Friday, February 24, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Western Pacific Agent (1950)

Bindlestiff.  It’s a slangy word for a hobo or tramp, and apparently, it’s been out of usage for so long Microsoft Word is asking me “What the hell, Ivan?”  Be that as it may, the expression gets quite a workout in Western Pacific Agent (1950); as a train passenger (Jason Robards, Sr.) explains to his lady friend (Vera Marshe), most bindlestiffs are merely migrant workers…but some of them, to borrow the nomenclature of our orange Commander-in-Chief, are “bad hombres.”  The gentleman proceeds to tell the woman (and the movie audience) of one such wicked transient.

Though he’s recognized by his fellow rail-riders under his nom de hobo “The West Coast Kid,” the Kid is better known to his friends and family in Chester, California as Frank Wicken (Mickey Knox) …and he’s returned to his hometown to put the bite on his old man (Morris Carnovsky), who owns and operates the town’s general store.  No dice, Papa Joe tells his son—not one thin dime until Frank agrees to straighten up and get a J-O-B.  The ambitious Frank decides to take a shortcut and rob railroad agent Bill Stuart (Robert Lowery) of a $50,000 fruit pickers payroll; in doing so Wicken not only clubs Bill until his brains turn to guacamole but sticks a shiv in the stationmaster (Anthony Jochim) for good measure.  Fleeing with the cash, Frank leaves the murder weapon behind…because he isn’t very bright.  (I’m no lawyer…but I think Wicken just might swing for those killings.)

Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk says of the ubiquitous Sid Melton: "He grows on you." (So does kudzu.)

To solve the murders, a special railroad agent named Rod Kendall (Kent Taylor) is brought in…and you’d think if he was that much of a big deal this movie would have been titled Western Pacific Special Agent.  Kendall, with the help of the local sheriff (Dick Elliott) and a stooge played by Sid Melton (because this is a Lippert film, after all) gets down to cases; the company has had the foresight to pass out a list of the serial numbers on the bills to local business so that Frank is unable to spend any of his ill-gotten gains.  Oh, the irony!  (All we need now is Bill Forman chortling about how terribly Wicken screwed up like a classic broadcast of The Whistler.)  Frank is ultimately unable to outrun the long arm of the law because…well, you know the drill—weed of crime, bitter fruit, yada yada yada.

Unlike a lot of the programmers on these Forgotten Noir DVDs (available for purchase at The Sprocket Vault or to rent from the new ClassicFlix Underground), Western Pacific Agent is a dandy little B-noir (yes, I think this one qualifies) from director Sam Newfield (and his producer, brother Sigmund Neufeld) that’s a hell of an entertaining movie to watch.  No less than an authority than the late John Cocchi—author of one of my favorite film reference books, Second Feature—spoke most highly of the film: “One of the brothers’ very best is this crime drama in which the heroes become secondary to the villain.”  I think he pretty much nails it; the top cop is played by Kent Taylor who, despite his lengthy movie resume, I can never think beyond TV’s Boston Blackie.  Taylor’s Randall is competent but uninspiring—he seems annoyed by Melton’s comic relief (I’d gamble he’s not the only one) and his “romance” with Martha Stuart (Sheila Ryan)—yes, that is the character’s name—is dull stuff.

The top performances in Agent go to Mickey Knox, who would later enjoy great success in Italian films in the 1960s/1970s (he was a favorite of director Sergio Leone), and Morris Carnovsky, a respected stage actor whose movie career was cut off at the knees by the blacklist.  Knox is so convincing as an amoral drifter it’s scary (Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk notes that Woody Harrelson’s character in Natural Born Killers [1994] is named “Mickey Knox” and wonders if Oliver Stone ever saw Agent—I’ll bet this was Quentin Tarantino’s contribution) and the cruel twist of Fred Myton’s screenplay (from a story by Milton Raison) kind of makes you feel a little sorry for the little jerk.  Carnovsky proves to be the consummate pro in that he demonstrates despite having to be in this B-picture he’s going to give 100%.

Dick Elliott is always a welcome presence, and vets like Frank Richards and Ted Jacques turn in solid performances as two “bindlestiffs” who become hoboes of interest in Randall’s investigation.  (Look quickly and you’ll see our old buddy, B-western heavy Charles King, with a bindle as well.)  I’ll slip into a Stanley R. Sogg impression and let you know “the ever popular Margia Dean!” has a brief bit as a female hobo…proving that riding the rails was an equal opportunity occupation.  Why Jason Robards, Sr. goes unmentioned while his female companion gets a nod in the opening credits is a question I can’t answer…though the cynic in me speculates the actress in question might have been a friend of the producer, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Western Pacific Agent wraps things up with exciting shootouts at an old shack and a bascule bridge that per the {always reliable) IMDb is the Henry Ford Bridge on Terminal Island (Long Beach) where Knox’s Wicken meets a memorable end.  I only wish they had made a little more use of the Western Pacific streamliner the Zephyr Vista Dome, which was introduced in this picture (some of the scenes were shot on the train’s Frisco-to-Chicago run).  Other portions of Agent were lensed at Oroville (their dam has been in the news lately) in the Feather River country of Northern California.  Great little B-picture, and one of the stand-outs in the Forgotten Noir collections.


b piper said...

So what's with all the vitriol towards Sid Melton? I used to like him in MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY and on the rare occasions when I watched GREEN ACRES, and he was always fine in the handful of other features (mostly Lipperts?) I saw him in. You know what I think it is? It's like when the school bully starts picking on some kid and then all the would-be bullies start chiming in too, just to show how cool they are. Well I never had much use for that crap, so in the words of Groucho --- "Hey you big bully, leave that little bully alone!"

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

b piper, fresh out of law school, mounted a vigorous defense:

So what's with all the vitriol towards Sid Melton?

I love Sid on Green Acres (and his brother, Mary Grace Canfield) but after watching him do some painfully unfunny shtick in these Lippert films he has a tendency to wear out his welcome after the first couple of features. If it seems like I'm picking on him, mea culpa.

I didn't mind him so much on Make Room for Daddy until Cozi TV resurrected those rare episodes from the sitcom's last two seasons, when Danny Thomas and Marjorie Lord went on a European sabbatical and Melton and Pat Carroll picked up the slack in their absence. Sid is okay in small doses but too much exposure will severely test anyone's tolerance.

b piper said...

I wasn't really chastising you personally so much as the whole mindless "Let's trash (fill the the blank)" mob mentality. Heck, you're untitled to be sick to death of anyone you want.