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He Walked by Night (Nov. 24, 1948)

He Walked by Night
He Walked by Night (1948)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Bryan Foy Productions / Eagle-Lion Films

He Walked by Night is a police procedural directed by Alfred L. Werker, with uncredited directorial assistance from Anthony Mann. The starkly lighted cinematography is by John Alton, who had previously worked with Mann on two of his most memorable film noirs: T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

Docudrama films were a popular genre after World War II. The genre began with documentarian and newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont’s purportedly true espionage stories The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), as well as his fact-based legal drama Boomerang (1947).

Producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin’s film The Naked City (1948) wasn’t based on any single true incident, but it sought to depict realistic police work — a team of detectives recording the details of a crime scene, interviewing witnesses, tracking down leads, and pursuing suspects.

He Walked by Night didn’t invent the police procedural, but it’s probably the single most influential film in the genre. It featured Jack Webb in his first credited role, and his relationship with the film’s technical advisor, LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, led to the creation of the radio show Dragnet in 1949. (The series hit television in 1951.)

The film begins with a screen of text explaining that what you’re about to see is a true story, and is based on the case of one of the most diabolically cunning killers ever to be hunted by the police. It ends with the following sentence: “Only the names are changed — to protect the innocent.” Sound familiar, Dragnet fans?

Like every film or book that can properly be called a police procedural, He Walked by Night features a team of police officers and detectives. The lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Marty Brennan, is played by Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady, fresh off a starring role in another docudrama, the “ripped from the headlines” prison escape drama Canon City (1948). The other police officers include Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts), Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), and police laboratory technician Lee Whitey (Jack Webb).

Richard Basehart

The meatiest role in the picture belongs to Richard Basehart, who plays Roy Morgan (a.k.a. Roy Martin), an electronics-obsessed former serviceman who — in the tense opening scene of the film — graduates from breaking & entering to murder.

Basehart delivers a lean, mean performance. He has some great scenes with his fence, Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), but other than that he has very little dialogue. The film hangs on his performance, and he’s completely believable as an endlessly resourceful sociopath who’s able to elude the police through a combination of planning and luck. (The character was inspired by the real-life case of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who went on a crime spree in 1945 and 1946.)

He Walked by Night in the Sewers

It’s a cliche to say that the real star of a film noir is its cinematography, but it’s usually true. John Alton’s photography consistently gives the low-budget film an intense, driving atmosphere. Nearly ever shot in the film is a masterwork of lighting and composition, culminating in the final chase through the Los Angeles sewer system.

He Walked by Night is currently in the public domain, so it can be seen on YouTube (below), and is available on DVD from a variety of companies. The only caveat is that some of them look pretty lousy, so noir fans who want to own this film on DVD are advised to pick up the disc from MGM and to avoid at all costs the cheapo disc from Alpha Video, which looks just terrible.

Raw Deal (May 26, 1948)

Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) together form one of the most powerful one-two punches in the history or film noir.

Both films star Dennis O’Keefe, both feature musical scores by Paul Sawtell, John C. Higgins has a writing credit on both, and both feature the exquisite cinematography of John Alton.

What makes these two films such a great one-two punch is that they are each one side of the film noir coin. T-Men is a docudrama, purportedly made to show square-jawed agents of the Treasury Department cracking a big case, but like all great noir docudramas, the depiction of the criminal demimonde and the gray areas of its protagonists’ moral codes are the most interesting parts of the film.

Raw Deal is the other side of the coin. It’s a film noir purely about crime and criminals, and it has all the great elements of noir — a doomed male protagonist on the run, a “good girl” and a “bad girl” competing for his love, dream-like voice-over narration, a casually sadistic villain, and it’s set in one of the great noir cities — San Francisco.

