Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '55 - Will McKinley ""

Friday, August 14, 2015

Underrated '55 - Will McKinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer. He’scontributed to Slate, guested on TCM, NPR and Sirius XM, and served as co-host and producer of “Hollywood Time Machine with Alicia Mayer. He blogs at and tweets about media from all eras and how we watch it @willmckinley.

MURDER IS MY BEAT (1955, Allied Artists)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Even if you’re new to noir, you’ve probably heard of DETOUR, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Poverty Row masterpieceproduced on the budget of a kindergarten pageant. Made by the Austrian-born director a decade later, MURDER IS MY BEAT doesn’t carry the same relentless existential dread,but it’s still worth your time.

Our story begins with a bust, as Capt. Bert Rawley (Robert Shayne) tracks down straight-shooting cop Ray Patrick (Paul Langton) who’s on the lam with nightclub chanteuseEden Lane (Barbara Payton).  Eden’s a suspect in the murder of her moneybags boyfriend, and Ray begs Bert for 24 hours to prove her innocence. But first, Ray has toexplain what made a good cop go bad.

MURDER IS MY BEAT is standard issue noir, from thehyperbolic narration to the flashback structure. But Ulmermakes the film unforgettable by infusing it with a level of pathos unexpected in discount noir.  Particularly striking isthe deeply damaged performance of 27-year-old Barbara Payton, already at the end of a six-year career filled withdrinking, drug abuse and headline-grabbing romanticcontretemps. A dozen years later she’d be dead from heart and liver failure at age 39  a truly noir-ish unhappy ending.

THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955, Allied Artists)
Director: Phil Karlson

When gangsters kidnap a little girl and dump her bloodied corpse out of a moving car, you realize the THE PHENIX CITY STORY is unlike any mainstream studio film of the era.

Based on the true story of the assassination of Alabama attorney general Albert “Pat” Patterson, this Allied Artists release is a brutal retelling of a small Southern town’s battle against organized crime.  John McIntire plays the reluctantcrusader and Richard Kiley is the war hero son who vows to finish his father’s work.

Phil Karlson (who also directed KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and 99 RIVER STREET among other noirs) shot THE PHENIX CITY STORY in the locations where the real-life events took place using locals and non-professionals in many rolesThe result is a truly uniquedocu-noir and a refreshing antidote to the often-bloodlesscrime films of the 1950s.

Kiley is excellent as the angry young man and McIntire is touchingly nuanced as the emotionally conflicted hero (his protracted death scene is way ahead of its time)Also excellent is Edward Andrews as a genially murderous mob boss, John Larch as his sweaty enforcer, and Jean Carson as a chain-smoking pit boss.

THE PHENIX CITY STORY was released with a 13-minute prologue featuring reporter Clete Roberts interviewing townspeople and explaining the real life events that inspired the film. That delightfully unscriptedsequence was not included with a 35mm print I saw last month at Film Forum in New York City, but it’s in the version streaming at Warner Archive Instant. This is truly a must-see for any noir fan.

SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955, Allied Artists)
Director: Edward Dein

I often have trouble keeping noir films straight in my head, in part because of their maddeningly unspecific titles. I WALK BY NIGHT? Great. Where do you go? What do you do? As my movie-filled brain ages, I need titles to remind me what happened.

Such confusion will never arise from SHACK OUT ON 101, an Allied Artists oddity set almost entirely in a dive diner on the California coastGeorge (Keenan Wynn) is the proprietor, Kotty (Terry Moore) is the waitress and “Slob” (Lee Marvin) is the short-order cook with a dangeroussecret. For reasons never fully explained, Kotty’s much-older boyfriend Sam (Frank Lovejoy) and Slob are in cahoots to acquire and sell military secrets (or something classified  your guess is as good as mine) to an unnamedentity. And then it all goes awry, of course.  

SHACK OUT ON 101 has an amazing cast, which includesthe always reliable Whit Bissell and Len Lesser (better known to TV viewers as Seinfelds Uncle Leo). There aresome truly weird set pieces, like Wynn and Marvinweightlifting shirtless and a fight between Marvin and Lesser wherein both are joined at the mouth by a dish towel. Moore plays it surprisingly tough here, just a few years after roles as animal sidekicks in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) and THE GREAT RUPERT (1950). And Marvin is his typical charismatic macho asshole.

