Heel with a Heart: Dan Duryea in THE UNDERWORLD STORY (United Artists 1950)

Hollywood’s favorite heel Dan Duryea got a rare starring role in THE UNDERWORLD STORY, a 1950 crime drama in which he plays… you guessed it, a heel! But this heel redeems himself at the film’s conclusion, and Duryea even wins the girl. Since that girl is played by my not-so-secret crush Gale Storm , you just know I had to watch this one!

The part of muckraking tabloid journalist Mike Reese is tailor-made for Duryea’s sleazy charms. He’s a big-city reporter who breaks a story about gangster Turk Meyers spilling to the D.A., resulting in the thug ending up murdered on the courthouse steps in a hail of bullets. DA Ralph Monroe (Michael O’Shea )  puts the pressure on Mike’s editor, and Reese becomes persona non grata in the newspaper game. Seeing an ad for a partner at a small town newspaper, Mike gets a $5,000 “loan” from crime boss Carl Durham (a scary Howard DaSilva ), and hightails it to the sedate New England burg of Lakeville.

The Lakeville Sentinel is run by ‘Our Little Margie’ Miss Storm, as Cathy Harris, who inherited the failing rag from her late father. Cathy’s reluctant to take on the aggressive hustler as her partner, but is persuaded by old-time printer George “Parky” Parker (veteran Harry Shannon). Things get shaken up in Lakeville when the wife of Clark Stanton (Gar Moore), son of publishing mogul Ed Stanton (Herbert Marshall  ) is found murdered, and Mike exploits the tragedy for all its worth, leading to the frame-up of the Stanton’s black maid Molly (Mary Anderson).

THE UNDERWORLD STORY was pretty bold for it’s time in its subject matter, dealing not only with “yellow journalism”, but also issues of race and class. I had to rewind twice when rich Clark Stanton, who killed his wife and pins the blame on Molly, tells his dad, ” Who’ll believe the word of a nigger against ours?”. You just don’t hear something like that in a film made in 1950! The only complaint I have is that Anderson, who gives a sympathetic performance as Molly, is a white woman. Couldn’t the producers have hired a black actress to essay the role? It’s also implied that old man Stanton was a bit more than just fond of his daughter-in-law. The Stantons conspire to put the Sentinel out of business when Mike crusades for Molly’s innocence, using their blue-blood connections to get local businesses to stop advertising in the paper.

There are allusions to the HUAC hearings, as the case against Molly becomes akin to the “witch trials in old Lakeville”. Indeed, this was Howard DaSilva’s last film for awhile, as the actor wound up on the blacklist. He didn’t make another film until 1961’s DAVID AND LISA. Director Cy Enfield was also blacklisted, and had to move to England to continue his career with films like MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and ZULU. The screenplay by Henry Blankford (adapted by Enfield) contains some great, tough dialog, delivered by Duryea and company with gusto. Also of note is the cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), whose keen eye adds immensely to the film despite its obvious low budget.

The Familiar Face Brigade is well represented by stalwarts like Phil Arnold, Art Baker , Melville Cooper, Ned Glass, Alan Hale Jr, Frieda Inescort, Donald “Devil Bat” Kerr (once again a photographer!), Edward Van Sloan (yes, of Universal Horror fame!), and ‘The Last Charlie Chan’, Roland Winters. But it’s Dan Duryea who runs away with the acting honors, making the most of his starring opportunity. Plus he gets to clinch Gale Storm in the end. Lucky bastard!

One in Eight Million: NAKED CITY (Universal-International 1948)

Producer Mark Hellinger, who brought you the film noir classics THE KILLERS and BRUTE FORCE , traveled to the mean streets of New York City to shoot  NAKED CITY, along with director Jules Dassin and a solid cast led by Barry Fitzgerald. The movie, though fiction, is shot in docu-drama style, with Hellinger himself providing narration throughout. It was an attempt to do something boldly different with the genre, and it succeeds thanks to the talents in front and behind the cameras.

