May 26, 2009


In 1945 John E. Rankin, the long serving, bombastic, and racist congressman from Mississippi stated “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this government has its headquarters in Hollywood … the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.” As the conflagration in Europe finally came to an end, only to be replaced by the Cold War, the rug was yanked out from under the burgeoning domestic communist movement by men such as Rankin, anxious to combat any threat (real or not so much) to the sanctity of the American way of life. The American Communist Party, which had previously been a refuge for certain naïve intellectuals and politicos in the movie industry quickly became the focus of the greatest paranoid witch hunt of modern age. Writers, stars, moguls, and other assorted Hollywood players traveled east to testify before congress. Some named names and some refused — but everyone got hurt. The Hollywood Ten went to prison, Edward G. Robinson became “number one on the sucker list,” Bogart took his hat in hand, and the extraordinary John Garfield was destroyed.

Throughout the years of HUAC and the Blacklist, the film industry was placed squarely on the defensive, saddled with the massive public relations task of restoring faith in the movie business. In addition to shunning those tainted by the witch hunt, the studios began cranking out dozens of anti-communism pictures. Possibly the foremost example of these films is 1951’s I Was A Communist for the F.B.I.

The real-life inspiration for the film was Pittsburgh steelworker Matt Cvetic. When the war broke out Cvetic was deemed too short for military service and sent home. He subsequently decided to serve his country by becoming an informant for the F.B.I., and spent the next nine years posing as a communist party member in the western Pennsylvania steel mills, giving the Feds all the dirt he could churn up. According to most news sources of the day, Cvetic’s dedication and sacrifice was truly heroic: he had to live his cover day and night, lest he be found out. In addition to his reputation, it cost him almost every relationship in his life, including those with his wife and children. His only confidants were his priest and the G-Men to whom he reported.

In the end, Cvetic went public to HUAC and became an overnight celebrity. Magazine articles, books, a radio show starring Dana Andrews, and the Saturday Evening Post all told his story. Like so many others unprepared for sudden notoriety, Cvetic handled things poorly. He failed to salvage a life with his family, slipped into alcoholism, and died at the young age of 52. The precise details his recruitment by the F.B.I. and the extent of his contribution are the subject of much debate, and seemingly lost to history — though if nothing else his exploits provided the fodder for I Was A Communist for the F.B.I., a film so important to the Hollywood film collective that it was nominated for the 1952 Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category, though it’s about as much a documentary as On the Waterfront.

Though Pittsburgh’s place in the hierarchy of American urban centers has waned over the decades, in the mid-20th century its position as the focal point of the nation’s industrial might is inarguable. According to the film, our reliance on coal and steel made Pittsburgh the ideal place for the communist party to gain a foothold from which to “weaken America’s industrial heart.” The movie covers the last few months of Cvetic’s nine years “in the red,” as he progresses from resolutely shouldering his burden to finally restoring his name at HUAC hearings in New York. Most of the scenes are episodic, intended to shine a light on the subtle ways in which communists operate. It’s impressive how well (and ironically, how subtly) the exposé-style propaganda elements are inserted into an otherwise entertaining and suspenseful narrative.

Despite the far more important political and historical underpinnings, I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is stylistically a film noir. Matt Cvetic, played by Frank Lovejoy, has much in common with the typical noir anti-hero. He leads a double life that is entirely defined by his alienation from the rest of society. He’s a natural loner, possessing some force of will enabling him to endure extreme hardship and isolation from everyone else — even contempt from those he loves. Some attempt is made to give the movie a femme fatale in the form of high school teacher Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), but it doesn’t last. Merrick, secretly a communist, is ordered by her masters to romance Cvetic and find out if he is for real — all important party officials must be watched. Instead, she turns in her fatale identity for that of a damsel in distress after witnessing a brutal beating and attempting to flee the party. When the red gangsters send goons to keep her quiet, Cvetic is forced to blow his cover in order to save her.

Films such as I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. are obviously products of their special moment in time, yet the mid-century period is one of the most fascinating and disturbing in our history — for reasons more substantial and deeply felt than the infiltration of subversives in Hollywood. A fact not lost on screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who uses one of the film’s episodes to remind the moviegoing public that racial tension was an equally distressing issue in 1951 —though it could be argued that by placing communists behind racial violence he blurs the issue for the benefit of the movie industry and consequently does more harm than good. The scene shows party organizers inciting black factory workers to riot, in hopes of getting fat on the millions to be had from a sham legal defense fund. What’s disturbing and ironic is that after the communist blowhard makes his pitch to the assembly, only one black man questions his motives — and he’s quickly shouted down by his friends. (Evocative of 1947’s Violence, and in some ways also 1950’s The Underworld Story) The film not only frighteningly suggests that these workers really are as gullible as the communists believe, it then corroborates its position by crediting the 1943 race riots in Harlem and Detroit to communist agitators using the same methods.

Although I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is in many ways a problematic film, everything that makes it problematic today contributed to its success with audiences in 1951 — and therefore the hard-to-find film remains a provocative document of a troubled time.

