Wednesday, 14 December 2016


“I hate macho, even though that’s what I was all my life.”  Budd Boetticher

For ten years and about as many movies, he was known professionally as Oscar Boetticher, former all-star college athlete, professional matador, and junior film director. Then came Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), which earned him full recognition as a director, along with an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story. He also was credited for the first time as ‘Budd Boetticher’, the name under which he'd win box office success for a cycle of virile and critically enduring B westerns starring Randolph Scott. Best among them were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960).

However, Boetticher seemed to come to movie-making nearly fully-formed. Much of what was apparent in the celebrated westerns also was in evidence in earlier efforts: the deceptively straightforward visual style; the economical but elegant storytelling; the stoical, self-contained heroes; the bleak appreciation of the cruelties of life and death.

Also among the earlier entries were several vivid crime dramas and film noirs beginning with The Missing Juror (1944), a tense thriller about a reporter on the trail of an avenging killer. Then came Escape in the Fog (1945), Assigned to Danger (1948), and Behind Locked Doors (1948), followed later by The Killer is Loose (1956) and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), a luminous but brutal title about a real-life psychotic Chicago mobster (played by Ray Danton) who reigned during one of gangland's bloodiest eras. The last two especially are often and unjustly left out of consideration of Boetticher's best work.

Of the others, the one least known or seen is Assigned to Danger, a chilling little programmer starring Gene Raymond and Noreen Nash. Raymond plays Dan Sullivan, a Los Angeles insurance investigator who’s ‘assigned to danger’ when his company asks him to try and recover $80,000 stolen in a gang heist. The robbers also killed a watchman and sent out one of their own to be shot down by police while the rest escaped. 

The dead gang member is ID'd as Nip Powers, whose sister, Bonnie owns a lodge in the San Gabriel mountains, just beyond the city. Sullivan goes and books in for a couple of nights and begins to feel Bonnie out for any connection with the gang. However, he overplays his hand and Bonnie brushes him aside, saying, “Don’t start making wolf noises, I’m not that lonely”. She later apologizes, telling him, “I’ve never been lucky with men.” But when he presses her further, she says, “There’s nothing worth telling about me”.

Meantime, the gang led by Frankie Mantell (Robert Bice) shows up at the lodge. Frankie had been shot during the robbery and is not happy about Sullivan's presence - though Bonnie tries to assure him that Sullivan’s just “a nice guy, the only guy that’s treated me like I were nice, too.” Not at all convinced, Frankie orders one of the gang to kill him but backs off when Bonnie informs him that Sullivan is a doctor (she's found business cards Sullivan had been given by a physician in town whom he’d asked about the lodge). Sullivan, now with his back to the wall, confesses to Bonnie that he’s not who she thinks he is. She responds in kind and tells him that she’s actually more than just a friend of Frankie’s. She and the investigator now are handcuffed one-to-the-other by their evasions and lies. 

Gene Raymond, whose talents were only variably provided for by Hollywood, delivers a solid showing in Assigned to Danger. Golden-blond and dashingly handsome in his youth, Raymond was a capable leading man, later starring in the noir psychodrama The Locket (1946) and Hubert Cornfield’s harrowing Plunder Road (1956). In all, Raymond’s career spanned four decades as both actor and vocal artist, introducing a number of songs on screen which became hit standards such as ‘All I Do is Dream of You’, and 'Let’s Have Another Cigarette’[i] In Assigned to Danger, he likes a pipe, which he draws on pensively as he makes an effort to engage Bonnie. Though a seasoned investigator and nobody’s fool, his interest has become as much personal as professional.

But with Frankie threatening, Sullivan moves to takes control, coming forward as a typical Boetticher tough guy and reluctant hero who survives by bluffing it out until the final showdown with a clutch of voluble villains. Here they're played by Bice, Martin Kosleck, Ralf Harolde and Jack Overman, character actors well-familiar to film noir lovers. Also supporting is Gene Evans (Armored Car Robbery, 1950; Crashout, 1955), as Joey, a mute, hulking handyman who’s as watchful of Bonnie as he is worryingly hostile to Sullivan.

