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Tag Archives: William Conrad

Dial 1119 (Nov. 3, 1950)

Dial 1119
Dial 1119 (1950)
Directed by Gerald Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Dial 1119 is an exceedingly well-made B-movie. It’s suspenseful, well-acted, and holds up extremely well. You don’t have to be a fan of film noirs or “old movies” to enjoy this one. As long as you can tolerate watching movies shot in black & white, Dial 1119 will keep you on the edge of your seat for its brief running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Dial 1119 takes place in the fictional burg of “Terminal City,” where an insane young man named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) has come in search of his psychiatrist, Dr. John D. Faron (Sam Levene). The title refers to the police, fire, and ambulance emergency number that exists in the world of the film. (Although a nationwide emergency phone number was proposed in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that 9-1-1 became the standard in North America.)

Wyckoff is a convicted murderer who has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Dr. Faron’s testimony kept Wyckoff from going to the electric chair, but the young man is clearly deeply disturbed. He is obsessed with war, death, and murder, and is a deadly threat to anyone who crosses his path.

After stealing a pistol and killing a bus driver, Wyckoff goes in search of Dr. Faron. When he finds his office closed for the night, he crosses the street to the Oasis Bar, where he holes up and takes hostages.

Levene and Thompson

It’s surprising how current many aspects of Dial 1119 feel — like hostages watching their own predicament on TV. All the chime-in Charlies blathering into a reporter’s microphone about what they’d do if they were in the same situation will feel eerily familiar to anyone who’s read comments on an article on the internet.

Also, if you’re used to television sets in movies from the 1950s with screens that are the size of a postage stamp, brace yourself for the biggest TV screen you will see in a movie from 1950. The bartender at the Oasis, Chuckles (William Conrad), has a TV that’s so large and flat that it almost looks like a modern hi-def set. He mentions at one point in the film that he paid $1,400 for the television set, and then complains that for all the money he paid it still only shows crummy westerns and professional wrestling. Replace “westerns” with “reality shows” and this movie could take place in 2016.

Marshall Thompson

One of the things I especially loved about Dial 1119 was how much of the story is told without dialogue or music. We watch the actors’ nervous eyes and sweating faces, and we know exactly what they’re thinking. The score by André Previn is great, but it’s used very sparingly, and never tells the audience how to feel. The actors’ performances and Gerald Mayer’s deft direction tell us everything we need to know.

Dial 1119 has a low budget and was obviously shot as a second feature, but M-G-M productions were always glossy, nicely lensed affairs, even when they were “B” flicks.

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Tension (Nov. 25, 1949)

Tension
Tension (1949)
Directed by John Berry
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I recently did an MGM double bill and watched John Berry’s Tension right after I watched George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949).

After the wit, charm, and progressive gender politics of Adam’s Rib, I was turned off by the first reel of Tension and its tale of infidelity and murder. Audrey Totter is the classic femme fatale with no motivation, backstory, or realistic psychology. She’s just bad because she wants to be.

Ditto for her nebbishy husband played by Richard Basehart, who puts up with being cuckolded to such a ridiculous degree that I wanted to reach into the movie, slap him around, and tell him to stop deluding himself and just get a divorce, already.

Audrey Totter in Tension

But after the plot took one crazy turn after another, Tension totally won me over. The plotting is byzantine but never confusing, the performances are all solid, Allen Rivkin’s screenplay (based on a story by John D. Klorer) is clever and engaging, the score by André Previn is terrific, and the film offers a chance to see the lovely Cyd Charisse in a rare non-dancing role. Also, as an MGM production, Tension looks absolutely fantastic, and features a lot of great location shooting in and around Los Angeles.

Richard Basehart brings the same chameleonic everyman qualities to his role in Tension that he brought to his role in He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike that film, however, Basehart isn’t a trigger-happy sociopath in Tension, he’s just an average guy who changes his appearance to commit murder after he’s pushed to the edge by his cheating wife.

Richard Basehart

Basehart plays a pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to make enough money to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). Unfortunately, she’s as faithless as the day is long, and she runs off with a hairy, knuckle-dragging he-man named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

After Barney Deager beats the tar out of Warren Quimby when he confronts Deager and his wife on the beach, Quimby vows revenge. He gets a pair of contact lenses to change his appearance and moves into an apartment under an assumed name. By creating a person who doesn’t exist, he thinks he’ll be able to murder Barney Deager and get away with it.

Events quickly spiral out of Quimby’s control, as they tend to in film noirs.

He falls for his pretty neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), who falls even harder for him, his murder plot goes badly awry, and before he knows it, he’s in up to his neck as a dogged pair of homicide detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are on his trail.

Tension isn’t exactly a realistic film, but it’s one of the most fun and twistiest noirs I’ve seen in a long time.

