That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you- Al Roberts
From the heart of its people comes the … cry of the city.
Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers 1946 , Phantom Lady 1944, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry 1945, The Spiral Staircase 1946, The File on Thelma Jordon 1949) with a screenplay by Richard Murphy from the novel The Chair for Martin Rome by Henry Edward Helseth, and an uncredited Ben Hecht.
The moody black and white photography is by cinematographer Lloyd Ahern Sr. and music by Alfred Newman. Eddie Muller refers to Cry of the City as “Siodmak’s most operatic noir.” It is Siodmak’s most focused work, and the first film noir he shot extensively on location. The film reunited Siodmak with producer Sol Siegel who worked on three Paramount B pictures together after the director settled in Hollywood during the early 1940s. The song ‘Street Scene’, a recurring motif heard in several noirs and written by composer Alfred Newman, flows at the opening of the film. The song can be remembered in I Wake Up Screaming, also starring Mature. It is an urban melody that evokes dreamy nightscapes of the city. “Street Scene” is the same as that played in the earlier Henry Hathaway’s , The Dark Corner 1946. It was originally written for the film Street Scene (1931).
Siodmak loves a rain soaked street in his noir films, with it’s themes of fatalism and obsession, and the shocking story of the clash between law and lawlessness. The story borrows from a familiar plot device which sets up an opposition between two characters who come from the same background as children, but wind up clashing in their adult life.
Originally, Victor Mature was cast as the killer and Richard Conte as the cop. The roles were switched.
Richard Conte as the character of Martin Rome would later co-star in the movie Tony Rome (1967) with Frank Sinatra.
Cry of the City is the most ‘operatic’ (Muller) film noir not just stylistically, but the theme its essential that you not hate Marty Rome’s character. The whole idea is that these are two boyhood friends who come from the same neighborhood and it’s just through circumstance one becomes a criminal and one a lawman, but they’re basically the same guy. That’s the whole point of the film. It’s essential that he play someone with that swagger (Conte) and that criminal intent, but he also has a vulnerability you can see in both of them. You can see the boy in the man. It ends so tragically that it feels operatic…You could see that Siodmak is using the street like this huge stage”
Cry of the City stars Victor Mature as Lt. Vittorio Candella, and Richard Conte as the ruthless Marty Rome. Fred Clark plays Cadnella’s partner Lt. Jim Collins whose tongue is fast on the trigger. Shelley Winters is Marty’s old flame Brenda Martingale. Brenda is Martin’s loyal ex-gal who spirits the wounded Conte around the city, while an unlicensed doctor works on his bullet wounds in the back seat of her car.
Betty Garde is Nurse Frances Pruett, and Berry Kroeger is the unsavory, amoral lawyer W. A. Niles. Debra Paget plays angelic Teena Riconti. Tommy Cook plays Conte’s cop hating kid brother who worships him, and it’s clear is heading down the same doomed path, as hi older brother Marty.
Garde and Emerson worked together in John Cromwell’s Caged 1950. Garde is Conte’s sympathetic nurse And Hope Emerson as the darkly imposing Rose Given. In Emerson’s first credited feature film she plays a masseuse and a sadist, is the nefarious Amazon who desperately wants the jewels that Conte has lifted from sleazy lawyer Kroeger. One of the best supporting roles in Cry of the City is Hope Emerson as the ‘monolithic’ (Dinman) Rose Givens who dominates the scenes with Conte.
In Robert Siodmak’s sublime noir Cry of the City 1948 Emerson plays Madame Rose Given who runs a massage parlor, loves to cook, is a pancake eatin’ -looming ‘heavy’… who loves jewels and just wants a little place in the country where she can cook, eat pancakes and fresh eggs… ‘yeah that’s livin’. From her brawny swagger to her grumbling yet leisurely voice, Emerson’s delicsiouly diabolical performance is the highlight of the film!
“THE STORY OF MARTIN ROME IS THE MOST PENETRATING CRY EVER TO RISE FROM THE SIDEWALKS OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST CITY, NEW YORK!”
Cry of the City is centered around two Italian American boyhood friends, who both grew up in New York’s Little Italy together. Both take very diverging paths. Candella (Mature) becomes an all-consuming cop and Martin Rome (Conte), a bargain basement hoodlum and vicious cop killer. Lt. Vittorio Candella is a homicide detective, and Martin’s proclaimed enemy who’s also a long time friend of the Rome family.
Mama Roma is a good Italian Catholic who loves her first born. Even though he has a bond with Martin’s family, Vittorio Candella has made it his ambition, to deliver him to the electric chair. Even Lt. Collins points out that his partner, after Martin escapes from prison is obsessed, “he’s only been gone one day and you’re making a vendetta out of it.”
