Friday, November 11, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Danger Zone (1951)

I’ll get the disappointing news out of the way first.  Despite the title of this week’s Forgotten Noir Fridays entry, there is no music from Kenny Loggins in this film.  (Some of you may not be disappointed.  I’m not here to judge you.)  Instead, we’ll traverse the renowned piers of San Francisco, where Dennis “Denny” O’Brien (Hugh Beaumont) rents boats…and on the side, plies his trade as a part-time shamus.  A casual drop-in at an auction parlor will set in motion O’Brien’s hooking-up with Claire Underwood (Virginia Dale)—an enigmatic woman who asks O’Brien to bid on an equally mysterious suitcase (the final bid is a thou).  What’s in the suitcase? Pulp Fiction fans might be asking.  Just a saxophone—but there must be something valuable in it, because a man named Larry Dunlap (Ralph Sanford) is very interesting in obtaining the musical instrument…at all costs.

O’Brien has no sooner solved The Singular Affair of the Special Sax when he’s hired by con man Edgar Spadely (Tom Neal) to escort socialite Vicki Jason (Pamela Blake) to a party aboard a yacht.  Once aboard, Denny discovers it’s a set-up: Spadely snaps a candid of Vicki giving O’Brien an oxygen-deprived kiss for the benefit of her husband Arnold—Mr. Jason is planning to sue his wife for divorce, and O’Brien is a ready-made co-respondent.  While Dennis may be many things, he refuses to play the sap for anyone…but when he pays Arnold Jason a visit, he’s greeted by his murdered corpse.

Anytime you watch a movie that focuses on two plots in less than an hour’s running time—Danger Zone (1951) clocks in at 54—it’s a tip-off that it’s essentially a couple of half-hour television shows stitched together to make a feature.  (Imagine how ripped off you would feel if you plunked down your hard-earned cash at the theatre box office, only to discover you’ve seen it previously for free on the small screen.)  And that’s pretty much what Danger Zone is: two episodes of a never-aired syndicated series that someone at the Robert L. Lippert movie factory thought: “Well, hell—let’s see if we can make some money off this!”

What I found so fascinating about this—because I’m not going to mince words; Danger Zone is not a particularly good movie—is that while I watched this presentation it all seemed so familiar.  A guy who rents boats moonlighting as a private eye?  Who exchanges sarcastic, hard-boiled banter with his nemesis on the police force (Lt. Bruger, played by Richard Travis)?  And has a sidekick in the besotted ex-professor Frederick Simpson Schicker (Edward Brophy)?  It all sounds eerily similar to Pat Novak…for Hire.

Pat Novak…for Hire was one of several programs that future Dragnet creator Jack Webb worked on during his stint at ABC affiliate KGO in San Francisco, where Webb had relocated in 1945 after doing his bit in WW2.  Despite its brief time on the air (the show ran on KGO from 1946 to 1948—with Webb jumping ship in the spring of 1947 to be replaced by Ben Morris), it has acquired a cult reputation among old-time radio fans.  (Webb resurrected Novak for the ABC Network in February of 1949, staying with the program until it was cancelled in July.)  The dialogue on the show, written by Webb crony Richard L. Breen, was the epitome of hard-boiled parody, and the program featured first-rate support from radio veterans such as Raymond Burr (who played Hellman, Novak’s verbal sparring partner) and Tudor Owen (as the soused Jocko Madigan, who ironically referred to his shamus pal as “Patsy”).

