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Undertow (Dec. 1, 1949)

Undertow1949
Undertow (1949)
Directed by William Castle
Universal International Pictures

This review originally appeared last year at Film Noir of the Week.

William Castle is best remembered as the P.T. Barnum of schlock cinema. Castle was a director, producer, and huckster who sold his flicks to the public with brilliant gimmicks. Anyone who bought a ticket to Macabre (1958) was insured by Lloyd’s of London against “death by fright” while watching the picture. People who went to see The Tingler (1959) took a chance that they might be joy-buzzed if they were lucky enough to sit in one of the right seats. And people who bought a ticket to see the Psycho-inspired film Homicidal (1961) were promised their money back if they walked out during the one-minute “Fright Break” before the climax of the film. Provided, that is, they were willing to stand on display in the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until after the film ended.

What people tend to forget, however, is that before he made Macabre, Castle was a hard-working, dependable director of low-budget studio pictures. He was under contract at Columbia Pictures from 1944 to 1947, where he made several films in the Whistler series and the Crime Doctor series, as well as B noirs like When Strangers Marry (1944), which starred Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter.

While under contract with Universal in 1949, Castle directed two B noirs, Johnny Stool Pigeon, which starred Howard Duff and Shelley Winters, and Undertow, which starred Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady.

Just like his big brother’s loony film noir classic Born to Kill (1947), Undertow starts out in “The Biggest Little City in the World” — Reno.

Scott Brady

Brady plays a good-natured, average guy named Tony Reagan who’s just gotten out of the Army after a seven-year stint (he stayed in for another hitch after the war). All Tony wants to do is help his dead war buddy’s dad run the Mile High Lodge, 40 miles north of Reno, and spend the rest of his days hunting and fishing. The only thing he has to do first is fly to Chicago to see his best girl, Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart), and convince her uncle — gambler “Big” Jim Lee — that he’s good enough to marry her.

While in Reno, however, Tony runs into his old friend Danny Morgan (John Russell). Danny tries to convince Tony he’d be better off helping him run his casino. His sales pitch to Tony is: “Lots of sunshine, steady supply of suckers. And loads of lovely, lonely, loaded ladies.”

As I said, Tony is a good-natured, average guy, and even though he knows his way around a craps table, he’d rather put that part of his life behind him.

If you’re a fan of film noirs, however, you know that good-natured average guys who’ve just rotated out of the service are statistically the most likely people to have a murder rap pinned on them and be forced to flee from both the cops and the bad guys.

Brady Blindfolded

Arthur T. Horman and Lee Loeb’s screenplay for Undertow is standard stuff. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not that different from any number of other B noirs about an innocent man on the run. However, Undertow is worth seeking out for several reasons.

First off, the direction is great. Castle knew how to make an entertaining, fast-moving film, and Undertow is one of his better pictures from the 1940s. Another reason to see Undertow is all of the location shooting in Reno and Chicago, which is rare for a 70-minute programmer.

Castle does more than just throw in a few establishing shots. When Tony Reagan first arrives in Chicago, he heads for the Palmer House hotel, then attempts to lose a police tail while walking down South Wabash Avenue and running up into the elevated train station on the corner. Two scenes in Undertow take place at Buckingham Fountain, and at one point Tony meets his friend Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) and his girlfriend Sally at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. The people in the background in the street scenes don’t look like Hollywood extras, either.

Another reason to see Undertow is to catch Rock Hudson in a very small role. This was the first credit Hudson received for a motion picture. He previously appeared in one other film, Fighter Squadron (1948), but his name didn’t appear in the credits. In Undertow he’s credited as “Roc” Hudson. He appears as a Chicago police detective for about one minute toward the end of the film in a scene in which he discusses a case with Det. Chuck Reckling, played by Bruce Bennett.

Hudson and Bennett

I’ve seen a lot of Lawrence Tierney’s films, but I’ve only recently seen films starring his younger brother, Scott Brady (whose real name was Gerard Kenneth Tierney). Brady very closely resembles his older brother. It would probably be difficult for most people who’d never seen either of them before to tell them apart.

But while Lawrence Tierney played nasty, sociopathic characters the way other actors pick up the phone and say, “Hello?,” Scott Brady projected a general air of decency. From what I’ve seen of him so far, his performances aren’t as memorable as Tierney’s, but he’s perfect for this kind of role.

Finally, one last reason to see Undertow is for some truly outstanding bits of noir photography by Castle and his cinematographers, Irving Glassberg and Clifford Stine. The location shooting establishes the world of the film nicely, and is fascinating from a historical perspective, but it’s scenes like the climactic chase down a dark hallway that really tie the film together.

Dark Hallway

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.

Canon City (June 30, 1948)

Crane Wilbur’s Canon City is a low-budget entry in the docudrama genre, a genre that began in 1945 with the Louis de Rochemont-produced espionage melodrama The House on 92nd Street and enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Hollywood.

Docudramas were dramatizations of actual events that featured actors but that strove for authenticity by filming in actual locations, using real documents in key scenes, and featuring participants in the case playing themselves in bit parts.

After The House on 92nd Street followed more fact-based spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), and legal docudramas like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948).

Some films, like Kiss of Death (1947), T-Men (1947), and The Naked City (1948), were mostly fictional, but were presented in a docudrama fashion and filmed on location to add authenticity to otherwise run-of-the-mill crime stories.

