Cast & Crew
In London, at the end of World War II, Lt. Lawrence Gerard, a distinguished pilot and ex-prisoner of war, is discharged from the RCAF and applies for a passport to France to settle the estate of his French bride, a victim of the war. Told that he must wait for the issuance of a passport, the determined Gerard rows a boat across the English Channel to France. Once ashore, he goes to the office of his father-in-law, M. Rougon, the local prefect, and demands to know how his wife, Celeste, died. When Rougon replies that Celeste was one of fifty patriots ordered executed by Marcel Jarnac, an official of the Vichy government, Gerard becomes overwrought and swears revenge on Jarnac. Rougon explains that although Jarnac has been declared dead, he believes that the man is still alive because no one has ever seen his face, and therefore he cannot be identified. Rougon sends Gerard to a police station in Marseilles, and while he is there, a call comes in that the police have Jarnac cornered in a house in a nearby village. By the time Gerard and the others arrive, however, all that survives of the village is the charred remains of a house. In the rubble, Gerard finds the title page of a dossier on Jarnac and an envelope addressed to Madame Madeleine Jarnac from an insurance company in Berne, Switzerland. Posing as a friend of Mme. Jarnac, Gerard travels to Berne and presents himself at the office of the insurance company. Although the company refuses to divulge Mme. Jarnac's whereabouts, they provide Gerard with an address that will forward her mail. After stealing some stationery from the office, Gerard writes to Mme. Jarnac and then goes to the mailbox to retrieve the envelope with her forwarding address written on it. The address is in Buenos Aires, and so Gerard flies to Argentina and is greeted at the airport by the portly Melchior Incza, who calls him Stephen Gerard and offers his services as a professional guide. Replying that his name is not Stephen, Gerard rejects Incza's offer and registers at his hotel. Gerard is looking up the phone numbers of Madeleine Jarnac and Tomas Camargo when Incza knocks on his door and invites him to a party at the Camargos' that night. Intrigued, Gerard accepts, and at the party he meets Perchon, a Belguim banker; Tomas Carmargo, a wealthy industrialist and his wife; and Mme. Jarnac. When Gerard introduces himself as a representative of her insurance company, Mme. Jarnac presents him to Ernest Dubois, the company's real representative. Upon returning home that night, Mme. Jarnac finds Gerard waiting to question her. After she insists that her husband was killed in 1943, Gerard condemns her for being a collaborator and begins following her. Tailing her to a restaurant one day, Gerard is joined by Manuel Santana, the uncle of Tomas Camargo, who asks him to leave Mme. Jarnac alone. As Gerard accuses Santana and Camargo of being fascists, Mme. Jarnac slips out of the restaurant. Upon returning to his hotel room Gerard is met by Incza, who admits that he was hired to meet him at the airport and offers to take him to Mme. Jarnac. Incza and Gerard drive to a convent just as Mme. Jarnac exists through a side door. She agrees to meet him at his hotel lobby later that night, but when she fails to appear, Gerard goes to his room and finds Diego, a hotel valet, turning down his bed. Diego hands him a sealed note from Mme. Jarnac, informing him that Jarnac is using the name Ernest Dubois and can be found at a house on Avenida Republica. Proceeding to the address, Gerard breaks down the door and is about to shoot Dubois when he is struck from behind and knocked unconscious. He awakens at Santana's house and finds Diego, Dubois and Santana there. After examining the note, Diego announces that it was not written by Mme. Jarnac and discloses that they are working to unmask Jarnac and expose his connection to Camargo and his group of fascists. Warning that only hard evidence and not vengeance can bring Jarnac to justice, Santana asks for Gerard's cooperation. From Santana's house Gerard goes to see Mme. Jarnac, but when he finds that her rooms have been ransacked, he returns to his hotel and calls Incza. After singeing a stack of blank papers, Gerard places the page that he found in the rubble on top and tells Incza that he has a dossier on Jarnac that implicates Camargo in his crimes. Handing Incza the title page of the document, Gerard says that he plans to lock the rest in the hotel safe and instructs Incza to tell Camargo that he will expose his treachery unless he turns over Jarnac. Later that night, Mme. Jarnac calls Gerard and instructs him to meet her at a train station. As the trains rumble past, she admits that she has never met Jarnac and only agreed to marry him in exchange for money so that she could leave France with her sickly sister, a patient at the convent. Mme. Jarnac begs for Gerard's