Monday, January 23, 2012

Noir City X #2: Pre-Code Corruption And A Welcome Cheat

by Odienator

Day 2 of Noir City X consisted of two different double features. The matinee showcased “Proto-Noirs,” two black and white pre-Code films from Universal Pictures. The prime time twofer delivered brightly colored films from the decade the Hays Code became irrelevant, the 1960’s. For the latter, the Castro Theater welcomed Angie Dickinson to the stage to dish on Lee Marvin, Frank Sinatra, John Boorman, Brian DePalma and much of her TV and film output. A certain former President also appeared Saturday night, and his reception marked a first for me at Noir City.

But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s start with the daily double.

Daily Double Feature Top Half: Walter Winchell: CrimeStopper

Okay, America is the name of both the radio program and the film in which it appears. Lew Ayres is cast as a Walter Winchell clone out to save a kidnapped heiress from the Mob. Ayers’ Larry Wayne mirrors Winchell’s ties with the Mob and his patriotic slant, and the film gives him a hero’s welcome and all the sharpest lines of dialogue. The similarities are at times so striking that I wondered why they didn’t cast Winchell himself. Then I saw the ending.

Wayne decides to help Secretary John Drake (Gilbert Emery), the President’s best friend and Cabinet member, after his daughter Ruth is snatched by the most powerful mobster in America. This guy wants to use her to blackmail the President of the United States. This being 1932, I assume the film is talking about Herbert Hoover, whose own daughters would have made much more persuasive kidnapped pawns, that is, if he had any. “Hoover” makes an appearance late in the film, and is upstaged by Wayne’s über-patriotic speech to him. No wonder the Obit guy in the newsroom nicknames Wayne “Ego.”

In the newsroom, Sheila Barton (Maureen O’Sullivan) takes dictation for Wayne’s columns, but she’d rather just be taking the first syllable of dictation from him. Since this is before the Hays Code, Sullivan can be more verbally explicit about her desires, and Ayres can slap her on the keyster before telling her to marry the fiancé with whom she’s shacking up. “You’ve never even tried to kiss me,” Sheila tells Wayne. Whether he does, I’ll leave for you to discover. I can tell you that the ass slap was his idea.

Using his column, his radio show and his quick wit, Wayne manages to outsmart both the coppers and the capos. The latter are played by veteran actors Edward Arnold and Louis Calhern. Calhern is no stranger to Noir City: two years ago, he uttered one of the great noir lines through the speakers of the Castro Theater: “Crime is only... a left-handed form of human endeavor.” Here, both Calhern’s hands are criminal. Wayne is so charismatic and so powerful that the Mob trusts him at his word rather than shooting him on sight. This allows him to execute his plan to save Ruth Drake. As I said last time, honor amongst thieves is a common mistake amongst thieves.

It must have been pretty ballsy in 1932 to have a plotline featuring the blackmailing of the President as a plot point, but Okay, America uses it as a springboard for its “You Can’t Mess With the U.S.” message. I cringed at the film’s stereotypical Harlem nightclub scene, but it shows where Wayne gets most of his juicy gossip and criminal information. And as heavy-handed as this handjob to Winchell gets (and Wayne’s last line is a real credibility-stretcher—how can he talk after all that shit?), Okay, America remains entertaining, Its message must have reassured its original Depression-era audience while making a martyr of its real-life inspiration. Unfortunately, Okay, America is not on DVD.

