1948 Film Noir in Review: Three Thrillers from Poverty Row's Monogram Pictures

The Warner Archive Collection unleashes a handful of B film noir tales.
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Being as how I dive into a handful of Warner Archive releases on a weekly basis, I have to wonder if the powers that be pick out a certain now-neglected B movie actor to sort of "highlight within the shadows" over a period of time. That, of certain actors just happened to be in everything. One character player in particular that has been popping up in at least one selection from the assortment of titles released within the last couple of weeks is Anthony Caruso. Best known to fans of the original Star Trek series as a gangster boss in the memorable episode "A Piece of the Action", the venerable Caruso specialized in portraying heavies and ethnic characters - often at the same time (because Hollywood).

In fact, were one to play Six Degrees of Separation with old time movies and their stars, Caruso would be a great way to begin a round. Right next to Alan Ladd, of course - whom Caruso appeared with in a dozen features, including a nice meaty supporting part in Drum Beat - a highlight of an Alan Ladd foursome that I recently took a peek at. Caruso also had a brief bit in Escape Me Never - part of a trio of Errol Flynn flicks the Archive released a week before. Sure enough, when I received this latest batch of Warner Archive gems from yesteryear - a collection of '40s film noir thrillers from the Poverty Row outfit Monogram Pictures - I was not only unsurprised to see that the late industry professional in one of the films but, lo and behold, the guy's mug was plastered on the artwork to boot.

And that's because Caruso appears in the first title I'm reviewing here, 1948's Incident, where the tough-as-nails actor plays a mobster whom everybody calls - appropriately enough - "Nails". But the billed stars of Incident - directed by legendary veteran B movie helmsman William Beaudine (who directed Caruso in three other features, including two Bowery Boys features) - are actually future television writer Warren Douglas (who wrote several scripts for TV shows in the '60s that featured Caruso) and Jane "Mrs. Joe McDoakes" Frazee (who, shockingly, never appeared in anything else with Anthony Caruso ever). And at first, the story - which has a weird educational short vibe about it when it first opens - focuses on Mr. Douglas, who is the unfortunate candidate of a case of mistaken identity.

Mistaken for a guy named "Slats", Douglas' character is beaten to a pulp by a vertically-challenged thug with a froggy voice and foggy glasses to boot (as played by Meyer Grace - who appeared in one of the very same Bowery Boys flicks that Beaudine directed which also featured Anthony Caruso). So, he goes to the cops, where he finds an ornery Eddie Dunn (who specialized in playing funnymen or cops - often at the same time, sometimes with Laurel & Hardy, and who also appeared in the exact same Bowery Boys film that everybody else I have mentioned so far - and I firmly believe that this is my cue to stop playing my little game for a while), who seems to know very little about the crime syndicate in his own district, as the names "Slats" and "Nails" don't ring a bell with him. And so, Douglas decides to do a little investigating of his own, but instead meets the beautiful Frazee - who, as we later learn, is an insurance investigator who actually has heard of the aforementioned criminals.

Midway through, Incident shifts gears and a stronger-than-her-man Frazee becomes the lead character, getting a lead on the man her new beau was mistaken for -as played by Riot in Cell Block 11's Robert Osterloh, in his film debut - and gaining his trust in order to pin the tail on the gang of jackasses responsible for a number of stolen department store goods. Considering that Osterloh not only comes in halfway through the picture, but was also new to the screen as well, he does a grand job as a clueless hood who practically takes over the male lead from Douglas, who is left behind to watch Harry Cheshire eat banana splits while Douglas' own onscreen pals, Harry Lauter and the feisty Joyce Compton - both of whom have prominent roles in the first part of the film - all-but-disappear completely.

But hey, this is a Monogram picture, kids, so you've got to expect that sort of thing. On the other hand, Monogram was one of the first studios to actually cast an Asian-American actor (Keye Luke) as an Asian-American character in a starring role without any odd stereotypes or eccentricities during the '40s, so the sudden switch to a strong female lead should be of no surprise, either. But it is (note the conversation between Frazee and the ever-talkative Compton about how men would get nowhere were it not for the ladies). Robert Emmett Keane - yet another performer to appear in the very same Bowery Boys picture I just can't seem to stop referring to - also stars in this entertaining low-budget crime thriller whose previously-somber educational short-esque narrator returns for the finale just to make a bad joke.

Released just several months before Incident, the 1948 drama Stage Struck was the final film to be directed by another veteran B movie helmsman named William, Mr. William Nigh (who, interestingly enough, shared directing duties with William Beaudine for several Monogram series, including the Mr. Wong franchise that gave Keye Luke his chance to play an actual Asian-American in a genuinely normal light), we witness what truly happens when young runaway girls go to the big city in search of a less-dreary existence. And right after that visually-striking introduction, we are tossed into one extremely long and boring scene after another, wherein New York City policemen Conrad Nagel (the American Alec Guinness) and ex-Dick Tracy star Ralph Byrd oddly wander to a murdered girl's hometown in another state to investigate her death.