help to escape Jarnac's web of intrigue, but he refuses to believe her story, and follows her to the hotel in which she is hiding. When he returns to his hotel room, Gerard find Incza, who directs him to the Camargos' hotel suite. While Mrs. Camargo tries to seduce Gerard in her suite, Incza breaks into the hotel safe, seeking the dossier. Discovering that it is not in the safe, Incza begins to search Gerard's room but his interrupted by Diego. Incza demands that Diego produce the papers, and when the valet refuses, Incza shoots him. Gerard is arrested for Diego's murder, but Santana has the charges dropped for lack of evidence. Because his passport is not in order, however, Gerard is ordered to leave the country in forty-eight hours. When Incza tells Gerard that Jarnac is in town and suggests that Mme. Jarnac might know where his office is, Gerard visits her. After informing Gerard that her sister has died and that Santana has agreed to help her leave the country, Mme. Jarnac remembers the name of a waterfront café used by Jarnac and Camrago as a meeting place. With time running out, Gerard goes to the café and is greeted by Camargo and Perchon, the Belgium banker. As Jarnac begins to speak from the shadows, Perchon knocks Gerard unconscious. Soon after Gerard regains consciousness, Incza arrives, and when he is unable to produce the dossier, Jarnac shoots him, obliterating his face with gunshots. When Jarnac orders Camargo to identify the body of Incza as Jarnac and tell the police that Gerard and Jarnac killed each other, Camargo objects, and the two men begin to argue. In the chaos, Gerard attacks Jarnac and begins to beat him and Camrago runs away. As Gerard pummels Jarnac, Santana and Dubois arrive at the café and restrain him. After pronouncing Jarnac dead, Santana believes that he has failed in his quest to expose the fascists until Gerard pulls a set of documents from Jarnac's pocket. Mme. Jarnac then enters the room, and after Santana examines the documents, he announces that they contain proof that Jarnac controlled the industries owned by Camargo. With the evidence against the collaborators in Santana's hands, Mme. Jarnac and Gerard have redeemed themselves, and Santana vows to exonerate Gerard of Jarnac's murder and convict the collaborators.
Jean Del Val
Simone La Brousse
Jerry De Castro
Carl De Loro
Rod De Medici
Gloria De Guarda
Albert S. D'agostino
Richard Van Hessen
Harry J. Wild
The story for Cornered was loosely derived from a twenty page treatment by veteran Hollywood scribe Ben Hecht. Director Edward Dmytryk suspected one of Hecht's collaborators as being the true author of the outline while Hecht most likely pocketed the bulk of the $50,000 payment for merely providing the title and little more. Regardless, Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott deemed the treatment to be unusable and brought on other writers to rework the screenplay, while maintaining the basic premise.
Scott immediately hired the author of The Last Mile and his original choice from the beginning, writer John Wexley. A hard line Communist Party member, Wexley gave the dialogue a distinctly socialist stance, thinly disguised as antifascist drama, much to the chagrin of Dmytryk and Scott. While they too had ties to the Communist Party, Dmytryk and Scott did not want to weigh down the drama with party-approved rhetoric. Wexley was soon relieved of duty, and John Paxton was hired to tone down the Communist propaganda and punch up the antifascist angle, while adding more action and tightening up the pace of the story.
Prior to the filming of Cornered, Dmytryk flew to Buenos Aires to research the town and to consider possible exterior shooting there. He quickly learned that Evita Peron, wife of Argentina military dictator Juan Peron, had confiscated all available film negative for her own film productions. "In time," he noted in his biography It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living, "the script of Cornered was completed, and a cast was assembled....My script girl, Ellen Corby, played a tiny bit in the film. Like most contrived pictures, it was not completely satisfactory, though the last reel and a half is a first-class example of what suspense ought to be and nearly makes the whole effort worthwhile. Though not in the same class as Murder, My Sweet , the film grossed more money because the exhibitors were now completely aware of Dick Powell's new image and had all climbed on the bandwagon."
Shortly before Cornered was to be released, Wexley summoned Dmytryk and Scott to a Communist cell meeting where he lambasted them for erasing the Party lines from the film and then demanded their removal from the Red ranks. In effect, Wexley and the Party faithful were upbraiding Dmytryk and Scott for practicing creative freedom. According to Dmytryk, this incident led to him quitting the Communist Party in Hollywood.
Despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil, Cornered proved to be a bigger box office success than Dmytryk's first and previous collaboration with Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet. Robert Porfirio in an essay on the film in Film Noir noted that "Although Dmytryk does not embellish Cornered with all the expressionistic devices of Murder, My Sweet, the film has more graphic ingenuity than the average postwar thriller. In it, Dick Powell achieves his finest delineation of the tough guy, adept enough at quick action and cynical dialogue but romantic enough to cry at the memory of his lost wife."
Producer: Adrian Scott
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: John Paxton, John Wexley
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Film Editing: Joseph Noriega
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Roy Webb, Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dick Powell (Gerard), Walter Slezak (Incza), Nina Vale (Senora Camargo), Micheline Cheirel (Mme. Jarnac), Morris Carnovsky (Santana), Edgar Barrier (DuBois).
BW-103m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee
All Eight Timeless Suspense Thrillers Are Featured in The Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5
The changing DVD market takes the blame for the absence of the lavish extras that graced earlier Warners noir volumes, and I'll miss listening to the illuminating commentaries by committed experts like Alain Silver, James Ursini and Eddie Muller. But I have to say that some of the featurettes were beginning to get stale anyway -- how many times can we watch yet another earnest face tell us about dark corners and the influence of German Expressionism? Viewers intrigued by the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5 won't have to search the bookstore racks very long to learn more about these exotic crime and mystery pictures.
1945's Cornered followed closely on the heels of Dick Powell's second career breakthrough Murder, My Sweet, his impressive transformation from rosy-cheeked Busby Berkeley crooner to one of noir's most conflicted tough guys. This time around Powell is Canadian Laurence Gerard, an RCAF flyer seeking vengeance against the murderer of his French wife of only twenty days. Gerard tracks the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac all the way to Argentina, only to find himself surrounded by shady French expatriates and characters like Melchior Incza, a sleazy agent for hire who dodges questions about his national origin. Dispensing cynical asides, Gerard hounds Jarnac's widow (Micheline Cheirel) and encounters a group of agents also dedicated to catching the war criminal Jarnac. The villains almost trick Laurence into killing an innocent man. Gerard's inner rage shows itself in brief episodes of psychic stress, an instability that aligns him firmly to the noir sensibility, immediately post-war.
Cornered is the kind of film that would be used as evidence of disloyalty, when the HUAC witch hunters went after writers John Paxton and John Wexley and director Edward Dmytryk. Producer Adrian Scott would later be imprisoned as one of the Hollywood Ten, never again to work on a feature film. After producing plenty of anti-Fascist, pro-Soviet movies during the war, Hollywood's agenda abruptly reversed polarity. The filmic suggestion that Axis war criminals were slipping through the fingers of post-war justice was regarded as subversive propaganda. Various heroes would of course continue to confront escaped Nazis, etc., but rarely would the political emphasis be as pronounced as in this picture, which suggests that escaped, unregenerate Fascists are everywhere.
Director Dmytryk did his best work in this period. The show also benefits from top RKO production values and a house style that shows the influence of Val Lewton's mysterioso lighting, especially in the Buenos Aires night exteriors. Much of the cast is unfamiliar. Micheline Cheirel (of Jacques Feyder's Carnival in Flanders) is a black widow with a complicated story to tell. The obscure actress Nina Vale (disc cover, top left) makes a convincingly imperious femme fatale. She fails to seduce the wary Gerard, who regards her with a contemptuous exit line: "Tell your husband I dropped around but I couldn't wait. I got bored".
Favorite Walter Slezak has the most colorful role as an unwelcome partner who might sell out Gerard at any moment. Classic noir villain Luther Adler makes a brief but impressive appearance, and is awarded with a credit card of his own.
If Cornered has a fault, it's a plot that quickly gets murky if one doesn't pay close attention. The biggest reward comes from Gerard's unending string of cynical cracks. Señora Camargo: "Shall I be honest?" Gerard: "Don't strain yourself". As the traumatized Gerard is at any moment liable to explode into violence, his remarks aren't casual asides. A Belgian asks Gerard if he's visited his country, and Gerard answers, "No, but I flew over it. It looked pretty shot up."
Warner's print of Cornered is in good shape but some of the audio is a bit distorted, mostly at the beginning. It's very likely that prime transfer sources no longer exist for this nitrate-era RKO picture, as it was popular enough to enjoy more than one reissue.