Noreen Nash, as Bonnie, began her career as a showgirl and then played a number of mostly decorative roles in films in the late 40’s and into the 50’s. Nash, who was unquestionably beautiful, transcends expectations with her easy authority (in a 2011 interview, she spoke of Assigned to Danger as the favorite of her films which included The Southerner, 1945 and Giant, 1956). Also in her favor was the sympathetic script by Eugene Ling, the film’s producer, who later contributed screenplays for Behind Locked Doors, Port of New York (1949), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), and Scandal Sheet (1952). The women in Boetticher’s films sometimes come across as little more than prizes to be fought over, even when they feature prominently in the story. But Bonnie's resilience and desire to do better move Sullivan to more than just action.

Though a low-budget B production that holds to just a handful of sets and locations and clocks in at only 76 minutes, Assigned to Danger doesn't want for much, thanks to Boetticher's craftsmanship and his instincts for significance and emotional truth. With plot, action and character precisely balanced out and pared down to iconic essentials, it's a B noir well-worth watching.

[i] Off screen, Raymond served a pilot in the Air Force Reserve, flying bomber missions in both WWII and Viet Nam for which he was awarded the Legion of Merit. He also active on the boards of the Screen Actors Guild and Academy of Television Arts and Science and received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions.

Gary Deane

Sunday, 11 September 2016


Ree: You always have scared me.
Teardrop: That's ‘cause you're smart.

from WINTER'S BONE (2010)

In the popular imagination, film noir long has been bound up with the urban metropolis and its 'eight million stories' of world-weary private dicks, street-wise gangsters, sleazy conmen, bent cops, backstabbing femmes fatales, and just plain chumps.  

Well, as much as the song remains the same, some things have changed.

More recently, as North American cities of all shapes and sizes have been in a headlong rush to be viewed as precincts of gentrified vibrancy and urgent creative wonderfulness, a lot of both film and literary noir has packed its bags and headed off to the rural heartland where responses to matters at hand are not always going to be as ‘nuanced’ or ‘mindful’ as a lot of city folks might like. 

Welcome to the land of Rural Noir AKA Country Noir, a world which feels like it’s about to explode in violence and usually does, leaving kith and kin to settle scores and make things right amid a conspiracy of silence. Do what you need to but don’t bother calling the law if you want to live past tomorrow.  
If this evokes a certain amount of dread, it's meant to, as rural noir works to defuse the myth of the bucolic countryside and expose a hard place of rusty edges and disposable existences. More recent country noir is populated with damaged men and wounded women who at one time might have been farmers or have found jobs in mills or factories. But the family farm has given way to factory farming and mills and factories are shuttered, with the work gone elsewhere. What’s left is economic insecurity, fraying community bonds, anarchic family structures and the fearful aftershocks of crime.

Rural noir’s stories are often seeded in horrific criminal happenings, though at their core, they are as much about self and family identity and how people can lose their way and go wrong even while trying to do the right thing.  But drug addiction, family grievances, and domestic violence leave wounds that won’t heal, and struggles against poverty and fate end in despair and a life sentence of grief. Though ills may be vanquished, a stinging sense of betrayal and distrust lingers.

Gritty crime tales with backwoods settings are part of the traditional and lasting material of noir fiction and film noir. One of earliest and still-best examples of rural noir was James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much, published in 1940 which put a country spin on James M. Cain. Later, several of Jim Thompson’s fearsome tales, such as The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop. 1280 (1964), with their portrayals of depraved small-town lawmen, would find their way to the screen.   

Opening the door wide for contemporary rural noir was Daniel Woodrell, whose 2006 novel Winter’s Bone, released as a film in 2010, defined both a style and sensibility now most associated with modern country noir. Woodrell’s stories of criminals trapped by their violent compulsions developed out of necessity are intimate and poetic and carry genuine emotional weight. Despite the social and economic malaise clawing at the viscera of rural America, these works hold closely to the local and the personal.

Similar can be said of the twenty-five films below. Tense, atmospheric and unsettling, these are sinister, slow-burning tales that possess a stark elegance, even at their most violent. While the themes of government corruption, political opportunism, and corporate malfeasance might have been herded like elephants into the room, they weren't. Much of these films’ dark attraction resides in their austere, contained narratives which focus on individual or private transgressions - the sins of which lie at the very heart of noir.

