Friday, September 11, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #37 (Obscure film noir edition)

Dial 1119 (1950) – Former mental patient Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) has no sooner arrived in his hometown of Terminal City when he’s shot and killed the driver of the bus he rode in on and taken a contingent of patrons hostage in a neighborhood bar. Wyckoff’s solitary demand is an audience with Dr. John D. Faron (Sam Levene) whose diagnosis sent him to the loony bin in the first place—otherwise, he’s going to croak the remaining people in the tavern. Hard-nosed police captain Henry Keiver (Richard Rober) refuses to allow Faron to go in, prompting the medico to disobey Keiver’s command and creating sparks that threaten to detonate the powder keg-like situation.

A seventy-five minute film that actually seems longer, Dial 1119 was the feature film debut of a director who earned his stripes the old-fashioned Hollywood way: rank nepotism. Yes, Gerald Meyer was the nephew of M-G-M head Louis B., and while I’ve only watched one other film in which he held the reins (The Sellout [1952], a not-too-bad newspaper expose flick) 1119 was not a particularly auspicious tryout. It’s way too talky, and the dramatics of the proceedings get a bit turgid; I must confess my only interest in watching this one was to see “The Man of a Thousand Voice,” William Conrad (ironically named “Chuckles”), in the part of a bartender…and since he snuffs it twenty-nine minutes in, it’s rough sledding for the remainder of the movie’s running time. As a psychotic, Marshall Thompson makes a good veterinarian (if you thought I was going to pass up the opportunity to make a Daktari joke you were sadly mistaken) and the only other lively bits in the film are contributed by barfly Virginia Field. Other familiar faces in the cast include Leon Ames, future The Eddie Cantor Story star and CBS network exec Keefe Brasselle and Andrea King—plus cameos from familiar TDOY faves like Barbara Billingsley, Frank Cady, Kirby Grant and Peter Leeds. (Check out the TV screen in Conrad’s place—I didn’t know they built them so big back then!)

Cause for Alarm! (1951) – It’s been quite a while since I watched this taut little suspenser; Loretta Young is a devoted housewife who’s been placed in danger after her invalid husband Barry Sullivan writes a letter to the District Attorney accusing Young and doctor Bruce Cowling (an old flame of Loretta’s) of trying to kill him…and has our heroine pop it in the post without knowing of its contents until it’s too late. Sullivan, who’s not too tightly wrapped to begin with, lets Young in on the secret as he points a pistol at her…but the strain proves too much for his heart and he keels over dead. This means Loretta has to race around (in a manner that Edmond O’Brien in D.O.A. would be proud of) to retrieve the letter, encountering interference from the postman (Irving Bacon—there’s a surprise bit of casting!), Sullivan’s aunt (Margalo Gillmore), and the Post Office’s superintendent (Art Baker). Alarm! wraps up its quick, efficient running time of 74 minutes with a particularly memorable twist ending.

Alarm! is a fairly accessible film due to its public domain status, though it’s one of those movies in which a second viewing isn’t necessarily rewarding because you’ve already been clued into the ending. Based on a story by radio scribe Larry Marcus (Nightbeat, Suspense), the movie is one of the few Loretta Young vehicles that don’t fill me with revulsion (yes, I know I’m in danger of ticking off a lot of her fans but she really isn’t my cup of Orange Pekoe) because it’s kind of sadistic fun watching her squirm in her efforts to retrieve the letter. As for Barry Sullivan, an actor whose specialty seemed to be playing complete creeps, he’s one scary essobee in this one; he’s completely convinced that Young and Cowling are messing around behind his back and he won’t be persuaded otherwise (this might have something to do with the fact that he stole Loretta from Bruce in the first place, as detailed in flashback). Georgia Backus, Don Haggerty and Richard Anderson also offer up notable contributions to Alarm!, as well as TDOY faves Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer and Robert “I was kicked in the haid by a mule” Easton as a pair of amateur grease monkeys working on a car in a brief scene.

No Questions Asked (1951) – Barry Sullivan and Richard Anderson return to appear in this routine crime drama as an insurance company lawyer and none-too-bright cop, respectfully; Sullivan even says to Anderson at one point: “It’s a pity you’re a cop—you’d have made such a good governess.” Barry is trying to get ahead at the insurance company he punches a time clock for, and asks his boss (Moroni Olsen) for a raise so that he can tie the knot with girlfriend Arlene Dahl. The boss thumbs down Barry’s request—but in passing, nonchalantly comments that he’d pay $10,000 “no questions asked” for the return of a shipment of stolen furs the company will have to make good on…which gives Barry the idea to poking around in the underworld for information on who’s responsible and to offer them the ten grand as a “reward” (while pocketing a hefty “finders fee” of $2500 for himself). What Sullivan does isn’t technically illegal—but it does inspire the city’s various criminal elements to step up on their swiping of jewelry and furs…and that’s when detectives George Murphy and Anderson begin to investigate. As for Sullivan, his troubles are just beginning: Dahl has left him for another guy (in fact, she married him before he started whining about a raise) and the underworld no longer trusts him because anyone caught talking to him gets pinched by the law. The bottom falls out when Barry finds himself taking the rap for a gangland murder.

Sullivan is his usual wanker self in this one; he sort of ends up the semi-hero but I was glad to hear Murphy tell Sullivan’s girlfriend Jean Hagen that the Barrister would be doing a bit of time for accessory to murder. Truth be told, Hagen’s the only reason why I sat through this one and she doesn’t disappoint; she ends up with Sullivan on the rebound (twice) when he’s abandoned by fair-weather bitch Dahl, and she has this great line when he’s about the lower the boom on their relationship: “I didn’t know exactly when my walking papers would be notarized, but…I knew they were being drawn up.” There’s nothing in Questions that you haven’t already seen previously but I did find one sequence particularly novel: a group of women decked out in mink and baubles are robbed in the women’s lounge of a theatre by a couple of hoods in drag. Hagen’s character is present for this robbery, and is knocked out by one of the goons when she tries to stop him; she also runs into Dahl who, when asking her “Are you through?” (Hagen’s seated in front of a large vanity mirror) philosophically replies: “Probably.” The supporting cast includes Danny Dayton (as Sullivan’s cabbie pal), OTR announcer Howard Petrie (as a mobster), William Reynolds, Mari Blanchard and Robert Osterloh; Madge “Aunt Harriet” Blake can be glimpsed as Dahl’s landlady and OTR vet Herb Vigran plays one of the drunken conventioneers. I Dream of Jeannie creator/trashy romance novelist Sidney Sheldon wrote the screenplay for this, by the way.


Operator_99 said...

Agree that Virginia Field was the best thing about Dial 1119, but Conrad was good for the time he was in it. Field calling for him at the end was a nice touch.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Oh, I definitely liked Conrad in this -- and then when he got croaked, I was like..."Well, now what'll I do with the rest of this film?"