Beautiful young model Jean Dexter is found by her housekeeper brutally murdered in the bathtub. The homicide squad, with veteran Lt. Dan Muldoon and rookie detective Jimmy Halloran, gets to work investigating the case. They discover Jean had been seeing a mysterious man from Baltimore named Henderson. The team then begins the slow, methodical process of catching a killer, pulling on the loose strings of Dexter’s life. Their number one suspect becomes lying young wastrel Frank Niles, engaged to Dexter’s model friend Ruth Morrison. Through dogged determination and old-fashioned footwork, they’re led to a harmonica-playing ex-wrestler named Willie Garzah, who leads them on a chase through the gritty streets of New York, winding up on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, where the real murderer is finally shot down and killed.

Barry Fitzgerald excels as the no-nonsense veteran cop. Lt. Dan Muldoon is a far cry from his Father Fitzgibbon in GOING MY WAY or Michaleen Oge Flynn in THE QUIET MAN , but Fitzgerald still displays that old Irish charm. His partner Halloran is played by Don Taylor, whose star would soon be on the rise in films like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and STALAG 17. It fell just as quickly, and Taylor turned to directing, helming ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU among others. Howard Duff’s star was also on the rise as the cad Niles; Duff would later star in his own police procedural TV series THE FELONY SQUAD.

Ted de Corsia  makes a most memorable villain as the brutish Willie Garzah. Though Garzah is spotted throughout the film, our first real encounter finds Halloran tracking the thug to his sparse apartment, where he’s stripped to the waste and incessantly working out. After rabbit-punching Halloran into unconsciousness, Garzah takes it on the lam. He’s so mean he even kills a seeing-eye dog along the way before going down in a blaze of inglory atop the Williamsburg Bridge. De Corsia (who also appeared in the noirs LADY FROM SHANGHAI, THE ENFORCER, THE BIG COMBO, THE KILLING, and several Westerns) makes Willie Garzah one of the vilest villains in film noir history, and that’s saying a lot!

Adelaide Klein & Grover Burgess as the grieving parents

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City”, and it seems there are also as many Familiar Faces roaming its streets, many of whom make their Silver Screen debuts. Among the throng of humanity you’ll spot cast members Dorothy Hart, Frank Conroy, and House Jameson, and in smaller bits Jean Adair, Walter Burke Paul Ford Kathleen Freeman , Bruce Gordon, James Gregory , Robert H. Harris, Enid Markey (who was Tarzan’s first Jane opposite Elmo Lincoln back in 1918!), John Marley, Arthur O’Connell, David Opatoshu, Nehemiah Persoff, Molly Picon, and John Randolph. A special Cracked Rear Viewer round of applause goes to actors Adelaide Klein and Grover Burgess as the victim’s parents; their few scenes are brief but packed with such raw emotion I felt I just had to give them a shout-out!

circa 1944: Polish-born American photographer Arthur Fellig (1899 – 1969) with his Speed Graphic camera. He was known by the police as ‘Weegee’ for his ouija-like prescience of crime scenes and disasters. In fact he kept a radio in his car tuned to the police frequency, and was often able to reach the scene before the police themselves. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

The screenplay by Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald was inspired by a book of photographs titled NAKED CITY by famed photojournalist Weegee , noted for his uncompromising pictures of life in the urban jungle. The film earned two Academy Awards, for William Daniels’  stark cinematography and Paul Wetherwax’s precise editing, and spawned a later television show in the late 50’s/early 60’s. The score is credited to both Miklos Rozsa and Frank Skinner, but who is responsible for what I just don’t know. NAKED CITY was Mark Hellinger’s last film; he died of a heart attack while watching the final cut three months before it’s release. He certainly went out on a high note, as the film has become one of the most influential of its ilk. The New York locations make this a must for history buffs and film buffs alike, giving us an up-close-and-personal look at a bygone era as well as one of the greatest films noir of all time.