But my favorite thing about the film is the self-consciously chatty dialogue that goes on forever while never reallyexplaining anything. It’s both confounding and refreshing, particularly since B crime pictures often slam the audience over the head with exposition. If, like me, you enjoy your noir cheap, fast and unusual, SHACK OUT ON 101 is worth a visit.

POSTMARK FOR DANGER (1955, Anglo-Amalgamated/RKO)
Director: Guy Green

It’s LAURA meets VERTIGO as thought-to-be-dead model Alison Ford (Terry Moore again) shows up at the home of the artist (Robert Beatty) painting her posthumous portrait. Mistaken identity, smuggling, murder, blackmail and suicide ensue in this classy Brit noir directed by Edward Dein, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

You have to love a movie that opens with a car plunging off a cliff, and POSTMARK FOR DANGER lives up to its explosive opening sequence with a refreshingly fast pace. Sadly, Portrait of Allison, the BBC TV serial upon which the film was based, is lost. I imagine it would have played like a British version of The Edge of Night, the American mystery soap that began its three-decade daytime run around the same time POSTMARK was released in the states by RKO.  

THE BIG COMBO (1955, Allied Artists)
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
“A woman doesn’t care how a man makes his living, only how he makes love,” nightclub dancer Rita (Helene Stanton) purrs to occasional boyfriend Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornell Wilde) in THE BIG COMBO.

Rita ends up dead before any love can be made, taking a bullet (a few of them, actually) meant for Diamond. And it brings the tough cop to tears, which is just one of the surprises in this tale of obsession and revenge from the director of GUN CRAZY. Sadly for Rita, Diamond was not obsessed with her, but with the moll of a preening gangster known only as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). The cop’s vendetta against Brown earns him a rebuke from his boss and some vicious torture by the mobster’s henchmen (BrianDonlevy, Earl Holliman, and Lee Van Cleef). But still, he persists and most of the cast ends up dead in the process.

The titular “Combo” refers to the crime syndicate controlled by Mr. Brown, but it’s also reflected in the jazzy score by David Raskin, which serves as a perfect accompaniment to Lewis’ inventive visual stylings. The director has an amazing ability to cover entire scenes in postcard-style wide shots, and to use lighting in place of complicated sets. Entire sequences are staged nearly in limbo, and they totally work.  

In addition to two tough guys crying, THE BIG COMBO will always stick in my head for a single image: the murder of a hard-of-hearing thug, in which the guns fire in eerie silence.


Marty McKee said...

This is the second time MURDER IS MY BEAT has popped up here, but I was not a fan at all. I found it boring, and the disinterested, puffy Payton was a little heartbreaking to watch.

Laura Roberts @ Buttontapper Press said...

I totally agree with you about the unspecific titles in noir! I'm constantly looking at titles and thinking "Did I watch this one already?" I have to read the descriptions to figure it out most times, and sometimes even that doesn't help. Thankfully YouTube has most of the trailers so I can double-check.

I never thought about the tough guys crying angle in "The Big Combo," though I did like the artsy handling of the hard-of-hearing guy's death scene with silent guns blazing. Thanks for pointing that out!

Anonymous said...

Laura, in preparing my wrap-up of the TCM Noir Summer series for my blog, I had to go back and Google 120 movies to remind myself if I had watched them or not. That's why I love titles like ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950). What's it about? An armored car robbery!

Jerry E said...

What a great selection of interesting "under-rated" movies!

Will, you appear to be, like me, an enthusiast for Allied Artists pictures. Often just good, unpretentious fare.

I was interested that you refer to the "lost" original BBC TV serial "PORTRAIT OF ALISON" (that became 'Postmark For Danger' in the US) starring Patrick Barr in 1955.
It was one of my earliest TV memories as a child, having managed to persuade my parents to let me stay up to see it - and I loved it. Sadly, it is indeed lost, like many programs from that era, having been broadcast 'live'.

Steve Bailey said...

I've just seen SHACK OUT ON 101 and THE BIG COMBO in the past couple of weeks -- looks like I'll have to get going on the rest. Great post!

Laura said...

Will, I enjoyed reading this when I was "on the road" recently, didn't get a chance to comment then but wanted you to know how much I enjoyed your choices. I've got to pull out POSTMARK FOR DANGER!

Best wishes,