This is a strange film. It has flaws, especially in the script, and never seems quite sure what kind of film it is. Nonetheless it entertains and pleases audiences, mainly I think because of the performances of its four leading players. Top of the bill is Ida Lupino and she holds it all together with Richard Widmark at his most manic and Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm in more conventional roles. William Donati, Lupino’s biographer, tells us that the project was taken to 20th Century Fox by Lupino’s new agent Charles K. Feldman who had bought the rights to the story ‘Dark Love’ for her. He successfully sold the project to Fox with a significant fee for Lupino as the lead.
This was a crucial period in 30 year-old Ida Lupino’s career. She’d left Warner Bros. in 1947 after a seven year contract during which time she’d often been suspended and loaned out to other studios, but had appeared in leading roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Errol Flynn. Now she was a freelance trying to arrange her own work. She was also about to re-marry and Donati notes that both she and Collier Young, her new love, had thought that ‘Dark Love’ was the right story. I haven’t managed to find the original ‘Dark Love’ story. I’ve read elsewhere that it was a short story rather than a novel and it isn’t mentioned in IMDb’s credit list. Instead there are six writers listed with Edward Chodorov as producer and solo writer of the actual screenplay. So, I guess he’s responsible. The film was directed by Jean Negulesco, another refugee from Warners who had worked with Lupino on Deep Valley, her last Warners picture in 1947. Donati suggests that Lupino had asked for Richard Widmark who had been a sensation, nominated for an Oscar, in his first screen role as ‘Tommy Udo’ in Kiss of Death (1947). Widmark was under contract at Fox and the other two leads were the studio’s choices.
As the title implies, Road House features an out of town venue comprising a bar lounge and a ten-pin bowling alley owned by ‘Jefty’, Jefferson T. Robbins (Richard Widmark). The setting is somewhere in the North of the US, close to the Canadian border. The film opens with an almost documentary sequence of the venue’s operations behind the credits and then cuts to the manager, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) opening the door to find a strange woman in his office. She’s playing solitaire and smoking with one stockinged leg draped over the edge of Pete’s desk. This is Lily (Ida Lupino) – a seemingly sharp ‘broad’ who isn’t very impressed with Pete. He eventually discovers that Jefty found her in Chicago and offered her a six week stint singing in the bar. It’s a great opening and despite a strange and not very attractive hairstyle, Lupino commands the picture from the start. She’s the star and her performance proclaims the fact. All the other three leads in Road House are older than Lupino but she exudes maturity and presence in her performance and Widmark and Holm were relative newcomers to film work (both were experienced stage actors). Cornel Wilde was more experienced after several years as a lead player, playing opposite Ida Lupino in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942) and opposite other female stars such as Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell. But in this opening sequence he seems slightly awed by Lupino.
The innovation in this film is that Ida sings. She’s a jazzy, bluesy singer with a low gravelly voice. She’s called ‘no voice’ both by the characters in the film and commentators on the film but somehow she ‘performs’ the songs in a darkened room with her cigarette smouldering on the piano (and burning it!). (See the clip below.) The piano playing could be dubbed (but I know Ida composed music, presumably she could play the piano). However, it’s quite believable that the audience in the bar is mesmerised. Two songs were released as singles I think – ‘One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and ‘Again’, specially written by Lionel Newman for the film. Lupino sings four in all. Lily is a hit with the punters and with both Jefty and Pete. In her earlier Warners film The Man I Love (1946), Ida was dubbed as a nightclub singer, so her singing here is a clear benefit of being a freelance – though I guess it might have had to be negotiated.
The film has three main sections. I’m not keen on the idea that Hollywood narratives always have three ‘acts’ – usually they have more in my readings. But in this film once Lily is established she becomes a softer character and it seems clear that we are heading into a classic triangular mating ritual in which both men will eventually want to marry her. Celeste Holm’s Susie, the cashier at Jefty’s, is the character squeezed out by Lily’s arrival. Lily seems to change quite dramatically once she has established herself. I believe in Lupino’s performance but I found the change abrupt. Much worse though is the plotting of the events which lead to the film’s climax, which don’t make too much sense, although I suppose they work on a kind of symbolic level. Perhaps if the film’s generic identities were a bit clearer it would be easier to understand.
