Warner Bros. Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5
by Martha P. Nochimson

The Phenix City Story

The Phenix City Story

Armored Car Robbery
Directed by Richard Fleischer; written by Earl Felton and Gerald Drayson Adams; produced by Herman Schlom; cinematography by Guy Roe; edited by Desmond Marquette; music by C. Bakaleinikoff and Paul Sawtell; starring Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens, and William Talman. DVD, 67 min., B&W, 1950.

Directed by Vincent Sherman; written by Larry Marcus, Ben Roberts, and Ivan Goff; produced by Anthony Veiller; cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Thomas Reilly; music by Daniele Amfitheatrol; starring Virginia Mayo, Gordon MacRae, Edmund O’Brien, Dane Clark, Viveca Lindfors, and Ed Begley. DVD, 91 min., B&W, 1950.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk; written by John Wexley and Ben Hecht; produced by Adrian Scott; cinematography by Harry J. Wild; edited by Joseph Noriega; music by Roy Webb; starting Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale, Morris Carnovsky, and Luther Adler. DVD, 102 min., B&W, 1945.

Crime in the Streets
Directed by Don Siegel; Written by Reginald Rose; Produced by Vincent M. Fennelly; cinematography by Sam Leavitt; edited by Richard C. Meyer; music by Franz Waxman; starring James Whitmore, Sal Mineo, Mark Rydell, and John Cassavetes. DVD, 91 min., B&W, 1956.

Deadline at Dawn
Directed by Harold Clurman; written by Clifford Odets; produced by Sid Rogell and Adrian Scott; cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Roland Gross; music by Hanns Eisler; starring Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, and Bill Williams. DVD, 83 min., B&W, 1946.

Directed by Anthony Mann; written by Harry Essex, Martin Rackin; produced by Michael Kraike; cinematography by George E. Diskant; edited by Darrell Silvera; music by Paul Sawtell; starring Steve Brodie, Audrey Long, Raymond Burr, and Douglas Fowley. DVD, 73 min., B &W, 1947.

Dial 1119
Directed by Gerald Mayer; written by Hugh King, Don McGuire, John Monks Jr.; produced by Richard Goldstone; cinematography by Paul Vogel; edited by Newell P. Kimlin; music by Andre Previn; starring Marshall Thompson, Virginia Field, Andrea King, Sam Levene, Leon Ames, and Keefe Brasselle. DVD, 75 min., B&W, 1950.

The Phenix City Story
Directed by Phil Karlson; written by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur; produced by Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond; cinematography by Harry Neumann; edited by George white; music by Harry Sukman; starring Richard Kiley, John McIntire, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, and Lenka Peterson. DVD, 100 min., B&W, 1955.

What did William Talman do before he played Hamilton Burger, the hapless prosecutor on the Perry Mason television show (1957-1966)? What did Raymond Burr do before, as Perry Mason, he wiped the floor with William Talman? Were Gordon MacRae and Virginia Mayo ever together in a movie in which they didn’t sing? What did Edward Dymytrk teach Dick Powell about hunting Nazis? What was the named of the only film ever directed by Harold Clurman? In Vol. 5 of the Film Noir Classic Collection—released by Warner Bros., although many of the films in it were produced by RKO—answers to these and other questions are available. But, arguably, what is not available in the box set is one actual film noir.

Definitions of all genres are a difficult business, but commercial pressures on the label film noir have stretched this genre to the breaking point. The mere hint of a femme fatale—even an innocuous stripper will do—a shadow, or a befuddled hero, et voilà, film noir. Even people who don’t like the French will salute. Recall that during the height of the Bush Administration’s francophobia, not a word was said about replacing “film noir” with “liberty mystery.”

