Life and Death in L.A.: December 2023

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Alton and Mann: A Partnership in Post-War Noir

Dennis O'Keefe, Marsha Hunt, Claire Trevor, "Raw Deal" (1948). 

They made only a handful of films together, but John Alton and Anthony Mann’s work threw a new light on film noir, police procedural dramas and documentary filmmaking

Silhouettes, fog, great pools of inky blackness — that’s a king-sized portion of the visual drama in store when viewing films made by both the ace of noir lighting, John Alton, and the master of dramatic action, Anthony Mann. 

With his supremely choreographed action scenes, Mann could be directing silent pictures, and that’s not a slight. His control of emotional tension through moving images makes dialog all but superfluous. Alton’s masterly touch with lighting gear and cameras makes the action sequences eerie, threatening and irresistible. Together they achieved a kind of alchemy that set a new pace in post-World War II film noir. 

A handful of features

The duo had a six-picture association, producing some of noir’s essential titles, including “T-Men” (1947), “Raw Deal” (1948), “He Walked By Night” (1948) (Mann was uncredited) and the thrilling masterwork “Border Incident” (1949). They also crafted spy thriller “Reign of Terror” (a.k.a. “The Black Book”) (1949) and western “Devil's Doorway” (1950).

Here’s a rundown on the noirs produced in that partnership:

 Alfred Ryder, Dennis O'Keefe, "T-Men" (1947) — raking light.

T-Men” (1947)

Crime dramas shot documentary style were popular in the 1940s, and “T-Men” is one of the best of its breed.

It opens with U.S. Treasury Department official Elmer Lincoln Irey detailing a bit of Treasury Department history and law enforcement capabilities of the federal department, lending a brass tacks newsreel-like quality to the film. 

We meet two treasury agents, Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), who go undercover to bust a Detroit a counterfeiting ring. Undercover work is a jittery business, and the two operatives must work with care and agility to avoid detection, all of which ratchets up the tension as the two make their way to the inner reaches of the crime operation.  

Scorsese offers high praise

“T-Men” has had a powerful influence on filmmakers ever since its release, and at least one prominent director cites Mann and Alton’s craftsmanship as playing a defining role in post-war noir.

As he prepared to shoot “Casino” (1995), Martin Scorsese screened “T-Men” for the film’s star, Robert De Niro. 

Scorsese remarked, “It’s one of the quintessential films noir, and certainly one of the best photographed. Alton’s photography on that film is the very essence of film noir.” 

Admittedly, using theatrical lighting in a film with the tone and texture of a newsreel documentary may be confusing. Documentarians strive for veracity and they don’t shoot reenactments, or so the theory goes. “T-Men” is among the wave of films that includes another Alton-Mann film, “He Walked By Night” (1948) — see below — that blends fact with fiction. 

A mix of fact and fiction

The use of actors and non-actors, practical locations as well as the staccato narration common in newsreels all add up to a hybrid that’s neither purely fact nor fiction. 

The film implies that it’s a creative and not totally reliable retelling of the truth, and likewise the supposed ethical division between cops and crooks may not be all that we may think it is.

Alton’s high-contrast noir lighting and off-kilter compositions visually underscore O’Brien and Genaro’s metamorphosis. The two undercover officers become enmeshed in the criminal world that they’ve infiltrated, but in that shadowy environment the boundaries between criminality and the law become blurred.

A landmark for Mann

Anthony Mann considered “T-Men” to be his first film because he had more influence on the development of the story and its characters than he had in his previous Hollywood pictures. The film’s “semi-documentary” style was fashionable after World War II when an increasing number of crime melodramas used practical locations to achieve newsreel-style realism for increasingly jaded moviegoers. “T-Men” marked Mann’s second collaboration with screenwriter John C. Higgins and his first with Alton.

Alton’s employment of highly stylized low-angle camera shots, deep focus, and high contrast black-and-white cinematography was an apt visual foil for the film’s gritty realism. Alton found an ideal collaborator in Mann, who also believed that lighting could be a crucial dramatic element.

Richard Basehart, "He Walked by Night" (1948) — low camera angles.

He Walked by Night” (1948)

With its staccato voiceover narration and stone-faced reporting style, “He Walked by Night” fits snugly within the boundaries of documentary-style crime dramas. It’s based on a true story and the filmmaker wants us to feel the sharp edge of the brutal facts behind the case. 