That said, the most recent of the titles here, Hell or High Water (2016), a movie self-consciously attuned to today’s outsider politics, still swaps out film noir's signature moral ambiguity for a dubious moral equivalency (the picture’s tagline is “Justice is not a crime”). Otherwise, the movie is not to be missed. 

It would be a good thing if rural noir doesn't get fitted up any more obligingly with ‘Big X’, ‘Big Y’ or ‘Big Z’ as the standard operating forces of villainy. This kind of doctrinal sausage-stuffing already already has made make itself felt in too many box office thrillers of late. But there still are enough of these closer-to-the-bone meditations around to look forward to.

Note: The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) is not among the films listed below, only because it’s “a film that needs no introduction”.





3. DON MCKAY (2009)


4. WINTER'S BONE (2010)








8.KILLER JOE (2011)


9. DEADFALL (2011)


10. THIN ICE (2011)






13. BAD TURN WORSE (2013)


14.BLUE RUIN (2013)


15. A SINGLE SHOT (2013)


16. JOE (2013)


17. NED RIFLE (2014)


18. CUT BANK (2014)


19. COLD IN JULY (2014)


20. BIG MUDDY (2014)


21. UNCLE JOHN (2015)


22. LOST IN THE SUN (2015)


23. COP CAR (2015)


24. TWO STEP (2015)




Gary Deane

Thursday, 30 June 2016


“I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire
Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away!” (Psycho Killer,
Talking Heads, 1977)

He was a shirt maker in a town full of pants makers. For four decades maverick director Robert Altman barely tolerated the Hollywood film industry, as it barely tolerated him. That said, he could play the game as needed and was as artful in getting his individual and idiosyncratic movies produced and to market as he was conceiving and creating them.

Altman got his start after WWII working on business and industrial films in his hometown Kansas City. He soon left for Hollywood, where his production skills were underappreciated and his stories were rejected – with the exception of Body Guard, filmed and released in 1948 starring Lawrence Tierney. Discouraged, Altman went back to Kansas City but returned to California later in the ‘50’s with an independently-financed picture, The Delinquents (The Hoods of Tomorrow! The Gun-Molls of the Future!) under his arm. Starring Tom Laughlin, the movie didn’t add anything new to the youth-gone-wild cycle but had the ring of truth to it and showed clearly enough that Altman could direct. 

Though none of the major film studios were ready to hire him on, Altman managed to find steady work in television, directing on M Squad, Hawaiian Eye, Peter Gunn, Route 66, and Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama on ABC. The latter’s trenchant writing and gritty realism won it multiple Emmy nominations and a committed audience. Unfortunately, after shooting ten episodes, Altman got turfed for ‘uncooperativeness’.  However, the work he did on the series revealed some of the elements of what would become a trademark style: an appreciation of ensemble performance, a restive mise-en-scène, a film noir-like use of light and shadow, and dissonant multi-track soundscapes and scoring.

Altman then went to NBC’s Kraft Suspense Theater, directing three episodes before getting himself fired, this time for telling a TV Guide interviewer that the Kraft-sponsored series was as “bland as cheese”.  However, one of his episodes, Once Upon a Savage Night based on a novella, Killer on the Turnpike, by William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Shield for Murder, Rogue Cop, Odds Against Tomorrow) was anything but. The high-voltage black-and-white crime drama was like nothing else seen on television – shot in cinéma vérité style in and around Chicago and featuring a jagged, expressionistic score by jazzman Benny Carter and a young ‘Johnny’ Williams, who’d go on to win more than forty Academy Award nominations.

Because of the higher costs involved in location shooting, the producing studio, Universal Pictures, had Altman take enough extra footage to be able to extend the episode to feature length for syndication and theatrical distribution. The eighty minute version, titled Nightmare in Chicago, later showed as a made-for-TV movie, then screened theatrically in Europe.