But those of us who take classification seriously insist that there are distinct differences between film noir and all other kinds of stories about dark doings. The historically inclined believe that only films about doomed men and irresistible sirens made in post-World War II Hollywood until the early Fifties, at the latest, qualify. Others maintain that the true film noir is simply a film with a visual palette of dark and light that reflects a narrative about unfathomability and the unredeemable rot at the heart of what we call civilization. A clear example: Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1944), in which the corruption of the greedy is a disease beyond any known ministration, and hero Mike O’Hara’s (Welles) hunger for deliciously deadly Elsa Banister (Rita Hayworth) is inextinguishable. “Maybe I’ll forget her,” he says at the end of the film. “Maybe I’ll die trying.”

By contrast, there isn’t a problem in all of Vol. 5 that can’t be solved; or one spider woman from the web of whose sexual allure a good man—or any man—can’t escape, diminishing the chances that this box set can pass anyone’s film noir litmus test. More likely, aficionados will find this collection a mixed bag of social-problem films and crime melodramas of varying quality, with a couple of other genres, like the caper film and the psychological thriller thrown in for good measure. Vol. 5 is also filled with surprising performances and moments of depth, however, as well as examples of the work of some directors and actors of note from the time before they were famous.

In Cornered, one of the more fetching of the films in this miscellany, we get the chance to watch veteran Yiddish theater actor Luther Adler play a Vichy Nazi collaborator villain, and to see how admired noir director Edward Dmytryk handles the script’s somewhat unusual take on unfinished international business after World War II. Dick Powell plays Laurence Gerard, a Canadian war veteran, recently released from a POW camp, who is determined to find out who betrayed his French- born wife, Celeste—part of the French underground—and set her up to be murdered. The film begins in a conventional film noir atmosphere, in which it is difficult to know whom to trust and fairly clear that important secrets are being kept. Following a trail of clues from England and France to Argentina, Gerard seeks the likely culprit, Marcel Jarnac (Luther Adler), who is supposedly dead, but whom Gerard is sure is alive. Gerard attaches himself to the supposed widow, the enigmatic Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), in appearance an intriguing combination of Deborah Kerr and Danielle Darrieux, whom Gerard believes will lead him to her husband. But is she actually Madame Jarnac? And are the people who offer to help Gerard with his search on the level?

Unlike in film noir, discerning truth from illusion turns out not to be so difficult after all. But at the same time, unlike in many postwar melodramas—which this is—Gerard is not the obligatory purely righteous Nazi hunter, but rather a foolish, impulsive, and trigger-happy desperado, even if his heart is in the right place. (Powell’s manner and appearance, as well as his frontier idea of justice, mark him as American, hardly Canadian, but perhaps he was given an alternate nationality so that he could be portrayed as more than usually flawed without objections from the Production Code office.) Most of the terrain of Cornered is far too well-lit for film noir, but Gerard finally winds up in a waterfront bar at night. This dive, molded into something interesting by light and shadow, is a bona fide noir set. And it is appropriately here on this turf that Gerard finally comes face to face with his vicious, backlit adversary, Jarnac, whose shadowy face at first is illuminated only momentarily, as he lights his cigarette. In a reasonably interesting dialogue between the two men, the continuing deep-dyed presence of evil in the postwar world, despite the official defeat of the Nazis, is explored, even though the denouement does allow Gerard to bring this situation to a satisfactory conclusion. What is most intriguing about Gerard’s victory, however, is that it is nicely complicated by the implication that our hero is in some ways as deranged—though not as hateful—as the villain.                      