Siodmak opens the movie, with a solemn tenor, as the family surrounds the bed of a dying man. A priest is administering the last rites at the bedside of Martin Rome who was wounded in a restaurant robbery shootout with a police officer Martin claims he killed in self defense. The two detectives disrupt things when they show up at the entrance to the room. The attending nurse asks for Martin Rome’s medical history “no further record?”, when Lt. Collins chides her, “No record!…What do you mean. For five years he’s pulled every trick in the book, last night he holds up a restaurant, kills a cop… no record!” She corrects him, “I mean medical record sir.” The nurse casually mentions that she saw Martin’s wife in his room, and now Candella zeros in on finding this girl.
After Martin’s family and Candella and Collins exit the room, his mysterious Madonna, Teena quietly enters, “Go away Teena don’t get mixed up in this.” “Oh Marty why did you have to shoot. Why did you kill?” “I had to. I thought we could…” “Does it hurt terribly?” “Kiss me (he smiles) I can’t die now!”
The nurse comes into the room. She sees Teena at his bedside. When she leaves the room, she bumps into Candella and his partner. Collins tells her, “Keep him alive and we’ll give you a bonus.” ”Should I have his wife send you a release form for his operation?” “Well I don’t think he has a wife” “Well I thought that girl in there.” “What girl?” “Well the girls in there now.” By the time they get back to Martin’s bed Teena is gone.
A short time later, Martin is transferred to the prison hospital, but he refuses to give up the identity of the girl who secretly visited him.
Attorney W.A. Niles shows up at the hospital trying to convince the nurse to let him see Martin, “It’s a matter of a man’s life.” Candella approaches him, “Well counselor I didn’t know that chasing ambulances was quite in your line.” Collins tells him Martin hasn’t got a quarter to pay for his defense.
“I’m interested in defending a cop killer. I knew Macready too.”“What do you want to talk to Rome about?” “If he’s dying, I a want a confession from him. He can save an innocent man Candella.” “Confession to what?” “His implication in the de Grazia case.” “De Grazia case, why you’re crazy We’re holding Whitey Ligget on that.” Ligget is Niles’ client and he’s got plenty against him, but he didn’t do the job and if he can talk to Martin Rome he can prove it. Candella laughs it off, “Torturing old ladies, I don’t think Rome goes in for that.”
In front of Candella and Collins, Niles hovers over Martin being wheeled out for surgery. He doesn’t want his client to burn so he urges Martin to confess to another murder, that of Mrs. de Grazia.
“Rome they’re holding Whitey Ligget for the de Grazia case. He didn’t do it Rome. He did not do it. You know that. You can save him. Rome you’re in bad shape You may not pull out. Don’t go with this on your soul. Please Rome, just tells us you were in on the de Grazia case. You don’t have to say anything. Just nod. You killed her. Just nod. You killed Mrs. de Grazia.”
Martin barely gets a whisper out to Niles to “Go fry.” The doctor tells the orderly, take him off to surgery. Collins says “that’s tough” Niles asks “Did you catch what he said there?” “I heard him, he told you to go fry. I think he meant it. If you want us to say that in court we’d be glad to.”
It’s the light of day on the streets of New York City and Candella grabs a newspaper from Julie the corner hawker who asks if Rome is going to make it. Candella tells him it was a rough few days but he’s gonna pull through. Julie tells him that he’s seen his mother at church every day this week. “I think it’d saved them some grief if he’d a croaked.”
Martin gets a shave in the hospital while cuffed to the bed- he asks Nurse Pruett (Betty Garde, who is another sadly underrated supporting actor) to check if it’s close enough. She cups his face. Candella and Collins come in, she becomes very protective of Martin and sternly asks what they want. “I thought I’d tell you that Rome’s a pretty bad boy with the women.” “Just what does that have to do with me?” She tells him that she’s been working a long time, doesn’t need to be told how to care for her patients.
Candella and Collins pull up a chair by Martin’s bedside. Martin jokes about Pruett, “She’s pretty hot eh Candella?” Collins “Smart guy we oughta throw you in a cell.” Martin points out, “Bullet holes, everywhere you look bullet holes.” Collins tells him to save it. He just left Mrs. Macready the wife of the guy he killed. Calls him a “murdering rat” She’s crying her heart out and he’s lying there getting a shave. Without any remorse, Martin Rome has no conscience. “Go ahead beat me I’ll die. Yell at me, I faint” He’s a smug unfeeling bastard. Candella shows him a ring from his personal possessions, and asks him where he got it. He won it in a crap game a couple of months ago. He’s pretty good with the dice. It was a blonde fella with a droopy eye. Leggit, Whitey Leggit. “Marty this ring is part of the collection stolen from Mrs. de Grazia, $100,000 worth. Maybe you read about it. We’re pretty anxious to get who did it. They tortured the old lady til they found out where she kept the stuff. Then they strangled her.” Not very pretty huh?”