Like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Raw Deal is the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

Raw Deal begins with aging gun moll Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) going to visit Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) in prison. Right away Raw Deal establishes that it is not a run-of-the-mill crime film, as Claire Trevor’s voice-over narration is accompanied by a haunting theme played on a theremin. The element of the theremin is only present in Paul Sawtell’s score during these voice-overs, and establishes Pat’s point of view as dreamy and hyperreal. Raw Deal is the first film in which I’ve heard a theremin since Miklós Rózsa’s masterful scores for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), both of which used the eerie sound of a theremin to establish altered states of perception.

When she arrives at the prison, however, Pat is told she has to wait a little while because Joe already has a visitor — Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Ann works for Joe’s defense lawyer’s office and she cares about his case and wants to see him paroled, but she admits that he will probably have to wait at least three years. She leaves, Pat enters, and Joe is faced with a more tantalizing prospect. Gang boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) has devised an escape plan for Joe. If he can make it over the wall Pat will be there waiting in a getaway car.

Of course, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface, and Coyle — whose double-cross is how Joe ended up in prison in the first place and who still owes Joe his cut from a robbery — is hoping that Joe will be shot by prison guards during his escape, taking care of Coyle’s problem for good.

Burr formerly played a memorable villain in Mann’s noir Desperate (1947), but he’s an even nastier and more violent character in Raw Deal, casually setting his girlfriend on fire in a shocking scene of cruelty that presages a similar scene in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). His right-hand man, the bizarrely named “Fantail,” is solidly played by John Ireland, who formerly starred in Mann’s noir Railroaded (1947).

First and foremost, Raw Deal is a masterpiece of suspense. For most of the movie Joe, Pat, and Ann are on the run from the police, and the film hits all of the classic “fugitive movie” moments — navigating a road block, hiding out in a cabin in the woods, one narrow escape after another, etc. Finally, for the last act of the film, the type of suspense changes, and a ticking clock takes the film closer and closer to its inevitable violent confrontation.

Since so much of Raw Deal takes place on the open road, there aren’t as many opportunities for Alton to flex his cinematographic muscles in the same way he did in T-Men, which mostly took place in urban environments. But he makes the most of what he has to work with. There’s a lot of day-for-night shooting in Raw Deal, and it’s a technique that never looks quite right, but at least with Alton operating the camera it always looks good. Finally, scenes toward the end with Claire Trevor’s face reflected in a ticking clock as she weighs a decision in her mind are absolutely masterful.

Anthony Mann was a great director who made wonderful films in all genres, but among his film noirs, I’ll never be able to decide if I like Raw Deal or T-Men better. They’re both great, must-see pictures for every aficionado of film noir.

T-Men (Dec. 15, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s T-Men sneaks up on you like a sap-wielding mug in a dark alley.

For the first 10 minutes or so, it seems like just another docudrama about the heroic exploits of undercover government agents — like Henry Hathaway’s films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) — right down to the stentorian voice-over narration by Reed Hadley, the guy who always did the stentorian narration in patriotic docudramas.

The title and opening credits of the film appear superimposed over the Seal of the United States Department of the Treasury as triumphant music plays. Then a disclaimer appears explaining that all the U.S. currency in the film was reproduced with special permission of the Treasury Department, and that reproduction of said currency is strictly prohibited. (Don’t film yourself fanning out a bunch of sawbucks at home, kids!)

Then the former chief coordinator of the law enforcement agencies of the Treasury Department, Elmer Lincoln Irey, haltingly reads from a piece of paper and explains the six units of the Treasury Department: “The Intelligence Unit, which tracks down income tax violators, the Customs Agency Service, with the border patrol, which fights smuggling, the Narcotics Unit, the Secret Service, which guards the president and ferrets out counterfeiters, the Alcohol Tax unit, which uncovers bootleggers, and the Coast Guard. These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard.” (Incidentally, the mild-looking, bespectacled Irey was one of the men who brought down Capone. He also worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.)

Irey goes on to say that what we’re about to see is called “The Shanghai Paper Case,” a composite of actual counterfeiting cases tackled by the Treasury Department.

