Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
The great director Anthony Mann worked in a lot of different genres, but he’s most revered today for his noirs and his westerns.
Mann directed three westerns that were released in 1950. Winchester ’73 was the first one released in theaters, but he finished shooting both The Furies and Devil’s Doorway before starting work on Winchester ’73 with star James Stewart.
Winchester ’73 was far and away the most successful, and it’s still a favorite of western fans. (Mann and Stewart also went on to make several more highly regarded westerns together.) Devil’s Doorway remains the least widely seen.
There are a lot of reasons for film fans — particularly western fans — to see Devil’s Doorway. It breaks the traditional mold of the western by having heroes who are Native Americans and villains who are white settlers. It’s well written, tightly paced, and beautifully shot. It was also the last movie Mann made with cinematographer John Alton, who shot some of Mann’s greatest films, including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949).
Like he did in Border Incident, Alton turns wide open spaces, big skies, and towering western mountain ranges into dark, oppressive spaces that seem to be closing in on the tiny humans who inhabit them. Devil’s Doorway is one of the best-looking black & white westerns I’ve ever seen.
My one real problem with Devil’s Doorway, and it’s a big one, is the casting of Robert Taylor as “Broken Lance” Poole, a Shoshone who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Poole is a Medal of Honor winner who returns home to find that the land where he grazes his cattle is going to be overrun by homesteaders and sheepmen. Poole petitions to homestead his own land, but his petition is rejected because he is not an American citizen, but rather a “ward of the government.”
Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors to play non-white characters, especially if they are the lead of a film. And in this respect Devil’s Doorway is no different from the other big western released in 1950 with Native American heroes, Broken Arrow, which starred Jeff Chandler as Cochise. But I found Robert Taylor especially bad. At the time of filming, Taylor was pushing 40, but he looks a decade older. He also looks not at all Native American. At least he doesn’t put on a goofy accent or speak in pidgin English, but he still looks completely wrong for the role. When I was watching him, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jon Lovitz playing Tonto on old episodes of Saturday Night Live.
Aside from the presence of a miscast and aging matinee idol as its protagonist, Devil’s Doorway is a powerful western drama with beautiful cinematography and some stunning battle sequences. It’s definitely worth seeing, along with Mann’s other westerns.
The Furies (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
It occurred to me at some point during The Furies that it might be a more realistic view of frontier life than I’m used to seeing in westerns.
This thought occurred to me while I was struggling to find something to connect with in the movie. Anthony Mann is a director I love, and the western has been one of my favorite genres since I was a child, so I was really looking forward to The Furies. Also, the fact that The Furies is the only Mann film to get the Criterion treatment led me to believe I might be treated to the apotheosis of his sagebrush sagas.
But I just couldn’t get into The Furies the first time I tried to watch it, and I had to turn it off after about 45 minutes.
The Furies is based on a 1948 novel by Niven Busch, which seems evident in Charles Schnee’s screenplay. Like a lot of movies based on mid-century historical novels, it’s packed to the gills with dialogue, and a lot of it is expository, referring back to deceased family members and past events.
With its multi-generational plotting and Freudian undertones, The Furies reminded me of a couple of movies that I didn’t much care for, Duel in the Sun (1946) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). But I love Anthony Mann, so after a day or two had passed, and with a little more fire in my belly, I sat down to watch The Furies from beginning to end. Even though I didn’t love the movie unreservedly, I found a lot to like about it, and would definitely recommend it to “serious” western fans, as well as any fans of ’50s dramas.
Back to my first thought, that this might be a more “realistic” view of frontier life than I’m used to seeing in westerns.
Unlike the lonely desert landscapes and violent men of few words that we’re used to seeing in westerns, The Furies is a talky melodrama focused on a specific place — the Furies ranch — and the tension between a self-made man, T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), and his fierce daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck). It’s clear from the beginning of the film that T.C.’s son, Clay (John Bromfield), is not the heir who will take over the sprawling Furies property, it’s Vance.
But why shouldn’t a western be packed with flowery language and dense plotting? Well, no reason at all. It’s merely generic conventions that make us think the Old West was a place mostly populated by drifters and outlaws, and where quick-draw shootouts were the order of the day.
The Furies is not a typical western, and I think that’s a good thing. I could definitely see this being a movie I come back to again and again, finding new things to like in it each time. Stanwyck gives a pretty amazing performance, and the film still offers plenty of the traditional pleasures we look for in westerns, like gorgeous cinematography of wide-open spaces and larger-than-life characters.
The only really sour note in the film — and something I doubt I’ll ever warm up to — is Rip Darrow, the character played by Wendell Corey. As an actor, Corey is bereft of charisma and the character he plays is despicable, and not in a way that’s fun to watch.
By the way, I didn’t realize until I finished writing this review and watched the trailer above that Niven Busch, who wrote the novel The Furies, also wrote the novel Duel in the Sun. That explains why they felt so similar.
