Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Grey Market Cinema: Black Tuesday (1954)


Convicted racketeer Vincent Canelli (Edward G. Robinson) has a date with “Old Sparky” (in layman's terms, the electric chair).  He’s not, however, going out alone; the state has a doubleheader planned that evening in that they’ll also be frying Peter Manning (Peter Graves), a man who robbed a bank of $200,000…but unfortunately, killed a cop as he was making his getaway.  The governor has offered Manning a ten-day reprieve if he’ll reveal where the missing money is located…but since he’s still going to be sitting down in the hot seat after that pause, Manning sends the gov some sand and pounding instructions.

Hal Baylor, Edward G. Robinson, Alexander Campbell, James Bell
As preparations for “Black Tuesday” (the day when executions are carried out—not to be confused with “Black Friday,” natch) continue, Canelli’s moll Hattie Combest (Jean Parker) schemes with Vince’s top gun Joey Stewart (Warren Stevens) to crash him out.  Their ingenious scheme involves Joey posing as one of the newspaper reporters witnessing the execution, while guard John Norris (James Bell) is persuaded to tape a gun underneath the chair for Canelli’s use.  Why is Norris being so cooperative?  Well, his sister Ellen (Sylvia Findley) has been abducted by Canelli’s mob…and if Norris doesn’t rise to the occasion, it’s lights out for Ellie.

The breakout goes per plan—except for a minor snafu involving Manning being wounded during the escape.  Canelli needs Manning alive—and fortunately for him, there’s a prison doctor (Vic Perrin) among the hostages the mobster has taken—because Peter is the only man who can retrieve all that lovely cabbage.

Despite his incredible versatility as a motion picture actor, Edward G. Robinson is more often than not associated with his portrayal of gangsters in his voluminous resume of films.  From Little Caesar (1930) to Key Largo (1948), Eddie G. was a commanding presence onscreen—the fact that he was never nominated for a competitive Oscar (he had to settle for an honorary statuette, awarded to him posthumously in March of 1973) just goes to show there’s something awfully hinky about that Academy Awards nonsense.  Like his fellow Warner Brothers co-worker, James Cagney, Robinson chafed at being typecast as a gun-toting villain…but let’s not make any bones about it: he was damn good at what he did.

Black Tuesday (1954), which allows Robinson to pull out all the stops in the manner of Johnny Rocco from Key Largo, is an unrecognized movie gem…and the disappointing aspect of this buried treasure is that because it was a United Artists release, it’s often difficult tracking down a nice print (had it been a major studio production, this bad boy would have been released to DVD ages ago).  I bought my copy from Finders Keepers, and while it’s certainly watchable I’ll warn you right now the source copy has really been through the wringer.  But at $6.99, it’s impossible to pass up—I suggest you try and grab this if you can.

Oops. (This will give you an idea.)

Milburn Stone, Jean Parker, Peter Graves, Robinson
As Vincent “King” Canelli, Eddie G. is a man who knows only violence…and the undercurrent in the film (written by Sydney Boehm, who also penned The Big Heat) is that capital punishment may be the only effective way to deal with the Canellis in the world.  (I found the atmosphere surrounding the execution—with reporters jockeying for good seats—a little disturbing.)  One of his hostages is a priest, Father Slocum (Milburn Stone), and Vince has very little hesitation about putting a bullet in Slocum’s brainpan if necessary.  (Slocum: “Listen to me, Vincent…you can’t keep on killing and killing…” Canelli: “No?  Just watch me…”)  The only hint of humanity present in Canelli is his relationship with Hattie (their scenes together briefly reveal Vince's tender side) …but once she’s out of the picture, the snarling primitive in him takes over.

Black Tuesday was directed by Hugo Fregonese, an Argentinian-born director whose career never really caught fire in the United States (I’m a big fan of The Raid [1954], which was also scripted by Boehm and features Tuesday co-star Peter Graves in a small role).  It is pulls-no-punches violent—so much so that it was banned by the Memphis, TN Censor Board in its initial release for its “grimness and brutality.”  Nevertheless, it’s great fun to see Robinson back in the saddle after his movie career in the 1950s was threatened by the House Un-American Activities Committee (sadly, Eddie “named names” …and his starring film roles became fewer and fewer as the decade rolled on); I’d like to see his Vincent Canelli tangle with Cody Jarrett—the menace played by Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Warren Stevens
There are a lot of future small screen faces in Black Tuesday: Graves would go on to star on the likes of Fury and Mission: Impossible, and “Father” Stone was a regular, of course, on the dean of TV westerns, Gunsmoke.  Speaking of westerns, that’s Jack Kelly (as he always insisted in interviews, “Maverick’s brother”) as the reporter who gets kidnapped by Robinson’s gang—one of the hoods is played by TV professor (and co-star on the boob tube oater Black Saddle) Russell Johnson.  Kelly’s character is the guy Warren Stevens’ Joey impersonates (and successfully, since it’s Kelly’s first execution rodeo) …and I must say, they had a lot of luck on their side in their plan to break Robinson’s Canelli out—suppose they had sent one of the veteran reporters instead?  (Stevens, by the way, was also no slouch when it came to TV: he guested on scads of boob tube favorites and had a regular role on Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers.)

OTR veterans Vic Perrin and Harry Bartell are also on hand (Harry is a pilot who’s going to fly Robinson and Company out of the country once they’ve got Graves’ money in their greasy mitts) as are character greats Arthur Batanides, Ken Christy, Edmund Cobb, Frank Ferguson (as the cop handling the hostage situation!), Paul Maxey, Stafford Repp, and TDOY fave William Schallert (also in Fregonese’s Raid).  An uncompromising film from its first frame to its last, Black Tuesday is a great little noir.

No comments: