Friday, October 14, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: FBI Girl (1951)

Owen Grisby (Raymond Greenleaf) is the governor of an unidentified state (he operates out of a burg known as “Capitol City”)—and he’s being groomed to run for a Senate seat from the same fictitious locale.  Grisby, however, has a teensy problem: many, many years ago—before he got into an honest racket like politics, he wrote jokingly—he committed a murder as “John Williams” (no, not the British actor who used to hawk 120 Music Masterpieces in the TV ads) and his fingerprints are on file with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Should a Senate crime committee find something hinky in Grisby’s background, he’ll naturally be arrested and his true identity revealed.  Grisby’s henchman Blake (Raymond Burr) has an idea: he’ll arrange for the Guv’s fingerprints to be “liberated” from the FBI files…and no one will ever know Williams existed.

Blake leans on a lower-level stooge named Paul Craig (Don Garner), who in turn begs his sister Pamela (Margia Dean) to remove Mr. Williams from the Feds’ database.  Pamela is eager to help out her brother…but she gets cold feet at the last minute.  Sadly, the two men assigned to make sure Pamela doesn’t share Blake’s scheme with the authorities do not realize this; they run her car off the road, and she dies as a result of the accident.  Because Pam was an FBI employee, Agents Glen Stedman (Cesar Romero) and Jeff Donley (George Brent) are brought in to investigate along with the usual gendarmic representatives.  Their dogged pursuit of the evidence (along with a helpful FBI employee who remembers seeing Pamela poring through fingerprint files the day she was murdered) points to one of Blake’s goons—a charmer nicknamed “Georgia” (Alexander Pope) …who commits two more murders (brother Paul is one of the victims) before plunging to his death from a hospital ledge.  Continually stymied in their attempts to unravel the identity of “John Williams,” Stedman and Donley will eventually have to turn to one of Pamela’s roommates—another Bureau employee, Shirley Wayne (Audrey Totter)—to assist them on the case.

I’ve noticed two irrefutable facts about these VCI “Forgotten Noir” films.  One, they don’t really fit my definition of “noir” (it bears repeating—sometimes a black-and-white crime film…is just a black-and-white crime film).  Two, they’re either deliriously entertaining…or they really, really suck.  Fortunately, FBI Girl (1951) is deliriously entertaining…thanks to a splendid cast, more action than is the norm for a Lippert production, and direction by an accomplished B-picture director, William A. Berke (the auteur behind another VCI “Forgotten Noir,” Shoot to Kill [1947]).  The screenplay by Dwight V. Babcock (whose screenplays include the Inner Sanctum films Dead Man’s Eyes and Pillow of Death) and Richard H. Landau (Back to Bataan, The Secret of the Whistler) is very solid, and the author of Girl’s story is Rupert Hughes—uncle of Howard Hughes.  (Rupe even gets a “name-above-the-title” credit!)

FBI Girl kicks off with some giggly narration courtesy of star Romero, who gives us the skinny on this nation’s Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation (“a symbol of international strength and hope,” it says here)—the highlight is when he describes the employees of the fingerprints department as “nice, normal boys and girls.”  (They don’t drink.  They don’t smoke.  They don’t…period!)  Cesar, whom we learned in Shadow Man (1953) had started freelancing once his contract expired at 20th Century-Fox, appeared in quite a few Lippert productions since he was still a “name” in the industry despite not being affiliated with a studio.  Romero is always dependable (Shadow Man was an awful film though the actor himself was not), but had I been the casting director on Girl I would have suggested he switch parts with co-star George Brent.

You know my position on Brent—a.k.a. “Bette Davis’ doormat”—here at TDOY.  So this will come as a bit of surprise to you—he’s actually damn good in FBI Girl.  He’s so convincing as a Jack Webb-like, stick-up-his-keister Fed that the moment in the film when he starts to express regret about putting Audrey’s character in danger he has trouble selling it; Romero, on the other hand, is the hardcase telling George to pull up his big boy pants and stop whining.  (I think it would have worked better the other way around.)

As for Audrey…well, FBI Girl is not her finest hour.  She’s not terrible (she could never be!) but she’s really been saddled with a thankless part…and it doesn’t help matters that her love interest is played by the staggeringly uninspiring Tom Drake.  (That having been said, I love the fact that Drake’s lobbyist character is a bad guy—because I believe in my heart of hearts that lobbyists are evil.)  Despite so many memorable performances (Lady in the Lake, The Set-Up) Totter’s career in movies and TV gave way to roles not worthy of her talents (you check out any episode of Cimarron City and you’ll know what I mean).

Just as Loan Shark (1952) benefited from first-rate scoundrels in Paul Stewart and John Hoyt, FBI Girl avails itself of the villainy of Raymond Burr, a.k.a. The Man Who Would Be Mason.  Burr has a delightful showcase as political fixer Blake…whose interest in furthering Grisby’s career isn’t altruistic—he’s got a lot invested in the Guv hizzownself, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let this puling old wanker scotch his ambitions.  (I suppose you could make a case—if you disagree with my assertion that Girl isn’t noir—that the presence of Burr and Totter does give the picture some Dark City bona fides.)  Other character greats on hand include Byron Foulger, O.Z. Whitehead, Marie Blake, George Eldredge, and Joi Lansing—and a future game show host and his comedic partner in Peter Marshall and Tommy Noonan.

Yes, a title card for FBI Girl reads “Introducing Tommy Noonan and Peter Marshall”—which is a little bit of a misnomer, since the comedy duo had already appeared in the Lippert pictures The Return of Jesse James (1950) and Holiday Rhythm (1950).  Tom and Pete (shout-out to a West Virginia boy!) do a routine on a TV set that Romero is forced to watch with Totter’s other two roomies; I guess Sid Melton was busy elsewhere on the lot.  Noonan didn’t do badly for himself in later years—he’s remembered for appearances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and A Star is Born (1954)—and of course, Marshall was the longtime host of TV’s Hollywood Squares…but as a comedy team they were strictly from hunger (they made two more pictures, The Rookie [1959] and Swingin’ Along [1961]) and thankfully disbanded as a grateful nation wept tears of joy.

I wish I had the opportunity to listen to the audio commentary for FBI Girl from Facebook compadre/noir expert Alan K. Rode…but I was little pressed for time this week, and so I’ll have to save that dessert for a more convenient time.  This volume of Forgotten Film Noir (a double feature of Girl and 1949’s Tough Assignment, which is on tap for next week) also features trailers for Girl as well as Bad Blonde (1953), Deadly Game (1954), and Man Bait (1952), and bios on the film’s stars plus a photo gallery.  You can rent this at your friendly neighborhood ClassicFlix—I highly recommend this one.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

"The Man Who Would Be Mason (& Ironside)" pursued by the Man Who Would Be The Joker. Delish. I think my bro might have this one.

FWIW, one of Peter Marshall's first solo gigs, pre-Hollywood Squares, was on The Lucy Show in 1962, playing Lucy's new brother-in-law (Lucy's sister was played by toon legend Janet Waldo!).