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Tag Archives: Albert S. D’Agostino

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (May 20, 1947)

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, directed by John Rawlins, marked Ralph Byrd’s triumphant return to playing Chester Gould’s famous police detective. Byrd played the hawk-nosed, square-jawed hero in four serials, Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941).

In William Berke’s excellent programmer Dick Tracy (1945), Morgan Conway stepped into the role. I really liked Conway as Tracy. His facial features were as big and ugly as Byrd’s were small and perfect, but he imbued the character with a humanity lacking in Byrd’s one-note performance, and I would have liked to see him in more Dick Tracy movies than just Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of people who grew up watching Byrd in the Dick Tracy cliffhangers on Saturday afternoons were thrilled to see him return to the role. And besides, everything that made Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball standout pieces of bottom-of-the-bill entertainment from RKO Radio Pictures is still present in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma — tight pacing, good writing, solid direction, dramatic lighting, and nicely staged action — so I enjoyed it in spite of Byrd’s somewhat wooden performance.

The plot of Dick Tracy’s Dilemma is pretty similar to the plot of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. Instead of a chrome-domed thug with a leather garrote, the villain of the piece is a hulking Neanderthal with a club foot and a hook for a hand. He’s a 39-year-old career criminal named Steve Michel, but he’s better known in the underworld as “The Claw.” Michel was a bootlegger and hijacker during Prohibition. He lost his right hand and crippled his right leg when he was rammed by a Coast Guard cutter, and he’s looking to score some dough now that he’s back on the street. (The Claw is played by character actor Jack Lambert, who’s outfitted with bushy fake eyebrows and a glower that just won’t quit.)

The Claw is part of a crew that takes down a big score at the Flawless Fur warehouse. After the night watchman (Jason Robards Sr.) wakes up from the knockout blow The Claw gave him, he comes after the crew with a gun, and The Claw rips him up with his “hangnail” (as another member of his crew calls his hook). The murder brings in homicide detectives Dick Tracy and his partner, Pat Patton (Lyle Latell).

The Claw waits nervously with his partners for the big payoff. Tracy intercepts Longshot Lillie (Bernadene Hayes), a fence for stolen goods, with $20,000 in her purse. The crew also floats a proposal to Peter Premium (William B. Davidson), the vice president of Honesty Insurance, offering to sell him the furs for half their value before his company has to pay out on the policy.

While this is a solid police procedural with lots of violence, it’s also a Dick Tracy film, so there are plenty of comedic touches. Besides the ridiculous names of some of the characters (see above), there’s a bar called “The Blinking Skull” (not to be confused with “The Dripping Dagger,” which featured in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball), and a beggar named “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), who’s only pretending to be blind. Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is back, too, and provide plenty of laughs — if you’re amused by pretentiousness and narcissism, that is.

John Rawlins directs the one-hour programmer with brisk efficiency. His style is straightforward, but he and his cinematographer Frank Redman throw in plenty of nice touches, such as a man who knocks a plug out of its socket as he is being murdered by The Claw. The next shot is of The Claw rising to stand. The unplugged desk fan is in the foreground, and its blades slowly stop rotating as The Claw leaves the room. It’s a great visual metaphor for a life ending. The film also features a fine score by noir favorite Paul Sawtell.

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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.

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.