Road House is often discussed as a film noir. Ida Lupino is also often described as a star of film noir, as well as the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953). 1948 is certainly ‘peak noir’ in terms of the numbers of films with noir lighting and mise en scène and doomed characters trying to deal with the immediate post-war world. However, I’m not sure that Ida was ever a femme fatale as such in her studio pictures. Road House was photographed by Joseph LaShelle who had worked at Paramount on two classic Otto Preminger pictures, Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), both of which have noirish elements. ‘Jefty’s’ operates mainly at night and the latter part of the film is shot on what appears to be an extensive studio set of a forest at night. The film is certainly plausible as a noir in terms of lighting. The main problem for me is that the story assumes Jefty and Pete have been friends for a long time. Jefty comes from a wealthy family and has the capital whereas Pete lives above the bar. There is no attempt to invoke the war so the typical film noir scenario of men returning from war with problems doesn’t enter into the discussion. On the other hand, Lily is an ‘independent woman’ who could be in a film noir narrative. I think this is really a romance melodrama that eventually morphs into an action drama. Rather than the usual ‘significant objects’ of a film noir mise en scène, the predominant images of the final section are concerned with an over-determined masculinity as Jefty and and Pete battle over Lily. This is introduced in the early scenes of the film when Lily notes the stags heads in the bar and the office of Jefty’s. She even stays at the only hotel in town, which is called ‘The Antlers’.
Whatever genre categorisation is appropriate, Road House proved to be a popular film (Monthly Film Bulletin called it ‘slick entertainment’) with over $2.3 million in distributor rentals for 20th Century-Fox, the second most successful studio of the year in the US. 74 years later the film still has its fans and for many of them this is a film noir classic. It’s also a film in which Ida Lupino revels in being at the centre of the story. It does make you wonder what would have happened if Warner Bros. had put her in a similar film back in 1942. Here’s that first scene at the piano:
This is a shortish (77 minutes) suspense thriller made for RKO by The Filmakers, the independent production company founded by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. The film was shot in just 18 days in July/August 1951 but delayed by RKO for a year. This followed a pattern given the eccentric behaviour of Howard Hughes as the owner of RKO. On Dangerous Ground, which like this film starred Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, had similarly been delayed. One suggestion is that Hughes as part of his enthusiastic support for the communist witch hunt of the HUAC years was reluctant to release a film with Ryan whom he saw as a leftist. Lupino, a staunch Democrat managed to avoid trouble but she was friends with many of those hounded as communists. At this point she had directed four films for The Filmakers but she argued for Harry Horner to take the directorial role. Horner was a Czech émigré who had arrived in the US in the mid 1930s with Max Rheinhardt and eventually entered Hollywood as a set designer, winning two Oscars. He’d worked for Lupino as Production Designer on Outrage (1950). Beware, My Lovely was actually his first feature but because of the delayed release, his second feature came out first. It appears that Lupino did actually direct a couple of scenes when Horner’s wife was in hospital.
Beware, My Lovely is an adaptation, by the original writer Mel Dinelli, of his Broadway play ‘The Man’ (1950). The play had begun as a radio drama in 1945 and it saw further radio and stage productions, a short story version in 1949 and later TV drama adaptations. Dinelli was no stranger to suspense thrillers or what would later be termed films noirs. He had worked as a writer on The Spiral Staircase (1946) with Robert Siodmak, The Reckless Moment (1949) with Max Ophüls and House by the River (1950) with Fritz Lang. All three directors were associated with the German film industry of the early 1930s) and all three films are concerned with a house as the location for suspense. All are also associated with film noir. Inevitably perhaps, Beware, My Lovely has been seen as a noir, probably because of the Lupino-Ryan casting, but there are other ways to think about it in genre terms. The film was made mainly on the RKO lot and although the RKO designer Albert D’Agostino is credited, Horner probably had a lot to do with the set and its presentation. It uses part of the house set built for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The presentation is also influenced by cinematographer George Diskant who had worked on On Dangerous Ground. (He would also go on to shoot The Bigamist (1953) for Ida Lupino).
