Monday, September 14, 2009

Region 2 Cinema Double Feature: Follow Me Quietly (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Film director Richard Fleischer, the son of animation giant Max Fleischer, became well-known throughout his lengthy career as the director of huge, special effects-laden vehicles such as 20000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), to name only a few. Here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, however, I prefer the movies cranked out by Fleischer in his early days at R-K-O—a series of taut, economical film noirs whose short running times were the perfect tonic to telling a story quickly and succinctly without wearing out their welcome. Among these noirs—and the only ones, to my knowledge, available on Region 1 DVD—are the 1951 he-man adventure spoof His Kind of Woman (credited to John Farrow, but Fleischer was asked by R-K-O head Howard Hawks to add a few scenes and wound up reshooting most of the film) and a movie that many have called the best B-picture of all time, The Narrow Margin (1952).

It’s a different story across the pond, however, where Fleischer’s early work gets a bit more respect…and distribution via Region 2 discs. Chiefly among these films is Follow Me Quietly (1949), a nail-biting suspenser that barely makes it to the sixty-minute mark before successfully calling it a wrap. Two police detectives—Lt. Harry Grant (William Lundigan) and Sgt. Art Collins (Jeff Corey)—are on the trail of a serial killer known only as “The Judge” (Edwin Max); a man who’s strangled six individuals in a relatively short span of time…and has made a newspaper editor (Frank Ferguson) his seventh victim as the movie opens. Chosen to handle the case by his superior, Inspector Mulvaney (Charles D. Brown), because he has “imagination,” Grant hits upon the idea of constructing a “dummy”—a figure made up of pieces of evidence (a piece of fabric left at the scene of one of the stranglings, etc.) obtained in the investigation that will submit itself to photographs and therefore will be used more effectively by men working the case. While frustration begins to mount in Grant because he can’t seem to catch a break in learning the killer’s identity, he’s further stymied by a pulp magazine reporter named Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick) who threatens to publish a story about the cops’ use of the dummy. But when an eighth murder is committed, Grant is able to use Ann’s help in identifying a copy of the magazine left behind at the crime scene—and both shoe leather and dogged determination are able to point Grant and Collins in the direction of the murderer, who’s captured in a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat climax.

Quietly is choc-a-block with the usual elements found in noir: torrential, driving rain (the killer only attacks on rainy nights) leading to rain-swept streets; low lighting and effective use of shadows; a smoky bar and a hard-as-nails hero. Lundigan and Patrick are the only real weak links in the film; he’s effective but a bit on the stiff side, she gets a bit pouty when he gives her grief about her chosen profession. Jeff Corey is aces (but I’m a bit biased, since he’s one of my favorite character actors), Nestor Paiva provides a bit of levity as a tavern cashier with a jones for playing the ponies, and Douglas Spencer—the actor who plays “Scotty” in The Thing from Another World (1951)—has a nice contribution as a deranged individual who confesses to being “The Judge” in a desperate bid for attention. There are some really novel and offbeat moments in this film as well: one sequence probably won’t mean much considering how far films have advanced since the 1940s, but it involves Lundigan returning home to his apartment to find Patrick waiting inside (when he asks her how she got in, she replies: “Connections”—a running gag in the film) and rather than play the genial host decides to get undressed, brush his teeth, put on his jammies and get into bed…all while Patrick is still in the apartment. But the most memorable sequence involving Lundigan’s character occurs when he returns to his office and, spying “the dummy” slumped in a chair in the next room, begins to talk to it as if it were a real person. Corey comes in and overhears the conversation and tells his partner in the politest way possible that he’s cracking up. The two men decide to call it a day and head to their tavern hangout for a few drinks—and the camera stays on the figure in the chair for a few seconds…at which time the figure starts to move Pretty creepy stuff.

Quietly’s screenplay was written by Lillie Hayward from a story by Francis Rosenwald and TDOY god Anthony Mann—so the noir credentials are pretty solid in that respect. The Region 2 version of the movie (Assassin sans visage) was purchased from HKFlix.com (unfortunately, they've stopped carrying it) in January 2008 as part of the R-K-O Collection of editions montparnasse, which also has the Fleischer noirs Bodyguard (1948) and The Clay Pigeon (Le Pigeon d’argile) (1949) available as well. Also, this box set (Coffret Fleischer) contains the previously mentioned Margin, accompanied by Child of Divorce (1946) and the next film I watched, Armored Car Robbery (1950).

Robbery is a bit longer than Quietly (it clocks in at sixty-seven minutes) but interestingly enough, moves along at a much faster clip. A precursor to both The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Killing (1956), it details how master thief Dave Purvis (William Tallman) plans an armored car heist outside a ballpark with three confederates—Benny McBride (Douglas Fowley), Al Mapes (Steve Brodie) and “Ace” Foster (Gene Evans)—and while Purvis has designed everything to the nth degree, McBride is wounded during the caper, putting a monkey wrench in the team’s plans to take it on the lam. McBride demands that Purvis get him medical attention, and Dave takes care of that request by finishing Benny off (probably for the best—the insurance company wouldn’t have covered a pre-existing condition) and threatening to administer the same remedy to Mapes and Foster if they get out of line. Ordinarily, a smart guy like Purvis would have no difficulty making his escape—but during a shoot-out with the cops he manages to croak the partner of super cop Jim Cordell (Charles McGraw), and Cordell’s a bit put-out by this turn of events, particularly when he’s saddled with his new partner, rookie detective Danny Ryan (Don “Congo Bill” McGuire). Again, dedication and determination win the day as the two men put together the necessary clues to catch up to Purvis, who’s inches away from blowing this burg with Benny’s wife (and now widow—isn’t that convenient), burlesque queen Yvonne LeDoux (Adele Jergens).