The Phenix City Story, an aggressively “ripped from the headlines” film, based on the real-life murder of Alabama State Attorney General Albert Patterson on June 18, 1954, is even edgier, though much less showy, than Cornered, arguably the best film in the collection. Although the film itself is a fully fictionalized account of Patterson’s death as a result of his struggle to clean up the corruption in Phenix City, it is referred to by some as a semidocumentary because it is prefaced by five interviews with actual citizens of Phenix City, who were involved in Patterson’s life and supporters of his efforts. These are men and women who were threatened at the time of the events leading to Patterson’s murder, some of whom were still living in the cross hairs of criminal intimidation when the interviews were conducted: Ed Strickland, reporter for The Birmingham News, who covered the corruption in Phenix City over a period of years, and investigated the murder in detail for six months; Hugh Bentley, a Phenix City resident who actively opposed the syndicate responsible for the death of Patterson; Hugh Britten, another citizen; Quninny Kelly, janitor of the county court house, and part-time deputy sheriff; and Agnes Patterson, Albert Patterson’s widow. Although the interviews are conducted by a reporter, Clete Roberts, who goes about his work in an irritatingly practiced, often pretentious style; the interviewees are each a study in southern culture of the 1950s, leaving the viewer with many questions about what motivated their courage. In the case of Agnes Patterson, we are treated to an authentic clarion call to defend democracy in America that resonates today against a culture that seems to have lost any shred of understanding of how a democracy works. The interviews make clear that the crime syndicate that recently tyrannized Phenix City, Alabama, is far from effectively disbanded. Reporter Ed Strickland foresees the real possibility of a comeback despite some hard won erosion of their power. And indeed, although the end of the fictionalized feature film has an upbeat tone, it clearly acknowledges that the battle is ongoing.

The film screams “social problem film,” not film noir, as it surveys recent events in Phenix City, which stands on the other side of a bridge over the Chatahoochie River from Columbus, Georgia, a relatively law-abiding town. In some ways, the situation is sensationalized to make up for the reluctance of many moviegoers to spend Saturday night with popcorn and social problems. Both in the prefatory documentary interviews and in the fictional narrative, Phenix City is described as the most vicious city in the United States—somewhat hard to believe and clearly part of the hyperbole on which both Hollywood and the journalist community, hungry for headlines, feed. The exaggeration is especially obvious when a mildly tawdry jazz club is presented as exhibit A for the town’s moral turpitude. In typical hypocritical Hollywood fashion, the film gets as much audience titillation as it can from showing the club’s “chantoosie” heating up the clientele as she sings. But she’s really just a so-so singer who likes running her fingers through men’s hair.

Most of the film, however, proceeds in understated documentary style. Location shooting conveys a sharp, undoctored picture of a small southern town of the 1950s. Edward Andrews, as the town boss Rhett Tanner, avoids the Boss Hogg stereotype, as a cold power player with a highly evolved back- slapping, jovial manner. Oozing with the common touch, he sweettalks all the old ladies who come across his path and maintains superficially cordial relations with Albert Patterson, one of the few men in town who have avoided dependence on Tanner for their livelihood. As Patterson, John McIntire turns in a splendid performance as the reluctant hero, who is finally goaded into action by the pileup of injustices inflicted on the town by the Tanner machine. (Some may identify the refusal of many citizens in Phenix City to acknowledge evidence of corruption with Fox News-fed extreme right-wing voters today and wonder if and when an Albert Patterson will emerge in our time to fight the data- free officials and reporters who control current public discourse.)

Because it is so unmelodramatically depicted, the violence inflicted on ordinary people for the flimsiest reasons and countenanced by the bought and paid for police is truly disturbing, smacking of the fascist tyranny of the streets in Europe so common during World War II, from which Albert Patterson’s son has just returned. Clearly, this resemblance is intentional. Similarly, the depiction of the few basically unheroic citizens who rose to defend their town is quite moving. There is even a creditable reflection of the nascent civil rights struggle of the time in the presence of an understatedly heroic black janitor, Zeke (James Edwards), who lays hands on a corrupt white man in a period in which black characters were forbidden from that kind of contact onscreen. The death of Zeke’s tiny daughter as his punishment for stepping out of line is regarded by the protagonists with appropriate horror. (Unfortunately, the film doesn’t accord Zeke and his wife, Helen [Helen Martin], the same respect when they are beaten up.)

The Phenix City Story contains absolutely no star power, and no exciting auteurist esthetic, nor is the murder of Albert Patterson a national legend; for those reasons this story of local government sponsored corruption will never reach the status of a classic. But it’s a sleeper in the history of socially-conscious American cinema, and deserves a look.

Less noteworthy but still of some interest is Desperate, one of the movies Anthony Mann made during his first decade as a director. It is is a pseudonaturalistic crime melodrama (not at all a noir) that begins as if it were a formula story about a little guy overwhelmed by circumstances. A creepy gangster, Walt Radak, played by a young Raymond Burr, tries to frame a decent hard-working truck driver, Steve Randall (Steve Brodie), for a warehouse robbery Walt tricked him into participating in. When the robbery goes wrong, Walt then threatens to maim Steve’s wife if he doesn’t take the wrap for Steve’s younger brother. There is some original use of light and shadow in an early scene in which Steve is badly beaten, which we see only indirectly in the faces of Burr and one of his henchmen as they watch. Unfortunately, Mann also develops a clichéd pattern of photographing Steve and his sweet, innocent wife Anne (Audrey Long) in bright light while he shoots the crooks in darkness, (correctly) predicting the inevitability of good overcoming evil. At first, Mann provides an interesting vision of the widespread corruption in America that Steve experiences as he runs from Walt, a flight complication by his wife’s pregnancy. Mann never plays any of these scenes for laughs of any kind, but he does give them an interesting frisson at times, as when Anne and Steve hide on a truck carrying huge carnival figures when the police are looking for them.

The edginess continues for a little while when, once Steve thinks his wife is safe, he goes to turn himself in to the police, in a scene that continues the film’s pretense that it is developing a naturalist theme. The detective Steve speaks with, Lt. Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards, Sr.), won’t give Steve an inch, no matter how sincere he seems. Robards is wonderful in this scene, his police cynicism inundating his office with barbed mockery. But before Ferrari can make the film come to a full boil, it takes a turn toward the tepid. Ferrari lets Steve go, believing that he will lead the police to his accomplices, allowing Steve and Anne to hide out with her aunt and uncle, old-country Czechs, on their farm. Desperate suddenly is saturated in the mythology of the purity of country living and the bedrock stability of the old European ways. (Perhaps these writers had not seen Cornered.) Anne’s aunt and uncle are so old country that when they hear that she and Steve were married by a judge, they insist on a “real” wedding with a minister, which turns out to be an absurd affair with everyone wearing embroidered “peasantwear.”

So, it comes as no surprise that the sharp-edged Ferrari suddenly goes all soft on the young couple and that Desperate veers into the pedestrian as it lurches toward the mandatory tinsel-town happy ending. Some may find it interesting, nevertheless, as an example of old Hollywood’s need to bend its narratives into pretzel shape to satisfy the Production Code.

In Dial 1119, a group of Midwesterners who don’t know each other are held hostage by a strange young man named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson). The setting for Wyckoff’s reign of terror is a bar called Oasis, in Terminal City, a generic, fictional, small Midwestern city, a place in which policemen wore suits, white shirts, and ties. Dial 1119, an early psychological thriller, experiments with a post-World War II version of the sociopathic “angry white guy,” in this case a hysteric who bears some resemblance to Tony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). Paving the way for the 1950s films in which a psychologist eventually explains it all to the audience, the story of Gunther Wyckoff features a Dr. Feron (Sam Levene), who analyzes the hostage situation by means of a potpourri of garden-variety psychological clichés. Dial 1119 also provides a good look at a very young William Conrad as Chuckles the bartender, the only one in the bar to be killed by Wyckoff. Additionally, it features an representation of what passed in television during the early 1950’s for on the spot coverage of news “as it is made.” There’s some historical interest in seeing how, then as now, the TV commentators fabricate melodrama out of human suffering and disseminate the idiotic opinions of the man in the street. But not much.

Dial 1119 can’t make up its mind what it is. When police Captain Kelver (Richard Rober) and Dr. Faron argue about how to take Wyckoff into custody, the movie seems to be about whether police or psychologists are best equipped to deal with crime. At another point, it seems to be about the evils of war. And still later, it presents itself as a manhood crisis. Wyckoff fantacizes a heroic war record to make up for his inability to form a stable masculine identity. That could be it since the hostages each represent some kind of gender issue, all except Chuckles, which may be why he was eliminated. But it’s all too tediously programmatic; no real insights into conventions of masculinity or femininity are achieved. Eventually, this minor thriller appears to revert to its original theme, when Dr. Faron (Sam Levene) reveals himself to be absurdly incompetent as he deals with Wyckoff’s monomania and Kelver wins the day with violence, in a way validating the madman’s ideas about how men deal with the world—except that, in a meaningless reversal, it isn’t a man who fires the decisive shot. This kind of seemingly clever turnabout is typical of Dial 1119, which, although it aspires to some kind of psychological revelation, turns into an airy nothing and dissipates.

Hey, John Cassavetes! At twenty-seven, he was too old to play eighteen-year-old Frankie Dane in Crime in the Street, a movie adaptation of a 1955 episode on The Elgin Hour television series, in which he played the same character. But Cassavetes brings an authentic intensity and electricity to this movie about a street gang in a working-class neighborhood, that, a year before West Side Story, used the ragged intervals and explosive cadences of jazz to score the actions of troubled, angry, young guys. Some may even prefer the jazz in Crime in the Streets, credited to Franz Waxman, of all people. Anything but a film noir, this realist melodrama won’t surprise anyone with its depiction of a romantic rebel who growls irritably at the usual cast of characters: Ben Wagner, a stoic, long suffering social worker played with gravitas by James Whitmore, who wants to give Frankie a chance; a neighborhood heavy who believes punishment and jail time is the only language “young punks” understand; a puzzled immigrant father who sees Frankie as a bad model for his teenaged son, “Baby,” played by Sal Mineo; and Maria, a sweet, first-generation ingenue who understands Frankie’s pain. (Soap opera aficionados will just barely recognize in the part of Maria a teen-aged Denise Alexander who later went on to star on Days of Our Lives and General Hospital, as older versions of a similar good-girl character.) But Crime in the Streets has an honesty about its subject and a respect for the characters that are extremely appealing. It is beautifully shot by Sam Leavitt, who also did the cinematography for The Defiant Ones (1958), The Crimson Kimono (1959), and Cape Fear (1962), and it is very well directed by Don Siegel, well known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971).

Frankie is about to reach the point of no return as he plans his first murder. We get a sense of how frightened Frankie’s buddies are despite their loud talk and swagger when only two others in the gang are willing to go along with him: Lou (Mark Rydell), a bona fide homicidal maniac, and “Baby,” for whom this is an American manhood ritual. Frankie’s adoring younger brother Richie (Peter J. Votrian) and Ben Wagner both know what Frankie is up to, but neither knows how to stop him. The countdown to zero brings out the best and the worst, the weakness and the strength, in all of the characters, sometimes at the same time, an impressive achievement for a very small movie. True, the psychology and sociology expressed through the action and in the dialog may be somewhat naive from the perspective of 2011, but the film is full of humanity. In the end, Frankie discovers that he is his brother’s keeper, and Cassavetes makes us believe it, though Vittorio de Sica would surely have let the consequences to Frankie of being trapped in society’s dead end play out anyway

In Armored Car Robbery , it looks like Richard Fleischer is using outtakes from Billy Wilder’s location shooting for Double Indemnity (1944), but gritty images of Los Angeles are not enough to enhance this film’s cachet. Purely and simply, it’s a low-rent caper movie about personal betrayal, the brotherhood of cops, and the fate of a “Napoleon of crime” under the watchful eye of the Production Code.