The plot of the film is very straightforward. We first meet Howard (Robert Ryan) working as a handyman and clearing up after a job when he discovers the body of a woman – the householder? – stuffed into a closet. Alarmed, he flees the house and skips out of town on a freight train. We realise that the year is 1918 and it is approaching Christmastime in an anonymous town in the South-West. Helen (Ida Lupino), a young war widow, is preparing for the holidays. Her lodger is away for a few days but the house is busy with a group of local children and Helen’s rather snooty teenage niece, Ruth (Barbara Whiting). When the house quietens down, Helen welcomes her new handyman who will start some cleaning tasks. This is Howard arriving for his first day working in the house. There is clearly a nervous tension between the two and we are immediately concerned that Howard is some form of threat to Helen. That’s it really. The interior of the house becomes the sole location and the tension gradually mounts. The film depends on the performances of Ryan and Lupino and how they are presented in the complicated interior space of the house. The combination of the work of Horner, Diskant and the score by Leith Stevens (another of The Filmakers regulars) delivers a powerful narrative. Collier Young who produced the film despite being involved in a divorce from Lupino after only a brief marriage, felt that the film could not use the ending of the original play. He may also have been aware that Hughes probably wouldn’t have accepted it. Lupino’s original choices for a title were ‘At the End of the Day’ and as a second choice ‘The Terror’ but ‘Beware, My Lovely’ was imposed by Hughes with RKO handling all promotion of the film. The ending has been seen as a weakness by some critics but I think the film works well as it is. The action is confined to around ten hours or so with the two leads alone in the house.
I’ve suggested that the relevant genre is not film noir, although there is expressionist camerawork in the house. The narrative is associated with the ‘woman in peril’ or the ‘home invasion’ scenario. But I think that despite the setting thirty years or so earlier, the film is linked to the contemporary social issue dramas of the other films by The Filmakers and especially those directed by Lupino. The Robert Ryan character is clearly mentally ill, perhaps with a form of paranoid schizophrenia. In a way this is linked to his rejection for military service and his sense of a slight to his masculinity. When Ruth makes a brief appearance during the day she mocks him for doing housework like cleaning – not a job for a ‘real man’. Helen is the good-hearted woman sensitive enough to want to help but also terrified. I think we could see this portrayal of mental illness as conveying a plea for understanding matching those concerned with rape, abortion, disability and so on in Lupino’s other films.
The film had a mixed reception but seemingly with more positive than negative responses – although Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK (July 1953) thought it ‘boring and ‘silly’. I couldn’t disagree more, but then I could always watch Lupino and Ryan together. Unfortunately RKO failed to get behind the film properly, tempting Collier Young and Ida Lupino to release The Bigamist themselves – and suffering from a lack of distribution muscle. Beware, My Lovely has been shown in the US on Turner Classic Movies and in the UK on the BBC and, more recently, on Talking Pictures TV. I think it is well worthwhile trying to catch if it comes around.
Guillermo del Toro picked out Fallen Angel as one of the films that he and his partner Kim Gordon studied while they were working on the script for his new film Nightmare Alley. He suggested that at least one scene in his new film used a similar set to one used in Fallen Angel. Critics now consider consider Fallen Angel to be a film noir but it has generally been regarded as somehow inferior to director Otto Preminger’s earlier Laura (1944), also featuring Dana Andrews in a lead role. Fallen Angel does seem to me to be a more interesting film than Laura for a couple of reasons. As del Toro suggests, it’s grittier – and about ‘ordinary people’. It is also definitely noirish in tone, considering the use of sets and locations and Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography. But perhaps the central noir element is the pairing of Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell and the discourses created by the script.