Now, I'm fairly certain that's way out of their jurisdiction, but they do it just the same - with Nagel constantly reminding viewers about the thousands of runaway girls who get Stage Struck every year, and how awfully they wind up. It's a depressing speech that becomes depressingly tiresome, for sure, but it nevertheless works the second time around, as it enables this the pair of policemen to pick up just enough clues to bounce back to New York in order to turn their attention towards the movie's villains: Kane Richmond (as a total sleazeball of a hood who still gets top-billing in what would prove to be his last film, and who co-starred with Anthony Caruso in another Monogram film, Don't Gamble with Strangers, two years before) and John Gallaudet. But the course of their investigation just isn't fast enough for the dead gal's older sister, as played here by bit-player Audrey Long, who finally had a chance to spread her wings as an actress in this instance.

In fact, once Long decides to visit the city in order to pose as another lost girl in search of a new life, the tale begins to pick up once more - only to have Nagel start in again on his real downer of a gig about missing girls as the film concludes, in a scene that reminded me a lot of the kind of bad dramas that occasionally appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Why, I could even hear the ol' MST3K gang throwing a fit at the seemingly-bipolar Detective Nagel's comments in the back of my mind as I chuckled relentlessly at the constant reiteration of the movie's miserable moral. Perhaps Nagel's detective should pick a new line of work? A well-billed Wanda McKay gets the pleasure of being the girl to die during the impressive beginning, and who becomes the main focus of our story's heroes.

Produced by Monogram under their more-devoted-to-story-than-budget banner, Allied Artists, The Hunted is a noir thriller that also hails from 1948 (and which was released several months before Stage Struck - yes, I'm going completely backwards here, kids!) that begins with a very fun and atmospheric opening. Headlights turn into the credits, an unfriendly transportation station in the middle of a stormy Los Angeles night finds the one and only Preston Foster - clad in archetypal noir raincoat and fedora attire - not-at-all-subtly monitoring the arrival of young Belita. But he's not a thug, he's our hero. Actually, he's a hard-nosed, bitter detective who put the young lady away four years ago for a diamond heist. Naturally, she claimed she was not involved in the scheme in any way. And it might not be that weird of a deal were it not for the fact that the girl in question was his girlfriend at the time!

And thus begins an odd noir title that finds Foster attempting to help Belita out after she gets out - even though she threatened to kill him when she was sentenced. Ever on his guard just in case the dame decides to make good on her threat, the detective basically stalks the poor woman as he attempts to determine whether or not she actually was innocent all those years ago. As their rather estranged friendship begins to blossom into something romantic once again, more bits and pieces are added to Foster's tortuous mental and emotional puzzles - including just why his character is named John Saxon. Naturally, ice skating femme fatale Belita finds the time to show off her figure and skills in a sequence teenage boys of the '40s must surely have paid to see time and time again. I know I rewound the scene a few times myself, but I can assure you it was because of the music. Honest.

Frank Ferguson (who was also in Drum Beat with Anthony Caruso!) plays one of his few nice guys characters as Belita's boss here, Tristram Coffin has a brief bit as another detective, and there's even a supporting part by Pierre Watkin - whom MST3K fans will no doubt recognize as the guy who kept babbling on and on (just like Conrad Nagel in the previous film) about radar in Radar Secret Service (which also starred Tristram Coffin and Ralph Byrd, incidentally). Jack Bernard directs the enjoyably atypical film noir script by Steve Fisher - who later wrote the Anthony Caruso co-starring vehicle The Toughest Man Alive for Allied Artists (which I would like to see someday if possible, Warner Archive). Fisher also penned Song of the Thin Man, which was one of the first films to feature Keenan Wynn, who later co-starred in The Deep Six with Alan Ladd - who, as it turns out, was actually very good friends with Anthony Caruso.

Hmm. Maybe I should find a new line of work along with Conrad Nagel's detective in Stage Struck.

These three Monogram Pictures obscurities - along with a fourth title, the 1946 Warren Douglas/William Beaudine collaboration Below the Deadline (which, oddly enough, did not feature Anthony Caruso, but which did co-star Meyer Grace) - have all been rescued from the sands of time by the Warner Archive Collection. Each of the reviewed titles are served up as barebones DVDs, and the video and audio quality of these seldom-seen thrillers are quite good overall. If you're a Monogram fan, chances are you've already ordered them. But, in the strange event that you haven't, they are all available exclusively from shopwarnerarchive.com.

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