Art rears its fuzzy head in 1946's Deadline at Dawn, a one-time film directing fling for the lofty New York stage director and critic Harold Clurman, who brings to RKO both the spirit and key personnel from The Group Theater. Another production effort by Adrian Scott, Deadline at Dawn reunites Clurman with playwright Clifford Odets, who had written and directed his own RKO picture, 1944's None But the Lonely Heart. Even after ejecting Orson Welles and declaring that they would emphasize "Showmanship in Place of Genius", RKO continued to distribute non-commercial 'art' pictures, like the Dudley Nichols/Eugene O'Neill Mourning Becomes Electra.
Deadline at Dawn is an exceedingly well-directed noir infused with the proletarian spirit of progressive 30's theater. Some may consider its stylized dialogue a literary conceit, and conclude that its author is patronizing the working class. Taking place entirely between 2 and 6 a.m. on a hot New York night, Odets adapts Cornell Woolrich's original story to take in a cross section of Manhattanites embroiled in a strange search for a mystery murderer.
The narrative gathers characters like a snowball. Naíve sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams) passes out in the apartment of Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) and later discovers that she's been murdered. Alex is so vulnerable and guileless that he charms June Goth (Susan Hayward), a tough dance hall girl, into helping him clear his name so he can rejoin his ship at dawn. Joining their investigation is Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), a sympathetic, philosophical cabbie. The trio encounters a host of nocturnal wanderers. Edna's brother Val (Joseph Calleia) is a dangerous gangster. Mystery blonde Helen Robinson (Osa Massen of Rocketship X-M) seems unconnected to the murdered woman. Alex chases down a "nervous" man running with a large box (Roman Bohnen). Lester Brady (Jerome Cowan) is a stage producer connected to the murder victim by a bounced check. June is harassed by an odd little man who won't take his gloves off (Steven Geray). An alcoholic baseball star (Joe Sawyer) shouts at Edna's apartment window, begging her to give him a bottle.
This parade of interesting personalities becomes more interesting through Clifford Odet's odd, poetic approach to dialogue -- Odets would later write The Big Knife and have a hand in the even more stylized Sweet Smell of Success. Gus continually spills nuggets of philosophy. Alex speaks a mix of bad grammar and $10 syntax whoppers like, "... a girl of whom I cared a great deal." June says rather ornate lines: "It's all right to live in a cocoon if you hope to be a butterfly someday." "Time is on the wing, Gus. Don't waste it." A random cabbie comes up with the observation, "I work. I'm just a parasite on parasites." The tough Val shoves a woman to the floor with the words, "That's all the love I'm giving away this morning", and follows it up with "People with wax heads should stay out of the sun."
Some of these odd lines seem halfway to the Kerouac "beat" ethic. At two separate awkward moments, June suddenly recites the words "I hear the whistle blowing", as if she were performing to an espresso crowd. Alex's lack of experience shows in the way he hangs onto his portable radio, no matter how desperate things get. As instant character shorthand, the radio roughly corresponds to the floppy doggy purse dragged around by Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running.
Filmed entirely on the RKO city lot, Deadline at Dawn is given a superb look by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. The evocative music score is by Hanns Eisler, who would soon flee back to East Germany when HUAC came after him. For all of its artifice and stage calculation, Deadline builds a touching romance between a tough girl and her sweet sailor, and comes off as very affecting. The pervasive feeling of lost souls drifting in an amoral night world keeps the show in noir territory.
Deadline at Dawn is in fantastic shape, audio and visual-wise. Many two-shots, particularly when the youthful Susan Hayward is pictured, are stunning works of art.
Director Anthony Mann worked his way to the big time from near the bottom of the heap. His career finally caught fire at the tiny Eagle-Lion studio with the innovative T-Men and Raw Deal, but immediately previous to that he turned out a pair of creative noirs at RKO. The better of the two is Desperate, a movie so skillfully directed that its comparatively low budget never becomes an issue. The no-star cast is headed by Steve Brodie, an actor mainly known for westerns and immortalized as Robert Mitchum's detective partner in Out of the Past. Mann's evocative direction, aided by George Diskant's raw cinematography, produces a steady string of iconic images: hulking criminals lit by swinging light sources; a fist and a broken bottle thrust at the camera.