The real star of “The Naked City” – The big Apple circa 1947

 

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.

Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

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Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

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McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

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Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

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Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

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LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!

 

 

 

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

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The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

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But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

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There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

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The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

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KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!

A Bout De Souffle: Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (Universal-International 1949)

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CRISS CROSS hits you like a sucker punch to the gut, delivered hard and swift, followed by a non-stop pummeling that doesn’t let up until the final, fatal shot. Things kick right in as we find clandestine lovers Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee going at it hot’n’heavy in a nightclub parking lot. They go inside, and Steve gets into it with Anna’s husband, the gangster Slim Dundee, who pulls a knife, but the fight’s interrupted by Lt. Pete Rameriz, Steve’s boyhood pal. What Pete doesn’t know is the fight was staged for his benefit: Steve is the inside man on a planned armored car heist Dundee’s gang is pulling off.

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Flashbacks tell us how Steve got here: he was once married to Anna, and after the volatile couple divorced left L.A., drifting across country picking up odd jobs along the way. Returning to the City of Angels, he finds himself drawn back to their old hangout, hoping to run into the woman that still haunts his dreams. He spots her doing the rhumba on the dance floor, they talk, then Dundee drops by, her latest beau. After getting his old job back with the armored car company, Steve still pines for Anna. The bartender at “their” place gives him bad news: Anna has wed Dundee, and they’ve taken off for Yuma.

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The star-crossed Steve and Anna meet at Union Station, and she blasts him, saying everyone from his mother to Pete warned her to stay away from Steve, so she wed Dundee in haste. She shows him bruises and welts left by her new hubby, and Steve gets drunk as a skunk, confronted by Pete at the bar. They continue to see each other on the QT, and when Dundee and his boys catch them, Steve swerves the hoods by saying he can set up an armored car job and make everybody rich.

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The robbery is meticulously planned, and now we’re back to the present: Steve is driving the truck with the oil refinery payroll, there’s an explosion from a manhole, and Dundee’s gang tosses teargas to cover their tracks. Things then take a wrong turn as Steve’s partner is killed, and a shootout leaves both Steve and Dundee wounded, the money gone with Anna, and deadly repercussions…

To give away anymore would spoil one of the best damn noir flicks I’ve seen in awhile, so you’ll have to watch this one yourselves. In fact, you owe it to yourselves to see this cynical masterpiece from director Robert Siodmak , pulling out all the stops to bring his dark vision to the screen. Producer Mark Hellinger died before the cameras started to roll, so Siodmak had no restraints, and this is his finest hour, creating the quintessential noir complete with doomed characters, moody camerawork (by DP Franz Planer), and a sense of paranoia marked by people who know, despite everything, no one here gets out alive.

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Burt Lancaster’s Steve is a man whose fatal attraction slides him quickly downhill; he knows deep down Anna’s no good, but wants her anyway. Yvonne DeCarlo steals the show as Anna, the femme fatale that brings everyone around her down to her depths. The marvelous Dan Duryea (Slim) tones it down, bringing a quietly menacing presence to his role. Stephen McNally tries to be the voice of reason as Pete, warning Steve to steer clear of these unsavory characters. Even the minor roles deserve recognition: Tom Pedi stands out as a hood with his catchphrase “That’s the ticket”, Alan Napier shines as an elderly criminal mastermind with an unquenchable thirst, Percy Helton makes the most out of his bartender role, and Joan Miller adds to the atmosphere as a barfly. Familiar Faces pop up throughout the film: Richard Long , Meg Randall, John Doucette, Gene Evans, Vito Scotti, Charles Wagenheim, and Bud Wolfe. The young man doing the rhumba with DeCarlo early on is Tony Curtis, making his film debut.

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All this aided by a superb Mikos Rozsa score (with Esy Morales and His Orchestra providing the rhumba rhythms) add up to make CRISS CROSS a shadowy tour de force from all concerned. This is cinematic dynamite you don’t want to miss, a devilishly good time for fans of pessimistic pictures that will leave you breathless. Highly recommended!

Diluted Noir: Robert Mitchum in THE RACKET (RKO 1951)

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A solid film noir cast headed by Robert Mitchum Robert Ryan , and Lizabeth Scott ; and a lineage that dates back to both a Broadway smash and an Oscar-nominated original can’t save THE RACKET from rising above minor status. Once again, tinkering behind the scenes by RKO honcho Howard Hughes, this time under pressure from Hollywood censorship czar Joseph I. Breen, scuttles a promising premise that coulda been a contender into an average movie.

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City crime boss Nick Scanlon is an old-school hood whose violent ways don’t jibe with the modern-day syndicate. Capt. Thomas McQuigg, “an honest cop” who’s a no-nonsense guy, is determined to take him down. But the city’s rife with tainted politicians, making McQuigg’s job that much harder. Scanlon’s got a headstrong kid brother named Joe dating a “cheap canary” named Irene, and McQuigg plans on using him to get to Nick. Add a crooked DA, a virtuous young cop on the rise, a newspaper reporter, and a detective on the take, and you’ve got a recipe for slam-bang gangland entertainment.

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Not so fast! Breen objected to several plot points, including Irene’s profession (she was supposed to be a hooker), some of the more violent aspects, and the fact that the bent detective gets away with murder. He called the film “a new low in crime screen stories” and “thoroughly and completely uacceptable within the provisions of the Production Code” (source: American Film Institute). Hughes and his producer Edmond Grainger made extensive changes, turning Irene into a nightclub singer, cutting out some violence, and making sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Sam Fuller was brought in to doctor the script, and Nicholas Ray, Tay Garnett, and Grainger himself reshot some scenes. The result is an average crime drama that, while still retaining some power, fails to rise above it’s restraints imposed by the Code.

Director John Cromwell and the stars of "The Racket"
Director John Cromwell and the stars of “The Racket”

Director John Cromwell had starred in the original 1927 Broadway production as McQuigg, along with a promising young actor named Edward G. Robinson. He knew the material better than anyone associated with this version, and must’ve been supremely disappointed at what they did with his film (Cromwell was soon to be blacklisted by the odious HUAC Commie hunters). William Wister Haines and W.R. Burnett’s tough-talking script was taken out of their hands and sanitized (Burnett also knew this territory, having penned the screenplays for LITTLE CAESAR, THE BEAST OF THE CITY , and SCARFACE). DP George Diskant’s camerawork retains some flashes of his brilliance, but nowhere near his work in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT or KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

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The performances by leads Mitchum and Ryan still hold up, with Ryan particulary brutal as the ruthless Nick. Scott’s role was changed so much it seems like she lost interest in it halfway through. William Talman is a good guy for once as the honest young cop who looks up to McQuigg, paying for it with his life. Ray Collins as the D.A in the pocket of the syndicate shines, as does William Conrad as the detective who acts as enforcer for the gangsters. The film’s loaded with Familiar Faces, including Robert Hutton as the reporter smitten with Irene, and Don Beddoe , Brett King, Harry Lauter, Eddie Parker, Don Porter , Walter Sande, Milburn Stone , Les Tremayne, and Herb Vigran .

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THE RACKET is okay for what it is, but when I think about what it could have been, I just shake my head. The early Fifties were a time of extreme paranoia in Hollywood, with both the censors and the Communist witch hunters clamping down on anything that didn’t jibe with their party line, making them just as bad as the other side. I haven’t seen the rarely-screened 1928 silent version (which lost the Oscar to WINGS), so I can’t really compare the two. What we’re left with is a film that’s like drinking a shot of watered-down booze; unsatisfying and in need of a stronger kick. If there’s any “classic” film in desperate need of a remake, this would be it. Are you listening, Hollywood?