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Tag Archives: Edmund MacDonald

Shoot to Kill (March 15, 1947)

William Berke’s Shoot to Kill (also released under the title Police Reporter) isn’t as bad as you may have heard it is, but it still ain’t good.

Berke was a journeyman director, but he was a fine visual craftsman, as can be seen in the crime programmer Dick Tracy (1945) and B westerns like Sunset Pass (1946) and Code of the West (1947).

When he worked with talented actors, as he did in Cop Hater (1958), which he made toward the end of his career, he could produce a damned fine piece of entertainment.

When he worked with untalented actors, the results could be disastrous.

The plot of Shoot to Kill hinges on a contrivance, but that’s not the problem with the picture. The problem is that its male and female protagonists, Russell Wade and Luana Walters (billed in the credits as Susan Walters), are such phenomenally awful actors that every word out of their mouths is like a speed bump.

Just when the narrative is chugging along nicely, and the tension is rising, Wade and Walters sit down to discuss matters, and their frozen-molasses line delivery grinds everything back down to first gear.

The film begins at the end, with a car crash that kills district attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmund MacDonald) and gangster “Dixie” Logan (Robert Kent, billed in the credits as Douglas Blackley). Also in the car, injured but alive, is Marian Langdon (Walters).

What unlikely chain of ridiculous events brought these three characters together? From her hospital bed, Marian Langdon spills the tale.

Dixie Logan was sent to prison by perjured testimony solicited by D.A. Dale, who’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Marian goes to work for the D.A., and is privy to all kinds of nefarious activity. For instance, Dale is in cahoots with gangster Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva), so when some of Miller’s heavies discover that the kindly old man cleaning up in Dale’s office after hours is really a police plant, they throw him down an elevator shaft. (Murdering someone by throwing them out of a window is called “defenestration.” What’s the word for murdering someone by throwing them down an elevator shaft? If there’s not a word for it, there should be.)

Dale romances Marian while she feeds information to reporter George “Mitch” Mitchell (Wade) on the side. She eventually gives in to Dale’s proposals of marriage, and they get hitched in a midnight ceremony, and survive a 12:10 AM attempt on their lives.

All in a day’s work.

This quickie wedding leads to the contrivance I mentioned earlier. When Dale expects to get down to nuptial business, Walters gives him the cold shoulder, and informs him that she knows the only reason he married her is so she can’t testify against him now that she knows all his dirty little secrets. A wife can’t testify against her husband, after all. (I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure this law — which existed in plenty of states — meant that a wife couldn’t be compelled to testify against her husband in court. If she wanted to, nothing could stop her.)

Shoot to Kill has enough plot for a movie twice as long, but it’s an acceptable way to kill an hour if you can overlook wooden acting and ridiculous twists.

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They Made Me a Killer (May 3, 1946)

Incompetent director William C. Thomas’s They Made Me a Killer is based on a screenplay by competent writer Daniel Mainwaring, who was working under the name “Geoffrey Homes.” Mainwaring was a prolific screenwriter whose most famous contribution to film noir is his script for Out of the Past (1947), which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High (both were written under his Homes pseudonym).

The script for They Made Me a Killer isn’t the problem. In the hands of a talented director and a better cast of actors, it could have been a crisp little thriller. There’s a decent amount of complexity in its familiar tale of an innocent man on the run, and the dialogue is snappy. Unfortunately it’s all handled so poorly that the protagonist’s flexible ethics end up seeming more like sloppy storytelling than anything else, and all the clever lines are delivered in too ham-handed a fashion to make much of an impact.

Produced by William H. Pine, They Made Me a Killer was released by Pine-Thomas Productions, the B unit of Paramount Pictures. It’s normal for low-budget productions to cut corners, but this picture has some of the most egregious examples of cost-cutting I’ve ever seen. Thomas employs rear projection frequently, and not just for scenes shot in cars, which is when the technique was most commonly used. There are numerous shots in They Made Me a Killer of people standing on a street corner in which everything behind them is clearly rear projected. In one scene, two actors stand in front of a rear-projected house, then one of them turns to walk toward it. The scene immediately cuts to a shot of her ringing the doorbell, standing in front of a door that doesn’t look as though it matches the house we saw in the establishing shot. There are certainly less noticeable and more artful ways to keep a picture under budget.

When They Made Me a Killer begins, Tom Durling (Robert Lowery) is leaving Chicago. His brother was killed there, and he has no desire to stay. He’s leaving his job as an auto mechanic, and heading for San Francisco. Once in California, he stops at an intersection. San Francisco is 248 miles away, and Santa Marta, “The Pearl of the Valley,” is just five miles away. He heads for Santa Marta, hoping to sell his souped-up jalopy, which he has modified to achieve speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.

He’s approached by a potential buyer named Betty Ford (Lola Lane), who tells Durling that she wants her boyfriend to buy the car for her for her birthday. Agreeing to meet her boyfriend the next day to close the deal, he ends up parked outside the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank the next morning with Betty exhorting him not to move, even to drive around the block to avoid a parking ticket, while Jack Conley (Edmund MacDonald) and Frank Conley (James Bush) are inside, making a very large withdrawal.

When he had initially shown her what his blocky hot rod could do, Durling had told Betty, “All I wanna do in this town is leave it.” He’ll get his wish, but he’ll get it the hard way.

He’s not the only one. Caught in the crossfire is a hapless little punk named Steve Reynolds (Byron Barr), a bank clerk at the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank who’s hanging around the getaway car because he has the hots for Betty.

Betty and the Conley brothers make off with $100,000, but Durling drives them into a ditch. He’s knocked unconscious, the robbers flee, and he’s left to take the rap.

He hangs his hopes for freedom on young Steve Reynolds, who lies in the hospital dying from a bullet wound. Steve’s sister June (Barbara Britton) comes to visit him in the hospital. She and Durling are immediately attracted to each other, and she reluctantly becomes his ally as they race to prove his innocence, and Steve’s.

All of this probably sounds better on paper than it plays out on screen. The acting is bargain basement and the direction is maladroit, turning what could have been an entertaining one-hour programmer into a forgettable snoozer.

Detour (Nov. 30, 1945)

Detour
Detour (1945)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
P.R.C.

There should be a picture of Tom Neal from the first few minutes of Detour next to the word “dejected” in the dictionary.

Unshaven, tie loosened, hat and suit rumpled, he walks along a California highway with his hands in his pockets, looking as though he just watched the world burn down to a cinder and he doesn’t know why he’s still standing.

Like a lot of film noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is told through flashback and voiceover narration. Sitting at a counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, Al Roberts (Neal) recalls his nothing-special but decent job playing piano in a Manhattan nightclub called the Break o’ Dawn, back when he had a clean jaw, a sharp tuxedo, and brilliantined hair.

“All in all I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says, recalling his romance with Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the singer in the club. Al has dreams of Carnegie Hall that he downplays with cynicism, while Sue dreams of making it in Hollywood. When she leaves New York to fulfill her dream, Al is still stuck in the club, performing virtuoso pieces for the occasional sawbuck tip from a drunk.

When Al decides he’s going to travel to Los Angeles to marry Sue, he has so little money that the only way he can do it is by thumbing rides. Hitchhiking in Detour isn’t the transcendent experience Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, it’s a grim necessity. “Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me,” Al says. “Oh, yeah, I know all about how it’s an education and how you get to meet a lot of people and all that, but me? From now on I’ll take my education in college, or in P.S. Sixty-Two, or I’ll send a dollar ninety-eight in stamps for ten easy lessons. Thumbing rides may save you bus fare, but it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes. If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”

What’s in store for Al is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. The plot of Detour is not that different from any number of 30-minute radio plays produced for Suspense or The Whistler, and any devotee of the pulp novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson will feel right at home while watching this film. So what is it that makes Detour so unique?

First, it’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations; a hotel room and a car in front of a rear projection screen. Furthermore, it’s stunning how easy it is to suspend one’s disbelief during all of the driving scenes. Usually rear projection is a technique that draws attention to itself, and looks incredibly fake, but in Detour it’s just part of the background. It helps that the performances in the film are hypnotic. When Al is picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), Haskell pops pills from his glove compartment and tells Al the story of how he got the deep scratches on his hand. “You know, there oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. “I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don’t you? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.” As Haskell speaks, Al responds with noncommital little “Yep”s in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s hitchhiked, or who’s had to sit next to a talkative creep on a Greyhound bus.