“You got Whitey Leggit, talk to him” “We will, we want to talk to you too.” “Look Candella I shot a police man, he shot at me. Now I’m going to the chair. Suppose I say I did it, so what? I go twice? I had nothing to do with it. Besides a fella and his girl did the job.” Collins “So you do read the papers.” “You got a smart partner Candella. Look I never worked with a girl in my life. Talk too much. Yakita Yakita.” “Marty who was the girl that was here the night they brought you in?” “I thought it was a dream. There was a girl here huh?… So she was real.” “What did she look like Marty?” “An angel. I thought maybe I was dead.” Candella insists he found the de Grazia ring, they know there was a girl there the other night. Cut out the monkey business and spill who she is. Okay, “but you’ll be seeing her again, cause we’re going to find her.”
Nurse Pruett and Martin talk “You see that they say I tortured an old lady… I never did that in my life. Miss Pruett you’re a nurse. You know people, do you think I’d do that?” ”You killed a policeman.” “He had me down, it was either him or me.” He asks her to help him take care of his girl- he swears she is innocent and not his accomplice. Pruett tells him, “then she hasn’t anything to worry about.” “But she has, she’s a child. If they pick her up and question her she won’t know what to do. She won’t have a chance. Miss Pruett you’ve got to help me you’ve got to.” “There’s nothing I can do.” “Oh but there is. Her name is Teena, Teena Riconte. Not even the police know that I’m telling you because I trust you.” He gives her Teena’s address. Tell her to go away and hide. “If you think you can talk me into that you’re crazy.” “Well just see her. Look at her. You’ll know.” She takes the piece of paper from him.
Niles (Berry Kroeger) comes in the room, like a crocodile in an overcoat. He tries to sell a deal. He’ll defend him for the cop killing. Say it was self defense, the cop Macready has killed other men before. The DA is pushing to prosecute the de Grazia case and is under pressure. If he confesses to that, he can get 2nd degree. But he’d have to confess to the murder of Mrs. de Grazia. Martin says how he doesn’t know anything about the case and doesn’t have any idea where the jewels are. But Niles, crafty as he is, tells him he might be able to get his hands on a few of the pieces. Then Martin remembers the other night before surgery him trying to get a confession to the de Grazia case. He’s a rat. Go confess yourself, he tells him. He’s not gonna take the rap for Leggit. Niles presses on, “Be practical you’re going to the chair already.” Niles threatens to tell the police about his girl. “She must be beautiful Marty. You always could pick ‘em.” Dark, with a face like a Madonna.”
The sleazy lawyer circling his bed like a vulture, offers $10,000 if he’ll take the blame and says he’s got evidence that suggests a woman was present during the jewel theft and murder. Since Candella believes that it is Martin’s girlfriend who was involved it’d be easy for him to sell it. This is the first sign of the trail of repugnant characters who cross Martin’s dark path.
Martin kisses off Niles’ offer but the slimy attorney threathens him by invoking his girlfriend, threatening to incriminate her in the crime. Siodmak and Ahern frame the shots in close up of the two men, making the visual point of Nile having the upper hand, shot in an emphasized upper angle as he stands behind Martin in his hospital bed. Looking down at him, “She must be beautiful Marty… but if we worked on her for a couple of days… maybe she wouldn’t looked the same. Maybe even you wouldn’t recognize her.” The scene ends with Martin reaching up from bed and choking Niles.
Martin sweet talks Nurse Pruett (Betty Garde) to help hide Teena and Candella goes to visit Mama Roma (Mimi Aguglia). Candella waits with the littlest grumpy Roma, who already distrusts the police. He finally wins the serious little one over sharing a piece of candy and making silly faces at her. Mama comes in with a tray of wine. He tells her Tino’s (Martin) been moved to the prison hospital. “Vittorio what will they do to him?” She can’t understand why he killed the policeman he was always a good boy, he always sends her money. But Candella tries to reason with her that the money is dirty. What did he do to get it. He tells her that Martin should have married and settled down “like you and Papa.”
Martin’s little brother Tony walks in, “Mama that snoopy Candella’s in the neighborhood.”
He realizes he’s already in the apartment, “I’m not telling you nothin’ copper.” Mama gives Candella soup to bring to Tino ”Tell him we love him. “Goodbye Mama.”