Over the course of the first couple of reels, however, it becomes clear that T-Men is a very different film from The House on 92nd Street, and that its dry, fact-filled introduction is only the tip of the iceberg.

Although Reed Hadley’s hokey narration occasionally dominates the proceedings, the script is tight and the actors are all excellent. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who play undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro, are solidly believable, and Wallace Ford — who plays “The Schemer” — is always fun to watch, but for my money, the most memorable character in the film is “Moxie,” played by the granite-jawed Charles McGraw. Moxie is a merciless thug who shoots men dead without blinking, breaks fingers as easily as he asks questions, and boils a man to death in a steam bath without changing his expression.

But it’s not just the sudden, brutal acts of violence or the sense of paranoia that suffuses T-Men that set it apart from other films of its ilk, it’s also the dimly lit, “you are there” cinematography by John Alton.

Director Mann and the studio had faith in Alton, and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. Alton, quoted in the press book for T-Men,* said “…we shot scenes just as they came along. We shot under all conditions. Some of our night shots were made without any lights at all. I know some people thought the scenes wouldn’t match and it would turn out to be a horrible mess. Fortunately, it turned out as I was sure it would.”

T-Men was Mann’s first collaboration with Alton, but it wouldn’t be his last. Together they would go on to make Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) (which Alfred Werker directed and Mann co-directed), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Alton and Mann’s contribution to what we now call “film noir” is enormous. T-Men is a great picture. It’s tense, violent, and looks amazing. Despite its low budget, it was a big hit when it was released, and it’s still fresh today.

*And cribbed by yours truly from Alan K. Rode’s fantastic book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy.

Railroaded (Sept. 25, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s Railroaded represents a number of missed opportunities and a few modest successes.

In 1947, Mann made his first really good film noir, Desperate, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures. It wasn’t a perfect film, but the actors were decent, the story was suspenseful, and many of the lighting setups by Mann and his cinematographer, George E. Diskant, were stunning.

Railroaded was the next film he made. While I was watching it, I found myself frequently saying “If only…”

If only the script was more focused. If only the music wasn’t so terrible. If only the actors were talented. If only the film featured more screen time for the interesting villains and less screen time for the uninteresting heroes. If only Mann had been given a larger budget. If only he had worked with cinematographer John Alton.

But if you want to watch that kind of movie, you have to dig into Mann’s later work; his six collaborations with Alton, made between 1947 and 1950, or the five westerns he made with James Stewart between 1950 and 1955. Railroaded is a modestly entertaining little picture if you have no expectations, but if you’re familiar with Mann’s later work, it’s bound to disappoint.

Mann made Railroaded for Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.), a dependable old Poverty Row workhorse. It was the last really cut-rate movie that Mann would make. (P.R.C. was in the process of being bought by the powerful British film distributor J. Arthur Rank, and P.R.C.’s name would soon be changed to “Eagle-Lion International” to class it up a little. It was through Eagle-Lion that Mann’s excellent T-Men would be released later in 1947.) While Mann’s budgets were low, he was able to work with less studio control at Eagle-Lion International than he had been faced with at RKO, Universal, Paramount, and Republic.

In Jeanine Basinger’s book Anthony Mann (published in 1979; expanded and republished in 2007), she writes that Railroaded “is more unified than Desperate and points toward the coherence of Mann’s later works. It is perhaps his first really unified film, presenting the story of a young woman … and her attempts to clear her brother’s name of a murder charge.” I don’t agree with Basinger’s assessment, and find Railroaded an even more uneven film than Desperate.

Guy Roe was Mann’s cinematographer on Railroaded, and even though he’s not as good as Alton, there are still a number of impressive sequences, particularly the robbery that opens the picture.

John Ireland (the only actor in the film with any talent) plays a sneering criminal named Duke Martin who perfumes his bullets. (What’s a B-noir bad guy without a gimmick or two?)