I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951)

Director: Gordon Douglas
Cinematographer: Edwin DuPar
Writer: Crane Wilbur
Starring: Frank Lovejoy and Dorothy Hart
Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Running time: 83 minutes

May 22, 2009

THE STRIP (1951)

An existential film noir musical? The Strip is one of those pictures that is more interesting for what is says about the values of its era than it is as a piece of entertainment, despite MGM production values and a big-time star. Billed as “MGM’s musical melodrama of the dancer and the drummer,” the film opens with ample noir flair: a narrator speaks over a long shot of an urban landscape. In this case it turns out to be the Sunset Strip, as a police prowl car rolls through the breaking dawn, siren blaring. The scene cuts to a low shot of a girl’s body lying in a pool of blood, phone cradled in an outstretched hand as the cops look in through a distant doorway. Cut once again to more cops rousting a young man from his bed, and then sweating him in the interrogation room. It sounds a bit more hard-boiled than it actually is — especially considering the youth is none other than cute-as-a-button Mickey Rooney. We find out that a man is dead, and the girl is barely hanging on. The cops are looking for the Mick to shine a light on the situation. Queue the flashback.

Mickey is Korean War vet Stanley Maxton, who upon his release from the veterans’ hospital moves to Cali in order to find work as a drummer in one of the big L.A. clubs. En route racketeer Sonny Johnson, played by James Craig, forces Stanley’s jalopy off the road. Sonny’s girl gives him the guilt-trip, so he offers the Stan a job at his sports-book in order to make amends. Two hundred scoots a week is too much to turn down, so Stan signs on and quickly makes good as a bookie. He still yearns to bang the drums though, and ends up sitting in with Louis Armstrong’s group one night at Fluff’s bar. Fluff, played by a world-weary William Demarest, offers Stan the seat on a permanent basis, and begs cigarette girl Jane, played by leggy Sally Forrest, to help him seal the deal — which works like a charm when Stan falls hard. He takes the drumming job to be near Jane, but she’s not interested. She has stars in her eyes and is only interested in those who can help her with the studios. Sonny takes bets from plenty of movie hot shots, so Stan thinks he’ll score points by getting them together. Sonny takes the girl for a ride and never lifts a finger to get her a screen test. Knowing the score, Stan threatens Sonny and takes a beating for it. He runs to Jane, who has a climactic, but unseen, confrontation with Sonny, resulting in his death and her sprawled out. The flashback concludes, bringing the scene back to the interrogation room. Stan confesses to the murder in hopes of saving Jane, but she’s way ahead of him, getting it all down in writing from her hospital bed, just before her lights go out permanently. Distraught, Stan returns to Fluff’s where he bangs through an up-tempo number as the end titles appear.

A word or two about the music: The Strip, which received Oscar nominations for Best Music and Best Original Song, has at least ten numbers woven into the story — ensuring its status as a legitimate musical. Consisting primarily of jazz numbers featuring Armstrong’s band, which here includes Earl Hines on piano and Jack Teagarden on trombone, there are also some popular songs, sung by the likes of Monica Lewis and Vic Damone. Owing to the musical nature of Rooney and Forrest’s roles, the songs fit in nicely and in a few instances help move the story forward. Along with the music we get a birds-eye view of some of the brightest nightspots on Sunset Boulevard, including Ciro’s, The Trocadero, and The Mocambo Club — all considered the height of chic to 1951 audiences. The Strip uses that omnipresent movie-land device of showing a montage of neon signs, one fading into the next, to suggest a full night of drinks and dancing.

Despite the fact that the film is a sort of hybrid musical / crime picture, it most definitely scores as a film noir. It’s evident in the extraordinarily anonymous characterization of Jane. She's something of a femme fatale, but that isn't what makes The Strip a noir. In fact, it might be more appropriate to think of her as a human Macguffin. The film purposefully makes no effort to develop in her any personality or notion of likability beyond her good looks — in fact her looks are her character. It isn’t so much that her personality is likable or not likable — she just exists for no other reason than to move the narrative forward. It’s often said that soldiers in combat fear getting to know replacements, because they don’t tend to last long. The Strip paints Jane in such a light: Why get to know her? Who really cares? She’ll either make it or she’ll go home, but either way she won’t be here very long. That’s how it is with these girls that Fluff calls “career crazy.” She needn’t even have a name — instead of Jane she could simply be known as “the girl.” This archetypal treatment (though admittedly a certain nuance of archetype is required for a Rooney picture) reminds me of Hill’s 1978 film The Driver where the characters, each a noir cliché, are actually called “the detective,” “the driver,” “the player,” and so forth. We never learn why Stan falls for Jane, or why a big time player like Sonny would give her the time of day. Instead, Fluff sagely discourages Stan and reminds him he’d do better to find a girl who didn't have stars in her eyes. The movie actually gives us such a person in the form of Edna, hatcheck girl and wannabe songbird. Edna is smitten with Stan from the first time he enters the club, but he shows as much interest in her as Jane does in him.