When Jack Webb left KGO, it was for bigger and better things: he found regular work on ABC’s Murder and Mr. Malone (based on the detective created by Craig Rice, a.k.a. Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig), and made the rounds on such programs as The Whistler and Escape.  For the Mutual Radio Network, he put together a virtual Pat Novak clone that premiered on April 23, 1947 as Johnny Madero, Pier 23.  The cop who made life miserable for Madero (Webb) was renamed Inspector Warchek (played by The Man of a Thousand Voice, William Conrad), and the Jocko character became “Dipso”—before it was changed in the second broadcast to the sober waterfront priest Father Leahy (Gale Gordon).  (ABC had planned to file suit against Mutual for plagiarism, so Mutual retooled their show to make it less like Pat Novak, to which ABC still owned the rights.)  Johnny Madero ran on Mutual until September 3, 1947…and though the show was popular enough to generate publicity that the show would return to Mutual on several occasions, that was the last boat Madero rented as far as he was concerned.  (The popularity of Madero convinced ABC to resurrect Novak on the full network in 1949, once Webb left CBS’ Jeff Regan, Investigator.)

I mentioned the similarity of Danger Zone’s plot to the Novak series to film historian Richard M. Roberts in an e-mail, and he did confirm for me that any similarities between the two are not coincidental.  “Lippert had shot episodes for syndication then pulled the plug and cut them into three feature films,” he informed me—the other two being Pier 23 (1951) and Roaring City (1951—both coming to a nostalgia blog near you soon).  RMR is the go-to guy for all things Lippert/Kit Parker; the Forgotten Noir DVD on which Zone makes its “co-hit” appearance showcases him in a featurette on Phillips H. Lord (the same VCI release features David Harding, Counterspy [1950]—previously covered on the blog) and in that “recreated” interview with Robert L. Lippert, Jr. that I mentioned in last week’s review of The Big Chase (1954), it is Richard who essays the role of Robert, Jr.  (ACT-ing!)  It would appear that Johnny Madero, Pier 23 was the main inspiration for the aborted Lippert series (Madero scribes Herbert Margolis and Lou Morheim are credited with Zone’s screenplay); the first story in Zone was even broadcast in radio form on Johnny Madero June 26, 1947 (though it’s entirely possible the script could have been recycled from Novak).

Now that I’ve learned why I experienced profound déjà vu while watching Danger Zone—how is the movie?  Well, look…on Leave it to Beaver, Hugh Beaumont had no peer among TV dads (though my buddy Jeff Stewart has always made convincing arguments that Ward Cleaver was a terrible role model where fathers were concerned)—but his sideline as an ordained Methodist minister often kept him from being truly convincing as a hard-boiled gumshoe (Beaumont played “Michael Shayne” in a series of B-flicks for PRC in 1946 and 1947).  I will, however, give props to character great Ed Brophy for tackling a role waaay out of his wheelhouse; as the erudite but smashed Schicker, Ed makes you forget temporarily that he cornered the market on none-too-bright sidekicks (Larceny, Inc., The Last Hurrah) in the flickers.  The rest of the performers in Zone—Tom Neal, Pamela Blake, etc.—manage not to bump into the furniture and get the work done…but there’s nothing really memorable about their acting turns.

I might have enjoyed Zone more if I wasn’t familiar with its old-time radio connection—in its favor, it’s a heck of a lot better than Fingerprints Don’t Lie (1951) or Mask of the Dragon (1951), two Lippert films that did the reverse: entertain (or put to sleep, depending on your opinion) audiences before resurfacing on TV.  But in what is rapidly becoming a mantra here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear: the movie is short-and-sweet, and once you’re done your schedule is freed up to pursue a life of religious fulfillment.


Scott said...

Yes, Hugh Beaumont was a natural for the hard-boiled beat: Alias, The Cleaver, , I, The Lumpy, My Beaver is Quick...

(the final bid is a thousand large)

Wait..."Large" is a thousand dollar bill (or sometimes a thousand dollars), so the winning bid was a million bucks? They should'a called this thing The Maltese Saxophone.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Scott looked on in amazement:

(the final bid is a thousand large)

Wait..."Large" is a thousand dollar bill (or sometimes a thousand dollars), so the winning bid was a million bucks? They should'a called this thing The Maltese Saxophone.

Zoinks! My bad. The bid was only $1000. I fixed my screw-up.