Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Shoot to Kill (1947)



As the opening credits to the 1947 low-budget noir Shoot to Kill come to a close, we witness a furious automobile chase in progress (which is also "teased" before the credits)…but because of the by-the-seat-of-the-pants lighting used in the production (as well as the somewhat beaten-up print of the movie), it’s a little hard to tell just who is pursuing who.  Fortunately, we are provided answers when one of the vehicles cracks up and the police arrive to examine the bodies of the three passengers: convicted hoodlum Dixie Logan (Robert Kent), who’s been at-large for some time now (busted out of the joint); lawyer Lawrence “Larry” Dale (Edmund MacDonald), on the eve of becoming district attorney; and Marian Langdon (Luana Walters), Dale’s girl Friday who agrees to become Mrs. Dale (even though she knows Dale has only proposed to protect his rather unsavory background) in a naked, cynical grab for political power.

So the question is: how did the three of them end up in the same automobile accident?  That’s the job of news hawk George “Mitch” Mitchell (Russell Wade), a crime reporter whose interest in Dale’s career is motivated by his gut feeling that it could be the biggest story of his career.  He gets his scoop via a series of flashbacks (and in one instance, a flashback within a flashback) at Marian’s bedside at the hospital (Marian is in serious but stable condition from the accident)…reminiscences that propel a twisty, turny plot that only starts to show at the seams once you’ve finished watching this 64-minute thriller.  Shoot to Kill is not a great movie by any yardstick one measures film noir—but it does have occasional imaginative touches that belie its B-picture origins, not to mention performances from “the glue” of the motion picture industry: character actors.

Two of the familiar faces in Shoot to Kill: Nestor Paiva (upper photo), who plays a thug in cahoots with crooked D.A. MacDonald, and Vince "Elmo" Barnett (bottom photo), whose extreme close-up is pretty much his highlight in the movie.
The name William A. Berke probably won’t provoke any auteurist discussions among movie buffs in the near future, but despite his journeyman status the veteran B-movie director should get some props for helming 90-some motion pictures between 1934 and 1958 (he also was a prolific boob tube director, overseeing episodes of such shows as Annie Oakley, Judge Roy Bean and The Range Rider).  He broke into the picture business as an actor (William Lester) in silent films, and then discovered he had a way with turning out movie scripts before settling into the director-producer role.  Before the time Shoot to Kill went before the cameras, Berke had rode herd on any number of B-westerns and crime quickies; he was an associate producer on many of the Three Mesquiteers westerns at Republic in the 1930s, and then directed a number of Charles “The Durango Kid” Starrett’s oaters at Columbia (where he made the acquaintance of Kill’s leading lady Luana Walters).  At R-K-O, he directed the first in the studio’s short-lived Dick Tracy series and a pair of Falcon pictures before eventually finding his way back to Columbia and working with “Jungle” Sam Katzman on many of the Jungle Jim entries (including the first, which Mom and I happened to catch on Antenna TV the other morning, much to our delight).

One of the offbeat touches of Shoot to Kill: Wade and Walters are at a restaurant (upper photo) that would appear to be a Chinese joint (all the wait staff are Asians)...but in the bottom picture, musician Gene Rodgers plays a little boogie-woogie piano for the patrons.  (I'd eat at a place like this!)

Berke’s direction was typically fast, cheap and out of control, and Shoot to Kill moves along like a bullet train, thanks to a tight script from writer Edwin V. Westrate.  It’s a better-than-average entry from independent studio Screen Guild Productions, which was formed in 1945 by a disgruntled theater owner named Robert L. Lippert.  Lippert decided to make his own films in a revolt against the exorbitant rental fees demanded by the major motion picture studios, releasing a mixture of his own productions and re-releases of older B-Westerns.  The studio became Lippert Pictures in 1948, and continued in the movie business until 1955 when 20th Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck hired Lippert to over that company’s B-picture arm, Regal, in 1956.  Shoot to Kill is one of the better Screen Guild-Lippert concoctions; if the studio is remembered today it’s primarily because it’s where Sam Fuller got his start behind the camera as a writer-director (his first three pictures: I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona and The Steel Helmet) and Lippert also beat (by a whisker) producer George Pal to theaters with the first outer space dramatic film, Rocketship X-M (1950).

A glance at the cast credits of Shoot to Kill reveals a familiar face or two but two of the actors in the film were apparently undergoing extreme makeovers at this point in their careers.  Luana Walters was attempting a “comeback” in the film (she’s billed as Susan Walters) after a disappearance from movie screens for five years; as previously mentioned, she was a dependable leading lady in B-Westerns though I must reluctantly confess I know her better for her serial work: she was the delectably evil Fah-Lo-Suee in Republic’s Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) and the sullen Fury Shark in Captain Midnight (1942).  (Cult movie fans probably will recognize her from 1937’s Assassin of Youth and as annoying reporter Patricia Hunter in the 1942 cheese fest The Corpse Vanishes.)  The temporary name change didn’t jumpstart Luana’s career; she only make a few more motion picture appearances afterward (she was the first actress to play Superman’s mom Lara onscreen in the 1948 serial) before her death in 1963.  Walters had a good many problems in her personal life (she had quite a heavy pull on the bottle) but I think it’s a crime that Shoot to Kill didn’t open more doors for her.