The film’s final statement is so full of a stark existential bleakness that more than anything else it establishes The Strip as a film noir. Following the news of Jane’s confession and subsequent death, Stan returns to Fluff’s. As he makes his way toward the stage he passes Edna, who has climbed one pathetic rung on the ladder: she’s out of the cloak room and sporting Jane’s lacy cigarette girl outfit. In no time at all she’ll be singing with the band and thinking of Stan as a little fish. He notices her, as if for the first time, as he slumps onto his stool at the drum set and begins to bang out a rhythm. In this sublime moment, the film gives us a frightening vision of Hollywood: There will always be a new girl — the buses are laden with them and one is just as good as the next. Jane was just another star-struck wannabe who didn’t find her dreams in tinsel, and now she’s dead. Why should the film bother to tell us anything about her? It’s another night at Fluff’s, and Satchmo is on the stage. Jane is easily replaced and forgotten by all she those knew. The drummer remembers her, but he’s lost in the music.

The Strip (1951)
Director: László Kardos
Cinematographer: Robert Surtees
Writer: Allen Rivkin
Starring: Mickey Rooney and Sally Forrest
Distributed by: MGM
Running time: 85 minutes

May 19, 2009


I’ve wanted to write about Plunder Road, a film I hold in high esteem, for quite some time, but have shied away time and again because I’m unsure of how best to approach a movie I have great affection for. As someone who criticizes others’ artwork for a living I loathe back-patting sessions, so the idea of writing about a personal favorite film is daunting. I changed my mind when I looked at the Plunder Road’s IMDB page: 56 votes and a rating of only 6.7 out of 10. Four contributor reviews, all brief, all commenting on the low budget. Too often it seems that (re)viewers interpret the lack of a major star to mean “low budget;” and to them “low budget” is code for “low quality.” And although that sentiment is occasionally true it certainly isn’t here: Plunder Road is an exceptional film that makes a potent noir statement. I feel empowered to write in praise of the film — because it seems to need it. After just one viewing it should be apparent to viewers (even those with a limited film vocabulary) that this is an influential film.

One short digression before continuing to the meat of the film: I mentioned above that I criticize artwork — I’m a college graphic design professor. A great discovery about Plunder Road is that the very effective titles were designed by none other than Bob Gill, who engaged in this kind of work on few occasions, unlike the much more famous and prolific Saul Bass or Maurice Binder. Nevertheless, Bob isn’t exactly unheard of in our world of computers and electronic publishing — Gill Sans, anyone?

Plunder Road is a heist movie. Hard-nosed tough guys bust a train during a midnight rainstorm and make off with millions in bullion. They load the gold into three large trucks and make for the coast, with a fleet prowl cars rallying behind them, and roadblocks on the horizon. There’s very little dialog in the first half of the film, and what is heard seems contrived merely to create atmosphere. The film instead relies on tight visual storytelling; well filmed and edited. Plunder Road is spare and precise; Cornfield and his editors have realized a minimalist vision of the crime film. Every scene, line of dialog, and facial expression contribute to the gestalt, anything superfluous has been pared away. As the reels unwind the cops pick off the heisters one by one as they try to circumnavigate the dragnet. Despite their elaborate plans to steal the gold and get away clean, events unravel as they typically do in film noir: the crooks are tripped up through trivial circumstances, details too seemingly silly to have been accounted for in advance of the robbery. By the final scene only two men and a gun moll remain free, as they head for their destinies in a sedan outfitted with solid gold bumpers and hubcaps.

There’s no real star among the ensemble cast, but Gene Raymond gets top billing. If the name is familiar it likely isn’t for his acting but rather for his longtime marriage to singing superstar Jeanette MacDonald. Raymond had a steady career in film and on television as a third or fourth lead, with his biggest part coming opposite Jeanette in 1941 for their remake of the Norma Shearer Fredric March classic, Smilin’ Through. He leads a cast of somewhat familiar faces with unfamiliar names — the lone exception being film noir safety valve Elisha Cook Jr. This is a guy’s movie through and through — Raymond’s love interest doesn’t appear until the final third of the film, played by soap opera icon Jeanne Cooper (who still appears as Mrs. Chancellor on The Young and the Restless after a run 40 years). Nonetheless, I was left with the impression that Cooper was only included in the cast because on of that old Hollywood adage that every movie has got to have a girl.

The characters, although never fully developed, are far from stereotype. They keep to themselves, burdened by their own thought, and thus keep us at arm’s length. Plunder Road wants to make distinctive the boundaries between their world and ours — we can’t fully know them or theirs and they have long forgotten squares like us. In the final sequence, as the remaining members of the crew seem to be in the home stretch — in broad daylight on the sun-baked L.A. freeway, ex-race car driver Frankie sees traffic stacking up in front of him. He says “It’s gotta be a road block, why else would it be piled up like this?” Raymond’s Eddie Harris responds “The morning rush — the people who work for a living, Frankie.” It’s in this moment, when they break the unseen barrier between the two worlds by attempting to pass in ours — that fate intervenes and seals their doom. At the literal and figurative end of “Plunder Road” the movie reveals itself to be a definitive film noir — in an ending of extraordinary irony, these crooks who have planned and executed a robbery of tremendous daring and complexity are undone by one of the most banal occurrences of the modern freeway: the fender-bender. That they would have survived even this unscathed had they not been too smart for their own good, and simply stashed their loot in the trunk, is shattering. For Harris, death is a welcome alternative to a life in prison after being dealt such a blow.

Throughout the film, viewers hear snippets of radio broadcasts talking up the caper, updating the audience in the theater as well as the robbers on the screen as to the progress of the escape. It clearly brings to mind the radio DJ from Hill’s The Warriors. Also noteworthy is the method the gang uses to camouflage the gold, by casting it in the form of the car bumpers and hubcaps. David Mamet, a student of film noir if ever there was one, lifted the idea for his 2001 Gene Hackman film Heist, though Hackman escapes with his precious metal. The difference between the two films is that Hackman has the audience’s blessing — he’s fleecing a scumbag. Fates exacts a stiff penalty from the thieves in Plunder Road. They’ve knocked over the U.S. Mint — essentially meaning you, me, and everyone else who walks in the light.

Plunder Road (1957)
Director: Hubert Cornfield
Cinematographer: Ernest Haller

Writers: Steven Ritch and Jack Charney

Starring: Gene Raymond and Jeanne Cooper

Distributed by: Republic Pictures

Running time: 76 minutes

May 18, 2009

SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 (1950)

Update: October 2012: Southside 1-1000 is now available in an excellent print from the fantastic Warner Archive collection

There can be no doubt that Southside 1-1000 is a minor film noir. But despite the fact that almost everything written about it labels it as a cheap knock-off of Anthony Mann’s T-Men, or merely mentions that is was directed by Boris Ingster, who helmed The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and gets some credit in the initial development of film noir, I found it to be to compelling, entertaining, and in its own way pretty important. A product of the cheapo King Brothers, whose noir resumé boasts such gems as When Strangers Marry (1944), Dillinger (1945), Suspense (1947), The Gangster (1947), and the extraordinary Gun Crazy (1950), Southside is yet another low budget film that far surpasses expectations. 

The general story here isn’t new: treasury agent goes undercover at great risk to life and limb to crack up a counterfeit ring. Along the way he meets a pretty girl; in the end it turns out she ain’t so nice. We’ve seen it all before. However, derivative stuff aside, Southside 1-1000 has something to offer both as a film and as a commentary on its time — and it boasts one of the most underrated femme fatales of all time. 

The movie opens with a bland montage of stock footage accompanied by voiceover narration, which resurfaces from time to time throughout. Unlike many noir enthusiasts, I appreciate narration. And while I understand the complaints that it cheapens the product — a storytelling gimmick intended to shave running times — I say so what? Voiceovers are ingrained in our collective understanding of film noir, and I get excited somewhere deep-down whenever I hear one.

Southside’s narrator recounts many of the perils befalling the United States throughout the twentieth century, from the Great War to Korea, as grainy combat footage flickers across the screen. The set-up here is money, and the narrator quickly connects the dots: Uncle Sam needs cash to keep the tanks rolling and the planes flying in the fight against the Reds. He reminds us that paper money has no value on its own, that it merely represents a sacred promise by the government. Therefore, the sanctity of U.S. paper money must be vigilantly protected. Counterfeit rings diminish that promise and pose a serious threat not only to national security, but the American way of life itself.

Ostensibly the purpose of the opening narration is to stress the value of the monetary system and the mission of the treasury department. However, the text suggests a strange set of values. When describing what money pays for, the narrator lists the following: food, taxes, amusement, health care, and vacations. By 1950 the post-war housing shortage was being rectified and home ownership was a huge part of the national agenda — yet the narrator doesn’t mention shelter. His diatribe focuses instead on those essential material pursuits of amusement and vacations. Keeping up with the Joneses, how one expends leisure time, and maximizing social status are imminently important drivers in post war films, invoked here because the filmmakers undoubtedly believed that a criminal conspiracy threatening vacations and amusement (the movie business) would resonate more with audiences than shelter, transportation, clothing, retirement, or education. The narrator closes with “the strength of a nation depends on the value of its currency.” Hold on a moment. Not on its people, land, or industrial might, but its currency. In the years of the rising Cold War, with its multitude of threats both perceived and imaginary, such a narrative asks us whether or not Hollywood films expected the American public to fight communism not with their intellects or their sense of patriotism, but with their willingness to spend.

The first half of the picture is a routine docu-style depiction of treasury department methodology. We watch as counterfeit bills are minted and put into circulation on the street. The secret service glom on to the new bills and identify the counterfeiter through his engraving style. They run all-night stake-outs on shady characters. Eventually the good guys nab a courier red-handed, but the bad guys toss him out of a high window before the T-men can give him the third degree. (and not a drawing of a window like on the bizarre poster either!) With little else to go on the bosses in DC send agent John Riggs (Don DeFore) to the L.A. hotel where the skydiving stiff kept a room. It turns out the crook had his laundry delivered there — and in the sort of logical leap that only happens in B-movies — the feds deduce (correctly) that the hotel must be the epicenter of all counterfeit activity! Agent Riggs takes up residence, passing himself off as a numbers man out of Cleveland. He’s noticed by the hoodlums and joins the gang. By day Riggs schemes to get evidence on the counterfeiters, while at night he romances the hotel’s sexy manager (Andrea King).

