I’ve got a king-sized stack of DVDs sitting on my bedroom dresser drawer that contain scads of movies I’ve recorded off The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, and the other night I decided to revisit a pair of M-G-M crime mellerdrammers starring Walter Pidgeon. (As always…if you’ve not seen the movies being discussed, beware—there may be spoilers.)
The Unknown Man (1951) – Dwight Bradley “Brad” Masen (Pidgeon) is a highly respected civil attorney who’s approached by one of his skeevier legal brethren (Philip Ober, aka Mr. Vivian Vance) about defending a young punk named Rudi Wallchek (Keefe Brasselle) against a murder rap—even though Masen’s not a criminal lawyer. Masen turns the offer down at first—but after an encounter with District Attorney Joe Bucknor (Barry Sullivan) at a party, Masen agrees to take the young man’s case. Despite his inexperience at criminal trials—the judge (Lewis Stone, in another of his 1,000 roles for M-G-M) even helps Masen out with an objection at one point—Brad wins acquittal for Wallchek…but when his client tries to slip him two large to repay him for his services, Masen begins to suspect Rudi was guilty all along (he had previously told Masen he didn’t have a dime to his name). I know…you’re shocked—shocked!—to learn that Masen may have defended a guilty man, and as our legal naïf does a little more investigative digging, he learns that the respected head (Eduard Franz) of the city’s crime commission is actually the burg’s “Mr. Big.” Masen administers a little vigilante justice of his own by stabbing and killing Mr. B…and then finds himself having to defend Wallchek a second time when Bucknor and his cop contingent decide Rudi looks good for the murder.
I have to be honest—Pidgeon’s stiff performance as an attorney who’s just too good to be true is one of several reasons why I simply can’t warm up to Man; his Brad Masen is one of those legal representatives who believes the practice of law and the administration of justice is good and noble…and of course, we know this isn’t always the case. (The plot of Man—a guilty individual being tried for a rap of which he is innocent—is also eerily reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice …so Man smacks of a returning-to-the-same-well quality that doesn’t do it any favors. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen too many movies of this ilk, but I also pretty much guessed that Franz’s character was a no-goodnik from the get-go…though his fondness for milkshakes can only be a good thing.) The other is Keefe Brasselle, an actor who simply sets my teeth on edge every time I run across him in a movie (with the possible exception of A Place in the Sun —he’s mildly tol’able in that); I was rooting for him to get the chair in this vehicle only because I know of the later crime he’ll commit as the lead in The Eddie Cantor Story (1953). (So I’m mean…I suppose you’ve forgotten that Brasselle later became the toady to CBS-TV president/professional prick James T. Aubrey during the 1960s.) I will admit that I liked Barry Sullivan in this one even though Sullivan’s not a particular favorite (he usually plays mean essobees)—there is an unsettling scene, however, when Sullivan’s character starts macking on Pidgeon’s wife (Ann Harding) so your mileage may vary. The cast also includes Richard “Oscar Goldman” Anderson (an unusual role for him as Masen’s law-student son), Dawn Addams, Konstantin Shayne, Mari Blanchard, Don Beddoe, John Maxwell and Robert Williams. You can catch this one on TCM this Wednesday (May 19th) at 11:00am…assuming I haven’t put you off it in the meantime.
The Sellout (1952) – Pidgeon changes jobs and becomes a member of the fourth estate in this M-G-M potboiler; as Haven D. Allridge, Walt plays a crusading editor who writes a series of scathing editorials for his paper on the crooked activities of Sheriff Kellwin C. “Casey” Burke (Thomas Gomez, just as nasty as we like him), a man who has Allridge and another poor soul (the ever pathetic Whit Bissell) temporarily jailed on trumped-up charges in his burg. (Bissell’s character suffers the indignity of having the stuffing kicked out of him by some of the jail’s denizens in a “kangaroo court.”) The noise generated by Haven’s scribblings permeates the court of public opinion to the point where the state’s Attorney General (Griff Barnett) assigns prosecutor Charles “Chick” Johnson (John Hodiak) to look into the matter…but Johnson runs into nothing but roadblocks; individuals who were anxious to be interviewed for Allridge’s paper have had a change of heart. Allridge himself appears to have taken a powder—Johnson begins to suspect that the editor may have been croaked under the orders of Burke and Burke’s loathsome mouthpiece Nelson “Nellie” Tarsson (Everett Sloane), but Haven finally resurfaces just when Johnson needs him to testify…and Johnson discovers to his dismay that Allridge has also been the target of intimidation, becoming the “sellout” of the film’s title.
Sellout's a little more my meat—a serviceable little vehicle (influenced, no doubt, by the Kefauver congressional crime commission hearings that were making headlines at the time the film was in production) that has the benefit of good supporting players to help it over its rough spots (there’s a scene where Hodiak has to rescue his girlfriend from Burke’s lock-up that doesn’t quite ring true). TDOY fave Audrey Totter may be stereotyped in this film as the “bad girl”—but she’s damn good at what she does; as chanteuse Cleo Bethel she has this great throwaway scene where she tells a would-be amorous paramour at a dive run by a most un-Sam Drucker-like Frank Cady (very good as a weasel) to “Get lost, Greasy.” (Sadly, Totter isn’t around much for the film’s proceedings.) I also enjoyed seeing Karl Malden in one of his early outings as the dedicated cop assigned to assist Hodiak (who is, unfortunately, not up to snuff here)—particularly when he tells Hodiak (who’s considering throwing in the towel on the Burke/Tarsson investigation): “Even if you get beat you can maul him on the way down.” I also enjoyed how Gomez’s blustery Burke demonstrates precious little finesse in his corruption (he’s so crooked he practically admits it to the judge hearing the pre-trial testimony) but is instead smugly satisfied that the voters in his county like the way he’s running things, and Sloane’s a lot of fun during the pre-trial hearing as his attorney tries every trick in the book to save his and Gomez’s necks (not to mention that of Burt Mustin’s—as a crooked judge!) but has little of the aplomb of Arthur Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Directed by Gerald Mayer (the rank nepotism of whom I previously discussed in a review of Dial 1119 ) and scripted by Charles Palmer (from a story by Matthew Rapf), Sellout also features Paula Raymond, Cameron “Buck Cannon” Mitchell (as Pidgeon’s son-in-law, a county prosecutor too timid to take on Gomez for reasons that become all too apparent), Jonathan Cott, Hugh Sanders and Roy Engel.