A taut, modernist post-noir fugue à la Blast of Silence (1961), Nightmare in Chicago tracks a killer known as ‘George-Porgie’ (“Kissed the girls and made them die!”). Georgie’s already murdered four women in other places by the time the film picks him up in Chicago’s desolate rural outskirts. Georgie (Philip Abbott), an ordinary-looking guy in a topcoat, has just strangled his fifth victim in bed in an old farm house and is heading back to the city. It takes a while for the Chicago police to realize that the killing is troublingly similar to the other four – all the women being “tall, blonde, and a little on the cheap side” according to, Harry, the lead detective on the case played by an irritable Charles McGraw.

Though physically non-descript and having to wear dark glasses because of a congenital eye condition, Georgie is a smooth-talker and has no trouble finding willing prey. Back in the city, he chats up his next victim and before long they’re having drinks in a packed burlesque joint in the Loop. Amid all the noise and on-stage distractions, he chokes her with her own scarf while they make out in a corner. 

However, one of the strippers sees what’s just happened and Georgie has to get out fast. Some customers and beat cops give chase but lose him when he hijacks a car. Later, the police realize he’s made it all the way onto the Illinois Tollway, which complicates the pursuit due to its restricted accesses. Worse is that the Tollway is about to be cleared by state police for an Army convoy that’s thundering through with a giant nuclear missile in tow.

If this specter of mass destruction sounds like more of a load than a small and restless character-driven narrative should have to bear, keep in mind the tale began with author McGivern, master of the drum-tight storyline. The plot does not suddenly go Tom Clancy on us. Events only render Georgie’s frantic attempt to escape that much more intense.

Shot on a tight schedule just days before Christmas and mostly at night, Nightmare in Chicago was Robert Altman’s first studio feature (the science fiction drama Countdown made in 1967 counts as his first big theatrical release – even if Jack Warner took him off the shoot and banned him from the lot out of exasperation with the way “everyone in the damn movie is talking at the same time!”). Nightmare also stands as one of Altman’s most reliably straightforward narratives, something he was deemed weak at constructing by critics who were as unreceptive to his triumphs such as The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) as the missteps like Prêt-à-Porter (1994). As for his radical 1973 deconstruction of Raymond’s Chandler’s revered The Long Goodbye, it’s always going to depend on who you talk to. 

Altman’s main gift as a director was his ability to create a visceral sense of time and place and to reveal characters by immersing audiences in the often-fraught immediacy of their worlds. However, it sometimes felt as though he was content just to leave us there. Altman liked to say that he wanted his films “to seem as though they were just happening”.  In Nightmare, he makes certain that things really do. His scene-building and story-telling in the film are as deliberate as they would ever be. At the same time, Nightmare in Chicago feels loosely-scripted. Altman is patient where he feels he needs to be and allows the camera to linger. Often there’s a sense of time and space being stretched to be able to contain the actions of the characters, particularly in busy scenes shot within the moderne immensity of the Tollway’s ‘Oasis’ rest stops.

The film also is trusting of its actors. Their characters feel real, their lives small and routine, their stories largely undisclosed. Harry and his easier-going sergeant, Dan (Robert Ridgely) grind it out in hopes of capturing Georgie before he kills again, while having to deal with the self-serving interference of Police Commissioner (Ted Knight) who’s more concerned about delays to the convoy and his scheduled handball games downtown. 

Georgie and his victims are isolated and vulnerable souls, a familiar Altman type. A near-casualty is Bernie, a lonely-hearted waitress who serves Georgie in the rest stop’s massive Fred Harvey eatery. She’s endangered when she ends up being the only one who’s able to identify him. Bernie is played by Barbara Turner, married for a time to actor Vic Morrow with whom she had a child, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (Turner is now best known for her screenwriting, including the film Pollock (2000) which garnered Academy Awards nominations for Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden). 

Turner’s scenes in Nightmare are among the movie’s most openly improvised and affecting. They foreshadow some of what would become the director’s signature ‘urgency-to-no-clear-end’, an Altman-ism shaped by a conviction that straightforward resolutions or consolations should come no more easily in movies than they do in real life.