When Haskell drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Al is convinced he’ll be blamed for the murder if he reports it to the police, so he hides the corpse, switches clothes with Haskell, and takes his identification and money. His luck goes from bad to worse when he picks up a slovenly hitchhiker the next day named Vera (Ann Savage), who looks as if she’s “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Despite her plain looks, Al is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately for him, Vera turns out to be the woman Haskell threw out of his car. She doesn’t recognize the car at first, and takes a nap after exchanging a few sullen words with Al. But after a minute or two, she bolts awake and says, “Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister.”

The heartless Vera blackmails Al, forcing him to give her all of Haskell’s money and promise to get his hands on more, or she’ll turn him in to the cops. The two of them hole up in a lousy hotel room with a bedroom and a living room with a Murphy bed. Vera plays Al like a fiddle while getting drunk off cheap liquor and flinging abuse at him. Even so, the sexual tension between them is unbearable, which is even more remarkable considering that Savage is no great beauty, and plays the scene in which she attempts to seduce Al while wearing a bathrobe and a headscarf.

Like everything else in Detour, Neal and Savage’s performances are not Oscar-caliber, but they have an eerie power that can’t be fully explained. Neal, who was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, was a former boxer with a Harvard law degree who played mostly tough guys in the movies. A troubled man, he was blackballed in Hollywood in 1951 after beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and giving him a concussion in a quarrel over the affections of Barbara Payton. And in 1965, Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale, and did time in prison for manslaughter.

Neal’s performance in this film is haunting, and invites a subjective judgment from the viewer. Are the things Al tells us about the deaths in the film accurate? Were they, as he claims, purely accidental? Or is he like every other murderer who pleads for clemency because it “wasn’t really my fault”? How real are the things we’re shown? Is Al really the unappreciated piano virtuoso he seems to be, or is this just another part of an elaborate fantasy world in which life refuses to hand him any breaks? This sense of nightmarish uncertainty and the pervading sense of doom make Detour one of the all-time great noirs. Edgar G. Ulmer was probably the best director who made films for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but Detour is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever seen of his.

The Lady Confesses (May 16, 1945)

HughesMary Beth Hughes appeared in dozens of films from 1939 onward as a second- or third-billed actress (including films in the Charlie Chan, Cisco Kid, and Michael Shayne series), but in director Sam Newfield’s P.R.C. production The Lady Confesses she gets to strut her limited but charming stuff in a lead role. A natural redhead, Hughes usually appeared onscreen as a platinum blonde. Her round cheeks, big eyes, and moxie made up for what she lacked as a thespian.

When The Lady Confesses begins, Vicki McGuire (Hughes) receives a visit from a woman named Norma (Barbara Slater), who turns out to be the wife of Vicki’s fiancé, Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont). Norma has been missing for seven years and was presumed dead. Nasty Norma tells little sweetheart Vicki that she won’t let anyone marry her Larry, even though she doesn’t care for him one bit. Vicki runs off to find Larry, who has been stumbling around a nightclub, three sheets to the wind, generally making an ass of himself. When she finds him and wakes him up, they go to Norma’s apartment to sort things out with her. When they arrive, however, the place is lousy with cops, and Norma lies dead, strangled with a piece of wire. To convince the police of his innocence, Larry takes them to the club where he had been dead drunk for the past several hours. Everyone there admits having seen him, except for the club owner, the shady Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald), who denies having seen Larry, even though Larry had talked to him and asked him for permission to sleep it off in his office. Later, under police questioning, Brandon admits he knew the dead woman, and that she had lent him $10,000 to start up the club, and had recently returned to collect interest on the loan. Suspicious of Brandon, Vicki goes undercover in his club. She waits tables, sings a few songs, and even begins to feel herself falling under his dangerous sway.

The Lady Confesses is an average bottom-of-the-bill noir, but it moves at a nice clip and Hughes is cute. Also, you get to see Beaumont (who would go on to play everyone’s favorite sitcom dad, Ward Cleaver) act totally wasted for the first 10 minutes, which is fun.

A note on the title of the film; contextually it makes no sense. Both Ladies of the Night and Undercover Girl were considered. The first might have implied that the film was about prostitutes. The second actually would have been fitting. But I suppose the point is to get asses in the seats, not to give people an accurate idea of what they’re going to be seeing, especially when it’s a Poverty Row production.