Friday, October 21, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Tough Assignment (1949)

The honeymoon of L.A. newspaper reporter Dan Reilly (Don “Red” Barry) and his wife Margie (Marjorie Steele) is apparently in full sway…because Marg is stoked about preparing their first home-cooked meal in their new home.  She needs to get a few things at Schultz’s (Leander De Cordova) butcher shop, and she insists that Dan snap a photo of her outside the entrance for one reason or another.  As Dan trips the shutter, three men walk out of the jernt…and are notably perturbed that they had to smile for the camera.  The Reillys soon learn the reason why—old man Schultz was beaten up by the three goons, much to the dismay of Mrs. Schultz (Edit Angold).

Later, at Casa del Reilly, two of the thugs (Marc Lawrence, Ben Welden) rudely interrupt the couple’s domestic bliss by administering a pummeling to Dan and snatching the undeveloped film from Margie.  What gives?  Well, Dan does a little investigative reporting (I know, it was like this movie from another era or something) and learns from Patterson (Stanley Andrews) at the Bureau of Livestock Investigation that there’s a “bootleg beef” racket in full force—unsavory criminals are selling meat without state or federal inspection (this is why it’s good to have regulations, kids).  Reilly decides—with the approval of his editor Hutch (Michael Whalen)—that this would provide the grist for a good story, and it soon makes front page headlines.

The “boss” of the racket, Morgan (Steve Brodie), is not particularly jazzed about the publicity—so Vince (Lawrence) and Sniffy (Welden) are instructed to collect Reporter Dan and bring him in for a chinwag about dropping the story.  The tenacious Reilly isn’t so easily scared off, and after he and Margie conduct surveillance on a delivery truck outside of Schultz’s they soon find themselves on a ranch that’s the center of operations for the bootleggers…so they pose as a impoverished couple (they go by “Jim and Amy Hill”) in need of work in order to blow the racket wide open.  (That’s reporter talk.)

With an uncredited turn as a student in a Cecil B. DeMille oddity entitled This Day and Age (1933), Donald Barry officially launched his movie career.  Barry appeared in small roles and bits in films like Dead End (1937), The Last Gangster (1937), and Young Dr. Kildare (1938) before going to work for Republic Pictures and receiving featured parts in films like Wyoming Outlaw (1939—with John Wayne and the Three Mesquiteers) and Days of Jesse James (1939—with Roy Rogers).  It was at Republic that Barry would get the film role that made him a household name (and inspired him to add to his own); he starred in that studio’s 1940 serial, The Adventures of Red Ryder, and soon started being billed as Don “Red” Barry.

Barry is often described as “the poor man’s James Cagney,” and his onscreen persona resembled Jimmy’s in that he may have been short in stature but his cockiness/pugnaciousness more than made up for it.  Barry’s B-Westerns at Republic were very popular with theatergoers, with titles like Ghost Valley Raiders (1940), Wyoming Wildcat (1941), Two-Gun Sheriff (1941), Death Valley Outlaws (1941), and Outlaws of Pine Ridge (1942).  Unfortunately for “Red,” he took himself a little too seriously as a Cagney wannabe and alienated a lot of the directors with whom he worked at the studio.  (Red Ryder co-director William Witney derisively called him “the midget” and the other director on that serial, John English, vowed never to work with the star again after 1943’s Black Hills Express.)

Barry’s career was dealt an ace of spades as the 1940s came to a close, since B-Westerns were slowly dying off (they would be resurrected on the small screen soon after…since television could make them even cheaper).  Determined not to go gently into that good night, Don signed a contract with Lippert Pictures, and made some fairly decent oaters like Red Desert (1949) and Border Rangers (1950).  At Lippert, Barry also got the opportunity to don a producer’s hat—one of those pictures was today’s “Forgotten Noir,” Tough Assignment (1949).

Tough Assignment really isn’t much of a noir to me…but I did like the modern-day Western aspect of the picture, which takes hold about twenty-three minutes into the film. (It’s not a great movie, but it kept me entertained for its sixty-four-minute running time.)  The supporting cast in this one is Assignment’s most valuable asset, with noir icons like Steve Brodie and Marc Lawrence present…and as always, Lippert’s “good luck charm” Sid Melton is on hand for comic relief.  (Suffice it to say, I am somewhat more tolerant of Mr. Melton’s shtick than my good friend Scott C. at World O’Crap.)  Lawrence and Melton have an amusing scene where Sid finds out that Marc has been making time with Sid’s girlfriend (played by TDOY fave Iris Adrian in an all-too-brief appearance), and Sid’s response to Marjorie Steele’s news that she’s going to cook a meal “just like Mother made” is a riot: “Nuh-uh…that’s why I left home in the first place!”

Sadly, Lawrence doesn’t really come off as too menacing in Tough Assignment—which might be because he’s paired off with Ben Welden (who was the go-to guy for comic gangsters).  There are also contributions from familiar faces like Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, Stanley Price, Fred Kohler, Jr., and Frank Richards—with Dewey Robinson providing Assignment with an amusing closing bit.  The film was directed by the indefatigable William Beaudine, and at the American Film Noir website there’s a section on “Bad Film Noirs” where the authors comment: “Beaudine, one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history, was known for delivering cheap films with a fast shooting pace.  He certainly didn’t disappoint us with this effort.”  (Ouch!)

I didn’t think Tough Assignment was too terrible (the site also lists Fingerprints Don’t Lie [1951] …which definitely is) but discriminating viewers may not take to it…which is kind of a sad commentary on my existence if you think about it.  I chuckled at the cover of VCI’s Forgotten Noir Vol. 5 because Assignment receives the appellation “Co-Hit” alongside what appears to be the DVD’s “main” feature, FBI Girl (1951).  As for Don “Red” Barry, he became one of the busiest actors on the small screen (he had a regular role as “Lt. Snedigar” on TV’s Surfside 6) yet continued to experience difficulty with his personal life and he committed suicide in 1980.


Rich said...

Red Ryder... Red Ryer BB gun... A CHRISTMAS STORY... "You'll shoot your eye out, kid!"

I never made this connection until now. Thanks! As many times as I've seen that movie, it never once occurred to me to question what "Red Ryder" actually referred to.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Bootleg Beef! Now this is a film I have to see for that plot-line alone. I always enjoy 60-some minute mysteries and I, too, like movies with a modern "out west" theme ( at least 1940s modern ).

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Rich received enlightenment:

As many times as I've seen that movie, it never once occurred to me to question what "Red Ryder" actually referred to.

There's a video presentation on Donald Barry's career included as one of the many extras on the FBI Girl/Tough Assignment DVD, and of course they reference the Red Ryder/A Christmas Story connection. So I got a good chuckle out of your comment, Rich.

Anonymous said...

It's been a while since I saw thîs, but I remember being impressed with the picture quality. Then I found this trivia:

One of a handful of films shot with "The new Garutso lens for 3-Dimensional effect". The lens in question was hardly "new", having been developed and used in films since the '30's, but it made great ballyhoo. The lens is an extreme wide angle device that could be used with a large assortment of diopter filters, hence making everything seem, from foreground to background, in perfect focus.

which may explain it.

Scott Lovrine