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)
stripe
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)
stripe
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

10 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I love that poster for The Beat Generation. You've got a cool blog. Cheers!

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  2. Great post, Mark: again - movies I had not heard of before. Very well done. Jeez, these both sound great! I have not heard of this actor either! A film called The Beat Generation that I have not seen? Considering the theme of my blog, I hang my head in shame. And a Matheson script? Damn, I feel out of the loop. With even a glimpse of Mamie Van Doren? That's a glimpse of Heaven for us atomic age fans.

    Great Post!! I see your readers have increased dramatically since last I stopped by. As it should be!. -- Mykal

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  3. Mark: Forgot to mention, I have added your blog to my "Beloved Links" portion of my blog. Keep up the great work! - Mykal

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  4. Mark: watched this film the other night and loved it (thanks!).

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  5. Where did you find "The night runner"? I´m doing a research about the psychokiller in the cinema and, although you say that craziness was irrelevant in that case, I really wanna see this one. Thanks! (and sorry about my grammar or spelling mistakes, I´m Spanish)

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  6. Hi there Mikel, thanks for the comment. I was able to see the film via Turner Classic Movies, a TV channel here in the states. This is a film that they only show every few years, and it's not available on DVD that I'm aware of. You might be able to find it for download on one of the torrent sites, but I'm not sure.

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  7. Thanks! I looked at cinemageddon but I couldn´t find it there, where do you recommend me to search? :)

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  8. I usually keep that site a big secret! Since it isn't there your next, and probably only option is to wait for it to air on TV again, or to buy it at ioffer.com, it's available there for $9...good luck, I hope you can track it down.

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  9. Thanks a lot. I´ll probably wait a little bit longer for a tvrip and then i´ll decide if i buy it. On one side it looks interesting for my doctoral thesis, but on the other hand it´s quite unknown and you say that the madness of Danton´s character is pretty pointless (and that´s decisive for me) :S, Would you recommend me to buy it if i couldn´t track it down?

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  10. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether or not to purchase, at only $9 you don't have much to lose. Just remember this is a real low-budget affair. :-)

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