Orvy the trustee is sweeping up in Martin’s room. Ledbetter the unpleasant guard is standing around the cell puffing on his cigar. He yells at Orvy to get moving, “you mallard head, crazy old cluck.”Martin comes to Orvy’s rescue, “Ah don’t let him bother ya, he’s a big boob” “Hey you’re Martin Rome – you killed a cop. I’m Orvy. I’m a trustee.” “Hello Orvy.” Shakes his hand. Martin asks if a break out is easy. “This ain’t no prison. Just a plain old hospital. You break out then Ledbetter (Roland Winters) gets blamed. You break out Marty huh. They’ll throw him out.” “It’s kind of tough isn’t it?” “It’s nothing, you can do it Marty.” He shows him how to use a spoon as a passkey, “I’ve been here 3 months. They don’t know I know that.”
Candella shows up with the soup from Mama Roma. Martin asks about his family. Candella tells him that his little brother thinks he’s a hero. “Six or eight years from now I’ll be chasing him too.” “Maybe.”
Martin taunts Candella over his $94.43 weekly paycheck. “Ever go to Florida for a couple of Weeks? Ever bet a hundred bucks on a horse?” Or maybe give a girl a bunch of orchards just because you like her smile?” ‘no’ answers Candella, “But I sleep good at night.”
Marty Rome – “ I had enough of that when I was a kid. Crummy tenements, no food no clothes.”
Candella – “Save it for the jury, Marty. Who do you think you’re kidding. I was brought up in this district too. I heard that dialogue from you pool hall hot shots ever since I was 10 years old. Get hip, only suckers work Don’t be square stay with the smart money. Let the old man get the callouses digging ditches. No food, no clothes, crummy tenements. You’re breaking my heart Marty.”
“You played it your way, I played it mine.” “Do you think it’s worth the chair” “I don’t know I haven’t fried yet.” “Maybe you won’t mind. You’d be the center of attention” “Me, I think of afterwards. You know when they slide that pine box through the back door. Somebody in the family has to identify the body before they can take it away.”
Candella tells him to stop clowning around and tell him where the girl is. He mentions Brenda Martingale. Names a lot of his old flames. That he’s gonna keep looking. The last name he mentions is Teena Riconte. “Know her?” “I don’t know any Teena.” “I will. I’ll tell you about her.” Candella leaves.
Martin calls for Orvy, and asks for the spoon. Orvy will help him during his lunch rounds. Martin hears Ledbetter hitting Orvy off screen for wasting time. Later Orvy slips him the spoon and leaves a visitors pass at the desk for an alias by the name of Tony Carino. Nobody would figure a guy breaking out of there. Martin asks why he hasn’t tried himself, but he’s got a bum ticker, and couldn’t take the stress.
Martin escapes from the prison hospital with the help of the gullible prison trustee (Walter Baldwin-you might recognize as the first Floyd the barber on The Andy Griffith Show).
Wearing a trench coat and hat he picks up his pass at the desk and walks through the long tunnel. It’s a great perspective shot. Martin walks right past the cops. Alfred Newman’s score is fixed with percussive tension as he simply just walks out.
Candella stakes out Teena Riconte’s apartment from across the street in a smoke shop. Waiting for Martin to come out, they realize that it’s his kid brother Tony, who now comes into the shop to make a call. Knowing the brother will recognize him, Candella hides. Collins listens in to Tony’s phone call to a Mr. Angelo. Mr. Angelo is Martin. Tony begins to talk in Italian. Collins and the other cop are stumped, they don’t understand what the kid is saying. Candella comes in and asks for the piece of paper Tony is holding with the phone number, but he shoves it in his mouth and tries to eat it, they manage to rip it out of his mouth before he swallows it. Candella reads the phone number but there’s a digit missing. He tells Collins to call them all. “Take him home and have his mama give him a good spanking.”
Martin has been waiting at Nile’s office. This time around, Cameraman Ahern makes Martin the dominant figure in the frame, flipping the advantage and Martin now confronting Niles with an edge, the edge of his switchblade. “Now listen Marty don’t try to get tough. I do business with your kind every day.” Martin slaps him in the face and forces him to open the safe. He flashes the knife in his loathsome face. Siodmak and Ahern shoot from the perspective of Niles lower in the frame, seated at his desk from a high angle shot. Martin discovers the de Grazia jewels hidden in a secret box within Niles’ safe. Niles has a gun in his desk drawer. Martin threatens him with the switchblade and gets Niles to spill the name of the woman who helped pull off the job. He tells him Ligget’s friend, Rose Given. When Niles goes for his gun, Martin skewers the pig through the back of his swivel chair. With a touch of graphic detail, with a shocking effect you can hear the knife pierce the leather.
Martin shoves the jewels in his pocket and then theres a creaking, metallic sound that resonates like a drum. It catches Martin’s attention. It’s a percussive and eerie moment. Nile’s chair is swinging, his body has fallen to the floor with a thud. As it spins, Nile’s head appears then disappears as the chair orbits in front of his dead body. It’s a macabre scene leaving us with the repetitive sound his the chair, revealing the grim hallmark of the puncture hole from Martin’s blade.
Tony comes out of his apartment onto the street with Collins tailing him. Tony’s no dope he knows he’s there and leads him away from the apartment so Martin can go up and see Mama. Mama Roma enters the room and sees her son, startled in the corner. Dinner is ready. They hear someone come in Martin draws his gun. It is Papa who says, This is my house tell him to get out before I get back. Mama asks, Why must you kill Marty I don’t understand. He is her first born, the one who sends her money. The one she prays for every night.
“Why must you kill! I loved you more the rest of them because you were my first.” She says her sin was not to ask where the money came from. “I did it for a girl.” “Sure Sure Marty with you it’s always a girl.” Mama Teena’s different. “You only care for Marty.” She says he doesn’t care about anybody. “Mama do you believe that I love you?… She’s good and she’s beautiful… This is why I must kill. “No I tell you not kill, you are bad Martin.” He wants to sleep there. She insists,”This is my home too. There are other children, you must go.” Tony comes in, “How bout that flatfoot going in circles.” He let’s Martin know that Nurse Pruett helped Teena hide.
Candella shows up. Mama tries to misdirect him into the kitchen. He smells the minestrone soup and he’s looking for Tony. Martin comes out and pulls the gun on Candella. Candella says to Tony, “So that’s your hero huh Tony. He breaks out of jail, fools the cops, talks big with a gun in his hand. Look at him Tony his leg is shot full of holes. No place to go no place to sleep. Just run run run til he can’t run anymore. Escape. Escape to where? Look at him Tony, he’s a dead man” Martin quips, “Make an Italian a cop he’s gotta make a speech.”
Martin tells Tony, “Get his gun.” Candella warns, “Stay where you are Tony. There won’t be any shooting in this house as long as mama is here. I’m a little disappointed in you Marty.” Martin-“You’re a big boy now. Pretty funny fella. You don’t think I’ll shoot. Just make a move Candella, we’ll see.” Martin escapes once more.
Martin is in the back seat of Brenda’s car, he is sleeping, weakened by his unattended wounds. Brenda hands him a piece of paper. “I found her, Madame Rose.” She tells him that she can’t keep driving around they’ll pinch her. He passes out. She panics and finds a an unlicensed doctor, a European immigrant who needs the money because his wife is sick. He tells her to keep driving and then realizes that they are bullet wounds. “You didn’t tell me.” “I was scared you wouldn’t come.” “It’s against the law whatever I do but this will cost you more.” Martin will only be fixed up for the time being. Brenda drops Martin off in the front of Madame Rose’s massage parlor.
Like a modern Grimms fairytale, the sequence with Rose Given slowly emerging on screen just emphasizes what an imposing figure she truly will be in the film. It is night, Siodmak and Ahern stage the scene using deep focus and back lighting. While Martin stands on the doorstep of her massage parlor, they frame the shot over Martin’s shoulder, allowing our imagination to see her silhouetted as a monster emerging from the corridor of a darkened lair. Through the glass, Given begins her stride from room to room, approaching the camera, turning on each light, she increases in size until she fills up the frame, in all her menacing glory.
Once inside Rome cuts a deal with her for the de Grazia jewels. Martin offers Given the key to a subway locker containing the de Grazia jewels in exhange for $5000 and steamship tickets to South America. “a car, five thousand dollars, a way out of the country, and a good night’s sleep.”
Siodmak’s direction reveals like Niles, Given to be yet another of the city’s lethal degenrates. She begins to use her trade and starts to massage Martin’s back and shoulders. She begins to give a colorful account of her clientele. “Fat old women who have too much money and too many jewels.” Her sociopathic calm not unlike Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie’s restrained tirade about fat wives in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt 1943. Measuredly, like a boa constrictor, her hands move up his shoulders and begins to choke him, until he agrees to hand over the jewels. This is the darkest most offbeat moment in the film, as Martin has a revelation, his mind wanders to something Candella shared with him. The elderly de Grazia woman had been tortured to death for her jewels. Given complains that the old gal had the nerve to put up a struggle.
Rose- “hmmm…It is good isn’t it. I have the touch. It’s only given to a few. It’s a matter of knowing the currents of the body. Why waste this on fat old women who think they can lose a few pounds and be beautiful again… Fat old women who have too much money and too many jewels. They think the jewels make them beautiful and they fight to keep them like they fight the years that make them ugly.”
The next morning, after Martin’s one night of sleep, Rose Givens stuffs her face with pancakes, talking with her mout full, “Yeah I like to cook I wanted those jewels so I could get a place in the country fresh eggs every day. Milk, cream.”