The robbery is of a joint controlled by Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon). It’s a numbers operation hidden in the back of a beauty shop run by Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph). Clara is Duke’s girlfriend, and the inside job was supposed to be a cinch, but the cops show up, and Duke snuffs one of them, which sets the events of the film in motion.

Duke arranged everything to point in the direction of a patsy, Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly). Steve is a young guy who lives with his sister, Rosie Ryan (Sheila Ryan), and his mother, Mrs. Ryan (Hermine Sterler). At the breakfast table, Rosie talks about the movie she saw the night before, and how she cried at the end, when the police got their man. Even though he was a criminal, she felt bad for him. Steve is unsympathetic, and says “Maybe some guys need a goin’ over.” Minutes later the police bust in and arrest him for murder. (John C. Higgins’s screenplay, which is based on a story by Gertrude Walker, could have used more clever and ironic moments like this one.)

Things look bad for Steve. Duke used Steve’s scarf as a mask during the robbery. Steve’s car was stolen and used as the getaway vehicle. A paraffin test to see if Steve has recently fired a gun comes up negative, but that doesn’t mean much after Duke’s partner, Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle), who was shot during the robbery, gives a deathbed confession that implicates Steve.

Railroaded isn’t actually a very accurate title for the film, since the cops don’t railroad Steve. They work with the evidence they have. (Framed would have been a more accurate title.) Unlike Desperate, which followed an innocent man’s terrifying flight from both gangsters and the police, the unjustly accused protagonist of Railroaded pretty much disappears from the film as soon as he’s jailed. Enter Sgt. Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), a police detective who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Ryans, and is still sweet on Rosie.

Rosie believes her brother is innocent, and eventually starts to convince Sgt. Ferguson. This is where the picture really took a nosedive for me. Sheila Ryan is nice to look at, but she’s a completely unconvincing actress. Beaumont is even worse. He brings the same gravitas to his role as Sgt. Ferguson that he did to the scenes on TV a decade later in which he punished Wally and The Beav. Watching his scenes is like watching grass grow, and he and Sheila Ryan are the protagonists of Railroaded, not bit players.

With no one to root for, the only enjoyment I got out of Railroaded was watching John Ireland’s scenes, especially the ones with Jane Randolph. With the heat on, Duke orders Clara to hole up and stay off the booze. He’s planning one last score — a robbery of the Club Bombay, where the vigorish from Ainsworth’s bookie shops goes. Duke figures he can get revenge on Ainsworth and make off with $30 to $40 grand, which he’ll use to finance his and Clara’s getaway to South America. Of course, he can’t keep Clara off the sauce, but things aren’t all bad, since occasionally something exciting happens, like a vicious catfight Clara gets into with Rosie that Duke impassively watches while hidden:

Railroaded is a pretty typical P.R.C. product. The sets look like they’re made out of cardboard, the dialogue is stilted, the music is awful, and actors who can carry a scene are in the minority. Stretches of the film are entertaining, and occasionally the cinematography and editing create suspense and some real excitement, but overall, this isn’t one of Mann’s better pictures. There are plenty of people who champion the film, but for me, if a picture doesn’t have decent actors and strong characterizations, it doesn’t hang together. A few great scenes do not a great film make.

Desperate (May 9, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s Desperate stars Steve Brodie (not to be confused with the other Steve Brodie) and Audrey Long (the future Mrs. Leslie Charteris) as a young married couple on the run from sinister thugs led by the glowering Raymond Burr.

Steve Randall (Brodie), the owner and sole operator of Stephen Randall Trucking, is such a sweetie that he buys flowers for his wife Anne (Long) on their four-month anniversary. (When I watched this movie with my wife, she turned to me and said, “You didn’t get me anything for our four-month anniversary.” Thanks for making the rest of us look bad, Steve.) But the happy couple’s celebration has to be postponed when Steve gets an offer he can’t refuse … $50 for just one night’s work.

