September 15, 2009

MURDER IS MY BEAT (1955)






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If we were going to debate the film noir credibility of Ulmer’s Murder is My Beat the argument would hinge upon whether or not Barbara Payton’s character, Eden Lane, is a proper femme fatale. If you read up on the picture, that subject seems to be the jazz. Payton’s Lane gets mixed up with some shady underworld types trying to work a blackmail scheme, and next thing she knows the cops are eyeballing her for a murder. By the time all is said and done and we learn she’s innocent, Detective Ray Patrick (Paul Langton) has already pissed his career down the drain in order to keep her out of Tehachapi. From one point of view it’s easy to say Murder is My Beat misses as a film noir because Eden Lane turns out to be a good girl — that’s an easy, uncomplicated position to take (and believe me, plenty have taken it). I’m not so sure though. One of the significant characteristics of noir is a milieu that is all at once complicated, uncertain, chaotic, and morally ambiguous. With this in mind is it not then enough to consider Beat a film noir simply because Detective Patrick gives up everything for a girl he thinks might be guilty? Whether Eden Lane is pure evil or merely pure turns out to be irrelevant — her power isn’t moral, it’s entirely sexual. Patrick doesn’t trip over his own feet to help her because she’s innocent — he just wants to score. That in final equation she turns out to be innocent is, for him, nothing more than dumb luck — considering the fate film noir protagonists who made similar choices Patrick gets off lucky.


Make no mistake Murder is My Beat is a second-rate picture. Were it not for the presence of an interesting, much talked about director and an infamous leading lady the film would simply vanish into the haze — there’d be very little of substance left to make film aficionados seek it out. Paul Langton’s presence doesn’t help. If ever there were a guy less suited to take the lead in a feature film it’s him. Despite a long career as a character actor on a million different forgotten television dramas, Murder is My Beat represents one of Langton’s only starring roles, and he doesn’t make good. A tedious actor with a dead face and zero charisma, Langton comes off like a sack of potatoes in a JC Penney suit — the best thing about him is his haircut. Harold Wellman’s cinematography is equally unimaginative, though he at least could blame the film’s miserable budget. In Wellman’s defense many of the second unit shots, in particular the naturally lit exteriors, are pretty good. There are some strong shots of period LA, including the ubiquitous City Hall building. There’s to say on behalf of the interiors though — all shot with a single harsh light source against washed out, over-exposed backgrounds. Nevertheless, Murder is My Beat is a noir picture in spite of its lack of distinctive visual style.


So much has been made of Edgar G. Ulmer’s career, and rightfully so. While Murder is My Beat can’t be held up alongside Ruthless, Detour, or even The Strange Woman, it does offer some explanation of what made him a precious commodity on Poverty Row. Take for instance the train scene, in which Detective Patrick finally gives himself over to keeping Lane out of jail. The entire scene is played out on a single set, with the would-be lovers sitting opposite each other as a rear-projection landscape dances by through the window. The two spend the scene in conversation, but Ulmer uses a clever trick to keep things on the cheap: instead of showing the actors talking, he just as often shows them listening. He most likely shot the scene with two cameras — one for each actor, filming the speaker and the listener at the same time. In the finished movie the scene plays out in an unexpected way: we often see the listener while only hearing the speaker — we see Patrick’s passive face while hearing Lane’s spoken dialogue. The technique allowed Ulmer to correct himself in the cutting room and save quite a lot of time and money. If he didn’t like something about the actor’s expression or delivery, he’d just cut to the other person listening. If necessary he could even change the script and record different dialogue after shooting the scene.


Much has been written about how exploitative and cruel the Hollywood studio system was in its heyday, particularly concerning starlets. Actresses such as Barbara Payton, Gail Russell, and Frances Farmer are whipped out and dusted off as sad illustrations of beautiful and talented young women devoured by an insatiable machine. While it is true that show business is unkind to those who can’t cope with criticism and rejection (among other things), it’s also fair to say that self-destructive people tend to self-destruct regardless of their circumstances — it just makes for better gossip when it happens in Malibu. Yet the Barbara Payton story is certainly a sad one (if not quite on par with Russell’s). Payton turned to alcohol, drugs, and even prostitution after (or, if you like, because) her Hollywood star had fallen. Russell was a depressive who suffered from stage fright and abused substances in order to get up for her roles. Her star peaked all too soon. Murder is My Beat was Payton’s final grasp at the screen. She never had much of a career, and was known primarily for an ill-conceived and violent marriage with A-lister Franchot Tone. By the time she made this picture her M.O. was a shallow riff on Marilyn Monroe. With put-on breathiness in her voice and a puffy face she’s a shadow of the girl who starred opposite Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye just five years before. It’s clear that she’s working hard, but more telling that Ulmer regularly goes in tighter on the wooden Langton.