Suspicious of a double cross, Given forces Martin to go with her to the subway station to make the trade, and retrieve the jewels from the locker where he hid them. He has already given Candella the heads up where to find the menacing Madame, but he wasn’t supposed to be with her. As she opens the locker, she spots the police closing in, and during the struggle she aims her gun at Martin but winds up wounding Candella. While the cops are arresting Given, Martin escapes yet again.
Candella rounds up Orvy and the unlicensed doctor, and the drunk who identified Brenda. Ledbetter gets fired after 20 years. Orvy gets five more years but gets the chance of saying “Goodbye Cluck!” as he waves at the Ledbetter the bastard.
Candella, still bleeding from his gunshot wound, visits Nurse Pruett who winds up telling him that Teena is a sweet kid who had nothing to do with the jewel heist or murder, and that she is meeting Martin at their neighborhood church, because Tony said he was hurt. Martin wants to meet up with his mythical Madonna to try and get her to leave with him.
Before going to the church, Martin walks with Tony “You know where Mama keeps her money on the shelf in the kitchen.” “Marty I can’t take that.” “Why not?” “Well it’s all they’ve got.” “So what I gave it to them didn’t I?… Get it I said.” he goes to strike Tony.
There Martin tells Teena, “I’ve kept you in my heart always,” he tells her. “Wherever I went, you were my strength. You’re my life, I’ll do anything in the world for you.”
Candella finds them. “You may be leaving but not the girl. You told her everything? This is a good place for confession. She knows that you killed two men? Does she know about Orvy, the poor little cluck trustee who’ll get five years for helping you break jail. Does she know about Brenda the girl who sheltered you? She’ll serve time Marty. So will that doctor with the sick wife. You forgot all about them didn’t you. No he didn’t forget them. He didn’t even think of them. He used them and brushed them aside just like he’s used everybody he’s ever known. Including his own family. And he’ll use you too if he has too… He says he loves you, but if he did, would he ask you to share the kind of life he’s got to live?”
Teena hears the truth, she realizes that she has no future with Martin. She crosses herself and fades away. The two men walk out of the church. Candella tries to get Martin to hand over his gun, but Martin pistol whips Candella who falls to the ground. Siodmak shows Martin swiftly dragging himself down the wet city pavement, the streetlights and neon signs against the stark black spaces, framing Martin’s dark form as a fatalistic dead man.
Candella finally collapses on the street from loss of blood he yells “in the name of the law, Rome Stop!” before pulling the trigger. Bad fortune finally catches up to Martin and he winds up with a bullet in his back, the steamy rain rises up from the pavement like smoke. His last movements, trying to lift himself up, holding his switchblade that gives off a fragment of light in the dark, except for dead silence, a police whistle pulses, it’s an eerie effect.
Even when he tries to rise up from the ground, with last breath he draws, he still points his switchblade. It’s his instinct. As Martin rests lifeless on the sidewalk, Tony arrives crying, he was unable to steal from their parents. Candella walks off with Tony who is redeemed in Martin’s place.
The aria of Cry of the City’s staged climax comes full circle to Its ‘operatic’ conclusion. Siodmak is a master story teller.
Rackets Ride The Roads!
Directed by Jules Dassin (The Canterville Ghost 1944, Brute Force 1947, The Naked City 1948, Night and the City 1950, Rififi 1955) Thieves’ Highway was Dassin’s last film before director Edward Dmytryck named him during the furor of HUAC. Dassin exiled himself to Europe but ultimately his spirit was not broken by the ordeal. He went on to direct Rififi 1955, one of the best caper films of all time, his later work includes, He Who Must Die 1957, Never on Sunday 1960, and Topkapi 1964.
Working from his novel ‘Thieves’ Market’ and the script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin made this headlong, free-flowing film noir with gritty naturalism in 1949, after both his masterpieces, Brute Force 1947 and The Naked City 1948.
Thieves’ Highway’s neorealism is an existential journey with an American pulse, that beats a shared rhythm of exposure to uncertainty and the distress of primal survival. The film is a great compansion piece to his Europe masterpieces Night and the City (1950) set in the London underworld and his caper film, Rififi (1954) set in Paris. These masterworks alone, are the reason Jules Dassin is one of my most favorite directors.
The film is a collaborative effort partly due to it’s screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides who also wrote the scripts for They Drive By Night 1940 (based on his novel Long Haul), On Dangerous Ground 1951 (directed by Nicholas Ray, a gritty urban noir with closed in spaces that becomes transported to a rural redemption fable set in wide open spaces) and for Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly 1955). Eddie Muller says of Bezzeride’s novel, “His novel Thieves’ Market, upon which the film is based, offered a hard-edged look at how greed and chicanery infect the agri-business system. Call it Steinbeck noir.”
In addition, there’s a dramatic old-world score by Cyril J.Mockridge (My Darling Clementine 1946, The Dark Corner 1946, Nightmare Alley 1947) and Alfred Newman.
