Thursday, October 30, 2014

On the Grapevine: “It’s Hard Out There For a Blackmailer” Double Feature – Lady in the Death House (1944)/Behind Green Lights (1946)

This week, I had originally planned to do a review of another DVD purchased from Grapevine Video in the past (and on top of all that, had scheduled it for yesterday) but I wound up calling an audible because a disc on sale in one of the company’s e-mail fliers caught my eye and I succumbed to an impulse buy.  Touted as a “Film Noir Doube Feature” (they should probably proofread those things before they’re sent out), the DVD showcases two crime drama programmers from the 1940s: Lady in the Death House (1944) and Behind Green Lights (1946).

Dead woman...walkin'...
Both movies, however, share a common theme in that the murder plots of each flick are put into motion by a naughty old blackmailer.  The extortionist in Death House is none other than our good friend Dick Curtis, whose bad guy bona fides were on prominent display in the recent Serial Saturdays presentation of (Big) Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (1951).  Curtis is Willis Millen, a criminal lowlife shaking down the lovely Mary Kirk (Jean Parker) because he knows that Mary is actually the daughter of a convicted racketeer named Thomas Logan (Millen was his confederate in gangsterism) and he’s threatening to rat her out to her strait-laced boss (George Irving).  Mary refuses to cave into Millen’s demands (she’s scrimping and saving to send her sister to college)…which is just as well, since someone soon caves Millen’s noggin in with a piece of statuary.  Mary is convicted of the deed on the eyewitness testimony of two individuals who conveniently saw the whole thing…though it was mostly through two silhouettes on the shade.  (I feel an oldies song coming on.)

1940s film.  With Byron Foulger.  I'll say no more.

Since TDOY’s mantra is that irony can be pretty ironic sometimes, you’ll be interested to learn that the guy who’s going to pull the switch once Mary walks that last mile is her boyfriend Dwight “Brad” Bradley (Douglas Fowley), a research doc who moonlights as the state’s executioner in order to bring home some groceries now and then (though if the movie is any indication, he eats out a lot) and keep Mary in the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed.  But worry ye not, TDOY-ers—Mary’s goose is not yet cooked because criminologist Charles Finch (Lionel Atwill) is convinced of her innocence, and does his darndest to prove she’s been railroaded.  (Death House is told mainly in flashback, as Finch relates his riveting tale to a room of reporters.)

Lady in the Death House is a PRC production…and that’s all that really needs to be said here.  I’m convinced they shot the movie on two sets—one of which is a jernt frequented by the folks in the film known as “The Grotto,” which is apparently the only decent restaurant-bar in the unnamed town.  Helmed by Steve Sekely, a Hungarian-born director best known for Hollow Triumph (1948; a.k.a. The Scar) and The Day of the Triffids (1963), Death House is entertaining but please don’t interpret this to mean that it’s good…because, Lord-a-mighty is this a mess.  The script by Henry O. Hoyt (based on Frederick C. Davis’ “Meet the Executioner”) is good for a lot of unintentional laughs; my favorite is when a detective played by Cy Kendall (another familiar face from Serial Saturdays) observes: “This isn't one of those tough cases which depends on clues.”  Much of the screenplay features logic holes you could steer a U-Haul through; I spent most of the movie trying to suss out why Parker’s lawyer didn’t object to the questionable “eyewitness” testimony unless he was this guy.  I will admit, I found the situation between Parker and Fowley rather fascinating (how would you handle being the one responsible for administering the death penalty to your fiancée?), particularly in a scene where Jean tells Doug: “I’m glad it’s going to be you.”  (Ah, romance…)

Considering what they have to work with, the performances in Death House aren’t too terrible; I like Parker, whom I watched in one of those Inner Sanctum movies, Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), this past weekend (I also remember her fondly from The Flying Deuces).  Actor Sam Flint, who’s currently a cast member of the Serial Saturdays presentation of The Black Widow (1947), can be seen briefly as The Governor, and former kiddie thesp Marcia Mae Jones plays Jean’s sister Suzy—I love Marcia, because she was so delightfully mean to Shirley Temple in The Little Princess (1939).  Lionel Atwill, who was becoming a PRC mainstay by this time (due to proclivities in his personal life that I won’t go into here…but that you can certainly find information about on The Google), certainly classes up the joint (and I kind of get the impression he knew he was just wading through this stuff yet his professionalism kept him going until his death of pneumonia in 1946).

The second feature steps up a little in weight class (since it was a 20th Century-Fox production) though that doesn’t make its contents any better (truth be told, I enjoyed Death House more because I expected it to be cheesy and it didn’t disappernt).  Behind Green Lights (1946) stars William (Barrie Craig: Confidential Investigator) Gargan as a police lieutenant investigating the murder of a man who’s been practically deposited on the steps of the police station.  The victim is Walter Bard (Bernard Nedell), a private investigator who moonlights as a blackmailer, and suspicion for his croaking has fallen on Janet Bradley (Carole Landis), a young lovely trapped in Bard’s evil clutches—her father is Luther Bradley, the current reform candidate for mayor (the city gubmint apparently can be bought for the cost of a loaf of bread).  Also in the “persons of interest” pool are Bard’s estranged wife Nora (Mary Anderson) and her fiancé Arthur Templeton (played by Charles Russell, radio’s first Johnny Dollar).

The investigation of the Bard affair is set against the background of a still-wet-behind-the-ears reporter (“Gosh…I hope I don’t pull any boners” is one of his memorable utterances) named Johnny Williams (Richard Crane), who in the process of “learning the ropes” is featured in a His Girl Friday-ish sequence in which he’s trying to keep his fellow fourth estaters from finding out that he’s located Bard’s corpse in the newsroom (the body goes missing temporarily); there’s even an eccentric reporter named Daniel Boone Wintergreen (Charles Arnt), whom I suspect was modeled after the Ernest Truex character in the aforementioned Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell film.  This temporary detour into comedy doesn’t really help Behind Green Lights (nor does a silly subplot involving a flower lady [Mabel Paige] who keeps kvetching that she’s owed “a dollar and six bits”), which I found pretty boring for the most part.  Apart from the presence from Landis and an early appearance from John Ireland (who plays Gargan’s second-in-command) there’s not much to recommend here besides the inclusion of a lot of character greats like Don Beddoe, Roy Roberts, Lane Chandler and J. Farrell MacDonald.

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