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.