When an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The crew of mugs loading merchandise from a warehouse into Steve’s truck are clearly up to no good. When one of them flashes a rod, Steve balks, so they shove him back in the truck and keep the gun on him. They need a clean “face” for the cops.

When a police officer shows up to investigate, Steve signals him with his lights, which leads to a shootout between the cops and the thieves. Steve drives away. Al Radak (Larry Nunn), who has one foot on Steve’s back bumper and the other on the loading dock, falls and is captured by the police. His older brother, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), the leader of the crew, gets away with his henchman, Reynolds (William Challee).

Walt’s crazy about his kid brother, and Al will face the death penalty for the cop who was killed during the warehouse heist. So Walt demands that Steve turn himself in to the cops and claim he was responsible. To convince him, Walt calls in Steve’s license plate number and then has his boys work him over in a dark room with a single swinging overhead light. It’s a stunning sequence, and quintessentially noir.

When Steve doesn’t give in, Walt tries a new tactic. “Say, I’ll bet that new bride of yours is pretty,” he says while holding a broken bottle. “How ’bout it Steve?”

Walt has found Steve’s Achilles’ heel, and he agrees to Walt’s plan. Walt says, “I don’t care what you tell them, but if Al doesn’t walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain’t gonna be so good to look at.”

But Steve manages to slip away from Reynolds and call Anne from a pay phone. He tells her to meet him at the train station. They’ll go on the lam together, so Anne will be out of Walt’s reach.

Most of the rest of the film is an extended cross-country chase, as Steve and Anne move from place to place, establish new identities for themselves, and pick up work where Steve can find it. They’re pursued not only by Walt and Reynolds, but by the authorities, since Steve is still a person of interest in the murder of the police officer at the warehouse.

Along the way they have the obligatory conversation about how he can’t turn himself in to the police because they won’t believe him. They have a second wedding on the Minnesota farm owned by Uncle Jan and Aunt Klara (Paul E. Burns and Ilka Grüning) because their first marriage was just a courthouse deal and they deserve a big gathering with a real priest. Anne finds out she’s pregnant. They are crossed up by a sleazy private investigator named Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) and they are assisted by a sympathetic police detective, Lt. Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards), who’s not above using Steve as bait to catch Walt.

Desperate is not a long film (it’s less than an hour and 15 minutes), but it drags a little during its middle act, which sometimes feels repetitive. It redeems itself completely in its final act, however, which is as dark and as tense as any film noir fan could ask for. Steve insures himself for $5,000 and heads for Walt dead-on, like a man playing chicken with an oncoming freight train. Six months have passed since Al was arrested, and he’s set to be executed. Walt gave up a long time ago on the idea that his brother could be freed, and all he wants now is the satisfaction of killing Steve at the exact moment that Al dies. A life for a life.

Walt and Reynolds take Steve to an apartment. Walt places a clock on the table between them in the kitchen. It’s a quarter to midnight. He gives Steve a last meal — sandwiches and milk — and a cigarette, and promises to shoot him at the stroke of midnight. There are increasingly tight close-ups of their three sweaty faces. “Now who was it said time flies?” Walt asks sardonically.

Desperate is the first really good noir from Anthony Mann, a director whose name is now inextricable from the term “film noir,” but who started out in Hollywood making mostly musicals and comedies. Desperate is not as interesting as T-Men (1947) or as powerful as Raw Deal (1948), but it’s a well-made, well-acted, exciting thriller. Audrey Long (recently seen as Claire Trevor’s little sister in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill) is probably the weakest actor in the film, but she’s called on to do the least. Steve Brodie is an appealing protagonist. He has a pleasant face and a regular-guy demeanor, and he’s believable as a man who’s pushed too far.

