RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Bernhard-Brandt Productions

Violence (April 12, 1947)

Violence
Violence (1947)
Directed by Jack Bernhard
Monogram Pictures

Jack Bernhard’s Violence begins with a stunning freeze frame of the headquarters of the United Defenders, a radical Los Angeles-based group dedicated to preserving “America for Americans.” An American flag stationed above the entrance is captured in mid-billow. The jagged letters of the title shockingly appear: “VIOLENCE.”

After the freeze frame springs to life, we see Fred Stalk (Sheldon Leonard) and the brutal idiot man-child Joker Robinson (Peter Whitney) interrogating and beating a man who has betrayed the United Defenders. The man Stalk and Joker are beating is named Joe Donahue (Jimmy Clark), and his murder is the most violent thing about Violence, which generally doesn’t live up to its sizzling title or the promise of its first reel.

Ann Dwire (Nancy Coleman) is undercover with the United Defenders. She’s operating under the name “Ann Mason” and is preparing material for an exposé of the organization for View magazine. Her methods of subterfuge would get her killed in less than 24 hours in the real world. When she calls in information to Ralph Borden (Pierre Watkin), her managing editor back in Chicago, she calls him from her apartment, even stating Borden’s full name and title to the concierge of her building, a kindly old man called Pop (Frank Reicher). Also, when it comes time to dispose of a letter from Borden, she doesn’t burn it, she just tears it up into smaller pieces (and her delicate fingers don’t do a very good job of it).

The United Defenders recruit disgruntled World War II veterans, promising to fight against housing shortages and unemployment, but they’re really just a fascist organization whose purpose is to sow discord and promote violence. When a young veteran (Richard Irving) stands up at a meeting and tells the organization’s leader, True Dawson (Emory Parnell), that it seems as if his rhetoric only leads in one direction — violence — Dawson has a couple of his followers throw him out on his ear, which proves the young man’s point.

Michael O'Shea and Nancy Coleman

Violence touches on a lot of hot-button issues, but doesn’t delve into them very deeply. (If you wanted deep treatises on post-war intolerance and creeping fascism in America in 1947, you had to be a kid listening to the radio show The Adventures of Superman. Most Hollywood productions just didn’t have the stones to get too specific.) For the most part, Violence uses its serious themes as window dressing for a brisk B movie that only aims to thrill. If Violence had been made a few years earlier, the United Defenders would have been Nazi fifth columnists. If it had been made a few years later, they would have been Communists.

While on a trip back to Chicago to meet with her editor, Ann is in a taxi cab accident and loses her memory. She becomes Ann Mason through and through, even getting up to speak at a meeting and encouraging every man there to recruit friends … friends who aren’t afraid to use violence to get what they want. But to thicken the plot, her fiancé Steve Fuller (Michael O’Shea) accompanies her back to Los Angeles, and he seems to know what’s going on, even though he volunteers to work for the United Defenders.

Coleman’s acting while she’s suffering from memory loss is pretty awful. She keeps looking pained and pressing her fingers to her temples, as though her problem is a bad headache, not post-traumatic retrograde amnesia.

Violence is mildly entertaining, but its low budget and weak performances work against it. The editing is sloppy — there are a lot of jump cuts within scenes — and the amnesia aspect of the story is poorly handled. Violence was directed by Jack Bernhard, who made Decoy (1946), a film noir that has built up quite a reputation in recent years. I’ve seen Decoy twice, and I think it’s overrated, but it does have one thing going for it that is sorely missing in Violence, a truly loony and twisty plot.

Advertisements

Decoy (Sept. 14, 1946)

Jack Bernhard’s Decoy has built up quite a reputation in recent years. Considered a “lost” film for decades, it was written about in several books about film noir, and its perversity and violence were marveled over, as well as the coldness of its femme fatale.

When a print of the film was unearthed and shown as part of the Second Annual Festival of Film Noir in March 2000 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, the audience reportedly went wild.

Film critic Glenn Erickson (who also does a commentary track on the DVD) wrote that “as far as violence goes, Decoy was to 1946 what Pulp Fiction is to 1994.” I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly in terms of cultural impact, Quentin Tarantino’s films made a much larger splash in the ’90s than this picture did at the time of its release. And it’s hard to compare Tarantino’s films — which are incredibly self-aware, and which owe so much to every decade of film history that preceded them — to this unselfconscious programmer.

Decoy is based on a story by Stanley Rubin, who wrote it after he got out of the Air Corps in an attempt to make some money. He first sold it to radio, and then, with a few changes, to director Bernhard at Monogram Pictures. The screenplay is by Nedrick Young. It stars British actress Jean Gillie as Margot Shelby, surely one of the most heartless femme fatales in the history of noir. (Gillie was married to the director. They met in England, and they divorced shortly after the film was finished, and she only starred in one other film before she died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 33.)

When the film begins, we see Dr. L.L. “Lloyd” Craig (Herbert Rudley) staggering out of a gas station washroom in the early dawn hours. He hitches a ride into town, and heads for a particular room in a hotel. Once he’s inside, we hear shots. Police sergeant Joe “Jo Jo” Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) rushes down the corridor. The doctor is dead, there’s a wooden box with the lock shot off (MacGuffin alert!), and Margot is lying on the couch, wounded. When Jo Jo hands her the box, she laughs and weeps, and generally acts like a petulant child.

In classic noir fashion, she narrates her own story as she lies dying. Her boyfriend, gangster Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong) was set to die in the gas chamber, which didn’t make Margot happy. Not because she was going to miss him after he was dead, but because only he knew where the $400,000 take from a robbery was hidden.

In a convoluted scheme, Margot seduces gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris), who has already sunk $45,000 into an appeal for Olins that failed, and gets him to engineer the removal of Frankie’s body from the prison immediately after he dies in the gas chamber. She also seduces Dr. Craig, cajoling him away from his free clinic and his nurse (and possibly girlfriend), who is played by Marjorie Woodworth, whose acting is delightfully terrible.

Dr. Craig is also in charge of autopsies at the prison, so Margot has cooked up a plan in which Dr. Craig will administer methylene blue to Frankie to counteract the hydrocyanic acid he’ll receive in the gas chamber. (Large doses of methylene blue were actually used as an antidote to potassium cyanide poisoning as early as 1933, so kudos to Rubin for making his pseudoscience at least semi-believable.)

After he’s brought back to life, Frankie staggers around like Frankenstein’s monster, even lighting a match at one point and staring at it as though he’s never seen fire before. By the time he breaks down and says, “I’m alive,” it feels as if an hour has gone by.

While Margot not only seduces but murders nearly every man who crosses her path, I didn’t find any of it that shocking, mostly because the tone of the picture is so campy, and Gillie isn’t really a very good actress. The murder that gets talked about the most is the one she commits by running a man over with her car, but the effect of the scene may be softened in the DVD. In Arthur Lyons’s book Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, he writes that “she runs him over repeatedly,” but in the DVD version she only runs him over once. She puts the selector in drive, steps on the gas, guns the accelerator, and that’s it. Apparently there are two different cuts of Decoy, and people who saw the print at the Egyptian Theatre in 2000 got to see the more brutal version of this murder, but most at-home viewers are going to feel that it’s rather ho-hum, as far as brutal murder scenes go.*

Movies like this all get lumped into a big pile now labeled “film noir,” which is a good designation, and one that’s stood the test of time. It was first used by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, but was completely unknown in Hollywood when “film noirs” were actually being made. Movies like Decoy were called “melodramas” (or sometimes “thrillers” or “suspense” movies) and melodrama is actually a better term to describe this movie than noir, which implies a grander style than Decoy exhibits. The sets are bare bones, the plot is ridiculous, and the acting is campy. There are plenty of night scenes and a few shadows lurking around corners, but in general, the lighting is more utilitarian than chiaroscuro.

This is not to say that Decoy isn’t a lot of fun. It is. And the plotting is clever, especially the “gotcha” ending. But it’s far from a masterpiece, and it’s too silly to be taken very seriously.

*Although both Erickson and Lyons make the claim that Margot runs her victim over with her car “repeatedly,” I’m not 100% convinced that there are two different prints of this film in circulation. The power of suggestion in horrific or violent scenes is a powerful thing, and it can trick the audience, especially after a single viewing of a film. There are critics who swore up and down that they saw the knife slashing Janet Leigh’s skin in Psycho (1960), even though it never actually does, and several critics have memories of seeing a horrific demon baby at the end of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), even though the baby is never shown.