Meanwhile, Nightmare in Chicago drew critical fire with its bleak naturalism and family resemblance to the meaner exploitation films of the period, from sex-and-violence cheapies to no-grade horror movies. Georgie-Porgie is a banal but chilling noir embodiment of horror’s unpacified evil – a psychotic who’s driven to kill his mother again and again, tormented by the agony of her promiscuous childhood betrayals and the brute noises in the room next door that still throb in his brain. 

But even better-known and disruptive end-of-the line film noirs like Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) drew on some of the same dark impulses and dread sense of conviction as Nightmare in Chicago. The difference was that Nightmare in Chicago started out life as a television program with everyone in the living room watching.

However, as comfortless as the film may be, it does, like most of Robert Altman’s films, evince a moral understanding of how and why human beings behave as they do. Altman’s movies at their core always come from a place of empathy – something that all true film noirs, no matter how bleak, know something about. Count Nightmare in Chicago among them.

Note: Several sources, including IMDb, show Andrew Duggan, Carrol O’Connor, Michael Murphy and Mary Frann as starring in Nightmare in Chicago. Whether or not they were ever cast to appear, none did, in either television or film versions.

Gary Deane

Friday, 24 June 2016


“She’s the kind of woman for whom a man might even kill.” 

“We’re both selfish, dishonest, and rotten.”

Janis Paige, the veteran Hollywood trouper with over 150 screen credits to her name is alive and well in Beverly Hills. Though the 93 year old actress lost her Academy Awards voting rights this year, she still cherishes the Oscar statuette awarded to her late husband, Ray Gilbert, for the lyrics to ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ from Song of the South, a Disney title no longer in release because of its depiction of African-Americans. However, the song can still be heard and every time it is, Paige collects $350, a nice little annuity – should she ever need it.
Paige broke in films after being spotted by a Warner Studio’s talent scout who saw her perform in the Hollywood Canteen during the war. She was soon to feature in a series of musical comedies starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, Warner’s response to Paramount Studios’ hugely popular duo of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But after too many smaller assignments in lesser productions, Paige headed for Broadway where her out-sized personality and joyous scene-stealing in plays such as The Pajama Game won her raves.

During this time Paige also went on the road with a ritzy cabaret act which confirmed her gift for musical comedy and which brought her back to Hollywood to feature in films such as Silk Stockings (1957) and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960). In the mid-fifties, Paige then tapped into television where she worked steadily on recurrent series such as General Hospital and Santa Barbara up until her retirement in 2001.  

But buried among her other credits was a rare leading performance in La Strada Buie aka Fugitive Lady (1950), a handsome classic film noir shot on location in Italy and in the Italian language (Paige later would be dubbed). Paige headlines as a pathologically self-seeking femme fatale and the role today stands among her most dramatically memorable, along with her part as an institutionalized prostitute in The Caretakers (1963).

Though attractive, Paige was big-boned and large-featured and not a typical Hollywood beauty of the period. However, she had a large presence and an impressive look that today would be viewed as more contemporary i.e. more Greta Gerwig than Gloria Grahame. That said, Paige was at her most interesting when portraying a woman who was sexually charged and aggressive – even in musicals like Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946) and The Time, the Place, and the Girl (1946) in which she up-stages the kittenishly provocative Martha Vickers.

In La Strada Buie Paige brings both glamour and sex to bear on wealthy industrialist, Raoul Clementi (Eduardo Ciannelli), who after seeing her perform on several evenings at a night club, woos and marries her, much to the displeasure of his step-sister, Esther (British actress Binnie Barnes). We learn this in flashback after Raoul, in the film’s opening sequence, drunkenly sends his car off a cliff into Lake Nemi, 30 kms south of Rome, and is killed. As it turns out, Clementi had taken out a life insurance policy for £100,000 and Barbara (Paige), his young widow, now wants to cash out as soon as possible.