The real treat in Desperate is Raymond Burr as the vicious Walt Radak. This was only Burr’s third credited appearance on film, and while I enjoyed his role as the villain in William Berke’s Code of the West (1947), Desperate plays much better to his strengths as an actor. Burr was a remarkable heavy (no offense intended, big guy), and I never stopped to consider how ludicrous Walt’s plans were while I was watching this film. Burr sells every one of his hard-boiled lines with ruthless efficiency.

Mann’s cinematographer on Desperate, George E. Diskant, deserves mention, too. While he’s perhaps not as famous as Mann’s frequent collaborator John Alton, Diskant’s photography in Desperate is beautiful — full of darkness, hard angles, and vertigo-inducing chiaroscuro constructions.

The Bamboo Blonde (July 15, 1946)

Anthony Mann’s The Bamboo Blonde is a cute little World War II-era programmer based on Wayne Whittaker’s story “Chicago Lulu.” It’s a romantic comedy, but there are nearly enough songs to qualify it as a musical. There are also nearly enough bombing raids over Japan to qualify it as a war movie, but the tone is so light that all the death and destruction on the ground is just there to provide a context for the saucy pinup girl painted on the nose of the bomber. It’s a fun romp — hell and gone from the westerns and noirs on which Mann’s reputation currently rests, but a thoroughly enjoyable way to kill 67 minutes during the dog days of summer.

The film begins with a magazine reporter named Montgomery (Walter Reed) interviewing Eddie Clark (“Truth or Consequences” host/creator Ralph Edwards), the mile-a-minute talker who runs Bamboo Blonde enterprises, an enormous conglomerate that operates a recording studio, furniture manufacturer, hosiery company, cosmetics line, and more. The reporter wants to know how the company got started, and when Eddie finally tires of trying to push Bamboo Blonde brand candy bars on the poor guy, he settles in to tell the story. It all started, Eddie explains, “Around the time Japan was finding out the B-29 wasn’t another American vitamin.”

The picture then begins in earnest, and we see the Ransoms, a wealthy family from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, tearfully send their son, Patrick Ransom, Jr. (Russell Wade), off to war. I say “tearfully,” but I can’t remember if there were any actual tears. The send-off was so wrought with emotion, however, that the presence of waterworks is beside the point. The Ransoms are the type of blue bloods who think nothing of Junior kissing mom on the mouth to say goodbye.

After cutting — or at least loosening — the umbilical cord, young Ransom wanders into Eddie’s Club 50, heedless of the sign outside barring all servicemen from entering. A couple of MPs walk out of the back office, and a perky little blonde named Louise Anderson (Frances Langford) acts quickly, hiding Ransom behind some curtains and then walking onstage to perform the song “I’m Good for Nothing But Love.”

Ransom is the new skipper of a bomber crew, and as the new guy, his boys had sent him to the club as a practical joke, or, as Ransom explains it to Louise over dinner, “Sending me here was a tactical maneuver to ditch me.” The two hit it off right away, and go on the kind of date that was really “on the beam” for the greatest generation, and is still pretty fun today. It starts with dinner at a restaurant with red and white checked tableclothes and candles stuck in bottles that’s run by a woman named “Mom” (Dorothy Vaughan) and it ends in a photo booth. The only thing that seems weird by today’s standards is that Louise sits in the photo booth alone, and Ransom ends up with a little framed photo of her.

That little framed photo will lead to big things. After a disastrous series of runs in the Pacific, Ransom’s B-29 has the worst record in the Air Force, without a single Zero downed. To turn their luck around, one of the guys borrows Ransom’s photo of Louise and paints an Alberto Vargas-style pinup of her with a stacked body “painted from memory.” After a long argument about what exact color hair their sexy new mascot has, they settle on “bamboo blonde,” and they’re well on their way to becoming “that nightmare to the Nips,” as Eddie Clark will later describe them.