(My apologies, spoilers ahead) King’s Nora Craig is easily the most important character in the film, and her relevance extends far beyond the scope of the film itself. Southside 1-1000 is a great example of why feminist writers are drawn to film noir. Here we have a woman, circa 1950, with an extraordinary amount of power: not only does she hold the important position of manager of the hotel — she’s the boss of an entire criminal mob. The men at her command are hardened felons — not the sort to take orders from a dame — yet like bellhops they jump when she says so. Just before we get the dirt on who Nora Craig really is, she has a night out with Riggs, and gives him the straight dope: she wants things, nice things, expensive things, and she’s not the kind of woman who needs a man to pay for them. Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson manipulated one man to get out from under another, but was trapped in a masculine world. Mildred Pierce’s business success alienated those around her and was ultimately responsible for her daughter’s psychosis. Nora Craig has something on both of them — she quite possibly comes closer than any other noir woman to “having it all.” In the end it takes no less than the United States government to destroy her, and even then she dies more a victim of cruel fate than Uncle Sam. Nora has achieved a lofty position in two distinct worlds, that of the legitimate businesswoman and of the underworld kingpin. Her achievement is extraordinary in both arenas — especially when one considers that she overcame cinema’s most daunting mid-century obstacle: scandal. Nora’s very own father is a jailbird, locked up since she was a young girl. Although the film doesn’t provide her with much of a background, it goes without saying that she grew to adulthood as a ward of the state. Her mother is never mentioned, and her pop is none other than the old-world craftsman who engraved the very same engraving plates that lie at the heart of the movie’s drama.

It’s very important to recognize that Nora Craig isn’t a traditional femme fatale in Southside 1-1000. The term implies that the male lead will somehow meet his doom via his interaction with her — and Nora Craig is no black widow. She has no need to be. She is arguably the film’s most powerful character, and consequently doesn’t need to utilize her sexual power in the same way that the typical noir woman does. Her tryst with the undercover Riggs is on her terms; she asks nothing of him and makes no attempt to manipulate or take advantage of him. Their affair simply allows us to learn her secret desires, which are necessary for us to understand her motivation to be a criminal. The fact that both characters are engaged in deception doesn’t compromise her honesty. They play the same cat and mouse game that movie feds and movie gangsters have always played with one another, just on more romantic terms.

The film has a crackerjack ending that makes the whole thing worthwhile. Beginning with a fire in the crook’s hideout and wrapping on a bridge trestle spanning the rail yard, everything is done with verve and style. My copy of the film is quite poor (hooray for the new Warner Archive release linked at top) but even through scratches and haze the beauty of the final sequence came through loud and clear. All of the details from the costumes to the lighting to the camera positions vividly depict a running gun battle that is rich with visual symbolism. It’s a tasty dessert at the end of a routine Wednesday night dinner.

Southside 1-1000 (1950)
Director: Boris Ingster
Cinematographer: Walter Castle

Story: Raison and Brown

Screenplay: Ingster and Townsend
Starring: Don DeFore and Andrea King

Distributed by: Allied Artists

Running time: 73 minutes

May 12, 2009

RAY DANTON DOUBLE FEATURE: The Night Runner (1957), The Beat Generation (1959)

Ray Danton starred in two pseudo-noirs in the late fifties, The Night Runner and The Beat Generation, both of which I caught recently. Despite the triple play of being tall, dark, and handsome, Danton’s limited skill forever doomed him to a low budget existence in Hollywood — though he did manage the occasional part in a big picture, and had a relatively successful run both behind and in front of the camera in Europe. In both of these films Danton plays a character with a screw loose, in the first a killer and the second a serial rapist, yet his good looks and likable demeanor begged audiences to find external forces to blame for his eroded mental condition.

In the The Night Runner (curiously titled because it takes place mostly in broad daylight), Danton plays Roy Turner, ex-mental patient. Turner is a victim of bureaucracy, cut loose by his doctors and unprepared to cope with the world. As an examination of the merits of the system which set the mentally ill free without any sort of support structure, The Night Runner is a failure, laughably so when compared to a film such as 1961’s The Mark with Stuart Whitman and Rod Steiger. Despite the attempt to be taken seriously, The Night Runner is B-exploitation that plays more like a bedtime story told to frighten children.

We never learn much about Roy Turner, but considering that audiences require a reason for all mental illness, there’s a token effort made to give him a troubled past: young Roy owned a pet seagull, shot and killed by his father, who Roy decries as a “mean old man.” The act of pet-murder causes Roy to flee his home for a new life as a cabin boy on a freighter, a story recounted to a dreamy-eyed girl in a moment of signature Danton deadpan. Somehow life’s winding paths have led Roy to his current profession of draughtsman at an engineering firm.