However, the circumstances of his death arouse the suspicions of the insurance company and its investigating agent, Jack Di Marco (Antonio Centa). Di Marco is hesitant to jump to any obvious conclusions, determining that both Barbara and Esther might have had their reasons for wanting to see Raoul dead. Di Marco discovers that the Clementi’s marriage had broken down and that Barbara has a lover, Gene West (Massimo Serato), with whom she’d been involved for years. For her part, Esther has long been in love with Raoul and feels as much anger and resentment toward her step-brother for betraying her by marrying as she does for Barbara, whom she despises. All of this unspools in successive and lengthy flashbacks until the film’s end, a finish with a dramatic and profoundly ironic twist à la Postman Always Rings Twice

A fast-moving and savory film noir, La Strada Buie was based on a book, Dark Road, by popular U.S. mystery writer, Doris Miles Disney. The novel, published in 1946 and featuring investigator Jefferson DiMarco, was one of series of eight including Family Skeleton, later filmed as Stella (1950), a noir-hued and diverting black comedy. The film features Victor Mature as DiMarco and a smartly acerbic Ann Sheridan as a woman caught in the middle of a calamitous family plot, the doing of Sheridan’s two hapless brothers-in-law played by David Wayne and Frank Fontaine. Several other of Disney’s quintessentially American stories were adapted successfully for movies and television including: Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971), starring Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy and Vince Edwards; Betrayal (1974), featuring Amanda Blake, Tish Stering, and Dick Haymes; and Yestherday’s Child (1977), with Shirley Jones, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Claude Akins.

La Strada Buie was a co-production of Mike Frankovich, future Columbia Studios chief, and Italy’s Scalera Films. Frankovich was also the husband of Binnie Barnes, the couple living in Italy at the time. Scalera Films had come into existence in 1938 under the aegis of Benito Mussolini who had encouraged the Scalera brothers to invest in film production to support the regime and counteract the increasing importation of foreign films into Italy. The company undertook to try and replicate the Hollywood studio system with film-makers and actors signed to exclusive contract. However, after the war the studio suffered crippling operating losses and the brothers tried to leverage their productions by featuring American film stars such as Paige, similar to what had been done by British B-studios. However, in 1952, following the financing of Orson Wells’ Othello, Scalera Films defaulted and fell into bankruptcy.

Though done on a tight budget, La Strada Buie does not at all appear to be made on the cheap. Directed by American director Sidney Salkow, the film is very much in the Hollywood style, with the Italian settings and locations adding to the richness of atmosphere. Much of it is shot at night amid rain-soaked and heavily-shadowed exteriors and the camerawork throughout is expressive, giving no ground to post-war neo-realism. Behind the camera was Tonino Delli Colli , a cinematographer whose flamboyant lensing featured prominently in the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, and Jean-Jacques Arnaud. Delli Colli sat on the Cannes Film Festival jury in 1986, one of the first cinematographers to do so.  

However, La Strada Buie’s centerpiece is Janis Paige whose normally vivacious and breezy persona was transformed into that of a flesh-creeping femme fatale. But as Paige herself has said, she could be anything she was asked or told to be because that’s what you did if you wanted to survive in the business. In a 2015 interview she stated that she never saw her studio tenure as “indentured servitude”. She was forever grateful for the watchful eye and “pampering” that was afforded contract players during the studio system’s heyday. You paid attention, you worked hard, and you learned. “Today, most stars can’t overcome a bad script. The old stars could. There was so much we couldn’t do because of the code, we had to use our imaginations. Everyone had a work ethic. We didn’t bitch or complain. You just worked and appreciated being part of this fabulous industry.”

Today, thanks to the hard work of volunteer subtitling crews on various torrent sites, English-speakers now have access to films such as this largely unknown and unseen classic film noir, a singular US/ international hybrid that takes a backseat to none when it comes to ladling out requisite helpings of greed, lust, and betrayal. It may be ‘a bitter little world’ as Joan Bennett pronounces in Hollow Triumph (1948), but it’s a world of film noir increasingly much bigger than one might have ever imagined. 

Thanks to Garnet Barlow for his translation of the Italian resource material.

Gary Deane

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


Him: “I’m shooting for the top. I want a wife who’s willing to do anything to get there.”

Her: “I think I know what you mean.”