Say what you will about Walters...girlfriend can work a turban.  The third picture features at bottom left the name of Carole Lombard...your guess is as good as mine.
The other nom de sawdust performer in this film is billed as “Douglas Blackley”—a name to which he would return time and time again in his career, but he’s probably better known as Robert Kent to serial fans, for his roles in such chapter plays as the execrable Who’s Guilty? (1945) and not-quite-so-execrable The Scarlet Horseman (1946).  (He should also be recognizable to those of you following the saga of The Phantom Creeps at She Blogged by Night.)  Kent, a former prizefighter who was once under contract at Fox (making such films as Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo and Mr. Moto Takes a Chance), went down a similar road as Ms. Walters in that alcoholism did him in at the age of 46 in 1955…disappointing in that he had a fairly high-profile role in The Country Girl (1954) the previous year.  Without giving anything away, I’ll just say it will behoove those viewers who have not yet seen this film to keep a close eye on Kent—he has a surprise or two well worth the watch.

Shoot to Kill does pretty well considering its budget limitations but I have to say I wasn’t very impressed with the “hero” of the film, reporter “Mitch” Mitchell.  As played by Russell Wade, he doesn’t really convince me he’s a newsman; he’s a little too soft-spoken though it’s possible this might have been a decision made to overcome the usual obnoxious stereotype associated with members of the fourth estate.  But Wade’s lackluster performance shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing this one; I thought both Walters and Kent were good in their roles, as is Edmund MacDonald as greasy would-be D.A. Larry Dale.  Another thespian who went before his work was finished, I’ve seen MacDonald in a good bit of Universal product (he’s the announcer of the Murder at Midnight program in Abbott & Costello’s Who Done It? and one of the stars of that studio’s last serial, The Mysterious Mr. M) but you probably known him from Flying Tigers (1942) and the B-noir classic Detour (1945; he’s the guy who gives Tom Neal a hitch and then Neal attempts to impersonate).

The hazards of low-budget film making: gangster Kent pays a visit to the two men responsible for putting him in the slammer (top photo), minutes later Wade accompanies him down the same stairwell but apparently the landlords forgot to settle up with the electric company.
Shoot to Kill is one of those little gems that had been on my radar for quite some time (it got a fairly good review from classic movie guru Leonard Maltin and also a positive write-up in Arthur Lyon’s encyclopedia on B-noirs, Death on the Cheap) ever since it was released to DVD a good while back on one of VCI’s Forgotten Noir collections—in fact, its public domain status has allowed it to appear in any number of DVD formats, and you can even catch it in its entirety on YouTube.  But the movie is also one of fifty features that’s been made available in a re-released Mill Creek Entertainment collection entitled Dark Crimes…a movie pack set that first came out in 2005 and is now being brought back by popular demand.  It’s the most economical way I know of to get a movie collection going, and most of the titles on the set would make frequent guest reviewer Philip Schweier’s mouth water: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), D.O.A. (1950) and The Naked Kiss (1964—okay, maybe not this one…he didn’t care for it) are just a few of the goodies on this set, as well as first-rate sleepers like Guest in the House (1944), Gaslight (the 1940 original), Fear in the Night (1947) and Woman on the Run (1950).  (I should also point out that not all of the selections in this set are film-related; four of them are kinescopes from the Golden Age of Television anthology Studio One in Hollywood, so it will be of interest to vintage TV fans as well.)

This set—as well as other collections like The Nifty Fifties and Timeless Family Classics—is priced to meet even the tightest of home entertainment budgets, and you can even take advantage of the discount code at this page for a little extra savings…but make certain that if you’re buying a copy you do it before the deadline runs out May 31.  If you’re interested in Dark Crimes, I’m going to give you an opportunity to win a copy gratis (a fancy word for “no strings attached,” and courtesy of rep Barbara Pflughaupt, who was nice enough to send me an extra review copy) and all you have to do is shoot me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com (with “Dark Crimes giveaway” in the header) before next Tuesday May 22 at 11:59pm EDT with your name, address and e-mail.  The usual ruleage applies: if you’ve won something off the blog in the last thirty days, kindly consider sitting this one out to give other folks a shot at the swag.  It would make a great gift for the movie enthusiast in your life…or you could keep it for yourself, and I don’t think any of us would blame you.  But you cannot win this if you don’t enter—so what are you waiting for?

4 comments:

Grand Old Movies said...

As I recall, this film has some great cinematography; its high-contrast lighting created an echt noir look (though perhaps the deep shadows were necessary to hide the underdressed sets). Russell Wade actually had a bit of a career in Val Lewton's B-horror films at RKO; he's best known for leading roles in The Ghost Ship and The Body Snatcher, though he's outshone in these films by older pros such as Richard Dix in the former and Boris Karloff in the latter.

ClassicBecky said...

Boy, when you are sick, you're sick, and when you are well, you write up a storm! Good post, Ivan, and I agree -- Barnett's close-up is formidable! Dark Crimes sounds great, and it has the original Gaslight? Fantastic. I'm going for it! (I will do my entry properly...)

Caftan Woman said...

The title alone makes me love it!

KimWilson said...

Not one I've seen, Ivan. However, I enjoyed reading your fashion analysis of Walters' turbans!