Lighting effects are minimal at first and so is the music. It’s not until later in the film, in action sequences particularly, that Alton’s touch is felt. His distinctive ballet of shadows betrays a desperate criminal wreaking terror on the sprawling cityscape of Los Angeles.

A visual feast

Alton’s delicious handling of light is most notable whenever bullets fly. Dim light emanating from street lamps rakes through venetian blinds, casting horizontal bars of shadow on the walls of darkened offices, slicing those rooms into layer cakes of chocolate and marzipan strata. Silhouettes of heaving bodies charge into the darkened void, at times illuminated only by muzzle flash and hazy reflected light.

Anthony Mann took over the directing reins from Alfred Werker near the end of production, but Werker gets the directing credit. 

In the film, a thief turned cop-killer (Richard Basehart) eludes a police dragnet by hiding in the sewers of Los Angeles.  

Dum, dee, dum, dum

“He Walked by Night” helped launch the “Dragnet” radio and television series. Jack Webb plays a supporting role as a police forensics officer, and the film provided inspiration for the popular L.A.P.D. drama of the airwaves that would become Webb’s crowning achievement.

While "He Walked by Night" is held together with the loose thread of documentary-style filmmaking, those parts are no match or the last 20 minutes or so of the film that prowls the lower reaches of the city — dramatic footage that is widely assumed to be Mann’s handiwork.

Basehart as the killer who terrorizes L.A., can't be stopped. Few have ever seen him, and for a while the investigation goes nowhere.

Factual and dramatic

Make no. mistake about it, “He Walked by Night” is police procedural through and through. It cycles through rational, fact-based reportage until Alton’s dramatic lighting effects make us wonder if we’re watching a German Expressionist art film. When the camera moves into the subterranean world of storm drains of Los Angeles it’s hard not to think of Orson Welles running for his life through the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.” But “He Walked by Night” predates Reed’s the better known film by a year.

Inside the darkened cavern, the only sources of illumination is that of flashlights and the dim glow of street lamps filtering down into the subterranean world through storm drain portals. Caught like a rabbit in a snare, the killer’s luck and ingenuity run out. And that leaves him in the dark. 

John Ireland, Marsha Hunt, “Raw Deal” (1948)

 “Raw Deal” (1948)

Subtle touches help tell the story and draw us into the frame and that’s part of what makes “Raw Deal” an exhilarating viewing experience. Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) walks toward a prison’s gates and in voice-over begins to narrate the story. The frame subtly switches from a wide establishing shot to handheld footage from her point of view as she approaches the entrance. The slightly jittery frame informs us that for a brief moment we’re seeing through her eyeballs as she treads the path to the big house. Although her boyfriend, Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), is the escaped jailbird driving the story forward, this is going to be Pat’s story. 

Prison gloom

Inside, the prison hallways are shrouded in shadow. Pat speaks with the desk officer and the camera is placed low, a bit less than shoulder-high to the seated jail keeper. He looms large in the frame, dominating the action. He’s the one Pat must get past, and it so happens that she’s blocked temporarily from the visiting room. Joe has another visitor and Pat is perplexed and dismayed. It turns out that social worker Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) is making a habit of visiting the convict and that becomes the crux of the story.

She’s believes he’s reformable and is visiting him for the second time. But there’s no denying that there’s a hint of romantic tension between the two — she’s aware of it and so is Joe, and soon Pat catches on, as well.

A divide in their relationship

The visiting room scene clues us in to the tension between Joe and Ann. The two are seated across from  each other, a glass partition diving them. We don’t see them together in the same frame, at first. But once some flirtatious banter enters the conversation the camera focuses on closeups of their faces. We’re better able to see the emotional subtlety that this turn on the conversation has taken. 

Once it’s time to end the visit they both stand and the camera shifts to  a sideview of both with the partition between them. Ann is reticent but interested, and Joe is more forthright. It’s evident that a closer, personal relationship between them is in the offing.

Light and fog

John Alton’s handiwork is evident throughout the film, from the foggy cityscape at nighttime, illuminating by diffused street lamps, to the tobacco clouded living room of mobster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), a debonaire sadist who lounges about in a smoking jacket and brandishes a cigarette holder, smoke curling from his nostrils. He’s one of those sophisticated college-educated crooks who surrounds himself with half-bright henchmen. Coyle has it in for Joe, and that’s the other leg of this jailbreak tale that keeps us guessing about who will come out on top.

Lynn Whitney, Howard Da Silva, Charles McGraw, Ricardo Montalban,
"Border Incident" (1949).

Border Incident” (1949)

In “Border Incident,” Mann masterly manipulates figures, automobiles, gunmen, even farm machinery, dodging in and out of the darkness. Shards of light slice through night-cloaked landscapes. Exploited farm workers, under the jackboot of human traffickers, march toward their doom in the valley of death.

Of course the best scenes take place at night. That’s the optimal showcase for Alton’s work, as he frames intensely dramatic compositions of mind-blowing action. Mann’s exceptional direction builds drama in each sequence, barely allowing us to catch our breath as the film barrels toward a stunning conclusion.

Artistic compositions

It’s not all pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle, though. When viewing scenes peopled with pensive Mexican farmworkers awaiting entry into the United States, it’s hard to avoid thinking of Diego Rivera’s paintings of workers toiling on sun-drenched farmlands. Alton frames a sea of humanity, all solemnly on edge — expressive faces and swooping sombrero brims, desperate, penetrating eyes focused on the gatekeeper who can send them to farms in the north. The lucky ones will be allowed to bring in the harvest for meager wages. The bosses, of course, skim off their take from the laborers’ earnings.

The old masters

The shadowy world in which the action unfolds might look disturbingly familiar. There’s a connection between Alton’s work and that of the great artists. While Hollywood had little use for “art,” the work of master painters such as Rembrandt, Leonardo, de la Tour and Caravaggio made a deep impression on Alton, especially those that display the human figure bathed in shadow.

He admitted, "When I got an assignment, I read the script — or the book and the script — and then I went out to the art museums, even to Paris sometimes, to see what the masters had done. 

“Border Incident” is set in rough bunk houses, craggy mountainous desert land and farms lined with monotonous rows of baby lettuce and and plowed furrows. Removed from the urban landscape, a more typical noir setting, “Border Incident” somehow makes the great outdoors, with its sweeping horizon and boundless territory, seem threatening and claustrophobic. It’s as if the desert canyon walls could cave in at any time and the air is too thin to support life. 

Gangsters at home on the range

This is a story of an industry built around the exploitation of the less fortunate. It’s a gangster story dressed in Stetsons and cowboy boots. Workers who cross the border legally are protected, more or less, by United States law enforcement agencies. Those who make illegal passage don’t have that blanket of protection and are vulnerable to cutthroat gangs who lay in wait for them. Early on we see the ugly side of  human smuggling. Alton’s low camera angles appropriately make the more threatening figures look like looming giants. Here, violence, as vicious as anything seen on the screen in that era, rains down on the unsuspecting.

Still relevant

Film and other artworks are often lauded when they remain relevant over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, in this case, the issues behind this story are as timely today as they were more than 70 years ago. “Border Incident” lets us consider the tension over imported labor and competing concerns about undocumented workers. It also leaves us to ponder the age-old questions of economic need, both that of the undocumented workers and the farmers, versus preserving human rights for the vulnerable — issues that will likely be discussed for some time to come.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Three Films that Set a Noir Mood: How John Alton Helped Define the Light and Shadows of Film Noir

Lynn Bari, Cathy O'Donnell, "The Spiritualist" (1948).

'It's not what you light, it's what you don’t light.' 
— John Alton                                                      

As legend has it, in the summer of 1923 a 21-year-old John Alton and four friends drove across the country to Los Angeles. They parked in front of the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd., and in the lobby a Gypsy fortune teller read their palms. Alton’s pals, she said, would seek their fortunes elsewhere, but her prediction for him was not the same. 

"You, I tell different," she said. "You'd better stay here. You're going to make it." 

Those were indeed prophetic words. Alton became one of Hollywood’s most influential cinematographers and his work had a major impact on film, especially film noir. 

Born on the Austrian side of the Austria-Hungary border in 1901, Alton came to America to attend college. His first foray into the film industry occurred when he was pressed into service at Cosmopolitan Studios in New York as a movie extra. In Los Angeles he worked as a lab technician in the 1920s and four years later became a cameraman.

He moved to France with Ernst Lubitsch to film backgrounds for “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” (1927) and ended up staying for a year heading the camera department of Paramount Pictures's Joinville Studios.

