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


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