police pounding the streets of the Lower East Side in search of their man. Beautifully filmed exteriors of the decrepit corners of the Bowery and its seedy tenements dominate the middle reels, populated with a rogue’s gallery of shady denizens in greasy spoons and tattoo parlors. Considering that cops John Miles and Walter Kinsella don’t bring much charisma to the film, it’s surprising how engaging it can be — especially considering that most of the other performers are either semi-pros (at best) or regular Joes pulled roped in from the streets. In fact, the supporting cast’s lack of chops lends an aura of deep authenticity to their skid row portrayals.

The Tattooed Stranger lurks in a world where the police are untrusted and considered off-limits — and possibly not without good reason: in a telling early scene the anonymous killer sends a jacked-up wino into the morgue in an attempt to dissect a conspicuous, potentially identifying tattoo from the murdered girl’s corpse. The psychotic bum manages to hack lamely at the body before being discovered by the cops — the scene is gothic and morbid enough to spark images of Tod Browning pictures. The exhilarating cat and mouse sequence that follows culminates when the knife-wielding lunatic is brought down by a well-placed shot to the back — although the killing is justified, it’s important to recognize that the cops who inhabit this all-too-real world are willing to shoot to kill (rather than to wound)  in order prevent an escape — and the filmmakers make a point of letting us know. Gutter New York is a dog-eat-dog world. Following the killing the detectives brush it off with a matter-of-fact nonchalance that would seem more at home in an Ellroy novel than a 1950 motion picture. We are reminded here that this ain’t television.

Another interesting aspect of The Tattooed Stranger, as well as many other B crime films of the era is the way in which the female victim is portrayed. Characterized at first as an innocent girl-next-door type, we quickly discover that the she was twice married, divorced, widowed, up to her eye teeth in an insurance fraud scheme, and had a reputation as the town hump. This depiction of a fallen woman comes up often in film noir. In Witness to Murder, Nazi George Sanders strangles what initially appears to be a beautiful blonde deb, though later in the film the police describe her as a “party girl” and a floozy — her neighbors all believed she had it coming — much the same can be said of the murdered woman in The Naked City. Why the bad rap? Is it an aspect of the seedy-life voyeurism that would draw audiences into the theater to see such films? An attempt to connect with the kind of human weakness that made Confidential magazine such a huge seller? A reinforcement of the old adage that ‘crime don’t pay’? Or is it an outgrowth of the public’s strangely morbid fascination with less-than-angelic real-life murder victims like Elizabeth Short? No matter the answer, it’s fair to suggest that at least from a narrative perspective, there was more upside in snuffing a bad girl than there was in a good one. 

It’s also noteworthy that we never see the face of the tattooed stranger himself, though he appears in the film practically from the outset, surreptitiously watching the police investigation from afar. We recognize him from the USMC insignia tattooed on the back of his hand, a fetish we come to look for quite as often as the detectives trying to uncover his identity. In not divulging his identity he becomes a de facto boogeyman: one of the ever-present, lurking terrors of life in the city. That he had been a service man, a Marine even, only reinforces the idea that in the years after the war ended the world had become a darkly cynical place where you couldn’t even trust the person beside you. It’s in this urban paranoia that The Tattooed Stranger makes its most compelling noir assertion. 

In the final sequence, dogged police work eventually leads the police to the murderer’s place of employment, a small cemetery monument factory, where cop and killer fight a climactic gun battle amidst a sea of not-yet-carved tomb stones. Even in death, the tattooed stranger remains just that — anonymous — splayed face down on an uncut granite slab. Standing over the corpse a beat cop says, “He looks like a guy I know.”

The Tattooed Stranger (1950)

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Director: Edward Montagne
Cinematographer: William Steiner
Screenplay: Philip H. Reisman Jr.
Starring: John Miles, Patricia Berry, and Walter Kinsella
Released by: RKO Pathe
Running time: 64 minutes








1 comment:

  1. You didn't mention that the police find an odd bit of grass at the crime scene and they go to an herbarium in the NY Botanical garden to get it identified. The botanist IDs the grass (gives the correct botanical nomenclature and describes the features of the grass in the correct scientific jargon, using a microscope and a botanical key) --- they even open up the herbarium cabinets and pull out real labeled specimens to find the grass. This may the first movie I have ever seen where anyone has ever done this -- though dated (1950s) it is pretty true to form. It is totally cool seeing an herbarium featured in a crime film!

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