Life and Death in L.A.: In the trenches: deep in the heart of Hollywood the rough and tumble world of bargain basement noir thrived for a while

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

In the trenches: deep in the heart of Hollywood the rough and tumble world of bargain basement noir thrived for a while

Joan Blair, John Hubbard, "Whispering Footsteps" (1943).

Script’s running too long? Grab a handful of pages, rip them out, shoot the sucker!

I’m on a Poverty Row tear these days. As you probably know, many of the films made there aren’t quite as polished as the gems turned out by Paramount, Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox. But they have a certain something that the big budget movies lack: a rag-tag, rough around the edges quality that makes certain films, especially noirs, more credible, more lived in, and sometimes as piercing and toxic as a bucket of rusty nails.

Made on a shoestring

Feature-length films were shot in six days or less. Their budgets averaged $20,000 and production were usually done with a crew of less than a half-dozen, many doubling or tripling up on jobs. Films typically ran 70 minutes or less.

Back in the first half of the last century, those looking to make prestige films would be well advised to steer clear of Poverty Row. A director on Poverty Row, wrote museum curator and film critic Dave Kehr, labored on films “in the absolute certainty that no film critic would see them, no sophisticated public would encounter them, and no financial reward whatever would accrue to their auteurs.” 

For filmmakers, Poverty Row’s advantage over the big studios was the lack of oversight exerted by studio executives. It was a place where directors could take risks, experiment with unconventional techniques, try out unusual screenplays — or even rip a dozen pages out of the script and shoot the sucker. 

The Wild West on Sunset Blvd.

Lots of westerns were made on Poverty Row, and the studios that cranked out those B-pictures and serials by the dozen had a sort of raw, untamed ethos that matched their films’ subject matter.

One such studio, Republic Pictures, operated from 1935 to 1967 and specialized in westerns, cliffhanger serials and B-pictures. The studio also produced some noirs that stand out, even among those made with bigger budgets.

Here are a few low-budget noirs, all released under the Republic Pictures banner, that kept me entertained:

Whispering Footsteps” (1943) Republic Pictures

The film opens with a closeup of shoes being buffed as a radio newscast reports a woman’s murder. The shoes belong to bank clerk Marcus Borne (John Hubbard) who happens to look the spitting image of a composite photo thought to resemble the killer. 

Marcus’s neighbors and co-workers scoff as investigator Det. Brad Dolan (Cy Kendall) tails him and probes him for an alibi. It’s just not possible that such a nice young man would commit such a terrible crime.

Later, after townsfolk begin to have their doubts about Marcus, he reveals to a confidante that he hears whispering footsteps behind him when he walks at night. It’s the sound of the stifling scrutiny he’s being placed under, he says, but is it?

Marcus has doubts of his own. He checks out a copy of “Psychology of a Homicidal” from the town library and confesses that he’s begun to suspect that he’s a serial killer with a split personality. When the one woman in town who never doubts his innocence turns up dead, the weight of public opinion bears down on him. No charges are lodged and he remains a free man, but the community shuns him and he feels that he might as well be in prison.

Meanwhile, others, such as Marcus’s employer, banker Harry Hammond (Charles Halton), might have motives of their own to kill, but the investigation remains laser focused on Marcus.

On the surface “Whispering Footsteps” is about murder, but the real culprit is small town narrow mindedness. A fever to convict spreads among the suspected man’s neighbors. Some with petty grievances against him fan the flames of incrimination just to have the satisfaction of seeing the young bank clerk clapped into irons. 

Another murder occurs and a body is left on a river bank. Dazed and unsure of his own innocence, Marcus checks to see if his shoes have traces mud. At least one other person in his circle turns up with muddy shoes. Alibis are proferred, but the mystery deepens. 

All the while we can’t be sure whether or not Marcus is a psychopath and a murderer or just extremely unlucky. Meanwhile, those whispering footsteps seem to follow him everywhere.

Jane Randolph, Nils Asther, "Jealousy" (1945).

Jealousy” (1945) Republic Pictures

Lady cab drivers pop up now and then in noir, and Janet Urban (Jane Randolph) is one of them. No doubt, during the war years more women got into the taxi game while the soldier boys were off fighting the dark forces overseas. 

Janet drives a hack in Hollywood to support herself and her author husband Peter (Nils Asther). He’s a scribbler who’s hit a two-year dry patch and is wetting his whistle a tad too much. On the plus side, if you’re an unemployed writer who drinks, you’ll have lots of company in Hollywood.

Janet is fed up with the would-be Hemingway, who is a bully and a bottomless pit of neediness. She’s looking for a way to escape his clutches and get together with a new beau, the suave Dr. David Brent (John Loder), who was one of her fares.

Meanwhile, the taxi business is a tough racket and she’s packing heat in her purse as protection when driving on the mean streets of La-La Land. Naturally, as the story develops the gatt is going to be used as something more consequential than a paper weight.

Dr. Brent’s assistant, Dr. Monica Anderson (Karen Morley), also has eyes for the mustachioed sawbones. Tensions build, and then someone ends up dead.  

Yes, we know where the plot is going sometime before the movie gets around to revealing it. But for the cool cheap-o effects (double-exposures, an unexpected jittery hand-held shot worthy of Jean-Luc Godard) not to mention footage of World War II era Los Angeles minus the urban sprawl, it’s well worth a look.

Hillary Brooke, Raymond Burr, "Unmasked" (1950).

Unmasked” (1950) Republic Pictures

Raymond Burr fans will want see him in “Unmasked,” where he steps into the shoes of perhaps the rottenest character he’s ever portrayed.

He’s scandal sheet editor Roger Lewis, head of a New York paper that’s fallen on bad times. To keep his sleazy operation afloat he’ll do anything. 

Beloved by millions as Uber attorney Perry Mason on the eponymously named TV series that ran from 1957 to ’66, Burr’s likability remained high despite the various scum of the earth characters he played in Poverty Row films. Burr was an actor who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty. As the unspeakable monster Lewis, he seems to savor every last drop of venom that he spews on everyone around him.

What’s more, he’s the Joseph Stalin of journalism, using his position to publish revoltingly self-serving articles and opinion columns aimed at framing his enemies. Among the items on Lewis’s To-Do list is writing columns that will help send an innocent man to the electric chair.

Linda Jackson (Barbra Fuller) teams up with Det. Lt. Jim Webster (Robert Rockwell) after her father’s untimely death. A packet of high-priced ice has gone missing and Lewis, as well as a band of outlaws, are after the rocks, but for very different reasons.

Greasy little henchman 'Biggie' Wolfe (Norman Budd) is a standout as the wonderfully deplorable double crosser among a band of double crossers. It’s a contest to see who’s going to stick a knife in whose back first.

But the picture belongs to Burr, who responds to cold-blooded murder with a warm smile. In his lengthy career the actor portrayed a lot of stone-cold sociopaths. This one may be my favorite.

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