HUAC friendly witness Harry Essex's screenplay is no winner either. Newlywed veteran Steve Randall (Brodie) is tricked into driving a truck for a warehouse robbery that goes bad. Crook Walt Radak (Raymond Burr) threatens to kill Randall's pregnant wife Anne (Audrey Long) if Steve won't take the rap for Radak's brother Al, who was captured in the heist. A cop was killed, and Radak is determined to see his brother go free.
In between startling bits of threatened violence, director Mann plays out a rather glamorized version of the "young lovers on the run" plot. Steve Randall and his sweet wife should run straight to the cops and take their chances, but he's determined to first get Anne safely to her aunt's farm. Events conspire to make it "necessary" for Steve to steal two cars and leave a rural sheriff unconscious by the side of the road. Pessimistic noir themes surface when the fugitives ditch a train because Steve becomes convinced he's been spotted; and when a venal used car salesman gets Steve to fix a broken-down jalopy and then refuses to sell it to him. Frankly, the crazy events that complicate Steve and Anne's situation seem a screenwriting substitute for the real reason "ordinary folks" might not run to the local cops: It's always possible that they're in cahoots with the local crooks.
Anthony Mann's sure hand maintains a high level of tension. Raymond Burr is excellent as the moody gangster, with Freddie Steele and Douglas Fowley making good impressions as a dumb thug and a slippery detective. Jason Robards Sr.'s police detective initially seems wholly cynical, but eventually becomes the Best Friend of the Unjustly Accused. The underlying message is that American Law can be trusted. Also, the ethnic names given to the slimiest villains (Radek, Lavitch) are offset by an immigrant-friendly Czech wedding ceremony, complete with folk dancing. Yet Steve Randall's hopeless plight makes Desperate a mainstream noir.
Desperate must have been the recipient of a recent re-master, as both picture and sound are nearly perfect. The clean, clear images pop off the screen. Paul Sawtell's dramatic music is felt strongly in director Mann's more expressive passages, such as a montage of extreme close-ups when Radek counts off the minutes to a murder.
1950's Backfire was advertised as a follow-up to White Heat, when it was actually filmed and completed two years earlier. Star Gordon MacRae would later make a big splash in Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations, but Backfire didn't set Hollywood on fire for the popular radio and big band singer.
The story is awkward at best. Three years after the war, tank corps soldiers Bob Corey and Steve Connolly (Gordon MacRae & Edmond O'Brien) are still waiting for Bob's back injuries to heal so he can be released from the Veteran's Hospital. Nurse Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo) has fallen in love with Bob; the plan is that they will all become ranchers. But Connolly disappears, and is suspected in the murder of a high-rolling gambler (Richard Rober). Barely out of his bed, Bob tries to solve the case on his own. Nobody in the hospital believes that Bob had a mystery visitor on Christmas Eve, a woman named Lysa (Viveca Lindfors) who told him that Steve was in terrible trouble.
Films noir are prone to odd contrivances and coincidences but Backfire doesn't make any more sense than its title. Flashback episodes only make the story seem more confusing. Edmond O'Brien's Steve may or may not regress to a pre-war "crooked" personality after a blow on the head. And a main character's disappearance is explained away by introducing a second severe back injury into the mix. It's fairly laughable when this crippled man, strapped into a neck brace, wins a wrestling match.
Likeable Gordon MacRae comes off well enough but does very little with his hazy character. Edmond O'Brien's time on-screen is limited and Virginia Mayo (more beautiful than ever) has little connection to the film's key action -- the script may have been rigged to require a minimum of their services. That leaves us with Warners contract players and star hopefuls that didn't pan out: Dane Clark, Viveca Lindfors, Richard Rober. The beautiful Lindfors is once again made to look downright ugly through odd makeup choices, and Dane Clark's transformation into a jealous madman doesn't come off well at all. A strong leading man might have held Backfire together, but it really looks as if director Vincent Sherman got stuck with a lemon.
Backfire takes place in Los Angeles but manages to avoid interesting locations. Gordon's wife Sheila MacRae has a nice scene as a murder victim in a Hollywood court apartment building. The murder of the shady gambler appears to be modeled on the then-recent slaying of mobster Bugsy Siegel, who was gunned down while reading the paper in his own living room.
Warners' transfer of Backfire is again flawless in picture and sound --- this one may not have been out of the vault since it was released.