If The Night Runner doesn’t score points as a social exposé film, it’s hardly more successful as a thriller. Most of the running time is devoted to scenes of Roy trying to assimilate into the idyllic seaside community where he finds himself after wandering off the Greyhound bus. He fits in marvelously well, and we forget his past as he gets frisky with the innkeeper’s daughter and chummy with everyone else. Only the innkeeper is wary, though his suspicion is no more than that of any father with a 22 year-old daughter whom he rightly suspects is in heat. Sure, there are a few moments when Roy stares oddly into the distance as he is questioned about his past, but for the most part he displays a collected, bland exterior. The jump to murder is abrupt and hard to swallow. Roy conks the innkeeper over the head when the old man gets wise to his checkered past, and the film assumes we’ll go along with the idea that murder is Roy’s only option. This might make sense if Danton played Roy as a legitimate psycho, but instead he comes off as completely sane person guilty of a crime of passion. Following the act, Roy cleans up his mess, wipes the room, and tries to make the scene play as a robbery gone wrong.

The rest of the film deals with Roy’s attempt to conceal his crime unraveling, until he finally comes clean to his shocked sweetheart, who then falls from a cliff into the raging surf below. In the one moment in the film that Roy actually appears frightening, he stares vacuously down at her body as it is buffeted about in the cove. When Roy’s sanity finally reasserts itself he plunges in after her, and carries her limp and unconscious body home, where he calls the police. The film closes as Roy calmly waits for the sirens in a front porch rocker.

The Night Runner’s flaw is that it doesn’t depict Roy’s insanity, instead asking us to accept it on faith. Even though Roy commits murder, his motive is a too common to be cuckoo: he’s merely trying to conceal his past. Even after the murder, his attempts at concealment are coolly methodical. The fact that Roy is supposed to be a lunatic is immaterial.

Danton is a much more convincing psychopath in The Beat Generation, a film that in spite of its many flaws and its complete lack of a identity is engrossing. Undoubtedly the credit goes to legend-ary scribe Richard Matheson. It’s one of those pictures that tries to capture lightning in way too many bottles, even though each of the bottles is still interesting. Here Danton plays Stan Belmont, The Aspirin Kid, a psychopathic rapist with an itch for married women. In order to set up his victims, he waits for the husband to leave home, then shows up at the door on the pretense of wanting to repay a small loan. “Is your husband home?” — “No? Well, can I leave him a check?” — “Oops I don’t have a pen, could you get one for me?” — “Thanks, do you mind if I wait inside?” Stan’s nickname comes from the final step in his elaborate ritual: he feigns a migraine, and as his host is fetching a glass of water for his aspirin, he dons a pair of black leather gloves and slips into his criminal identity. Stan’s a rapist, not a killer, so each victim is left to share her story with the police.

The detective assigned to the case is Dave Culloran, played by one of the most underrated actors in all of film noir: Steve Cochran. Dave is a hard-boiled man’s man with his own ideas about the willingness of the Kid’s victims — until his wife becomes one of them. Cochran’s rough-and-tumble exterior and manner demonstrate inspired casting: he’s the spit to Danton’s polish. When his wife turns out to be pregnant, Dave can’t seem to come to grips with the situation, and it shows in his physical presence as much as it does in the dialog. Much of the running time deals with the debate between the Cullorans about the future of their unborn child, though it eventually strays to melodrama as the Mrs., played by Fay Spain, has a front lawn heart-to-heart about abortion with the local priest.

The presence of beat culture is wholly exploitative. Stan chums around with a bland clan of ‘Hollywood-ized’ beatniks, though his best friend is played by Robert Mitchum’s son Jim, who makes for a piss-poor Neal Cassady. The dialog is wonderfully over the top in a few segments, and there are scenes where young people cavort around or simply whine about ‘the man,’ but only when the film feels compelled to give the audience a dose of beat-this or beat-that. In a few of the club scenes we meet a young Vampira and an old Louis Armstrong— though like us Louis seems painfully aware that he’s in the wrong movie. Ostensibly Stan uses the beat crowd as a cover for his half-life as the Aspirin Kid — easy since the film presents his cronies as a bunch of vapid numbskulls. This is fine as a story point, but Stan’s role as a beat is that of willing fraud or con-man, which forces one to reexamine the reason for giving the film this title, and showcasing Mamie Van Doren on the poster, much less in the cast — though to her credit she injects some life into the second half of the picture. That is, before the climactic underwater harpoon gun battle.

The Beat Generation is a smorgasbord that deserves a larger audience. It’s by far the more interesting of the two films discussed here, and certainly provided the juicier part for Ray Danton. There’s no space to cover the bits with Jackie Coogan, Dick Contino, Charles Chaplin, Jr., or Maxie Rosenbloom, not to mention the harpoon guns.