In They Drive By Night, the prevailing superficiality of the narrative is flanked by two themes, that of social commentary about the perils of independent hauling and the trope of the femme fatale mixed up in a murder plot. In contrast, Thieves’ Hightway possesses a parablesque narrative structured around the classical quest in a hostile universe, with the montages of spinning tires and speedometers and wavy highway lines suggest not mere exhaustion but the testing of the hero’s soul… When a truck careens off the asphalt and bursts into flames at Altamont, it marks a spiritual as well as a practical defeat for the brotherhood of the road.- (Sragow)
Cinematography by Norbert Brodine (The House on 92nd Street 1945, Somewhere in the Night 1946, 13 Rue Madeleine 1946, Boomerang! 1947, Kiss of Death 1947) Brodine’s camerawork offers versatile shots, the odd angle at the Garco home when Nick discover’s his father’s legs are missing, the full lighting at the apple orchard, or the more constricted frames with traffic in motion, the headlights streaking through the cab subverting the steady composition. The scenes in Rica’s place are back lit to expose the subtle details of the lovers and the use of mid-shots emphasize the unfolding sexuality of Conte and Cortese.
Thieves’ Highway stars Richard Conte as Nick Garcos. Conte who has forged an identity as darker noir anti-heroes, here he plays a virile, unyielding incorruptable leading-man. Conte who’s real name is Nick, has at least 100 films and television appearances to his credit. 18 of which were film noir, The Big Combo and Cry of the City being my favorites. He was discovered by Elia Kazan and John Garfield while working as a singing waiter in a Catskills resort.
Valentina Cortese plays Rica, an Italian refugee, a sensual woman, while her persona does not conjure one who walks the streets at night looking for clients, it is suggestive that she is a prostitute. Bezzerides had an aversion to casting Cortese in the role, he wanted the character to be an average American girl down on her luck who turns to prostitution. He sooner envisioned Shelley Winters to play it that way, as in the original story. Bezzerides felt that Dassin romanticized the character because he had been having an affair with the actress. Set apart from some of the other Italian stars of the day, Anna Magnani or Sophia Loren, Cortese eludes the voluptious mystique. She has an ‘angular grace’ and more ‘sly humor’ (Muller). After she made The House on Telegraph Hill 1951, she moved back to Italy with her husband, actor Richard Basehart who she met on the set of Robert Wise’s thriller. Her most lauded role is as the aging Diva Séverine who can’t remember her lines, in Truffaut’s Day for Night 1973 which she was nominated for Supporting Actress.
Lee J. Cobb gives an outstanidng performance as crooked produce broker Mike Figlia, who cheats small operators by ‘fixing’ them when they dissent. He’s an amoral smug slime ball, whose remorseless braggadocio primed him for his role as crooked union boss Johnny Friendly in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. At the time of the film Cobb and Dassin were best friends but that tragically came to an end when he named Dassin as a communist sympathizer in a closed door session of HUAC.
The film also co-stars Barbara Lawrence as the girl next door Polly Faber, Jack Oakie as Slob, Joseph Pevney as Pete, Morris Carnovsky as Nick’s father-Yonko Garcos and Tamara Shayne as Nick’s mother. With a bit part by Hope Emerson who’s buying the apples when Figlia is selling them right off Nick’s truck.
Thieves’ Hightway begins in the farmlands of central California, Nick Garcos is a noir hero who operates with more dynamism than the typically downfall hero. What emerges from the brightly lit environment of Fresno’s sunlit clarity is made a visibly darker world that has turned into an agonizing personal reality for his family. When Nick’s returns to his childhood home and finds his father destroyed, he begins a mythic quest for revenge.
He’s a World War II veteran who has returned from a temporary job earning money as a ship’s mechanic on a Far East voyage. He plans on joining his father in his trucking business and marrying his sweetheart Polly. From the beginning the contrast between Nick’s two women is established. Polly is small-town, shallow and very white. She is the extreme opposite of Rica who becomes Nick’s dark, enigamatic muse. “Bezzerides objected to several alterations to his book and deplored the casting of Dassin’s then-girlfriend Cortese in a role originally called “Tex.” (Michael Sragowessay Dangerous Fruit) Also Sragow points out in his incredibly thoughtful essay Dangerous Fruit, unlike the virtuous Catholic girl in Kazan’s On the Waterfront who leads the working-class hero toward redemption, Dassin flips that narrative, instead it is an Italian streetwalker who delivers Nick.