For a time, fans of law-and-order champion Mr. District Attorney had their pick: an NBC radio program that aired 1939 to 1952; a DC crime comic that went 67 issues, 1948 to 1959; and a tail-end television series on ABC that ran from 1952 to 1953.During the war years, the anti-crime crusader also was lionized in a trio of Mr. District Attorney motion pictures released by Republic, and then in a post-war follow-up from Columbia Studios. The differences between the earlier and later productions showcase much of what film noir is about – and what it’s not.

Mr. District Attorney (1941), the initial Republic studios release, starred Stanley Ridges as intrepid D.A. Tom Winton and a young Dennis O’Keefe as his newly-minted Assistant, Prince Cadwallader Jones. The well-meaning but hapless Jones is keen to solve a stalled embezzlement case but finds himself running up against Terry Parker (Florence Rice), a nosey newspaper journalist who knows a good story when she sniffs one. But it’s Peter Lorre, in an appearance that’s perversely at odds with any of the rest of the film, who’s the best reason to watch it.

Shortly after, came Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941), with Paul Harvey as the D.A. and James Ellison and Virginia Gilmore in the roles of Jones and Parker. This one is highlighted only by its surprise ending and luminous lighting set-ups by cinematographer John Alton.

Then came Secrets of the Underground (1942), featuring Pierre Watkin as the District Attorney and John Hubbard and Virginia Grey as the accidental partners-in-crime-fighting. It has its minor rewards, including a timely script by Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, 1947; The Big Steal, 1949; The Tall Target, 1951). Additional titles had been planned but in the end Secrets of the Underground was as far as the Republic series was to travel.

Though the original Mr. District Attorney radio play opted for pure suspense, the Republic titles leaned more in the direction of the ‘mystery-comedy’ – a claptrap contrivance designed to offer ‘comic relief’ and let-up from the otherwise serious matters at hand. But by the end of WWII, audiences were tiring of its stagey bag of tricks: the bumbling heroes and fast-talking sidekicks (or the opposite), the double-takes and quizzical looks, and slapstick confusion. By the late ‘40’s, a flood of psychological thrillers and blood melodramas had largely swept all this away, save for a few creaky detective series like The Thin Man, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, Bulldog Drummond or The Saint in their final appearances (crime-for-laughs would survive as a movie-going staple but one increasingly better-fashioned and fitted around the comedy).

Meantime, Columbia Studios decided to have other crack at Mr. District Attorney. The new version would star the venerable Adolphe Menjou as Craig Warren, D. A. and a more mature Dennis O’Keefe as Steve Bennett, Warren’s case-hardened Assistant. But the feisty female journalist character– always ready to pitch in to help out – was tossed in favor of a venomous spider woman (played with deadly conviction by Marguerite Chapman) out for absolutely no one but herself. This more ominous turn was no huge leap for Columbia, having had recent successes with films such as Gilda (1946), Framed (1947) and Dead Reckoning (1947) and B titles like Night Editor (1946).

That said, Columbia hedged its bets with a nod to the spirit of the earlier titles. There’s Menjou, ever the Hollywood dandy and stylized little man with his waxed mustache and aggravated manner, whose presence recalls a by-gone era;  also character actor Michael O’Shea as Harrington as Warren’s quick-as-a-quip investigator and smiley-face Jeff Donnell as the office girl and blessed soul of patience. However, any residual hokeyness doesn’t distract much from Mr. District Attorney as a gripping, sometimes chilling film noir.

With a screenplay written by Ian McLellan Hunter (who would later front for Dalton Trumbo until Hunter himself was blacklisted), Mr. District Attorney features a convoluted but well-secured storyline. District Attorney Warren is under the gun to bring down the courtly but cold-blooded gangster, James Randolph (George Coulouris), who has the local rackets wrapped up, along with a cadre of crooked business leaders and government officials. To help build the case, Warren hires a former defense lawyer, Steve Bennett who’d been serving as counsel to one of Randolph’s cronies but then quit both his client and his law firm after discovering he’d been taken for a chump.

Keeping a nicely-mascaraed eye out for Randolph’s interests is Marcia Manning (Marguerite Chapman), his glamourous personal assistant. We learn soon enough though that Randolph wants her to be more than simply the hired help. However, Manning wants to hear more from him than just sweet nothings, reminding him, “To me, love is a luxury… You want me to be romantic like the songs about living on love and pale moonlight...I know how it works. My mother tried it and by the time she was 35 she was an old woman left with nothing except pale moonlight, and that’s not going to happen to me.”