The Night Runner (1957)
Director: Abner Biberman
Cinematographer: George Robinson

Screenplay: Gene Levitt

Starring: Ray Danton and Colleen Miller

Released by: Universal International Pictures

Running time: 79 minutes 

The Beat Generation (1959)
Director: Charles F. Haas
Cinematographer: Walter Castle

Writer: Richard Matheson and Lewis Meltzer
Starring: Ray Danton, Steve Cochran, Mamie Van Doren, Louis Armstrong, Fay Spain, and Jackie Coogan

Distributed by: MGM

Running time: 95 minutes

May 8, 2009


In Shakedown, Howard Duff plays the aptly named Jack Early, a driven news photographer out to make a name with one of the big San Francisco papers. His ambition is such that he’s willing to do anything in order to get his foot in the door, including taking a vicious beating. The film opens with verve: Early is chased along the waterfront by a group of hoodlums. Just before losing the footrace with the thugs, we see him round a corner and hastily stash his real camera while pulling a dummy rig from his coat pocket. The thugs throw the dummy off the pier and proceed to wallop the daylights out of Jack before tossing him into the path of an oncoming dock train. He staggers out of the way, retrieves his treasured camera from its hiding spot, and the scene cuts to his dark room where he appraises his handiwork, a series of freshly printed negatives. The snaps are good enough to land Early his dream job: a one-week tryout on the paper, which he quickly makes the most of.

The protagonist of Shakedown is the quintessential anti-hero. His flaws are so damning that he can only find redemption in death, and so apparent that his ultimate doom is never in question, the film moves determinedly towards Early’s date with destiny. Yet the more fascinating aspect of the film, and by extension film noir, is the way in which the second World War and its effects on American culture and the individual fighting man loom unspoken over the film. The implied wartime experiences of the male leads in post-war noir were so universally taken for granted by audiences that the protagonist’s combat record not only goes without saying, but his jaded and cynical attitude is intuitively understood. Having participated in the war first hand Early is so desensitized by his experiences that recording horrible images of carnage and calamity for an eager (and likewise numb) public seems a natural way to earn a living. His moral system has been so skewed by the war that he thinks nothing of exploiting his photographic ‘victims’ in order to make his images more sensational and consequently more attractive to his public. Their insatiable appetite for the sensational and their complicity in empowering Early makes his profession not just an acceptable meal ticket, but also a fast track to fame and fortune.

The character development of Jack Early occurs in two generally distinct phases: in the first third of Shakedown Early is a rising photographer, shooting those sorts of ubiquitous urban calamities like burning buildings or a smashed taxis, and using his warped sense of theater to create a more sensational tableau — by offering ‘direction’ to the woman in the window of the building and the man trying to escape the wrecked cab. These scenes in particular bring to mind the opening sequence of the 1952 Broderick Crawford film Scandal Sheet, in which reporter John Derek and shutterbug Harry Morgan glibly deceive and manipulate the distraught sister of a murder victim in order to get the most sensational and visually horrifying photograph possible. Both films deal indirectly with the ethics of journalism and the ways in which the blind ambition of the men in the news racket have powerful repercussions on public morality and the erosion of personal integrity.

The much more contrived second two-thirds show Early’s machinations after achieving success and some warped degree of professional notoriety. The transition happens when Jack receives a tip from a slick racketeer (Brian Donlevy) that places him in the ‘right place at the right time’ to snap a crew of department store heisters. Early gets the precious shot of the gang (led by Donlevy’s rival Lawrence Tierney) at the moment of their getaway. Instead of sharing the incriminating photograph with his editor or the authorities, Early burns the candle at both ends — providing his paper with an obscured image while using the clear shot to blackmail Tierney. Early’s big leap into full-blown criminality steers the narrative into more convoluted territory after he double- and triple-crosses his underworld contacts, each time believing an incriminating photo will keep him off the hook. The ironic and fatal flaw of Jack’s scheme is that while his plans are indeed logical, he fails to grasp that is not in the nature of hoodlums (particularly those brought to vivid life by Lawrence Tierney) to solve problems rationally. So in the end, Jack Early falls victim to one of the greatest character flaws of the film noir heel: he’s simply too smart for his own good.

And although in the ingeniously ironic climax he finds redemption, he lacks the good nature fate demands in order to allow one to save his own life.

Shakedown (1950)

Director: Joseph Pevney
Cinematographer: Irving Glassberg
Screenplay: Goldsmith and Levitt
Starring: Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy, Anne Vernon, and Lawrence Tierney

Released by: Universal International Pictures
Running time: 80 minutes

May 4, 2009


Joan Bennett plays Lucia Harper in The Reckless Moment, all-American wife and mother in a small California seaside town. As the film opens, a lowlife named Darby gets his hooks into Lucia’s gullible daughter Bea, an art student. When Lucia warns Darby to keep away from Bea, he only agrees to do so in exchange for a healthy amount of shakedown cash. Rather than pay, Lucia shares the details of the encounter with Bea in hopes of proving that Darby is a scoundrel. Predictably, Bea doesn’t believe her mother. However, later that evening when the young couple meets in the family boathouse Darby confesses, and a shocked and distraught Bea brains him with an anchor and flees. Dazed and bleeding, Darby stumbles through a rotten railing and falls to the sand below. Early the next morning, Lucia discovers his corpse, and decides to hide the body instead of contacting the authorities. She rows out beyond the surf and heaves Darby’s remains over the side. All seems well at first, but soon the body is discovered by the authorities. A short while later, a blackmailer named Martin Donnelly (James Mason) shows up in Lucia’s living room, wanting five grand in exchange for incriminating love letters between the daughter and the dead man.