John Alton
Another assignment brought him to Buenos Aires, where he stayed for seven years, working in that country’s film industry before returning to Hollywood. In the late 1930s he shot 30 B-movies in seven years, mostly for Republic Pictures and RKO. He became one of the most sought-after cinematographers of the time, known for unconventional camera angles, especially low camera shots. His style is most notable in the films noir, including “He Walked by Night” (1948), “The Amazing Mr. X” (1948), “Raw Deal” (1948) and “The Big Combo” (1955).

Alton also photographed many color movies including the noir “Slightly Scarlet” (1956). He worked with Vincent Minnelli at MGM for 10 years including on “Father of the Bride” (1950) and “An American in Paris” (1951), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography with Alfred Gilks. 

His last film was “Elmer Gantry” (1960). He worked with director Charles Crichton on “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) but both were fired after two weeks and Alton quit the industry.

In describing his experiences in Hollywood, he explains how his approach to cinematography differed from that of others in his profession:

"In the morning, when many cameramen came in, they didn't have any plans for what they were going to do, so they just lit [everything] up," he said. "When I got a story, I'd sit down with the director and work out each scene — just the two of us. I'd ask the director his opinion of how he would like to see each scene. Then I'd go home and, even though it took me a lot of time, I'd work out every scene — [including] which lights and tricks to use. So when the time came for shooting, I was ready.”

Directors were at first dumbfounded. They expected to cinematographers to merely flood a scene with light and no more.

“I'd say 'You don't 'pump' light into a scene. That light has to tell something. There's a meaning, and it establishes a mood.' That was the difference between my pictures and some of the others: [in mine], each mood was different. The mood had to be done with lighting.” 

Here’s the lowdown on several of Alton’s lesser known works, earlier noirs filmed on Poverty Row. They display his distinctive touch and are harbingers of things to come:

June Lockhart, Hugh Beaumont, "Bury Me Dead" (1947).

Bury Me Dead” (1947) Eagle–Lion Films

The title may sound like that of a horror film, but “Bury Me Dead” is an old school murder mystery dressed in noir clothing. Its resolution comes with a twist, as murder mysteries do. In the opening scene we encounter a horse stable engulfed in flames. The fire ravaged structure, piercing the night sky, is a preview of the dramatic use of light that we’ll be seeing throughout the film. 

A woman’s body is recovered from the blaze, and that’s the setup that sends us down a path crowded with suspects who each have motives to perpetrate the crime. From the start, we encounter one head-turning revelation after the next, and Alton’s lighting and camera angles guide us through the story and help frame the plot’s twists and turns. 

A distinctly minimalist touch arises now and then and creates visual drama not usually seen in Poverty Row films, such as when light spilling out of a refrigerator’s open door is all that illuminates the room. Near the climax, a shadowy figure attacks the heroine, Barbara Carlin (June Lockhart). Later, the killer’s identity is revealed in an arresting shot that illuminates the perp’s eyes. The reveal is only seen by the audience at first. Barbara is slower to catch on, making us want to yell for her to vamoose on the double. As spooky light rakes across the murderer’s face, Barbara is stunned by the revelation that she’s in mortal danger. 

Light is used here to dramatically drive the story forward, subtly preparing us for the story’s climax. A more run of the mill film might have used overheated dialog and swelling music to convey a dramatic conclusion. But Alton’s inventiveness presents us with a nuanced, emotionally gripping conclusion.

Francis Lederer, Gail Patrick, "The Madonna’s Secret" (1946).

The Madonna’s Secret” (1946) Republic Pictures

A crushing weight rests on the shoulders of artist James Corbin (Francis Lederer). It seems the women who model for him die violently, and although the police can’t link him to the killings he wonders if he’s responsible for those death. 

The Madonna of the film’s title is also a title of a Corbin painting. Corbin obsesses over the model and has the curious habit of painting  her face time and time again regardless of the sitter.

Newspaperman John Earl (Edward Ashley) is aware of the many coincidences that make Corbin look like a guilty man, and he sets out to see that justice is done. One evening Earl tails Corbin to a cabaret where his current model, Helen North (Linda Stirling), performs in what may be the oddest act in show business. She stands against a wooden wall and sings torch songs as a knife thrower pitches daggers that outline her form. 