First, however, we have to consider the casting of Alice Faye. Ms Faye became a major star in the 1930s after chorus girl work as a teenager. She developed a singing career winning starring roles in musicals at 20th Century Fox. But after her second pregnancy kept her away from the studio for longer than expected she decided to reduce the number of films she made (Fox had exploited her immense popularity by placing her in films that made money simply from her presence). In 1945 therefore, still only 30, she accepted a dramatic role in Fallen Angel, hoping to steer her career in a different direction. She didn’t get on well with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and she was angry when Zanuck cut some of her scenes and switched the emphasis in the narrative to Linda Darnell. I didn’t recognise Alice Faye at first and it wasn’t until the second half that I realised she was the lead. I was indeed more interested in Linda Darnell. This probably doesn’t mean much now, but in 1945-6 audiences would have been surprised and probably disappointed that Alice Faye is not more prominent in the film.
The film depends a great deal on the performance by Dana Andrews and on the presentation of June Mills (Alice Faye) as a woman who is sexually repressed and dominated by her older sister Clara (Anne Revere). The film opens with a drifter, Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) arriving in a small coastal town after being thrown off the San Francisco bus when his ticket expired. Stanton has little more than his small suitcase, a suit and hat and his ready wit. In Pop’s Bar he comes across Stella (Linda Darnell) behind the counter and ‘retired’ police officer Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) propping up the bar. We gradually realise that Stanton is a con-artist and he quickly discovers that a medium (played by John Carradine) is due to visit the town and relay messages from the dead. Stanton is soon inviting himself to drum up the crowds for a commission fee. In doing so he comes across the Mills sisters as Clara is actively trying to stop the medium’s performance from taking place. It soon becomes apparent that Stanton wants Stella because she is a beautiful woman and desperate to leave the small town. Marrying a smart guy is her preferred ticket out. But Stanton, though interested, discovers that June could also be persuaded to ‘live a little’ and that she has money. Could he find a way to get June’s money and then leave town with Stella?
Dana Andrews is an interesting star performer whose deep, low voice and manner tend to suggest someone trustworthy and this film appeared between his two celebrated performances in Laura and the phenomenally successful The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) from William Wyler. Audiences are invited to determine whether Stanton is a charming con-man or a dangerous killer and there are scenes which support either view. There are also moments when I found myself almost convinced by his stories. I note that he appeared in five films for Preminger, but my introduction to his work was the two films he made for Fritz Lang, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both in 1956). Del Toro says that what fascinates him about Andrews is the way the actor seems to present himself as bottled up with emotion. What we think about Stanton here depends mainly on how he behaves with Stella and June. Linda Darnell is one of far too many attractive young women (and she was very young, only 15, when she signed a contract at 20th Century Fox in 1939) who struggled to get established in Hollywood. Any acting talent was often ignored by producers focusing on her beauty. Until recently the only role of hers that had stayed in my mind was as Chihuahua in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), but recently I watched her excellent performance in Joe Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950). In Fallen Angel the question might be whether she is the angel or whether Stanton is a Satanic figure – the title is later referenced in a line of (possibly fictitious) poetry. Stella, despite the allusions in her name, seems not to be seeking stardom but rather the conventional dream of marriage and comforts at home with city life as a diversion.
For me the the plausibility of the narrative depends on Faye’s performance as June. Can she convince us that she is a talented woman (Stanton’s first real contact with her is when he finds her playing the organ in a church) who could fall for a man like Stanton so suddenly and in the face of her sister’s doubts? Or perhaps her sister’s dominant behaviour pushes June towards a form of rebellion? Here it is worth noting that the novel which Preminger and screenwriter Harry Kleiner adapted as Fallen Angel was written by ‘Marty Holland’. This name turns out to have been a pseudonym for a young woman working as a typist at Paramount. Her script was bought by Fox for $40,000. She had just one more credit, for The File on Thelma Jordon (1949) starring Barbara Stanwyck. Fallen Angel doesn’t feel like a script adapted from the ‘hard-boiled’ writers who were the source for several well-known films noirs and I’m imagining that the female audience in 1945 might well have found June a believable character. It’s worth noting here that the film’s time setting doesn’t indicate the end of the war and it could be more like a 1930s narrative.