Before actor William Tallman got ulcers every Saturday night as his District Attorney Hamilton Burger would be made to look like a total doofus courtesy of lawyer Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), his acting career was buoyed by a series of films in which he played some of the nastiest villains beyond compare. Among his bad-guy credits: The Woman on Pier 13 (1949, a.k.a. I Married a Communist), The Hitch-Hiker (1953—probably his best-known villainous role), City That Never Sleeps (1953) and Big House, U.S.A. (1955). His Dave Purvis in Robbery is certainly an intriguing character: he moves from residence to residence at the slightest notice, cuts out the labels of his clothing, etc. because of his firm resolve not to leave “any loose strings.” He’s also a bit of a louse; he’s been making time with LeDoux behind his best friend Benny’s back, and as the events in the film unfold never really had any intention to split the haul with any of his “partners.” His demise in the film is particularly satisfying (if admittedly a bit gruesome).

Charles McGraw played his fair share of goons, henchmen and bad guys but on occasion got to see how green it was on the other side of the fence by emoting on the right side of the law. His Jim Cordell is deliberately kept a cipher, however; he’s upset about the death of his partner but is not about to bust out crying about it—he tells the widow “Tough break, Marsha” and reacts the news to being teamed up with rookie McGuire with the same enthusiasm as “Dirty” Harry Callahan. (There is, however, a short sequence in which he encounters a particularly sebaceous representative from the insurance company that will have to make good on the robbery—and let’s just say Cordell is a man who does not suffer fools gladly.) McGraw’s Cordell is sort of a dress rehearsal for his better-known cop role as Det. Sgt. Walter Brown in Fleischer’s Margin.

Again, I’m going to be a bit biased in my appreciation for Robbery because I’m such a huge Charles McGraw fan (and the presence of Tallman is just icing on the cake); ditto Jergens (so adept at playing molls and floozies in many of my favorite films, including Side Street [1950] and The Sound of Fury [1950, a.k.a. Try and Get Me!], as well as demonstrating a flair for comedy with notable roles in the Bowery Boys’ Blues Busters [1950] and Bud and Lou’s wacky romp Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man [1951]) and Evans—though why a tough guy like Evans (hey, I’ve seen The Steel Helmet [1951] and Fixed Bayonets! [1951]) would allow Tallman to push him around the way he does still has me a bit puzzled. (I also don’t know how Wrigley Field ended up in Los Angeles in this movie—if someone reading this has a clue, the comments section awaits.)

I purchased this Region 2 title (Atraco Al Furgón Blindado) from the late, lamented Xploited Cinema (which is still in business while they liquidate…but they no longer offer this DVD) two years ago—so the aforementioned Coffret Fleischer box set would seem to be a better bet (and you pick up Child of Divorce in the bargain). The two DVDs don’t come cheap—but for film noir aficionados they are essential to your library, and both discs are in very good visual quality. The only glitch is that the Region 2 version of Robbery doesn’t give you an option to watch the film in its original English language without being accompanied by Spanish subtitles. (I worked for half-an-hour trying to get rid of them—but no soap.)

4 comments:

Flickhead said...

Ivan, given your expertise on post-WWII era crime movies and TV programs, perhaps you can solve something that's vexed me for forty years.

It was a movie or show they used to occasionally broadcast on TV when I was a kid (late 50s/early 60s). All I remember is a gang of thieves are holed up inside the empty tank of a gasoline truck. The truck gets pulled over at a roadblock. A cop opens the spigot under the tank, and out fall a pair of eyeglasses.

Any ideas?!?

C. Jerry Kutner said...

TCM ran THE CLAY PIGEON last week, and I recorded and watched it. It's a wrong man story about a WWII vet (with amnesia, yet) falsely accused of treason. Screenplay by Carl "High Noon" Foreman.

It doesn't have the power of the Charles McGraw lead in ROBBERY or the disturbing image of the dummy in FOLLOW ME QUIETLY, but it does have Perry Mason's Barbara Hale in the leading female role, and much of it takes place in L.A.'s Chinatown, an obvious precursor to, um, you know.

TCM is also going to be showing Fleischer's SEE NO EVIL later this month. Can't wait.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Ray:

You're going to have to give me a little time on that one; I'll see what I can find out (or maybe one of the devoted TDOY readers is familiar with the film). I'm hoping I can track down a title...'cause it sounds like a movie/TV show I'd like to see myself.

Jerry:

A few years back, it was my firm belief that once Fleischer signed onto 20000 Leagues Under the Sea it was curtains for his career. Since then, I've had the opportunity to see movies like Violent Saturday, Compulsion, The Boston Strangler and the incredible 10 Rillington Place -- and with those, realized I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. I've never seen Evil either, so I'm very much looking forward to recording it when TCM shows it.

I did see parts of Pigeon last week, and though I've seen the movie before I'm going to try and get a second glance at it sometime this week.

Anonymous said...

Here's some info on the LA Wrigley Field;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrigley_Field_(Los_Angeles)