Canon City uses a combination of docudrama techniques. It begins in a straightforward documentary style, and slowly draws us into the fictional world of its incarcerated protagonists. The obligatory scroll of text that opens the film informs the viewer that all events depicted in the film are based on actual events that took place in and around the Colorado State Prison in Canon City on the night of December 30, 1947. (Canon City is pronounced “Canyon City,” and is sometimes spelled Cañon City.) It goes on to say that the convicts shown in the film are the actual convicts involved in the case, and that Roy Best, the warden of the prison, plays himself. Finally, we are told that “the details of the break are portrayed exactly as they occurred and were photographed where they happened.”

Reed Hadley narrates the opening in his signature style (docudramas provided a lot of work for Hadley). He describes the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City as “a home for those who like to have their own way too much, and have taken forbidden steps to achieve their aims. All kinds are here; murderers, kidnappers, thieves, robbers, embezzlers.”

Warden Best and the disembodied voice of Hadley lead the viewer on a tour of the prison, introducing the variety of work that the prisoners do and conducting short interviews with actual inmates of various types; a man soon to be paroled, an old man who’s been doing time since 1897, a 14-year-old murderer sentenced to 20-30 years who’s working on a hooked rug in the art shop, and a murderer whose death sentence was commuted to life by the warden, and who now hopes to be paroled in 1949.

We then see the process of nighttime lockdown, and at the 9-minute mark of the film Hadley’s narration introduces the viewer to a pair of inmates with adjoining cells: Jim Sherbondy, a 29-year-old inmate who was sentenced at the age of 17 for killing a police officer, and Johnson, a long-termer who is working on the model of a ship. (His real work — a zip gun — is hidden behind the ship. He’s part of a plan to break out.)

Hadley’s narration doesn’t stop after Sherbondy and Johnson are introduced, and the film continues in a semi-documentary style, but the introduction of these two characters marks the moment when the film moves from fact to fiction. Remember that opening text from the beginning of the film I mentioned? The one that said “The convicts you will see are the actual convicts”?

Well, this was clearly a lie, since Sherbondy and Johnson are both played by actors, not actual convicts. This is par for the course, though. Despite what they invariably claimed, docudramas in the ’40s usually had a tricky relationship with the truth.

I couldn’t figure out who the uncredited actor who plays Johnson is (if you know, please comment on this review), but Sherbondy is played by Scott Brady, the younger brother of notorious tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney. (Lawrence Tierney and Scott Brady’s youngest brother, Edward Tierney, who turned 20 years old in 1948, also had a career in the movies starting in the ’50s.) Brady was born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, and Canon City was his first major film acting role, and the first film in which he was credited as “Scott Brady.” (His first appearance was a small role in Sam Newfield’s 1948 film The Counterfeiters, in which he was credited as “Gerard Gilbert.”)

Brady bears an uncanny resemblance to his older brother, but his face is a little softer and more innocent-looking, which works well for his role in Canon City. Sherbondy is a reluctant participant in the breakout. He has a job in the prison’s photography shop working in the darkroom, which is the perfect place for the conspirators to hide a load of zip guns, since the darkroom requires guards to wait outside until it’s safe to turn the lights on and open the door.

I wonder if anyone who saw Canon City during its initial theatrical run noticed Brady’s resemblance to Lawrence Tierney, or if there were any astute viewers who noticed the slim, bespectacled Whit Bissell and said to themselves, “Hey, wasn’t that guy in Brute Force?”

I also wonder how many viewers didn’t specifically recognize any of the actors but were able to tell that they were watching actors and not the actual participants in the case. And if they did, did they feel cheated after the opening claim of total and complete veracity?

I wonder these things because I do think that Canon City is remarkably skillful in the way it draws the viewer in and the way it manages to feel raw and real throughout. A little before the half-hour mark, the breakout kicks into high gear with an assault on a guard and a furious rush to fit all the pieces of the plan together. For nearly an hour, Canon City is as tense a picture as one could ask for. A dozen men pour out into a snowy night, disguised as prison guards. The prison alarm tolls throughout the small town. Terrified moviegoers swarm out of a theater whose marquee shows the Abbott and Costello comedy The Noose Hangs High (which wasn’t released until the spring of 1948, incidentally) and people on the streets rush to get home. But home offers no solace, as the convicts break into house after house looking for shelter, food, and weapons.

The cinematographer of Canon City was John Alton, who was responsible for brilliant work on many film noirs (most notably his collaborations with Anthony Mann). There aren’t a lot of memorable “noir” setups in Canon City, but overly stylized lighting wouldn’t have fit with the docudrama approach to the material. The darkness and the driving blizzard are terrifying enough filmed in a straightforward fashion. Canon City is the kind of movie where the cold gets into your bones just watching it.

Canon City is a film that is dated in many ways, but it still packs a punch if you can go along with the semi-documentary style. Writer-director Crane Wilbur gets the most out of his limited budget by filming inside the prison and in the rugged beauty of the southern Colorado landscape around Cañon City, and the pacing is swift and brutal once the breakout occurs.

Oh, and if you’re a Star Trek fan, keep your eyes peeled for a young DeForest Kelley as one of the dozen escapees.

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