I’ve not outlined the key events of the second half of the story. All I’ll say is that there is violence, but most of it off-screen. Overall the narrative worked for me but I can see why some audiences might be disappointed. I’m not sure the ending lives up to the noirish tone of some of the earlier scenes. I think I enjoyed the performances most of all. The music is by David Raskin and it features a song, ‘Slowly’ played several times in Pop’s bar by Stella. Ironically, Alice Faye recorded the song and it was to be used in the film but Zanuck decided to use the Dick Haymes version in the final cut. No wonder Faye left Fox in high dudgeon! The film is widely available on streamers but try not to miss the opening titles which are presented in typical Preminger style as illuminated road signs seen through the windscreen of the bus carrying Stanton. I’m glad I watched this film and I think I’ll watch some more of del Toro’s selection of noirs and ‘near noirs‘ before seeing Nightmare Alley.
Here’s a clip from Fallen Angel featuring Stella and Stanton:
This film offers a second adaptation by 20th Century Fox of Raymond Chandler’s third novel, The High Window (which was also the title for the film’s UK release). The first use of Chandler’s story was as the basis for a B Movie series film featuring Lloyd Nolan as ‘Michael Shayne’ and titled Time to Kill (US 1942). It was the second time that a Chandler novel was adapted for a film featuring a different character than Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was used for The Falcon Takes Over (US 1942) at RKO. Even though Fox saw only B movie material in Chandler at this point they reputedly paid him $3,500 for the rights. But this meant that they could re-use the material four years later in a more faithful adaptation at a time when direct adaptations of Farewell My Lovely (as Murder My Sweet, 1944) and The Big Sleep (Warner Bros, 1946) had been A movie successes for RKO and Warner Bros.
The High Window is probably less well-known than the first two famous novels listed above and it isn’t by any means the best Chandler adaptation, but it is entertaining and it does have some interesting features. Fox took a purely commercial decision to re-use the story material, but still in something of a B movie operation, to produce a 72 minute film. I’m not sure that it could be labelled a B simply because of its length but George Montgomery, who was a Fox B leading man, was the youngest and arguably lowest-ranked actor to play Philip Marlowe in the film adaptations. Montgomery was still only 31 when he played Marlowe. He’d been a boxing champion, stunt man and then a minor supporting player in films of the late 1930s. He’d grown up on a ranch in Montana and was seen as a good fit for B Westerns at Republic before signing a contract at Fox where for a time he continued in B Westerns. He did have several good selling points for the studio, including his stature as a 6′ 3″ athletic figure who also happened to be very good-looking. Fox did cast him in lead roles in A features with Maureen O’Hara, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney and Betty Grable during 1942-3 but then war service intervened and on his return he found himself back in the Bs.
Montgomery was an athletic Marlowe leaping over fences and cutting a dash in fights with hoodlums. At this time he sported a pencil moustache, giving him a connection to earlier male stars such as Clark Gable. In The Brasher Doubloon his Marlowe is summoned to a large house in Pasadena where he first meets a young woman working as a secretary for the wealthy widow Mrs Murdock. The young woman is Merle Davis played by Fox’s new starlet Nancy Guild (which studio publicists claimed ryhmed with ‘Wild’). Guild had signed a 7 year contract at Fox in 1946 aged just 21 but in this film (and seemingly in others) she first appears as a nervous young woman who nevertheless attracts Marlowe (remember that Montgomery is playing a younger Marlowe). The suggestion is that she is somewhat under the control of Mrs Murdock but she will assert herself later in the narrative. Marlowe discovers that his task is to find a rare coin, the doubloon of the title, which has been stolen from a locked safe in the house. The only obvious suspects are Merle and the widow’s son Leslie (Conrad Janis). Marlowe’s investigation will involve various shady characters played by Fox’s supporting players (several interesting character actors) and he will have time to pursue his attempts to seduce Merle before a final showdown with a twist that will reveal the secret back story.