The only problem is that Ransom’s crew thinks that Louise is his girlfriend, and he hasn’t disabused them of the notion, even though he has a dark-haired fiancée back home named Eileen Sawyer (Jane Greer, who shows a little bit more of that Out of the Past malevolence than she did in Sunset Pass, which was released a week before this picture). Eileen is a real harpy, and her interest in Ransom is only rekindled because of his growing fame. Meanwhile, Louise first learns that she’s been painted on the side of a bomber while reading a copy of Look magazine that has a picture of Ingrid Bergman on the cover wearing a nun’s habit (presumably from the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s). You don’t have to be a genius to foresee the romantic complications that will arise once Ransom and his boys are called back home for a USO tour with Louise to help sell war bonds.

This is all frothy nonsense, of course, but Mann keeps things moving at a nice clip. Even when working with material that was clearly beneath him, such as this picture and Strange Impersonation (1946), he was able to craft something that was darned watchable. Langford was a classically trained singer, and has a really beautiful voice, which helps. (She was a radio star, and spent a lot of time as a USO performer.) For the most part, the musical numbers are staged in a straightforward fashion, but Mann takes a left turn into the realms of the surreal when Louise sings “Right Along About Evening.” Not only is everything in the idyllic farmland backdrop labeled (e.g., “mailbox,” “dog”), but it end with her rolling up a suddenly two-dimensional Ransom and stuffing him under her pillow before she goes to sleep. Truly odd.

Strange Impersonation (March 16, 1946)

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Strange Impersonation. Five years ago I went on a big Anthony Mann kick and watched all the movies he’d directed that I could get my hands on. I really like a lot of his work, especially the film T-Men (1947), a docudrama about Treasury agents investigating a counterfeiting ring that incorporates heavy doses of violence and a lot of subjective film noir techniques into its otherwise straightforward story. His noir revenge drama Raw Deal (1948), which, like T-Men, stars Dennis O’Keefe, is great, too. He also made a number of highly regarded westerns starring James Stewart that are worth seeing.

He made plenty of strictly for-hire programmers, too, and Strange Impersonation definitely falls into this category. Of Mann’s pictures that I’ve seen, it’s my least favorite. Not because it’s any worse than any of his other B pictures, like Railroaded! (1947), but because it breaks my first rule for maintaining audience engagement until the very end, and leaves the viewer feeling robbed.

Upon second viewing, however, and with no expectation that the film’s many plot strands would be resolved, I was able to appreciate the enjoyable lunacy of the plot and the subtexts about gender relations and women in the professional sphere. Also, for a humble programmer, Strange Impersonation looks pretty good. It has great lighting and a few really well thought-out compositions.

The film begins with a scene at the Wilmott Institute for Chemical Research in New York. Scientist Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is making a presentation to a roomful of her mostly older, male colleagues. “It’s been my aim to develop a new formula which will combine all the best features of present-day anesthetics,” Nora tells the assemblage. Pointing to a model of a human torso and head, she says, “Here is the section of the brain where the reaction will occur. It will come very quickly, within seconds of injection. The anesthesia should be complete for approximately one hour, during which time the mind may indulge in dreams or fantasies, normal or otherwise. That of course would have to be checked. For my present findings, however, the anesthetic is safe and easy to administer. So until my final report, I think that’s all.”

Remember that speech, and you may have some idea of what to expect from the film’s denouement. Upon a second viewing, Strange Impersonation plays fair, but only in the broadest sense. The journey, at least, isn’t a bad one.

Marshall gives a credible performance in the stereotypical role of the “cold fish” female scientist. She’s very attractive, but with her severe hair style and glasses, she doesn’t look like a glamour puss pretending to be a smarty-pants doctor; she comes off as relatively convincing.

The same can’t be said of all of the ridiculous lines she’s forced to spout. When her fiancé, a fellow scientist named Stephen Lindstrom (played by William Gargan with a little mustache and big, nerdy glasses) tries to kiss her in the lab, Nora blurts out, “Stephen, remember! Science!”