TCM has given Armored Car Robbery a separate review here.
1950's Dial 1119 is a low-budget MGM picture that resembles a one-act play expanded to short feature length. With economic pressures coming down hard on the studios, the expense of something like An American in Paris had to be balanced by making other studio producers come up with something for nothing. Thus we have Dial 1119, a taut little suspense item that uses only a couple of sets and utilizes the services of contractees already on the payroll.
The show also resembles a typical live TV production from a few years later, the kind that garnered attention for the likes of James Dean. Clean-cut young mental patient Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) comes to Terminal City to kill Dr. Faron (Sam Levene), the psychologist who saved him from the electric chair on a plea of insanity. Gunther kills a bus driver and holes up in a bar, committing a second murder and taking five patrons hostage. They include a man whose wife is having a baby (Keefe Brasselle), a bothersome barfly (Virginia Field), a slimy Lothario (MGM stalwart Leon Ames) and the young woman he's talked into a weekend fling (Andrea King of Red Planet Mars). Down in the street, police captain Keiver (Richard Rober) holds back the crowd and sends a police sniper into an air duct to pick off Gunther. The deranged young man insists that he's going to kill everyone in the bar.
Dial 1119 was probably quite novel when it was new. Marshall Thompson is no James Dean, and is just okay as the "unmotivated" killer. Gunther is eventually revealed to be driven by feelings of inadequacy -- he was 4F in the big war and has constructed a personal fantasy that he's a mistreated veteran. First-time feature director Gerald Mayer is (surprise!) Louis B.'s nephew. The competently shot film is also unusually violent for an MGM product -- Gunther Wyckoff guns down four people with a .45 pistol, three of them point-blank. His last target is equally a victim of the Production Code -- as soon as Gunther pulls the trigger, the camera cuts away from the presumably bloody corpse and never shows him again. We almost expect the character to pop up in the next scene, saying, "I'm glad I dodged that one!"
Dial 1119's script reserves some nasty criticism for TV. The has a large projection set, and the bartender (familiar face William Conrad) curses its bad reception and stupid programming. The live TV truck that covers the siege almost gives away the police strategy, as in Die Hard 38 years later. The TV reporter promotes panic among the bystanders to make the "show" more exciting.
Ten years earlier Marshall Thompson might have been given a big buildup like Van Johnson, but the collapse of the contract system sent him and most of the other players on to the less glamorous world of Television. Sam Levene, the star of Broadway's Guys and Dolls was probably the celebrity on the set. The interesting Richard Rober was building a solid foundation for a starring career when he was killed in an auto accident two years later.
The established classic in this collection is Phil Karlson's 1955 The Phenix City Story, a searing, sordid real-life exposé of a "Sin City" taken over by corruption and vice. The movie is alarmingly topical. The story of Phenix City, Alabama was indeed covered in pictorial spreads in major magazines, and the Columbus Ledger won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the assassination of political candidate Albert J. Patterson.
Crane Wilbur and Daniel Mainwaring's screenplay portrays a sleepy Southern town's domination by mobsters as an affront to everything Americans hold dear. Army lawyer John Patterson (Richard Kiley) returns from prosecuting at the Nuremburg trials to find his hometown in desperate straits. Phenix City is right across the river from Georgia's Fort Benning, and its notorious 14th street, overseen by the venal Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) have locked up the illegal profits from crooked gambling and prostitution. The "fix" is in with the local police and courts, so that Tanner's crime lords can murder with impunity. Honest citizens are beaten in the streets for trying to vote against the Mob candidates. A Soviet propaganda movie couldn't paint a more ugly picture.
While his wife screams in protest, John sticks his neck out and goes to war against the Tanner mob, with the help of Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant). She's a card dealer at Tanner's Poppy Club, a dive run by a tough lesbian. Ellie gives John inside information because Tanner's thug Clem Wilson (John Larch) murdered her fiancé. John's dad Albert (John McIntire) is an elder statesman determined to let things alone until the escalating violence motivates him to run for state attorney general. While the Pattersons hope to rally support outside of the county, Rhett Tanner's men prepare a deadly ambush.