Stranger still, Corbin sits ringside and sketches the chanteuse with a knife in her chest, which doesn’t help dispel the cloud of suspicion hanging over him. She’s got a jealous boyfriend who wants her to quit modeling for Corbin, and he might have a point. She promises she will, but then doesn’t

Mood is everything in this psychological drama, and Alton’s shadows and pools of light set the tone for the film’s brooding atmosphere. Corbin’s studio, awash in sunlight by day, morphs into a charcoal-black purgatory as the painter sits alone playing Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique on the piano. His isolation and despair seem to hang in the air. Gloomier still, when Corbin dines with his mother (Leona Roberts), with whom he lives, they sit in a dark candlelit room that’s as cozy as a mausoleum.

When another killing occurs, evidence against Corbin piles up, and yet no one can place him at the murder scene. But a revelation turns the investigation around and, as they say on “Dateline NBC,” sends the case in a whole new direction, just as we suspected it would.

Lynn Bari, "The Spiritualist" (1948).

"The Spiritualist" (1948) [AKA: The Amazing Mr. X] Eagle Lion

The home of spiritualist Alexis (Turhan Bey) is a frequent stopover for visiting specters who pop in for a visit whenever he arranges a seance. He offers his sympathy and insights on matters spiritual to Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), who lost her husband, Paul, two years before. Lately, she’s been hearing the voice of her deceased partner. 

This happens when she’s brooding over the magnificent ocean view from her balcony or walking on the beach below her cliff dwelling. By chance she bumps into the seemingly omnipresent Alexis on the beach one night as she’s close to having emotional breakdown. He seems to know everything about her and she resolves to engage him as a psychic medium.

Christine visits the mustachioed Alexis only after sunset because, we can suppose, the spirit world only works the night shift. But that’s perfect for the creepy atmosphere we expect when raising the dead. 

Alton fills the psychic medium’s lair with dusty light that seems to be filtered through a thousand layers of cobwebs. As Christine and her younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) become entranced by Alexis’s soothing voice, foreign accent and continental charm, Christine’s home seems to become more shadowy, bathed in candle light and aglow with dim table lamps.

One evening, Christine detects an eerie glow emanating from an open closet and upon investigation is terrified by a specter that emerges, gives chase and makes her scream. More spooky stuff is in store for her, especially after someone slips her a mickey in a glass of warm milk. Supernatural hallucinations grow stronger still and Christine seems to be under the influence of a bad batch of psychedelics — a precarious state of mind when you live atop steep cliffs overlooking the sea.

 In addition to his inventive lighting techniques, Alton’s hallmark is his unusual camera placements, and we see that here. He shoots the seance scene with the camera situated dramatically low, looking upward at Alexis’s crystal ball as well as the participants’ faces, adding to the scene’s topsy-turvy surreal effect.

With all the eerie goings on at chez Alexi we’re not so surprised when we learn that he’s a fraud who swindles well-heeled widows. But there’s an added twist that we might not see coming, and neither does Alexi, and it shifts the story’s focus to another character whom we don’t meet until later on. It turns out there’s an even more elaborate scheme in the works. As implausible as it may be, the story keeps us in the dark til near the end, just as Alton had planned. 

Next week I’ll cover more of John Alton’s Poverty Row films, the ones he did in collaboration with director Anthony Mann — you’ll probably be familiar with the titles.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Poverty Row Noir II: Scheming Communists Walk Among Us ... and So Does a Future Sitcom Dad

Hugh Beaumont, Frances Rafferty, “Money Madness” (1948).

Ward Cleaver as a psychotic killer? Say it ain’t so!

Like many up and coming Hollywood actors, Hugh Beaumont appeared in noir B-pictures before he became better known as an all-American TV dad, and he played some pretty despicable characters, too. But more about that later. 

From the 1920s to the 1950s, scads of B-pictures were produced by small studios located near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Gower St. in Hollywood. These struggling film studios became known as Poverty Row. An untold numbers of westerns, adventure stories, comedies and crime dramas made on next-to-nothing budgets were produced there. 

The smaller studios, including Grand National, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Producers Releasing Corporation were among the cheapie movie production houses where newbie directors honed their craft and industry veterans found employment when work was scarce. 

Both the newcomers and seasoned pros churned out 55- to 75-minute films, most with shooting schedules of less than a week. Some of their films were golden, others were fool’s gold. It didn’t matter so much that the B-pictures were rough around the edges because they were destined to be shown as the bottom half of the bill alongside major studios’ releases. 

Most of these films lacked fancy production values, but some made up for it with hard-hitting stories — so hard-hitting that major studios, fixated on mass-appeal fare, would probably balk at producing them.