Despite much of what has been written about this superior film, The Reckless Moment is not film noir’s take on what a mother will do to protect her family. In this case the family unit is never directly threatened — a man dies, but his underworld status makes it unlikely that the gullible Bea would actually be convicted of, or even charged with a crime. Even in some far-fetched scenario that led to an indictment and guilty verdict, there’s simply no chance whatsoever that the girl would be sent to Tehachapi. In all likelihood, the family would have survived the potential scandal with reputation unscathed, Bea seen as little more than the innocent victim of a scoundrel — and a lesson to those ‘free-spirited’ young girls who would attend art school. Instead the film represents something far more subtle: what a woman will do to prevent the disruption of her family life, and by extension, the American Dream itself. This idea is brought forth through the relationship of Lucia and the sensitive grifter Donnelly, which explains the casting of an actor of James Mason’s range in such a critical role.

The family structure in The Reckless Moment is an idealized vision of the postwar dream. Composed of a loving couple with two attractive teenagers, a live-in grandpa, and a black servant without a care in the world; the Harpers have the day-to-day gripes of any upper middle class family — a hard-working father who is constantly away from home (though he has the commendable excuse of war work), a love-sick daughter who craves independence, and a pesky, rambunctious son. Yet the foundation upon which this model family is built is so much bedrock: strong, unbreakable, wholly American. Their relationships are honest and realistic rather than excessively melodramatic or saccharine  The Harper home is tastefully appointed, yet threadbare in all the right places. Everything about the Harpers is more than adequate, yet somehow ordinary. The town of Balboa is a Rockwellian extension of the family itself: people talk to one another (and like any family occasionally bicker) on the street — and everyone, rich or poor, is on a first-name basis.

The necessary plot contrivance that allows events in the movie to occur is the absence of the father. Away doing reconstruction work in Berlin, we never meet Mr. Harper. Ever-present through phone calls and hastily written letters, the idea of the missing patriarch looms heavily over the other characters, and we are forced to ponder whether or not any of the film’s drama would have occurred had he been present. Although there are few creatures more lowly than an unwed mother in postwar cinema, the wholesome family is so empowering that, despite an absent father, Lucia becomes a veritable superwoman — a force of nature. It’s important to recognize that while the momentary and understandable breakdown in the familial structure is the cause of much grief in The Reckless Moment, it is the narcotic attractiveness of that same structure that causes the criminal element in the film to self-destruct rather than assault it.

And yet, there’s a dark underside to Mrs. Harper’s mundane and ordinary life. Had she not been the sole available parent at the time of Bea’s traumatic run-in with Darby, Lucia would have never discovered her own hidden strength and determination. Her role as housewife is too inherently supportive to allow her to experience the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of true independence — which she struggles with, but also finds liberating. This is evident through her fairly free association with Donnelly, with whom she makes no effort to hide her conspicuous relationship. Even as Donnelly is attracted to the wholesome tedium of Lucia’s life, she welcomes the chance to break with it. One of the film’s ironies is that Lucia’s pseudo-romantic relationship with Donnelly is surprisingly similar to that of Bea and Darby. The crucial difference being that while Darby was truly a scumbag, Donnelly is essentially a good man who, not being American, was never given a proper shot at achieving the Dream. His redemption isn’t achieved through assimilation to the American way of life, but by sacrificing himself to preserve it.

Understanding Donnelly is crucial. As a poor Irish immigrant orphaned into a life of crime, he is as enamored of Lucia’s family life as he is of her beauty. Despite his better judgment and the criticisms of his partners, Donnelly slowly insinuates himself into the family’s activities, from shopping with Lucia to helping son David with an outboard motor, to discussing life in the old country with the elder Mr. Harper. He is allowed to do this only because of the absence of Lucia’s husband — regardless of the fact that Donnelly is a blackmailer and ostensibly out to destroy them. The Harpers accept him into their world with such a sense of ease, because of their own neighborly attitudes and his obvious yearning to participate in their square life. His fleeting inclusion in their family opens his jaded eyes to a new kind of life. This is his first glimpse of the American dream, and he finds it so alluring that instead of carrying through on his blackmail demands, he instead tries to protect Lucia from his partners, and ultimately kills for her, before sacrificing himself to preserve her and her family — proving with sober finality that in The Reckless Moment, the American family and the American dream are indestructible.

The Reckless Moment (1949)
Director: Max Ophüls
Producer: Walter Wanger

Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
Art Director: Cary Odell

Screenplay: Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg, based on a story by E. S. Holding
Starring: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 82 minutes