Overall, if I’d been offered this as a B picture in a 1947 double bill I think I would have enjoyed it and found it entertaining. It’s only because I’m looking back as part of research into Raymond Chandler in Hollywood that I’m disappointed in the adaptation. I don’t have criticism of Montgomery as Marlowe or of Guild as Merle. I find them both attractive characters and she reminds me of a less cynical and deadly version of Cathy, the Jane Greer femme fatale character in Out of the Past (also 1947). As directed by John Brahm, The Brasher Doubloon isn’t particularly ‘noirish‘. Brahm was another German emigré and he had already had some success with The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945) and The Locket (1946) and his work on The Brasher Doubloon is fine with some interesting angles as the stills here suggest, but nothing too ‘disturbing’ in the way of other noirs of the period. The DoP was Lloyd Ahern, who was credited on his first film in that role after more than 20 years as a camera assistant. One of the problems might be that Chandler’s novel was adapted by Dorothy Bennett, a studio writer who was paid over $1,000 a week for the work. She cut out some major characters for the novel, making for a less complex plot. Perhaps this could have been a good thing? She cut out Mrs Murdock’s daughter-in-law and it strikes me that if the novel had been adapted ‘faithfully’ we would have had Marlowe investigating a case in which, as in The Big Sleep, he visits a wealthy household with two young women, one of whom is a potential flirt and one who he finds attractive. The scene in which Marlowe first meets Mrs Murdock is very similar to the scene in The Big Sleep in which he first meets General Sternwood. Chandler is, after all, a writer more interested in characters and descriptions than in plotting. He repeats himself and is often not too worried about the coherence of his narratives. The Brasher Doubloon seems almost as interested in the romance as it is about the disappearance of the titular coin.
This little gem was broadcast as part of Talking Pictures TV ‘Late Night Friday’ schedule in the UK. Generally described as a ‘crime noir’, it’s perhaps better classified as an example of the semi-documentary police procedural cycle of films started by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948 and eventually becoming a staple of US TV as well as developing a UK equivalent. But He Walked by Night also has its own important features, primarily the camerawork of John Alton. Alton literally ‘wrote the book’ on noir night-time location shooting, characterised by intense shadows. Painting With Light was published in 1949.
There are several other stories about its production that are worth mentioning. It was independently produced by Brian Foy, a veteran of studio ‘B pictures’, and distributed by Eagle-Lion, the company set up as part of J. Arthur Rank’s attempt to distribute his British films in the US (which meant Rank distributed this US indy in the UK). Foy gathered together some of the highly experienced filmmakers he knew from his studio operations including the writers John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur and director Alfred L. Werker. However, there is a strong suggestion that at least some of the directing duties were by an uncredited Anthony Mann. Mann directed T-Men in 1947 for Brian Foy Productions with Higgins as one of the writers and John Alton behind the camera. A similar kind of film with ‘Treasury Men’ working undercover to root out fraud, T-Men is another form of ‘procedural’, also released by Eagle-Lion. Finally in terms of production stories it’s worth noting that Jack Webb, who has a small role in He Walked by Night as a backroom technician, would soon go on to produce and star in a radio series developing the police procedural idea and titled Dragnet (1949-57) and in turn this would become one of the most iconic US TV shows of the 1950s (1951-59 plus later series). There were also a couple of feature films and all this can be traced back to Webb’s experience on He Walked By Night.
The police procedural idea was to take the idea for a film on a real case and to film on location in Los Angeles. Roy Martin/Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar specialising in the then new electronics goods market(radios, TVs and tape recorders etc.) He has also acquired an arsenal of weapons and one night when he is disturbed by a police patrol car he ends up shooting a police officer. This sets off the procedural narrative which ends in a chase through the Los Angeles storm drain system, something used since as either an LA-set device or using sewers and underground tunnels in other locations – but this may be the first use and it benefits greatly from Alton’s camerawork. I enjoyed the film very much though I was struck by the moment when the officers in a patrol car hear over the radio that one of their colleagues has been shot. They are suddenly electrified and burst into action. I hope they would react similarly if any member of the public is shot. This shot reminds us that the film (and many similar procedurals that followed) relied on the co-operation of police forces which perhaps led to a selection of stories and an influence on how these were presented.
I believe that this film is now in the public domain in the US so it is widely available online but to really appreciate its visual qualities, you should seek out the best quality print (see DVD Beaver for disc options or check the streamers). Richard Basehart is excellent as the dangerous man on the run and Scott Brady and Roy Roberts give solid performances as the the two police figures leading the hunt.