William Talman plays a cold hearted mastermind named Dave Purvis, who figures to evade the clutches of the law through meticulously organizing high-yield heists; moving so often that no one ever knows where he is; changing his name regularly; using cabs instead of buying a car; and cutting the labels out of his clothes—as another gesture to anonymity. (Some may be surprised at how much Talman resembles Willem Dafoe when he plays a bad guy.) In addition to planning the heist, he is also romancing the equally icy Yvonne Le Doux (Adele Jergens), a big blonde stripper in the style of Virginia Mayo, and the wife of his oblivious “best friend” Benny McBride (Douglas Fowley). Alas, Purvis and crew are dogged by as many mishaps as the bunch in Mario Monicelli’s crime comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), but this story is no laughing matter.

Armored Car Robbery depicts the bad karma of Purvis’s gang in order to restate the message of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in inverted terms: “A man without friends is always poor.” While the ultimately triumphant working-class police are portrayed as steadfastly loyal to their own, the doomed, well-fixed Purvis is ready to abandon anyone to save himself with each unexpected problem he encounters, even the lovely Yvonne, as he tries to leave the country with his loot. To say that Fleischer is playing with the theme of the superman mentality would be pushing it; but Purvis is modeled along the lines of that delusion, which is summed up in a well-framed and dramatically lit shot of him lying dead on an airplane runway, money piled around his corpse after he collides with a plane that is taking in an attempt at a grandiose getaway that could never have succeeded. The image sums up the film’s point of view that any given human being is small in the grand scheme of things; no one can succeed at the price of human solidarity.

The police, as stand-ins for all American ordinary Joes, are continually praised explicitly and implicitly for their understanding of that truth, and nowhere as decisively as at the end of the film when the corpse on the runway image is juxtaposed to a hospital scene in which a veteran policeman pays a visit to a rookie who was shot in the line of duty by Purvis. They laugh together at the tiny little story at the bottom of a back page in a newspaper that barely recognizes their capture of Purvis at the peril of their own safety. They don’t care; it’s the thin blue line that matters. It’s corny. But it has its points if you compare it to the tone of the contemporary caper film, which tends to validate the mastermind’s belief in his glamourous edge over the mass of ordinary mortals who can’t negotiate tamperproof security devices. Armored Car Robbery insists on the delusional, antisocial nature of such a criminal, where 21st century audiences have been acculturated to cuddly, charismatic caper meisters, like George Clooney in Oceans Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen (2001, 2004, 2007). There’s food for thought here. Once upon a time, even a run of the mill night out at the movies used to be wise to the essentially ugly implications of believing that its sexy to grab big money by any means necessary.

Ordinary decency is also at the center of the last two films in this misnamed noir collection: Deadline at Dawn and Backfire. There isn’t much to say about Backfire. It’s a postwar film that superficially resembles film noir, with its numerous flashbacks, wet dark streets, shadowy rooms, and cynical dialog. But its story taps into noir’s postwar malaise in only the most superficial way. The shadow of World War II hangs over Backfire through the interplay between three war buddies, Steve Conolly (Edmund O’Brien), Ben Arno (Dane Clark) , and Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae). The boys are either recovering from war injuries or trying to find a way to fit back into society like all the ex-soldiers in films of the period. Bob is engaged informally to a nurse he met at the VA hospital, Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo), and Steve and Ben are involved, each in their own way, with a sultry Viennese woman, Lysa Radoff (Viveca Lindfors), who has suffered too much to actually survive this film. Like so many vets in Hollywood movies, each is approached by underworld figures offering easy money, and the supposed intrigue of the plot concerns who succumbs and who maintains integrity when the pressure to earn a living is on. No one will be amazed by the revelations. Or that false friendship proves very dangerous and real friendship saves the day. Or that Viveca Lindfors is used here as a poor man’s Ingrid Bergman. Or even that Nurse Julie turns out to be the most resourceful and gutsy character in the movie. But today’s audiences are likely to raise their eyebrows at a character named Captain Garcia played as a WASP by Ed Begley, and a hotel stay of a week or two—it’s not clear which—that costs twelve dollars.