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Among film geeks, Anthony Mann is revered for two things — his hard-boiled film noirs of the 1940s and his “psychological westerns” of the 1950s.
Mann’s western phase kicked off in 1950 with three films, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, The Furies with Barbara Stanwyck, and Devil’s Doorway with Robert Taylor.
Winchester ’73 was significant because it was Mann’s first film with Jimmy Stewart, the most likeable beanpole everyman in Hollywood, and it helped Stewart craft a new image for himself.
Mann and Stewart went on to make seven more films together, but it is their five westerns that are best-regarded today. After Winchester ’73 came Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955).
I first saw Winchester ’73 about 15 years ago, after being completely blown away by Mann’s noirs T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), and wasn’t as excited by Winchester ’73.
Winchester ’73 is regularly lauded as the first “adult western,” and the beginning of a richer and more complicated era for the genre.
I don’t totally buy this. While the majority of westerns in the 1930s and ’40s may have been aimed at kids (it’s almost impossible for an adult to watch a Buster Crabbe western without clawing their eyes out), there were westerns aimed at adult viewers going all the way back to the birth of cinema. To say that Winchester ’73 is the first “adult western” is to ignore the westerns directed by John Ford, Raoul Walsh, André De Toth, and plenty of others.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the 1950s was the best decade for westerns in the history of Hollywood, and Winchester ’73 is a really good western with complex characters and excellent performances. It just doesn’t totally work for me. It has an episodic structure that follows the “priceless … one in a thousand” Winchester ’73 rifle as it passes from owner to owner, and most of the episodes don’t do much for me until Dan Duryea shows up toward the end. (Although I do always get a perverse thrill from seeing Rock Hudson playing a shirtless Native American.)
I find the last third of Winchester ’73 incredibly thrilling and fun to watch. Duryea plays runty, nasty villains like no one else, and its during his episode of the film that Stewart finally shakes off his nice guy image and does stuff on screen that he’d never done before.
While it’s not my favorite western of all time, I still would recommend Winchester ’73 to any fans of westerns, as well as any film fans who want to explore the western genre. It’s a well-made movie, an important western, and William H. Daniels’s cinematography is gorgeous.
Also, the DVD of this film released in 2003 is a must-have for classic film fans. The special features listed on the DVD case only refer to an “Interview with James Stewart,” which is the most insane piece of underselling I’ve ever seen on a DVD.
That interview is actually an entire commentary track for the film. It’s guided by an interviewer who asks questions, but it’s still Jimmy Stewart talking about the movie as it goes, occasionally commenting on what’s happening onscreen, but mostly just sharing recollections of old Hollywood and old talent, as well as waxing philosophical about the old studio system. It’s incredibly enjoyable to listen to for anyone who’s a classic film fan. It was originally recorded in 1989 for a LaserDisc release of the film. Toward the end of the commentary with the interviewer, Jimmy Stewart marvels at how far technology has come and says, “laser, huh?”
It’s incredibly rare to have this kind of commentary track from a star as old as Stewart, and it’s something to be treasured.
Side Street (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell memorably played young lovers on the run in director Nicholas Ray’s debut film, They Live by Night (1948).
They were reunited in Side Street, a twisty little crime caper directed by the great Anthony Mann.
Side Street isn’t a grand tragedy on the level of They Live by Night. O’Donnell’s role is much smaller and she and Granger play a quietly happy young married couple, not archetypal tragic lovers. But it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s a great crime movie with memorable characters and a lot of wonderful footage of New York City.
It’s also the last in a string of tough, violent, and exceedingly well-made film noirs from Mann, who previously directed Desperate (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), among others.
After Side Street, Mann would go on to tackle a variety of genres, although in 1950 he exclusively made westerns — Winchester ’73, The Furies, and Devil’s Doorway.
I always have more movies on my “to watch” list than I can realistically make time for, and I almost passed over Side Street. But then I looked it up and saw that it was directed by Anthony Mann, and I had to watch it. I love Mann’s sensibility, and his films are always really well-paced and full of suspense. Side Street is no exception, and if it doesn’t have the stature of some of his other noirs, it’s just because they’re so good that his “lesser” works sometimes get lost in the shuffle.
Mann did some of his best-known work with cinematographer John Alton, but Joseph Ruttenberg, who shot Side Street, was also extremely talented, and he has a lot of high-profile classics on his résumé, like The Philadelphia Story (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Gaslight (1944).
Side Street looks absolutely fantastic. The interiors live and breathe with complicated interplays of light and shadows. The exteriors are mostly shot on location in New York. Not only does Ruttenberg’s exterior shooting look great, it’s a chance to see a great deal of the city as it existed in 1949, including things that are gone now, like the elevated train tracks in Manhattan.