Noone who has seen The Phenix City Story will forget moments stronger than any in horror movies of the time. One scene involving violence toward a child is almost obscene in its impact. Ellie rushes to an emergency room to find out what's happened to her boyfriend, only to be asked, "Where do you want the body sent?" A voter beaten by thugs spits blood against a wall, and assassins blast down a defenseless old man on a warm Alabama evening. After a night of vigilante violence, the U.S. Army moves in and enforces martial law.
Our reaction is outrage, which is exactly what the makers of The Phenix City Story want. But the outrage is very selective, especially considering that these were the years of the Civil Rights movement. Although almost no blacks appear, a bayou confrontation featuring the Poppy Club's janitor (James Edwards) plays up the racial element, along with a church theme perhaps added to mollify the Production Code censors. The movie preaches restraint "Don't resort to violence... that will make us just like them." Just the same, by the end of the movie we're ready to take up arms, annihilate small-town gangsters and their mouth-breathing goon killers, and start waving the flag.
The movie emphasizes its own topicality. The real "Ma Beachie" appears in a bit with Edward Andrews; she owned a strip club with gambling and liquor. Always cut for TV screenings, Warners' presentation restores an original twelve-minute prologue with Clete Roberts conducting man-in-the-street interviews during the subsequent trial. The "good" residents of Phenix City fear that the crooks will escape justice and take reprisals. An epilogue adds a direct address by Richard Kiley, still in character as John Patterson, announcing that he'll run for office in his father's place and clean up the corruption forever.
Anybody with a brain should be able to surmise that Phenix City stayed crooked because bigger powers wanted it crooked. Nobody asks the General in charge of Ft. Benning why places like the Poppy Club weren't put off limits, as was routine for clip joints and trouble spots around other Army bases. (General George Patton was quoted in 1940 that he wanted to "level the town.") The Phenix City Story also doesn't admit that low-key corruption was common in many, many American towns. Before his brave stand as a reformer, the real Albert Patterson had once been a candidate for the syndicate mobsters. What's more, John Patterson used the movie in his subsequent political campaigns, replacing actor Kiley's end speech with one by himself. John Patterson defeated a young George Wallace in a run for Governor, but was likewise a segregationist with backing from the Klan.
Yet The Phenix City Story at least condemns vigilantism, an evil that is celebrated in Phil Karlson's much later film Walking Tall, starring Joe Don Baker. Almost a replay of the same plot, Walking Tall uses the same combination of exploitation and moral outrage. The violent story of Buford Pusser and his ax-handle vigilantism solidly endorses Fascist values dressed up in rural "morality".
Warners' transfer of this Allied Artists film is an excellent enhanced widescreen presentation that adds much to the film's impact. The movie starts with a cooch dancer singing a song called "Fancy women, slot machines and booze", and ends with a newsreel montage of the Army destroying rigged slot machines and card tables. I imagine that theater owners in 1955 might have thought to keep small children out of Phil Karlson's violent shock-fest -- it's very disturbing.
Recommended factual reading: Jack Culpepper's Phenix City series from the Shelbyville, Tennessee Times-Gazette (2005).
The prevailing wisdom is that a number of factors broke up the "noir style". By the late 1950s the place to look for private eyes stalking dark streets were shows like TV's Peter Gunn. 1956's Crime in the Streets began life the year before as a TV drama directed by Sidney Lumet. Besides the remarkable young actor John Cassavetes, actor Mark Rydell was carried over from the TV play, along with Will Kuluva as a candy shop owner. Robert Preston and Glenda Farrell were replaced by James Whitmore and Virginia Gregg.
Crime in the Streets is hard-core 50s liberal theater, and not really film noir. Social worker Ben Wagner (Whitmore) can't get through to the almost psychotic leader of the Hornets gang, Frankie Dane (Cassavetes), who becomes obsessed with "getting back" at life by murdering a neighbor in his tenement. The socially progressive thesis is that loving understanding is the only hope for tough kids.
There's little or no doubt that Crime in the Streets had a strong influence on Arthur Laurents' play West Side Story. The situation is identical, with a gang of vaguely Italian-American punks misbehaving on the sidewalks and hanging out at a candy store. The owner's sweet daughter is even named Maria. Director Don Siegel's staging of the opening rumble is very much like the eventual movie battle between the Jets and the Sharks. The boys enter by climbing over fences, and the action cutting is similar. They even wield similar clubs and bats. What's more, Laurents & Co. hired actor David Winters straight from the Crime in the Streets TV show to act in their Broadway musical.