Ingenuity without Big Money

R.G. Springsteen
Tight budgets actually proved to be an advantage for some directors, who were forced to invent creative solutions that would make cheap productions sparkle.

One director who made his mark in B-pictures of Poverty Row is R. G. Springsteen, who directed “The Red Menace” (1949), one of the films discussed below. He was a prolific helmer of Hollywood B westerns and television episodes initially with Republic Pictures and later with A.C. Lyles's series of Westerns for Paramount Pictures.  

“The Red Menace” reflects  post-World War II anxiety over the threat of communist infiltration of America. It was released the same year that the Russians detonated an atomic bomb. The film makes no mention of the bomb, probably because it was shot before the nuclear threat was apparent and couldn’t be incorporated into the story.

In addition to “The Red Menace,” he directed noirs such as “Million Dollar Pursuit” (1951) and “Revolt in the Big House” (1958), as well as crime films “Double Jeopardy” (1955), “I Cover the Underworld” (1955) and “Track the Man Down” (1955), among others.

A Productive Director

Sam Newfield

The other film discussed below, “Money Madness” (1948), reflects none of the paranoia associated with communists and nuclear weapons, but instead explores a threat within American society — a mentally unstable ex-convict who terrorizes a naive young woman and her aunt. 

Directed by Sam Newfield (a.k.a. Peter Stewart), the film is a noir whose plot could be easily transformed into a western. In “Money Madness,” a charming and dangerous outlaw arrives in town, ingratiates himself with the locals while plotting to exploit them for his own evil purposes. 

Newfield is noted as one of the most prolific directors in American film history. He began his career in the silent era and directed more than 250 feature films and one- and two-reel comedy shorts, training films, industrial films and TV episodes. Many of Newfield's films were made for PRC Pictures, a company headed by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld. PRC produced  low-budget westerns, horror films and crime dramas. 

In addition to “Money Madness,” Newfield directed crime films “Western Pacific Agent” (1950), “Reform Girl” (1933) as well as “The Wild Weed” (1949) a.k.a “She Shoulda Said ‘No,’” a cautionary tale of the dangers of “Marihuana.”

So, here are a couple of crime stories made by Poverty Row studios, each quite different from the other, and both were made fast and on the cheap.

Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, Robert Rockwell, “The Red Menace” (1949).

The Red Menace” (1949) Republic Pictures

A cloud of dread hangs over war veteran Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell) and Nina Petrovka (Hannelore Axman) as they speed down dark roadways, trying to escape unnamed human predators nipping at their heels. They’re in the grip of paranoia and every stranger they encounter may be an agent of the dark force aiming to do them harm. 

“The Red Menace” wants us to know that the enemy is among us and is waiting to pounce when our guard is down. It’s one of a handful of B-movie noirs, including “The Woman on Pier 13” (1950), “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.” (1951) and “Walk a Crooked Mile” (1948), that push the conspiracy hot button. The story is seen through Bill and Nina’s eyes. Bill meets her as he’s indoctrinated into the party. She’s been a lifelong member but is having her doubts, and later they will both become disillusioned by the party’s blatant misdeeds.

In Documentary Format

Presented in documentary fashion like films such as “The Naked City” (1948) and “The House on 92nd Street” (1945), the film gives us the lowdown on the fugitive pair in a flashback that begins months before. Fleeced out of his savings by a crooked real estate agent who’s running a G.I. housing project scam, Bill bellyaches to a government agent who offers him neither sympathy nor aid. A man who turns out to be a Communist Party plant lurks nearby. Hearing the frustrated ex-G.I.’s complaints, he swoops into action, chatting him up and bringing him to a bar to meet other party members who offer him a shoulder to cry on. Party member Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), whose job it is to help hook new male recruits, offers him more than a shoulder.

This parable of an average man thrice duped, first by a real estate scammer, then by an ineffectual government bureaucrat and finally by communists, doesn’t let Bill off the hook entirely for his misfortunes. He failed to perform due diligence before signing on the dotted line and his exasperation with the government isn’t entirely justified. In the film’s 81-minute run time we see what a stinging dose of reality can do to cure him of his naïveté and lessen his sense of victimhood.