I remember reading about Phil Karlson back in the early 1970s when some of his 1950s films were re-released on 16mm and he was written about in Monthly Film Bulletin. Kansas City Confidential was one of the titles that lodged in my brain but I don’t think I saw it in the 1970s. The film was released as The Secret Four in the UK in 1953. That title does refer to the plot but makes it sound like an Enid Blyton children’s story. ‘Kansas City Confidential‘ as a title is explained in the poster above (and in the opening credit sequence) as a police story that the authorities didn’t want to be told. This is a tough crime film related to 1950s film noir. It has a deserved reputation as a film with an intriguing plot that was referenced by more than one later film and perhaps most famously by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Karlson began as an assistant director in the early 1930s and progressed to directing in 1944, proving to be an efficient director of B films. By the early 1950s as the B units of the majors were winding down he was working for independent producers. In this instance it was Edward Small and the film was released through United Artists. Small may have been a low budget producer but this is not a B picture, running at 99 minutes and looking very good in HD on MUBI in the UK. The film has an interesting script by George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Browne. It has a strong cast and excellent photography by George Diskant, best known perhaps for his work at RKO, especially on Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951). His work on Kansas City Confidential features close-ups of the leading characters and emphasises the tension in an unusual story.
There are three of cinema’s natural ‘heavies’ here, played by Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef. They are recruited for an armoured car robbery by a ‘Mr Big’ who recruits them individually and forces them to wear a felt mask so that they will not know each other after the robbery. The haul is over $1 million and the three are sent to different locations to await instructions about meeting up and dividing the spoils. The planning for the robbery implicates an innocent man, ‘Joe Rolfe’ played by John Payne, the tob-billed actor in the cast. Is this deliberate or accidental? Either way he isn’t going to be happy and we know he will find a way to track down the others.
Most of the narrative focuses on the aftermath of the robbery and takes place in Mexico where the four robbers and are intended to meet at a fishing resort and Mr Big will divide the spoils. A fifth character is introduced in the form of a youngish woman played by Coleen Gray who inevitably becomes interested in Joe. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. Needless to say it all ends badly after a ‘reveal’.
My initial reaction to this film was simply how good it looked. This is a film which somehow did not have its intellectual property rights renewed and fell into the Public Domain in the US, meaning that anyone could circulate poorly copied prints. This HD print is a revelation. I was reminded of a host of American crime films from the 1940s to 1960s. The Mexican setting (actually filmed in California) made me think of Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), both seen as films noirs. It doesn’t have the romanticism of Out of the Past but instead it has the hardness and brutality of the 1950s films like The Big Combo (1955). In fact, the brutality is picked out by several commentators. Joe in particular is subjected to several beatings and he also delivers his own. Jack Elam, in particular suffers badly. These beatings are ones in which the victims seem to recover remarkably quickly – that’s possibly a reason why, for a modern audience they seem more shocking, as if the kicks and punches are of no consequence. Joe is an interesting character, well played by the experienced Payne, who has a back-story that is hinted at but not filled in with any detail. This seems like another difference compared to the late 1940s noirs in which the war is only a few years past and there might be some kind of explanation for why some men behave as they do. I did also think about Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956), a film which shares some narrative elements with Kansas City Confidential and was also overlooked at the time perhaps but has since been appreciated. Tourneur and Karlson had similar early careers and made a broad range of films, Tourneur was given his chance by Val Lewton in the RKO B-unit and from then on got more interesting jobs (including Out of the Past) but in the 1950s found himself again being badly treated by the studios. I don’t know enough about Karlson to make a proper comparison but he seems to have remained within the world of low budget genre pictures.
Kansas City Confidential isn’t perfect. The low budget shows in places. I noticed several continuity errors that perhaps should have been re-shot – a gun is placed in a holster under a jacket on the right but in a fight is drawn from under the jacket on the left and so on. The plot is cleverly thought through but still has a few holes, I think. Nevertheless, I think this film deserves its high rating on IMDb and I’ll certainly take any other opportunities to see films by Phil Karlson.