Not-Quite Noir, But All-Fun With Mitchum & Greer.

The script’s by Daniel Mainwaring and his novelist pen name Geoffrey Homes (which is a neat trick), the names behind the source novel and Jacques Tourner’s infamous film noir Out Of The Past from two years earlier. But, it’s also credited to Gerald Drayson Adams, the writer for James Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning. I mention all this not to suggest that postwar film noirs were made in a creatively incestuous community (they kind of were) as much as to give the often overlooked 1949 RKO crime thriller The Big Steal its well-deserved cred. Since it also re-teams noir icons Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, it ought to be a must-see.

The Big Steal isn’t the dark, provocative and soul-searching kind of noir that Tourneur’s Out Of The Past was. This is more of twisty-turny thrill ride. Here Mitchum’s a soldier wrongly accused of a payroll theft. Greer’s the screwed-over ex of the real thief, and they reluctantly team up to track down the culprit, with Mitchum’s superior officer hot on their trail. Good guys turn out to be bad guys (which keeps the viewer wondering about our two stars as well) and all is resolved through lots of fast-paced chases, abductions, fights and shoot-outs, managing a lot of story and action in just a little over an hour.

A B-movie? Yes, it is. But it’s put together by crime and noir pro’s, stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (never looking lovelier with her bouncy short hair) and the bottom line is, The Big Steal is 100% fun to watch. 

Maritta Wolff’s Night Shift

night shift

A month or so ago I commented on Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films production that was part soap opera and part crime melodrama with a mismatched George Raft and very young Ava Gardner. Rife with steamy small-town adultery and intrigue, the film included just enough criminal mischief and shadowy scenes to qualify for the Movies! network’s Thursday and Sunday night film noir showcases (which, based on many of the flicks chosen, doesn’t take too much qualifying). But it wasn’t the movie that caught my attention as much as the source material: Maritta Wolff’s 1942 novel by the same name, her debut, and written while she was still in college, no less. That was enough to put me on the hunt, and though I’ll have to get my copy of Whistle Stop used and online (the local bookstore unable to deliver with the promised copy I ordered), I did get a new copy of her second novel Night Shift for a quick curbside pickup, and what an intriguing read it was.

During the early days of WWII in a small and unnamed midwestern city, Sally and her fellow boarding house neighbors are barely getting by on low paying waitress and war plant jobs. Christmas being right around the corner lends little cheer to their day to day routines of endless bus commutes, household chores, grisly factory accidents and handsy bosses. Suddenly the dreariness is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Petey Braun, Sally’s sassy, stylish sister unseen for years, back from crisscrossing the country with ribald tales to tell and a purse full of dough just in time for the holidays. Petey promptly finagles a singing job at the local edge-of-town nightclub where gambling and women are on the menu in addition to the steaks and cocktails.

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Night Shift could be a handy desk reference for any writer looking to add authenticity to period settings, Wolff’s writing is spot-on for dialog and descriptions, particularly of the humdrum and uneventful minutiae of daily life. It’s a very different kind of writing from what readers may be accustomed to in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, which tends to be ruthlessly purged of nonessentials by agents and editors eager to get to the action. The novel’s nearly 550 pages long, (though I still plowed through it in two evenings) and a hundred pages or more go by before smart-mouthed Petey whisks into town in a swirl of stylish frocks with a savvy nose for a buck, a man and a plush place to park herself for a while.

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A crime novel? Well, not exactly, and certainly not a mystery. Oh, there’s some action, a genuinely evil bad guy, some neither-completely-good nor completely-bad troubled souls, and even a nasty killing near the end, with most of the book taking place in settings and scenes right out of a postwar noir film. Maritta Wolff had a way with the underbelly of mid-twentieth century small town life. Though Night Shift is populated by no shortage of men – siblings, spouses, coworkers, lovers and would-be-Romeo’s alike – it’s a woman’s novel all the way through. Just because there are no big heists, car chases, shootouts or murders, as such, this is still a genuine noir, and in many ways more legitimately so for disregarding some of the genre’s clichés and obligatory plot tropes.

An upcoming post will take a look at how this novel was trimmed down for a pretty nifty Warner Brothers noir-melodrama-romance by Raoul Walsh and crew, with none other than Ida Lupino as brassy Petey Braun.

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Destination Murder.

Destination Murder 1

Continuing to make do for my cable TV noir fix via the Movies! network, having lost TCM months ago, I’m getting used to commercials intruding on the few classics they air (and air and re-air and…) but more importantly, getting a chance to see some largely forgotten films too. That some of these deserve to be consigned to the B-movie graveyard can be argued over by the true film buffs.

RKO’s Destination Murder from 1950 is a low budget affair that clearly aspires to more, managing to achieve some brief glimpses of genuinely noir-ish brilliance here and there, but sadly mired in too much stagey direction, working with a needlessly convoluted script, and performed by a cast that is clearly not going to earn any Oscar nominations.

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Dutiful good-girl daughter Laura Mansfield, played by Joyce MacKenzie, witnesses her beloved father’s murder, but is frustrated by the small city’s detective bureau and its obstinate refusal to follow her tips. Good ol’ Dad stood in the way of the burg’s local underworld kingpins, and Laura decides to take matters into her own hands, insinuating herself among the small-time crooks and mobsters to uncover the killer. Eventually she goes undercover as a cigarette girl at “The Vogue”, a glitzy mob nightclub. There, her demure demeanor gets a makeover in a skimpy cigarette girl costume that grabs the attention of suave gang lieutenant Stretch Norton (Hurd Hatfield). Stretch may have his eye on Laura’s seamed fishnets, but she’s got her eye on her prime suspect, Stretch’s boorish boss. The problem is, Laura has no idea that the boss is just a front man, Stretch is the real mob kingpin and the one who gave the order to have her old man murdered.

Naturally, they fall in love.

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Bodies pile up till the climactic gun play and ineptly staged fisticuffs, but the bad guys all get it in the end. Director Edward L. Cahn does what he can with the material (and I’m leaving out a lot…it really is convoluted). B-movie and poverty row regulars Alice Wentworth and Stanley Clements brighten things up as a gold-digging gun moll and a wannabe blackmailer (and the man who actually pulled the trigger on Laura’s dad). Destination Murder is no noir classic. But I’m glad the Movies! channel is digging up flicks like this — the crime melodramas, B’s and low budget noirs whose posters and film stills we so often browse, even though the films themselves are rarely seen.

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Girls With Guns: Marie Windsor

marie windsor the narrow margin

One of the 1940’s – 50’s many “Queen Of The B’s”, Marie Windsor (Emily Marie Bertelsen, 1919 – 1980) would’ve turned 100 today, December 11th.  Her film and television resume is a mile long, including her share of crime melodramas and a couple key noir films: Force Of Evil with John Garfield in 1948, and one of her best (and a personal favorite or mine), The Narrow Margin from 1952 (a publicity still from that film shown above) most of which takes place on a train, with Windsor playing a murdered mobster’s widow…or is she? (She’s much, much more.) Naturally athletic and considered tall for her time at 5’9″, she often had to stoop or do scenes sitting down when paired with height-challenged male co-stars.

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