Friday, September 2, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Fingerprints Don’t Lie (1951)

The testimony of “special investigator” Jim Stover (Richard Travis) is going to send Paul Moody (Richard Emory) to the gas chamber…or so notes a newspaper reporter interviewing Stover during a lull in a murder trial that has garnered front page headlines (as witnessed by a montage after the movie’s opening credits).  Moody’s accused of croaking Wendell Palmer (Ferris Taylor), who’s just been elected mayor on one of those “reform” tickets so popular in motion pictures back in the day.  Paul’s supposed motivation is that he was holding a grudge against Hizzoner because Palmer eliminated him from being considered for a proposed mural to be erected at City Hall.  Moody’s fingerprints were found on the telephone used to tenderize the Mayor’s skull…and as Stover is fond of saying in this film, “fingerprints don’t lie.”

Or do they?  Well, both the mayor’s daughter Carolyn (Sheila Ryan)—Paul’s fiancée—and a model (Margia Dean) who works for Moody are convinced that Paul is innocent…after all, Moody has been consistently protesting his innocence throughout the trial.  It’s Carolyn who stumbles onto evidence that just might free her future husband…evidence that points to police commissioner Frank Kelso (Michael Whelan) as a “person of interest.”

If the plot of Fingerprints Don’t Lie (1951) sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because it’s practically a carbon copy of Kid Glove Killer (1942)—an M-G-M “B” that served as the American feature film debut for Austrian émigré Fred Zinnemann, the future Academy Award-winning director of From Here to Eternity (1953) and A Man for All Seasons (1966).  (Fingerprints was scripted by Orville H. Hampton—from Rupert Hughes’ story—who went on to better things like Saturday morning cartoons and co-writing 1964’s One Potato, Two Potato.)  I’ve argued here and elsewhere that there really was no such animal as a “B” movie at M-G-M; nevertheless, Killer is a very entertaining thriller—you can’t go wrong with Van Heflin and Marsha Hunt.

But in the case of Fingerprints Don’t Lie, we’re talking Lippert Pictures here.  We’re also talking about one of the cheapest looking movies it has ever been my misfortune to watch (well, it is identified as “A Spartan Production” in the opening credits—apparently budget noirs don’t lie, either)—which is a crying shame, because I thought Fingerprints had a lot of potential.  Its saving grace is that its running time totals 57 minutes (at one time in the 1950s, this bad boy was edited down to a half-hour for television) so it’s not as if you’re going to craft a major time investment, later regretting the bad choice you made in life.  The clue that Fingerprints has bought a one-way ticket to Cheap City is also revealed in the opening titles, when the viewer learns that the director of this low-priced little noir is Sam(uel) Newfield…and the producer Sigmund Neufeld—blood brothers despite the difference in the spelling (and pronunciation) of their names.

Sam Newfield
For many years, the Brothers Newfield/Neufeld ran Producers Releasing Corporation—PRC as it was better known, though to industry wags the initials stood for “Pretty Rotten Crap.”  For every promising feature like Bluebeard (1944) or Detour (1946), PRC cranked out Poverty Row cheapies (a lot of B-Westerns—made so fast even Buster Crabbe, star of their “Billy the Kid” franchise, bitched about their cheapness…and he made more money making those oaters than in all his years of toiling in serials) like sausages.  (Sausages with a lot of sawdust filler.)  The two men left their company in 1947 when it was taken over by Eagle-Lion Films, and when Siggy was hired by Robert L. Lippert to come work for him in 1950, Sam signed up as well.

Sam and Sig had no pretensions about making art: they were in the motion picture business to make money, and they did that very well.  Of course, when you’re making movies that cost less than a $1.75 somebody’s bound to make a profit.

The economy shows in Fingerprints in its use of claustrophobic, confining sets (decorated by Harry Reid—not the retiring U.S. Senator from Nevada but the man who later went to work for cult director Edward D. Wood, Jr.); the “ crime laboratory” in this one even turns up in a Lippert film produced at the same time, Mark of the Dragon (1951).  (So do a lot of the same performers; unfortunately, Dragon will be coming soon to a Forgotten Noir Fridays near you.)  The music is this one is also pretty hooty, ranging from an organ that sounds like it’s moonlighting from its regular job on mystery programs at the Mutual Broadcasting System to a choral group that I kept expecting at any moment to break out in the theme song from TV’s I Married Joan.  (Dudley Chambers purportedly composed a score for Fingerprints, but Lippert had a reputation for feuding with the musicians’ union…and since TV stations didn’t want to risk cheesing the union off Lippert substituted Chambers’ contributions with the organ/choral group score.)

Is there anything to recommend in Fingerprints Don’t Lie?  Well, you have Sid Melton as comic relief; he plays an inept photographer named Hypo Dorton, and there’s an amusing in-joke in the first ten minutes of the film where Dorton checks out a wanted poster for a “Sid Melton.”  Melton was Lippert’s “good luck charm”; he signed a contract with Robert L. in 1949 for $140 a week and the mogul used Sid every opportunity he got (Melton even had the starring role in the 1951 Lippert release Stop That Cab, which teamed him with TDOY fave Iris Adrian, another Lippert mainstay).  Lyle Talbot is also in this one (as Lt. Grayson), and in the DVD's audio commentary from Joel Blumberg, Joel jokes that Talbot never said “no” to an acting gig.  (Okay, he may not have been joking…but it made me laugh out loud.)  The contributions from the remaining cast members are competent but not outstanding; I stifled a snicker when I saw Tom Neal—star of the PRC classic Detour—in a small role as the D.A., knowing he would become well-acquainted with real-life prosecutors all too soon.  George Eldridge is always welcome as the mob kingpin King Sullivan (at first I thought they were calling him “King Solomon,” which you have to admit is a novel handle) but you’ll probably wonder how he moved so fast up in the ranks in a hilarious scene where he pulls a gun out of his moll’s (Dee Tatum) purse…upside down, unfortunately.

As I mentioned in TDOY’s inaugural Forgotten Noir Fridays installment, VCI released Fingerprints Don’t Lie as a double feature with I’ll Get You (1952) to DVD in 2007 but apparently that disc is now out of print.  (Someone’s asking $100.96 for a new copy at Amazon.  Honestly, cartooners—it’s not worth it.)

1 comment:

Scott said...

Mystery Science Theater 3000 joked about Sam Newfield and Sigmund Neufeld's nearly but not quite identical surnames (I believe it was in Lost Continent): "They were in separate lines at Ellis Island."

Hey, one of these little-seen Poverty Row programmers I've actually seen! I was home sick from elementary school, yet vividly remember watching Fingerprints Don't Lie on the Channel 11 Midday Matinee, primarily because it was one of the few films I'd seen up to that point in which I recognized nobody. Nary a star, not even a vaguely familiar character actor; the whole thing felt less like a movie and more like a failed TV pilot.