July 29, 2013

VIOLENCE (1947)




Film noir’s definition may be as elusive as ever, but we can say with confidence that noir confronted the harsh realities of the postwar world more immediately than other kinds of Hollywood films. With their smaller budgets, noir movies developed a penchant for low cost, “ripped from the headlines” subject matter. They also often realistically depicted the internal and external struggle of veterans attempting to readjust to a culture irrevocably changed — more anonymous, more sophisticated, more neurotic — than the one they left behind at the outbreak of war.

Released originally by Monogram Pictures and recently made available through the Warner Archive, 1947’s Violence is concerned with the efforts of intrepid magazine reporter Ann Dwire (Nancy Coleman) and federal investigator Steve Fuller (Michael O’Shea) to uncover the truth behind veterans’ aid group the United Defenders. Headed by fire-breathing jingo “True” Dawson (Emory Parnell), and his cold-blooded right hand man Fred Stalk (Sheldon Leonard), the U.D. isn’t the legitimate organization it’s cracked up to be, but rather a picket-busting goon squad available to the highest bidder. Dawson uses his gift for polarizing oratory to enthrall returning servicemen, bellowing that the Defenders are the “…fearless spine that will stand behind you for all the things you’ve been promised: better housing conditions, your jobs back with privilege of seniority, and relief from the shortages that affect the happiness and well-being of you and your families!” Meanwhile, he and Stalk are secretly cultivating a six-figure deal with a mysterious “Mr. Big” figure to hire the Defenders out as club-wielding thugs: “We get ‘em young and tough, the kind that’s already wearing a chip on its shoulder — and then we’ll prime then for the payoff. We’ll prime them with hate! Hate for labor, hate for management, hate for the party that’s in, hate for the party that’s out!” During one such rant, a vet dares to challenge Dawson’s violent rhetoric, prompting the big man (in an obvious reference to HUAC — whether it’s an embrace or an indictment is unclear) to whine that the Defenders’ enemies can “get on the inside too.” He then calls for “a couple of red-blooded boys” to take care of the problem with their fists.

In order to properly come to grips with just how ‘of the moment’ Violence was, we need to take for a closer look at the domestic situation at the time of its release. It isn’t exactly correct, that conception most folks have about the period of time just after the war being a moment of unbridled prosperity and optimism in the United States. There was a short period of adjustment, before the renewed militarism of the Cold War and Korea (not to mention the rising middle class’s demand for new leisure and consumer goods) that would find returning soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines faced with a crisis of uncertain jobs, declining wages, sorry working conditions, and piss-poor housing.

Everyone who wanted a job had worked when the war was on, and while the home front labor shortages guaranteed high wages and almost unlimited overtime, rationing of staples and the general lack of luxury items led to out-of-control inflation, even after the surrender. After four long years folks were tired of going without; they had saved fastidiously during the war and now wanted to spend their money on their wants rather than their needs. By 1946 most families were eyeballing one of those new suburban bungalows, complete with a TV set in the living room and a Ford Super De Luxe in the carport. Yet as the economy was returning to a peacetime model and millions of G.I.s were rejoining domestic life, big business believed the transition period presented the right opportunity to slash wages and overtime, pare women from the labor pool, and return to a more profitable depression-era pay scale. An emboldened American people wouldn’t stand for it.

In the wake of the layoffs, the cuts in pay and overtime, and four years’ worth of stockpiled grievances (the AFL and CIO promised not to strike during the war), things got ugly. In what would become known as the Great Strike Wave of 1946, as many as five million Americans walked off the job. Steel, coal, oil, transportation, utilities, retail; it seemed to involve everyone. Entire cities went on solidarity strikes. Confrontations were commonplace, and there were those, like Violence’s Dawson, who were ready to cash in on the trouble. Big business had a long history of using the police and the National Guard to quash strikes, and when that wasn’t legally possible they turned to private contractors. By the time Congress opened the 1947 session, the labor situation was a national calamity, and more than 250 related bills were under consideration by lawmakers. It was during this maelstrom, in May 1947, that Violence hit theaters. Just a few weeks later, and over President Truman’s veto, congress passed the controversial Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, made it far more difficult for workers to strike.

That brings us back to Violence, a movie that attempts to cash in on the fears and the tumult of a country trying to get back to work, and hoping to recover from too many years of war and depression. It opens in the cellar of the United Defenders’ Los Angeles headquarters with the thuggish Stalk and simple minded crony Joker (Peter Whitney) murdering an employee who got too close to the truth, while Dawson blusters away to the Ladies’ Auxiliary in the meeting hall just over their heads. It’s a delightfully noirish beginning — dark and hardboiled — but the rest of the film fails to live up to these opening moments. As the action moves upstairs, we meet UD secretary Ann Mason, who appears dutiful until we realize that she’s using her secret bracelet camera to photograph everyone in the room! Mason is actually Ann Dwire, girl reporter for VIEW magazine. With microfilm negatives hidden in her bag, she departs for Chicago to pen her exposé. She hops a taxi outside the Union Station, but is tailed by agent Steve Fuller. The chase results in a fiery crash that sends Ann to the hospital with a bad case of — wait for it — amnesia. Deciding to play the situation to his advantage, Fuller sneaks into the hospital and convinces her that they’re engaged, and then tricks her into getting him a job with the UD. Unfortunately for Steve, Ann no longer remembers who she really is, and when she learns that he’s actually a G-Man, she rats him out to Dawson and Stalk!

Violence was Monogram’s follow up to its 1946 hit Decoy, and features many of the same principals: director Jack Bernhard, producer Bernard Brandt, writer Stanley Rubin, and actor Sheldon Leonard. But don’t go looking for a repeat performance. WhereDecoy was creative and stylish, Violence is drab and predictable. The cast often seems disinterested, the production design is tepid, and Bernhard’s direction is uninspired. Even the talented Leonard suffers in comparison. His droll delivery in Decoy acts as a foil to Jean Gillie’s outrageously over the top femme fatale, and his deadpan style doesn’t wash playing against two leads (Coleman and O’Shea) unable to parry his style. In short, Violence fails to deliver on either the tastiness of its title or the promise of its topicality — and it fails to capture even a little of the same verve that made Decoy so much fun. Rather than drawing attention to an issue of national importance — the problem of returning veterans in labor strife — Violence simply morphs its fascinating premise into grist for the Poverty Row mill. What it needed was a shot of Methylene Blue.

Violence (1947)Directed by Jack Bernhard
Produced Bernard Brandt
Written by Stanley Rubin and Lewis Lantz
Cinematography by Henry Sharp
Starring Nancy Coleman, Michael O’Shea, Emory Parnell, and Sheldon Leonard
Released by Monogram Pictures
Running Time: 72 minutes

1 comment:

  1. Love this tough guy talk - "What it needed was a shot of Methylene Blue."

    Excellent piece, and such great background on the sociopolitical backdrop of the story. I've not seen the movie, but even if it doesn't live up to its promise, it sounds like an interesting attempt.

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