In the final analysis Murder is My Beat is one of those movies that is more interesting for the academic questions it poses and for the personalities involved than for anything that happens on-screen. It has its moments — like a grisly murder victim who goes face-first into a fireplace and a picture-snatcher in a dress more outrageously sexual than anything you’ve ever seen in an Eisenhower-era motion picture, but those lurid highlights arrive too early and too close together to carry the picture or capture the imagination for long.

Murder is My Beat (1955)


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Director: Edgar Ulmer
Cinematographer: Harold Wellman
Screenplay: Aubrey Wisberg
Starring: Paul Langton and Barbara Payton
Released by: Allied Artists
Running time: 77 minutes

9 comments:

  1. Mark, I don't claim to be a noir expert, but I've never seen the femme fatale as a sine qua non of the genre. As you write, noir is a matter of milieu, and there's as much room for "good" girls as for "bad," on the understanding that the difference is not as great as some people might think. Questions of quality aside, this one looks like a noir to me.

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  2. I agree, film noir certainly (and rightfully) defies any sort of 'checklist.' That's what makes it so fascinating. However, there are a lot of film buffs out there who disagree, thinking that 1) all film noir must have a femme fatale; and 2) Any crime movie with a femme fatale must be a film noir. It's that sort of thinking that pushes much of the existing discussion about this film into the small box of Payton qualifying as femme fatale. (On the other hand, it's also certainly fair to suggest that she's the only really interesting thing about the movie.) I think that for many film watchers, especially those new to film noir studies, the whole femme fatale thing is a really safe /concrete / approachable aspect of the films — and also a major draw to watch them in the first place.

    If anything, I'd argue that the film is a noir not so much based on her goodness or badness, but her ambiguity.

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  3. Have you read Barbara Payton's biography: Kiss Tommorrow Goodbye by John O'Dowd? It's heartily recommended if you haven't.
    Thanks for the review.

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  4. is murder is my beat? available on dvd?

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  5. No, the film is not available, and likely never will be.

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  6. I think you're being too hard on both Payton and Langton. The film is no "Detour," but it has a likable Mickey Spillaine type quality to it and a certain amount of atmosphere despite the so-so photography. You didn't even mention my favorite part of the movie, which takes place in the cabin during a snow storm. This is where Langton and Payton stake their territory with each other. Throughout the film the first time I saw it I was not sure Payton hadn't committed the murder. She played the character right on the edge.

    I also like how we hear about Payton's character, Eden Lane, long before we meet her. When we finally meet Eden, Payton doesn't disappoint with her characterization. And what's all this about Payton not looking good so Ulmer had to cut to Langton's face? Come on. She looked fine.

    BTW, you can find the film on DVD if you look for it online. There are various sources. It is available, not legitimately, but certainly in watchable quality.

    Ulmer was a clever director and did a lot with no money. He preferred his independence to large budgets. Though "Murder is My Beat" is no classic, I've enjoyed watching it a number of times.

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  7. Hi there Anonymous, thanks for reading and commenting.

    We'll have to agree to disagree about 'Murder is My Beat,' and the state of Payton when this was made. I had seen this in a colleague's seminar when I first wrote this piece, and I followed it later that evening with 'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye' just to get a look at the younger and more hopeful actress. The difference, to me at least, was staggering.

    I realize that this and the majority of other films I write about here are available online. In fact, there's a single website out there at from which they all can be downloaded! However, I'm careful about 'helping' people find such films. If they want them badly enough, they'll figure it out on their own. I did. :-)

    And, dang it, had I known there cabin scene was your favorite part, I'd have mentioned it!

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  8. Mark,
    I know I'm responding to an old review, but thought I'd let you and others know that this has just been released by Warner Archive as of 1/4/13.

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  9. Larry - Thanks for the heads up! I'm sure it will be a much higher quality print than what has been kicking around for the past few years.

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