The story and screenplay of Side Street were written by Sydney Boehm. It’s a relatively simple story about a mailman named Joe Norson (Farley Granger) who sees an opportunity to pilfer a large sum of money and takes it. His wife, Ellen Norson (Cathy O’Donnell) is pregnant with their first child, and he thinks a lump sum of cash is their ticket to the good life. Of course, the person he steals money from is a crooked lawyer with his fingers in the underworld, and Joe’s life quickly spirals out of control as he is hunted by extremely dangerous people while lying to his wife about where he got the money.
All the actors are great, and their characters seem like real people; Edmon Ryan as the shady lawyer, James Craig as his brutal enforcer, Charles McGraw and Paul Kelly as NYPD detectives, and Adele Jergens as a seductress who is part of a honey-pot blackmail scheme. I liked all the actors, but my absolute favorite was Jean Hagen (recently seen in Adam’s Rib), who plays a cynical nightclub singer and B-girl. Her scene with Farley Granger involves him buying drinks to get information out of her, and she delivers her digressive dialogue perfectly as she very convincingly portrays slowly building intoxication. Like Gloria Grahame in Crossfire (1947), she expresses a lifetime of experience, most of it bad.
Everything about Side Street holds up well, and I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a twisty thriller. Aside from the black and white cinematography, the only thing that might rankle modern viewers is Paul Kelly’s intrusive voiceover, but that was a pretty standard feature of police dramas in the late 1940s.
I especially liked that Farley Granger’s character wasn’t an innocent victim of circumstance. He makes a very clear decision to break the law, but it’s the kind of crime of opportunity most of us have probably considered at least once in our lives.
What would happen if we walked into an empty, unlocked house and poked around? What would happen if we took a joyride in an unattended car with the motor running? What would happen if we swiped an envelope we know is full of cash? Side Street presents a worst-case-scenario answer to that question in a way that’s labyrinthine but fairly believable. Highly recommended.
Border Incident (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
If you think that Mexico-U.S. border security and illegal immigration are relatively new issues, check out Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. Watching it today, it’s remarkable how familiar the social and political backdrop feels.
Border Incident is a fictional film, but it’s a composite of actual cases. It begins with the stentorian narration that opened nearly every docudrama from the 1940s, and explains how important migrant labor from Mexico is to the U.S. agricultural industry. The narrator goes on to say that while the vast majority of Mexican farm workers play by the rules, wait their turn, and arrive in the United States with working papers, some go through back channels and slip across the border in order to work illegally.
In Border Incident, Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agencies join forces not to combat illegal immigration but to protect illegal immigrants who are being victimized in the lawless borderlands. (Police officers going undercover to protect illegal immigrants was also the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s 1984 nonfiction book Lines and Shadows, which I highly recommend.)
The police officers on the front line of the operation are Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy). Pablo and Jack have worked together before and have an easy friendship, but they don’t get much time together onscreen in Border Incident.
Jack goes undercover as an American fugitive looking to flee the country and cozies up to the vicious leader of the gang who are robbing and killing illegal immigrants. The gang’s leader is named Owen Parkson and he’s played with understated relish by dependable heavy Howard Da Silva. (And speaking of dependable heavies, the great Charles McGraw is also on hand as one of Parkson’s lieutenants.)
Meanwhile, Pablo goes undercover as a migrant laborer looking to put himself at the mercy of the human traffickers who transport desperate men in dangerous and cramped conditions. Will his soft hands give him away? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.
Border Incident was one of the last films Anthony Mann made with cinematographer John Alton. Earlier in their careers, Mann and Alton made two of the most visually innovative noirs of all time; T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).
I didn’t find Border Incident quite as involving as either T-Men or Raw Deal, but visually it’s every bit the equal of those films, maybe even better. It’s full of deep-focus photography that frames two people’s faces — one in the foreground and one in the background — in a way that dials up the tension and paranoia. Day-for-night shooting rarely looks good, but Alton makes it work in Border Incident, which is replete with stunning desert landscapes that are dominated by jagged mountains and that have a sense of claustrophobia despite taking place outdoors.
While Border Incident doesn’t have any of the “We don’t need no steenking batches” types of Mexican caricatures, aside from Montalban’s protagonist, the Mexican characters don’t have much depth. And it’s odd that a film with so much authenticity would cast an Anglo actor, James Mitchell, as the second most prominent Mexican character. (If you’re a fan of soap operas, you might know Mitchell as Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children.)
Minor quibbles aside, however, Border Incident is a top-notch entry in the film noir docudrama genre. It’s a tough, tense, violent film that features extremely impressive cinematography and continually mounting tension. It also made me wonder what Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958) would have been like if Ricardo Montalban (an actual Mexican) had been cast in the lead role instead of Charlton Heston (a fake Mexican).
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).
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.)
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 (1948)
Directed by Anthony Mann
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.
Directed by Anthony Mann
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.
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.
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.