Bill hangs out with party members but maintains a skeptical distance. While his new buddies talk a good game, preaching about worker’s rights, racial equality and equal rights for women, behind the scenes the party’s upper echelon is cynical, racist and sexist, much like the capitalist foes they oppose. Bill falls in love with Nina, an Eastern European born teacher of Marxism. Both she and Bill have good reason to become disenchanted and fearful of the party, especially after a rank and file member publicly questions the party’s hypocrisies and pays the ultimate price for his break with protocol. 

A Priest on a Mission

A priest, Father O’Leary (Leo Cleary), arrives on the scene at the behest of Molly’s mother, who disapprove’s of her daughter’s lifestyle. The clergyman delivers one of several lectures sprinkled throughout the film on the evils of communism. After which, he liberates a 50-cent piece from a party member that he says will go into the poor box — sort of like beating the communists at their own game.

The hatchet lady of the party, Yvonne Kraus (Betty Lou Gerson), goes on a Stalinesque rampage to rid the communist cell of traitors. Among the highlights of “The Red Menace” is the scene in which Yvonne has a mental breakdown, making a total confession to the police. Gerson’s performance here is heavy on the histrionics. Perhaps it was typecasting that got her the gig as the voice of the evil Cruella de Vil in the Disney animated film “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961). In any case, she hits the mark in both roles.

Hugh Beaumont, Frances Rafferty, “Money Madness.” 

"Money Madness" (1948) Film Classics

It’s a shock seeing family man Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) of TV’s “Leave it to Beaver” (1957 - 1963) playing former mental patient and cold-blooded killer Steve Clark in “Money Madness.” Beaumont’s most popular role as head of a middle class, suburban family is so thoroughly burned into our collective consciousness that the first sight of his bank-robbing rat of a character is, through no fault of the actor, laughable. But audiences in 1948 had yet to see Ward offer TV-dad wisdom to sons Wally and the Beav. So, those of us raised on 1950s - ’60s family sitcoms just have to suck it up and adjust to Beaumont as Ward’s evil twin. 

Then there’s the film’s title, which hits like a soggy loaf of bread and is a dead giveaway that this is a Poverty Row production. Another 15 minutes of brainstorming would likely produce something more grabbing than “Money Madness.” We can safely assume the clock ran out and they chose the first couplet that popped into their heads. No matter, the Poverty Row credo was shoot it, get it in the can and out the door, pronto — title, schmitle.

A Tough Sentence

At least the story begins with a tantalizing courtroom scene:  the sentencing of Julie Saunders (Frances Rafferty), who, we learn, will receive free room and board for the next 10 years courtesy of the state.

Bystanders mumble that she’s getting a raw deal, and in one long flashback we see how she landed in the mess she’s in. 

Clark rolls into town and fills a safety deposit box with thick stacks of moolah, then gets a job driving a taxi. He meets Julie by chance one night as she tries to fend off a drunken wolf. Clark gets rid of the oaf, then pours on the charm and pretty soon he and Julie are dating. Of course, we already know that things won’t go well for Julie, and that both Clark and his boat-load of cash will be at the root of her downfall.

Julie, who is roundly browbeaten by her overbearing invalid Aunt Cora (Cecil Weston) with whom she lives, is soon to be the useful patsy that Clark has been searching for. He works out a scheme involving Cora, and Julie becomes an unwitting accomplice. He convinces her to wed and the wheels of his scheme begin to turn.

It’s a bumpy ride throughout for Julie, as we begin to see the depths of depravity to which Clark will sink in order to hang onto his stack of loot.

A Study of Actors

What’s fascinating is observing the workings of second-string actors, whose not-quite-there performances can show us, in contrast, just how good the A-listers really are. It might be the indelible image of Ward Cleaver bleeding through Beaumont’s performance, a factor that was unforeseeable in 1948, that robs him of the intangible quality that makes a great performance. But I suspect that Beaumont’s refined demeanor, lacking any underlying danger or threat of violence, is what takes the edge off his performance. Those are qualities that, say, Robert Mitchum could communicate with a cold stare and a nonchalant drag on a Chesterfield.

Although he throws himself into the role and does a commendable job, Beaumont can’t project the smug self assuredness of a Mitchum, a Bogart or a Cagney, but that’s part of the reason why that trio made the big bucks.

Beaumont may not make a convincing tough guy, but he was a heck of a TV dad and, despite all, is still enjoyable to watch here. “Money Madness” holds together as a neat little package of impending doom and that’s what makes it worthwhile.

This is my second post about “Poverty Row Noir.” Click here to read Part 1.