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Tag Archives: William Gould

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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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.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

Beauty and the Bandit (Nov. 9, 1946)

Maybe I should stop watching these Cisco Kid pictures. They’re dead-on-arrival Saturday matinées from Monogram Pictures that have now thrice failed to entertain me. After sitting through The Gay Cavalier and South of Monterey, feeling like a drunk who’d fallen asleep in a grindhouse on a Friday night in 1946 and woken up the next morning surrounded by kids yelling at the screen and throwing popcorn at each other — too hungover to get up and leave — I figured I could call it quits with the series and not miss much.

But Gilbert Roland is a lot of fun to watch as Cisco. While these movies seemed pitched at a pretty young audience, his smooth line deliveries and double entendres are clearly aimed at adults. And the presence of Ramsay Ames as the heroine made it hard to say no to Beauty and the Bandit. I fell in love with Ames in the Universal horror picture The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and will watch her in anything, although in both Cisco Kid pictures I’ve seen her in she’s skinnier, less voluptuous, and a little harder-looking than she was in her earlier horror-movie appearances in The Mummy’s Ghost and Calling Dr. Death (1943).

In the first scene of the film, Cisco (Roland) gets a tip from his old friend Sailor Bill (Glenn Strange) — who has given up a life of crime for a home, wife, and eight children — that a young Frenchman is traveling to San Marino with a chestful of silver. This young man is played by Ames, who is the least convincing young “man” I’ve seen since Barbara Hale put on drag in West of the Pecos (1945). Perhaps this is by design. If Ames was convincing as a fellow, the scene in which Roland leans forward and lights her cigarette would be the most homoerotic image of 1946, since they stare at each other with more heat and longing than you’d see during a day at the beach with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott.

Later he teaches Ames to drink tequila (with lemon and a little salt) and engages in all manner of sexual teasing, like trying to sleep in her bed and then kicking her out when she objects.

Once the idiotic cross-dressing subterfuge is done away with, Ames looks great in a pair of pants and boots. She has more swagger dressed in men’s clothes with her long hair free than she does in drag, but her accent is still all over the place, and the “n’est-ce pas” that often ends her lines sounds about as French as Steve Martin playing Inspector Clouseau. Her character, Jeanne Du Bois, is trying to buy land from the disgraced and drunken Dr. Juan Valegra (Martin Garralaga), land which was stolen, and which Cisco wishes to return to the peasants. His devotion to the Mexican people of Old California gets in the way of his romance with the headstrong Jeanne, but as usual, a good spanking fixes her right up.