It just now occurs to me that classic-era Hollywood cinema, especially those low-budget B-Movies, often acted like the Afterschool Specials that so often ran on afternoon television when I was a kid. Those specials were designed to teach kids simple moral lessons or warn them about the dangers of drugs, or sex, or middle-aged men in vans with lollipops. The more I watch some of these old movies, the more I find them trying to teach similar moral lessons against alcoholism or hoodlum-ism. Or, more often than not, they are teaching (or preaching) for some societal good. Like how women can be a part of the workforce and not just homemakers.
This new film noir set by Kino Lorber demonstrates what I’m talking about in a couple of ways. And as we’ll see, this moral teaching doesn’t necessarily make them bad movies (something that can’t really be said about those Afterschool Specials) but it does sometimes get in the way of making them great.
Undercover Girl (1950) stars Alexis Smith as rookie police officer Christine Miller who sets out not only to prove that women can make good cops but to catch her father’s killer. She teams up with Lt. Trent (Scott Brady) in order to infiltrate an L.A. narcotics gang who are responsible for her dad’s murder. To get close to the ringleader, she has to get chummy with Liz (a wonderful Gladys George), a former Chicago mobster who is currently hospitalized. Christine spends a lot of time (and far too much of the movie’s run time) talking to Liz, doing Liz’s fingernails, combing Liz’s hair, etc. all so that she can learn all the details of her life and thus use her as a contact when she tries to get in with the L.A. gang. Once she’s finished playing gal pals with Liz, the film picks up speed and becomes quite enjoyable.
When she is in deep undercover with the gang, she has to make decisions on her own, without the help of Lt. Trent. Despite being told to report to him regularly and to not get into deep, she dives right in and puts herself in great danger, desperate to find her father’s killer. It gives her a surprising amount of agency for a film of its period, and for the most part, neither the film nor its characters get in her way. It really does seem to be a film that wants its audience to believe women are an integral part of any city’s police force. Although, admittedly, she does fall in love with Lt. Trent in the end and while the film isn’t explicit about it, there are indications that she will quit the force and become a housemaker and mother.
One Way Street (1950) works like two separate movies, both of which could have been good on their own, but together they fall entirely short. It starts off with a bang – James Mason plays Frank Matson, a disgraced doctor working for mob boss John Wheeler (Dan Duryea). He tricks Wheeler into thinking he’s given him poison pills instead of aspirin and runs away with a satchel full of cash and Wheeler’s girl, Laura (Märta Torén). They hire a private plane to take them to Mexico City but when the fuel pump busts mid-flight, they find themselves stranded near a tiny Mexican village. There they run into a shady-seeming, old priest (Basil Ruysdael) and some Mexican bandits.
All of this is pretty terrific noir stuff. Then they walk to the village and it suddenly becomes a story of how these two city dwellers, who want nothing more than to get to Mexico City and hide from Wheeler, learn to love the slow-paced village life. This part of the film isn’t bad, and had it been given more screen time it could have been quite good. But as it is Matson’s change from disillusioned mob doctor to a kind, loving village physician is too abrupt and feels fake. Every now and again, the movie seems to remember that the other part of this movie exists and they’ll throw in a quick scene with Wheeler looking for the lost couple. But it isn’t enough to give that angle any real tension. Once the two parts come together, it is all concluded so quickly any resolution is almost meaningless. Still, there is enough of both sections to allow me to recommend it. Especially if you are a fan of Mason and Duryea.
There have been numerous wonderful depictions of alcoholism on screen – The Lost Weekend (1945) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) immediately come to mind – and thousands of poorly conceived and preachy ones. Unfortunately, Appointment with a Shadow (1957) falls under that second category.
Paul Baxter (George Nader) is a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic newspaperman. His drinking got him fired from his last job and there isn’t a paper in the city that will hire him. He seems to have completely accepted this lot in life and is on a path of never-ending drinking. Even his ever-loving girl Penny (Joanna Moore) has just about given up on him. She’s determined to give him one more chance and begs Paul to just make it one day without a drink. To entice him further, she’s got the story of the year for him to write. Her brother (Brian Keith) just happens to be a cop and later that evening, he’ll be arresting Dutch Hayden (Frank de Kova), the most notorious gangster in the country, and he’s willing to give Paul the scoop.
Paul makes it through the day without drinking (and the film spends nearly half of its running time painstakingly with him every step of the way) and witnesses the arrest, which ends with Dutch being shot dead. Before Paul can write his story, he runs into the real Dutch Hayden. It seems the cops shot the wrong man They were told he’d received a facelift and so they didn’t know what he looked like. Now the real Dutch is after Paul.
Paul tries telling the cops but due to various mix-ups, including an angry woman slinging a whisky bottle and getting the drink all over Paul, no one believes him. They figure he was off getting his drink on during the shoot-out and now he’s having drunken hallucinations.
The latter half isn’t bad. But all the alcoholic build-up is preachy and dull. I don’t need to see a character stare at a bottle a dozen times, battling with himself over whether or not to drink to get it. I don’t need to see him fight off boredom or the shakes. A little goes a long way in that regard and this film has a lot of that.
Extras include trailers for various other Kino Lorber releases and audio commentaries on each film.
I’ve watched a lot of these Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema sets now so I can say they are all well worth the purchase. I love digging deep into the genre and watching films that might otherwise be completely forgotten. Not all of them are great, or even that good, as this set certainly points out. But if you are a fan of film noir and are looking to go beyond the classics, this is the place you should go.