Nora and Stephen are engaged, but she’s putting off the wedding until after her experiment is complete. Not to worry, though. The experiment will be complete soon. Why go through all the red tape of clinical tests when you can experiment on yourself, at home, at night, with just a few pieces of laboratory equipment and your friend Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke) to help?

And that’s just what Nora plans to do, except that she hits a wrinkle on her way home. While backing out of her garage, she knocks down a young woman named Jane Karaski (Ruth Ford). As a bystander notes, Jane is “squiffed” (i.e., very drunk), so Nora offers to drive her home. Before she can engage the clutch, however, a weaselly little ambulance chaser named J.W. Rinse (George Chandler) shoves his card into Jane’s hand and promises he can get her a big settlement, even though she doesn’t appear to be injured. Jane lives in a crummy little place with a Murphy bed above a spot called Joe’s Bar and Grill. While putting Jane to bed, Nora learns that Jane is from Mississippi, and has no friends in the big city or family back home.

Nora heads back to her large, tastefully appointed apartment overlooking the city. Stephen drops in for what he hopes will be a tryst, but before too long, Arline shows up, shoos him away, and it’s time for some science with a capital S.

As Nora is drifting to sleep on the couch after dosing herself with her own experimental anesthetic, she says, “Oh, nothing will go wrong. I’m sure I’ve worked this thing out perfectly. Nothing can go wrong. I’ll just go to sleep for a little while. Just go to sleep. For a little while. Just…”

And guess what? Something goes wrong. As soon as Nora’s passed out, Arline starts a chemical reaction that starts a fire right next to Nora on the couch, then dumps the flaming concoction on Nora’s face.

While Nora is recovering in the hospital, Arline tricks the doctor into keeping Stephen away from her, which leads her to believe that he has abandoned her because of her ruined face. Meanwhile, Arline starts putting her hooks into Stephen. It becomes clear that she destroyed Nora’s face not because of any professional jealousy, but because she had designs on Nora’s man.

Eventually, Nora returns home, wearing a veil and sporting some pretty convincing burn make-up. One night, Jane, the girl Nora hit with her car, shows up with a little automatic, apparently egged on by Rinse’s promises of a big settlement that has yet to materialize. She wants money, and she wants it now. The two women struggle for the gun, and Jane is knocked off of Nora’s balcony and falls to her face-decimating death on the sidewalk below. The stolen ring on Jane’s finger leads people to believe it’s Nora’s corpse. Meanwhile, Nora takes advantage of the confusion to slip away to Los Angeles under the name “Jane Karaski,” where she undergoes a very long course of plastic surgery at the Los Angeles Medical Center.

While reading the latest copy of “Chemical Views” in the hospital, Nora learns that Dr. and Mrs. Lindstrom have just bought a house in White Plains. Realizing Arline’s deception, she begs to leave, but is told it will be another three months before her face is fully restored. (She’s already been there about a year.) Her doctor tells her he can tell she never looked the way she does now, and not to think that changing one’s face can change one’s life. This scene is really weird, because once the bandages come off we learn that she gave her doctor pictures of Jane Karaski, and now supposedly looks exactly like the woman she accidentally killed. However, Nora looks exactly the same as she did before, only with black hair.

Apparently the characters in the film are seeing something very different from the viewers in the audience, because once Nora returns to New York and insinuates herself into the lives of Stephen and Arline under the guise of a new laboratory technician named “Jane Karaski,” neither of them recognizes her. I guess we’re just supposed to take it on faith that Nora’s surgery has left her looking like a dead ringer for Ruth Ford, even though she still looks exactly like Brenda Marshall with a black dye job.

If you can accept all the wackiness, there’s plenty to entertain in Strange Impersonation. The final interrogation scene in the police station, for instance, is a classic of feverish noir subjectivity, with all the characters in the film appearing in superimposition to accuse and admonish Nora as she shakes her head from left to right, screaming for them to stop.

Not to worry, though! The film has a happy ending. Just not for the audience.

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