Deadline at Dawn, written and directed by two of the brightest lights of the famous Group Theatre in Manhattan, Clifford Odets and Harold Clurman, is another matter. Its opening frames grab the audience’s attention with some razzle-dazzle images brought to quasisurreal life by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, famous for photographing Val Lewton’s landmark horror films, and a few noir classics, like Out of the Past (1947). A man, Sleepy Parsons (Marvin Miller), climbs slowly, wearily, but relentlessly up a seedy staircase toward an apartment. Cut to the inside of the apartment and an extreme close-up of the face of a sleeping woman on which a fly crawls. But the tone quickly shifts into that of the kind of grit and grime realist melodrama that might be expected from Odets and Clurman. When the man and the woman come face to face they explode into a nasty contretemps that ends when the camera moves into the white carnation of his lapel. A murder is in the offing. Pretty soon we learn that the woman, Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane), is dead, but was it really Parsons—her pathetic whipping boy and estranged husband—who killed her? The rest of the film is a whodunit in which the main suspect, at least in the eyes of the police, is Alex Winkley (Bill Williams), a baby-faced sailor from upstate New York who is on furlough and has four hours to report back to the Navy base in Norfolk. He’s an innocent in the big city, unfailingly, some might say absurdly, polite to the wonderful eccentrics—desperate, cynical, spirited, sweet, obstreperous, and vicious—with whom Odets and Clurman populate the New York streets. Holding Alex’s hand and keeping up his spirits while he searches for Edna’s killer all through the night are a cab driver named Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), and June Goth (Susan Hayward), a straight-talking, exhausted, sexy dance hall girl. Although the police and the civilians who rally around Alex, even though they barely know him, are always two steps behind the killer, the mystery gets solved.

Some solid, sometimes bravura, performances and the depiction of good-hearted fellow feeling among Americans, as indefatigable New Yorkers shuttle in cabs all around the city and congregate in the “death apartment,” bring a fresh Group Theatre, New Yorkish sensibility to this generic Hollywood manhunt. Susan Hayward fans will be reconfirmed in their enthusiasm for her by her ability to bring to life what in the hands of someone of lesser talent and charisma could have been a drag on the action. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to the character of sailor Alex Winkly; Bill Williams just can’t keep up with Hayward or with Paul Lukas, who is a treat to see—without his mustache—cast in a role in which a European actor is not used for his qualities of otherness for sinister purposes. And the harpy-like Edna Bartelli and her brother Val (Joseph Calleia) help Hollywood do its usual good job of keeping alive the stereotype of Italians as the criminal element in the America. But since Edna is the corpse and Val didn’t whack her killer out of family loyalty, the film works against assumptions that nasty people, even those who are career criminals, are guilty by virtue of their unpleasantness.

In fact, the most striking aspect of Deadline at Dawn is its portrayal of the murderer as a very good person pushed past tolerable limits, but not exonerated by virtue of an attractively generous heart. As in Billy Budd, the law is the law; sentimentality need not apply. No spoiler here; I will not reveal the identity of the killer because the ricochet of suspicions around the tapestry of characters is part of the fun. Clurman, in his one attempt at directing a film, and Odets show exceptional skill in building toward a “big reveal” that calls for a reevaluation of previous scenes that seemed strangely “off” at the time. Nothing could be further from the noir call to abandon hope when it comes to human affairs than the gallant and moving self-sacrifice at the end of Deadline at Dawn so that others may flourish. It more than makes up for the film’s ridiculous, almost meaningless, pulp-fiction title.

While it is too bad that the Warner Bros. marketers found it necessary to flog this collection as a volume of film noir, there is something of value in the issuing of old film for general public consumption, particularly films like those in this box set that are known to few. So many platitudes are in circulation about American popular culture that depend on a canon of better known older movies. But the situation is more complicated than it may seem, and DVD box sets like Vol. 5 make it possible for a broader spectrum of people to see an area of gray in the mass-culture industry, not just a collision of black and white.

Martha P. Nochimson, a Cineaste Associate, is the author of The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and, most recently, Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hong Kong and Hollywood.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

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