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 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 regular 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 quickly noticed by the hoodlums and taken into their confidence. 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. For screenplay purposes 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 slightly more romantic terms than usual.

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)
stripe
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

2 comments:

  1. Hi Mark, I just discovered this film thanks to a brand-new remastered print from the Warner Archive -- I understand from Glenn Erickson's review that the Archive print is vastly better than any others that have been bouncing around for years. I just found your review and heartily concur. And I agree with you 100% about docu-noir narration, I love it!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  2. Hi Laura - That's great news, thanks for the heads-up! I'll amend this with a link to the archive, I'm happy to support their efforts in any way I can — now I need to go get a copy for myself!

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