Sorry, Wrong Number (Sept. 1, 1948)

Sorry Wrong Number
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Hal Wallis Productions / Paramount Pictures

Lucille Fletcher was the greatest playwright who ever worked in the medium of radio.

Fletcher had an instinctive understanding of radio’s limitations and possibilities. Her dramas were often confined to a single location, never had more characters than the listener could keep track of, and exploited simple but primal fears like helplessness, confinement, and being alone in the dark.

Her most famous radio play was “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which was first broadcast on May 25, 1943, as an episode of the CBS anthology series Suspense. It starred Agnes Moorehead as a bedridden invalid who accidentally overhears a phone conversation between two men who are planning a murder. Distraught, she tries to get the operator to find out where the call came from. When that doesn’t work, she calls the police, but without specific information — she didn’t hear any names or exact places — there isn’t much they can do.

It’s a brilliant setup. Since all the action takes place in a single bedroom and all of the dialogue takes place over the phone, there’s never any confusion about who’s who, or what’s happening. Also, the fact that the story is told completely through sound creates a terrifying sense of intimacy.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was the most popular episode ever broadcast on Suspense. It was so popular that it was performed seven more times, each time starring Agnes Moorehead; again in 1943, in 1944, in 1945, in 1948, in 1952, in 1957, and for the final time in 1960. (Suspense was on the air from 1942 to 1962.)

Stanwyck

It’s natural that such a popular radio play would be adapted for the big screen, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work expanded to three times its length for a visual medium.

People seem to have mixed feelings about Anatole Litvak’s film version, but I thought it was pretty good. I love Barbara Stanwyck, and she’s a more likeable protagonist than Agnes Moorehead was in the same role on the radio.

I found Sorry, Wrong Number similar in some ways to Robert Siodmak’s film The Killers (1946), which was adapted from the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Both films take a small, perfect little piece of art and expand it into a feature film by adding a bunch of characters and a whole lot of plot that’s not even suggested in the original work. (Incidentally, both films star Burt Lancaster and feature William Conrad in a small but important role.)

How well this works is up to the individual viewer, but I thought that Sorry, Wrong Number worked pretty well as a film. It doesn’t have the same impact as the radio play, but the integrity of the original story remains intact, even though it only occupies the first 15 minutes and the last 10 minutes of the film. The film version also humanizes her husband (played by Lancaster) and turns him into a victim of sorts, which is drastically different from the radio play, in which he is mostly an off-stage presence.

Anyway, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work for radio, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of the shows she wrote scripts for. You can click on the titles below to stream the shows or right-click to download them.

The Hitchhiker (first broadcast November 17, 1941)
This is the June 21, 1946, broadcast of the show on Orson Welles’s Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air. Welles reprises his role as a man driving cross-country who repeatedly see the same hitchhiker on the side of the road, even though there is no possible way the man could be moving from place to place so quickly. The chilling music is by Fletcher’s husband at the time, Bernard Herrmann. Like “Sorry, Wrong Number,” this play was done for radio several times, and was even adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960.

The Diary of Sophronia Winters (first broadcast April 27, 1943)
Sophronia Winters (Agnes Moorehead), an unmarried middle-aged woman who is feeling liberated after her father’s death, meets a man named Hiram (Ray Collins) whose sister-in-law was also named “Sophronia.” Hiram marries Sophronia and begins to torment her with tales of the other Sophronia, an ax murderess. This is a claustrophobic, suspenseful story that evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as memories of the real-life case of Lizzie Borden.

Sorry, Wrong Number (first broadcast May 25, 1943)
The original radio version stars Agnes Moorehead and is one of a handful of absolutely indispensable shows if you have any interest in radio drama.

Fugue in C minor (first broadcast June 1, 1944)
Ida Lupino plays a woman in the late Victorian era who is introduced to a widower with two young children. The widower, played by Vincent Price, is a composer, and his children believe that he murdered their mother, and that her spirit is trapped in their father’s organ.

The Search for Henri LeFevre (first broadcast July 6, 1944)
Paul Muni stars as a classical composer who believes his work has been plagiarized and broadcast on the radio by a man named “Henri LeFevre.”

The Furnished Floor (first broadcast September 13, 1945)
Don DeFore plays a man whose wife has died. He moves back into the apartment he used to share with his wife and restores it to exactly the way it was when his wife was still alive. Mildred Natwick plays his landlady.

Dark Journey (first broadcast April 25, 1946)
Nancy Kelly and Cathy Lewis play a pair of old friends who reunite after years apart. One of them is obsessed with a man who has spurned her, and believes that she can make him love her through sheer force of will.

The Thing in the Window (first broadcast December 19, 1946)
Joseph Cotten plays a man who thinks he can see a corpse in the apartment across from him, but he can’t be certain if his mind is playing tricks on him.

As I said, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work, and I hope you will too.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.