In fact, a lot has already happened to Our Miss Manning, including managing to beat a murder rap back in Kansas City. Warren knows this and figures that Manning might be the best and fastest way to get to Randolph. Manning, conversely, wastes no time in finding her way to Bennett and before long, she’s duped him into revealing information that sinks Warren’s case. Warren suspects his wide-eyed boy has been played for a sucker and sends Bennett out of the country on another investigation. He then brings in Manning and tells her to lay off Bennett or his office might revisit her legal problems. When Bennett returns and hears of this, he quits, only to later discover that Manning dumped him while he was gone. Bennett is furious but without a job, lets Manning coax him back into taking on some legal work for Randolph. However, as the plot thickens and bodies pile up, Bennett realizes that it’s Manning who’s really at the root of all evil and makes up his mind to do something about it. Manning, of course, has other ideas.  

The little-known Chapman grew up as a small-town tomboy in Chatham, NY.  Affectionately called “Slugger” by her friends, the beautiful brunette was encouraged by them later to try modeling. She went to New York and became a featured John Powers Girl and after she’d been on the cover of enough magazines, Hollywood came calling. Through 1940 to 1943, Chapman appeared in eighteen films, albeit minor ones. She later moved up several rungs on the studio ladder and became the female interest in several better Columbia features, including:  Destroyer (1943) with Edgar G. Robinson; Appointment in Berlin (1943) opposite George Sanders; and Counter-Attack (1945) with Paul Muni. After the war, there were a few more A features, notably Relentless (1948), a well-received western with Robert Young. But from there on, appearances became limited to supporting roles in movies and on television. By the mid-1960’s, she’d effectively retired from the screen to focus on stage work.

None of which is to say that Chapman couldn’t or shouldn’t have had a much bigger career in movies. The actress at one time or another had been singled out by scribes for everything from her “comeliness” to her versatility “spilling over”. However, her striking beauty and versatility appeared to work just as much against her as for her in that she was never able to establish a dominant screen personality. Like Ruth Hussey or Barbara Hale to whom she shared a resemblance, Chapman didn’t easily evince a strike-up-the-band sparkle, domesticated warmth, or relaxed sexuality.

Mr. District Attorney on the other hand takes advantage of what Chapman did have: a sophisticated charm and self-possession free of overemphasis or bossiness. She’s a woman capable of living in a man’s world without looking for concessions, including marriage which would happen only if and when convenient. 

Chapman also ups the ante as a femme fatale who never overplays her advantage. Like the most memorable femmes of classic film noir, Manning is knowable but, forever and fatally, unreadable. Though Messrs. Mejou, O’Keefe, and Coulouris all give it their best, the film belongs to Chapman.

Unfortunately, Mr. District Attorney wasn’t a movie of a size or sort that could deliver a breakthrough for any actor, no matter how impressive the showing. It’s even more unfortunate that there weren’t more opportunities for Chapman to be on screen what she obviously was meant to be. But sometimes things work out and sometimes they just never do. After decades out of the business, she suddenly was first-call for the coveted role of ‘Old Rose’ Dason-Calvert in the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster, Titanic, but was prevented by ill-health from accepting. The part went to Gloria Stuart, who will be remembered forever for it. Chapman died two years later. 

Mr. District Attorney also was enhanced by cinematographer Bert Glennon, a confirmed but underappreciated visual stylist who was on camera for Juke Girl (1942), Shadow of a Woman (1946), The Red House (1947), Ruthless (1948), Red Light (1949) and the terrific Crime Wave (1954). Glennon’s mastery of the noir registry is on full display in Mr. District Attorney, starting with the film’s shocking opening scene, which as it turned out, would foreshadow the cold-blooded murder of its director, Robert Sinclair twenty-three years later. With its rich noir visualizations, smartly-plotted story, and industrious performances, Mr. District Attorney is a film noir worth watching, “straight down the line”.

Gary Deane

(A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Noir City, the online magazine of the San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation)  


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