Friday, November 4, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: The Big Chase (1954)

At the dawn of the brief 1950s 3-D movie fad, independent producer Robert L. Lippert wrote out a check for $30,000 and commissioned his son, Robert, Jr., to direct Bandit Island (1953), a 26-minute color short starring Glenn Langan, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Jim Davis.  It would be the junior Lippert’s directorial debut (also his last excursion behind the camera), filmed in four days with no script—just action, action, and more action (the three-reeler takes a kitchen sink approach to 3-D with people throwing things into the camera, actors shooting at the camera, and actors leaping at the camera).  To keep costs low (a typical Lippert oater, for example, was budgeted at $75,000), Robert, Jr. called in a lot of favors—even Lon, Jr. agreed to work for scale.  (Robert II would later be fined because he was not a member of the Director’s Guild at the time he sat in the chair with his name on the back.)

Robert, Sr. clearly was a man devoted to the concept of recycling…because nine months later, the entirety of Bandit Island was incorporated into a feature film entitled The Big Chase (1954).  To pad Chase out to an hour’s running time, a script was conjured up by Fred Freiberger (later of The Wild Wild West and Star Trek fame) with a framing story (directed by Arthur D. Hilton): reporter Milton Graves (Joe Flynn!) is interviewing LAPD’s Lt. Ned Daggert (Douglas Kennedy) for a story on criminal procedures when Graves notices both a baby’s rattle and a revolver on Daggert’s desk.  Pushed into revealing the reason why (though it’s not much of a push), Daggert tells the reporter about a friend of his, Pete Grayson (Langan), a Korean War vet who decided to enroll in the police academy and pursue law enforcement as a career.

On Graduation Day, Grayson must settle for patrol duty until there’s an opening in the Juvenile Division (Pete was once a delinquent yute, and yearns to straighten out other young hoodlums) …even though Lt. Ned has the juice to get him a slot with the Detectives Bureau.  Grayson’s wife Doris (Adele Jergens), who is great with child, is worked up enough about Pete’s police work—she’s relieved when he promises her he won’t become a detective.  Her pregnancy is going to be a walk in the park, however; the doctor prescribes bed rest due to some signs of anemia, prompting Pete to don the comical apron as he prepares his and her meals.

Meanwhile, in the Big House, convicts Brad Bellows (Davis) and Jim Miggs (Jay Lawrence) have been released from the joint and are planning a robbery in L.A. with the help of a stolen Chrysler convertible.  Alerted to this, Daggert pays a visit to motel court manager Monty Nicholas (Jack Daly), who lets spill that his ex-wife Ginny and a confederate named Kip (Chaney) are also in on the caper.  After dropping Doris off at the hospital when she starts experiencing labor (it turns out to be a “false alarm”—but the doctor has now determined it’s going to be a breach birth), Pete and a rookie get word that Bellows, Miggs, and Kip have killed the driver of an armored truck while robbing it.  The two cops give a merry chase to those miscreants; and that where’s the action footage of Bandit Island takes over.

I think it was a good idea that Robert L. Lippert, Jr. abandoned the idea of motion picture directing as a career.  His strength was purportedly in film producing and editing, but as a director he falls short of the mark.  I say this because if you can’t make an action sequence exciting (well, there’s a nifty fall from a police helicopter…but that’s about it) you’ve chosen the wrong path in the business.  The Big Chase is not a good motion picture (Lippert, Jr. even admitted this to noted Olsen & Johnson fan Tom Weaver as one of the interviewees in the 2005 McFarland book Earth vs. the Sci-Fi Filmmakers; the conversation between the two men is “recreated” in audio form as an extra on the Forgotten Film Noir Vol. 7 DVD), but if a pro like William Witney or John English had been at the helm of Bandit Island, it follows that The Big Chase might have been salvageable.  (As of this writing, Bandit Island is not known to have survived, and is considered a lost film; the only extant record of it is in The Big Chase, where it was converted to monochrome to match Chase’s black-and-white footage.)
The extra story added to The Big Chase doesn’t progress beyond your average outing of Racket Squad, and character veterans like Chaney (I don’t remember Lon even uttering a line of dialogue—his character must be mute) and Davis don’t have much to do.  I liked seeing Adele Jergens in an atypical role as Langan’s concerned wife (most of the time Adele plays it slinky as the bad girl you’d be an idiot to trust)—even though it’s not too hard to discern that she’s having trouble with her pregnancy due to a little boozing and smoking.  In addition, I got a big snicker out of seeing Flynn (billed as “Joseph Flynn”) as the reporter whose curiosity bookends the plot.  Douglas Kennedy looks as if he ended up in this one only because his name wasn’t on the casting call for the latest Lone Ranger episode.  Phil Arnold has a small role as Lawrence’s cellmate (“Bunky”), and in the TDOY tradition of remembering actors for performances in the oddest things, I always think of Phil for a bit he does in a Harry Von Zell two-reeler, Meet Mr. Mischief (1947), as the sound effects guy (he imitates a barking dog!).

"What is it, McHale...wha-wha-wha-what?"
“RAW! ROUGH! VIOLENT!” blared the production material for The Big Chase—a movie that I sadly won’t recommend even though it’s over and done with in sixty minutes.  Even Lon Chaney, Jr. devotees will be disappointed with his three-minute appearance.

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