The compressed story sees Frankie Dane's gang deserting him after he decides to murder Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury, the man at the prairie bus stop in North by Northwest). But the perverse Lou Macklin (Mark Rydell) volunteers to help Frankie, and Frankie intimidates the impressionable young Angelo (Sal Mineo) into posing as bait for their victim. Frankie promises to stop calling Angelo "Baby" after he proves his manhood. Social worker Ben Wagner (James Whitmore) gets wind of the scheme from Frankie's frightened little brother Richie (Peter Votrian).
Crime in the Streets comes with the expected position speeches about bad and good kids (also familiar from West Side Story) but builds to some very powerful emotions. John Cassavetes is excellent as the disturbed malcontent, who can't stand to be touched and rejects every form of sympathy or communication. Writer Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men, Man of the West) made his reputation here as one of the top talents of the Golden Age of Television. There are plenty of dated "social comment" plays from this time, but this is one of the good ones.
Director Don Siegel was on a major roll with solid mid-range hits in Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Lineup. Although he adjusts his style for this dramatic format, Siegel employs a violent montage for the titles and graces many scenes with long takes on a moving crane. His camera moves quite a lot, but never draws attention to itself. Siegel handles the melodramatic finish beautifully, eliciting strong emotions from Frankie Dane's final encounter with his little brother. Little Peter Votrian is every bit as good an actor as Cassavetes. He's 14 years old but easily passes for ten.
Crime in the Streets looks particularly good in Warners' enhanced widescreen transfer, which has only a bit of dirt and one rough frame in 91 minutes. The cropped 1:85 transfer really helps focus the drama, which played far too loose on old, flat TV prints. This may not be a real film noir, but it's the very best of the juvenile delinquency epics from the rock 'n' roll era: not as slick as Rebel Without a Cause, perhaps, but not as overcooked, either.
Warners Home Video's DVD of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5 is a knockout, with off-the-beaten path noir gems and a couple of oddball titles thrown in for variety. Cornered, Desperate, The Phenix City Story, Deadline at Dawn, Armored Car Robbery and Crime in the Streets are so good that we don't miss the extras of earlier Warners noir volumes. It's been two years since the last collection, and now that the rough times of the recession are receding the series can perhaps continue on a more regular basis.
For more information about Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5, visit Warner Video. To order Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
All Eight Timeless Suspense Thrillers Are Featured in The Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5
The credit for Luther Adler, who played the role of "Marcel Jarnac," was not presented until the end of the film in order to keep Jarnac's identity secret. According to a September 1944 pre-production news item in Hollywood Reporter, RKO purchased a treatment titled "Cornered," written by Ben Hecht, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Czenzi Ormandi and assigned it to Adrian Scott to produce. (A modern source claims, however, that Hecht wrote the original "Cornered" treatment by himself and told the story of a Canadian prisoner-of-war who learns that his wife has died at the hands of French collaborators and follows the man responsible to Buenos Aires, which is essentially the same story we see onscreen.) Story materials contained in the RKO Archives Script Files at the UCLA Library Arts Special Collections include an August 1944 treatment entitled "Cornered," written by Hecht, Mankiewicz and Ormandi. That treatment outlines a far different story line from the one quoted by the modern source. The August 1944 treatment tells the story of an American who tracks the man responsible for his brother's death. His search leads him to the West Indies, and not Argentina, and thus the focus on the Nazis is missing from that treatment. In 1946, the year following the release of Cornered, RKO changed the literary property number on the treatment written by Hecht, Mankiewicz and Ormandi, possibly intending to produce another version of the story. The outcome of that project is not known, however.
According to another news item in Hollywood Reporter, credited screenwriter John Wexley was hired in November 1944 to write an adaptation of the August 1944 treatment. The modern source claims that Wexley's treatment was so filled with anti-Nazi propaganda that John Paxton, who had worked with Scott and director Edward Dmytryk on RKO's 1944 film Murder My Sweet, was called in to rewrite it. The materials contained in the RKO script files support this claim. In an estimating script written by Wexley and dated March 1945, Argentina is shown as a Nazi base in which the Nazis control the country's newspapers, social organizations, industries and secret police. In the final film, the Nazi activity is confined to a small group of conspirators. In early July 1945, soon after the film began production, Dmytryk agreed to consult with the noted South American director Luis Cesar to assure the film's authenticity, according to a news item in Hollywood Reporter.