Daily Double Feature Bottom Half: Please Don’t Kill That Bellhop

Afraid to Talk cheats by doing something dramatically dishonest, and I couldn’t bring myself to fault it. I was happy it cheated, as I’m sure audiences in 1932 were. This is a bleak picture, housing a hopeless, crushing sense of defeat by political corruption. It says a corrupt political machine will stop at nothing to cover its ass including, but not limited to, the blackmail, conviction and murder of an innocent man. In Albert Maltz and George Sklar’s play, Merry Go Round, everyone you’re supposed to trust is dirty. The cops are dirty, the D.A. is dirty, the Mayor is dirty. That last one caused problems when the play was presented in New York City.  Then NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker felt like Hamlet’s father when he saw Merry Go Round--it was more dynamite than “DYN-O-MITE!” because Walker was just as corrupt as the play’s mayor. Walker kept putting up roadblocks, but the play was eventually staged. Walker himself was run out of town on a rail by Hoover’s successor the same year this movie premiered.
Afraid to Talk’s unfortunate victim (and stand-in for us) is a bellhop named Eddie Martin. Eddie is young, in love, and excited to have been chosen to be Mafioso Jig Skelli’s bellhop for the evening. Skelli is played by Edward Arnold who, along with Louis Calhern, is making his second appearance on our bill. Eddie’s job is to deliver food and booze to Skelli, and to enjoy the massive tip he’ll earn for being available. Unfortunately, Eddie’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he witnesses Skelli’s execution. The assassins shoot Eddie too, but he survives. The cops get him to finger the assassins, even though he’s smart enough to know he shouldn’t squeal. “You can trust us,” he’s told. 

 Don't listen, Eddie!

The hit was an inside job. Assistant D.A. John Wade (Calhern, who is great here) is all ready to cement his ascendancy to the Governor’s Mansion by bringing down Skelli’s organization. That is, until Jig’s brother Joe (Matt McHugh) gets all Richard “Dimples” Fields on him: He’s got papers on Wade, and everyone else in the Mayor’s cabinet is implicated in those papers. Joe’s ready to go public, because inquiring minds will love to hear how the Mayor’s in bed with the Mob. Especially during this election year!

Things get really messy for Wade and company, and they need a scapegoat. They decide to railroad Eddie Martin. Martin had been given a job in New York City as a result of his heroism in fingering the guilty, but now that same act is about to get him wrongfully convicted of murder. He’s arrested just as he and his girl are about to catch the train to NYC, and the cops give him the third degree. With this sequence, director Edward Cahn creates perhaps the most effective scene of his career. Beginning with a scene involving a swinging interrogation-room light, Cahn is relentless in the brutality visited Eddie Martin. Again, this is pre-Code, so the offscreen agony with which Martin screams and begs is stunning. After being beaten for hours, Eddie confesses. Even the guys doing the beating are sickened by the level of punishment they’ve inflicted.

Eddie Martin is a nice guy in this movie, and as stand-in for the common man that is we, his torture is tough to witness. In a short amount of time, Eric Linden brings an optimism and a likeability to Eddie. So when Wade, against his better judgment, sends Eddie to the hospital to be treated, and the doctor realizes what’s been done and calls a big-time, hotshot lawyer (Gustav von Seyffertitz), the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Wade and the mayor realize their mistake and decide to have Eddie murdered in his jail cell. They’ll make it look like a hanging. 

The jail people are corrupt too, leaving the cell doors open so some other criminals can enter Eddie’s cell. “Oh come on,” I thought. “Please don’t kill that bellhop.”

Eddie is hanged, and at this moment, I felt the air leave the room at the Castro. The bad guys—these rich, corrupt bastards who feel a lot like today’s politicians—were going to win. As this was occurring, the film cross-cuts between doctors coming to Eddie’s cell and the activity therein. When they get to the cell, the shadow of Eddie’s body is shown. The camera follows the doctors into the room, and there’s a shot of Eddie’s bare feet as he hangs. Cahn draws our attention to this, and I could have sworn his feet were still moving, not just swinging. I wrote it off as wishful thinking. The film gives the correct impression that Eddie is dead. He’d have to be one tough S.O.B. to hang that  long and live, and as horrible as Eddie’s death is, it made perfect dramatic sense in a film as black as this.

Remember when I said the movie cheated? And I was glad it did.

Eddie survives, and while the film provides some satisfaction and revenge for all Eddie’s troubles, Afraid to Talk doesn’t let us off the hook. Even with that optimistic last minute save, the ending reminds us that you can run corruption out of town on a rail, but there’s always a bigger criminal on the next train into town.

Speaking of trains into town, I need to hop the Muni to get to tonight’s Rita Hayworth features. (Rita—hubba HUBBA!) So, Angie and Ronnie Reagan will have to wait until next time. Pre-Code movies aren’t the only cheaters in this entry today. Mea Culpa! I'll be back.

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