Dassin and Bezzerides somehow managed to sneak Rica’s sexuality past the production code, perhaps because of her foreignness, it mades her tolerable for certain American provincial audiences. In 1949, people would have to be asleep not to recognize that she is a whore. “In her garret, we’re treated to scenes that combine Rica’s lonesome stranger-in-a-strange-land pathos with a tense erotic charge.” (Muller)
Nick arrives in a taxi, he hears his father Yonko Garcos singing. He cannot wait to share the tacky yet meaningful gifts he has brought home, Japanese earrings for his mother (Tamara Shayne), a geisha doll wearing an engagement ring for Polly. Nick is disturbed to see his beloved family living in poverty.
He also brings with him, a pair of Mandarin slippers for his father. It is when he goes to fit his father, a wheelchair reveals a shocking discovery, he has been left disfigured, having no legs, he lost them in a suspicious ‘accident’ after selling his cargo of tomatoes to a devious San Francisco produce wholesaler Mike Figlia. Nick learns that after his father comes to from the crash, the money Figlia paid him for his load, is missing.
After Papa Garcos’ truck is wrecked in the accident, he sells it dirt cheap to an acquaintance, a weary driver Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell). Ed is a bad-tempered cynic who was also tricked by Figlia and is in the business of looking out for himself. Nick vows to avenge his father for the injustice perpetrated by Figlia who uses dirty tricks to steal from truckers. Nick buys back the truck from Ed who is busy trying to salvage the truck. He tells Nick that he’d gladly sell his pop’s truck back to him, he just needs one last haul. Ed knows of a secret orchard of early Golden apples, and the two strike a deal. Conte warns Ed not to try anything funny, ‘I worked like a dog for that dough. Gyp me and I’ll cut your throat.”
Nick invests his savings and partners up with Ed to sell a haul of the early harvest of Golden Delicious apples to Figlia at his market in San Francisco. With Nick driving the retired Army surplus rig, and Ed driving his father’s truck which is being held together with spit, he now has a fleet of two. ‘All the symbols in this movie are rock-hard and understated. The white military star on Nick’s truck makes a mute, omnipresent comment on postwar disillusion.’ -(Sragow)
On the road, the broken-down rickety trucks pitch and toss down the highway as they carry their impossibly heavy loads, until Nick gets pinned under his truck when it slips off the jack, while he’s trying to fix a flat tire. When Ed saves him it is a moment in the film where he becomes redeemed, after he tries to cheat a small family of immigrants when they bought the apples from their orchard.
Brodine’s camerawork conjures little paintings, capturing split seconds, still lifes of beautiful human wreckage within the soul of Americana.
Nick struggles throughout the night with road fatigue. At first Nick and Ed’s relationship is founded on opportunity not camarederie, but after Ed rescues Nick who is nearly crushed under the weight of his truck, buried alive face down in the soft shoulder’s gravel, the back-breaking challenge manifests a masculinity pact, where Ed even winds up bandaging Nick’s neck. After his father’s tragic accident that leaves him a cripple, Nick’s brush with death further defines the story’s allegory of the precariousness and threat along his journey.
The two men are followed by rival truckers, Ed’s former partners, Pete Bailey (Joseph Pevney – gave a terrific performance in Body and Soul 1947 – and later became a director) and Slob played by Jack Oakie. Ed gets mocked by Pete and Slob because he can’t keep up the pace in the truck that is literally falling apart. Pete and Slob figure to scavenge their load, by the looks of Ed’s broken down rig.
Night has fallen and strong side lit, low angle and overhead shots continue to appear after Nick gets to where he’s going. He arrives exhausted from his eventful trip, and parks in front of Figlia’s wholesale mart amidst the throng of common people gathering at the pier-side haunts of San Francisco’s marketplace. Bezzarides details the marketplace as an ‘arena of cutthroat business as the all-American sport.’ (Muller)
Nick begins his confrontation wtih Figlia, as they thrash about in some crude bargaining. He decides to wait for Ed before he sells his load. Figlia pays off a beautiful Italian refugee, Rica – to get Nick up to her apartment and seduce him, while he sells Nick’s apples on consignment, right out from under him.
Rica entices Nick in her room while Figlia swindles him, but as she spends time with him, she realizes that she is drawn to Nick and is touched by a wave of conscience. Cortese’s performance is filled with an inward eroticism, a humanness that becomes the soul of the film. Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos – “Hey, do you like apples?” Rica – “Everybody likes apples, except doctors.” Nick- “Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out…” Rica – “I don’t know what are you talking about, but I have a new respect for apples.”
After falling asleep for a bit, Rica wakes him up to let him know that Figlia has stolen his haul. Dassin and cinematographer Brodine make use of the night and the frantic pace of the crowded market with it’s rain oiled streets. Nick appears displaced and confined by the anarchy of commerce. It is after Nick’s visit to the produce market where he starts to face a conflict of personalities, with Figlia playing drivers against each other as he exploits their need for money.
When Nick finds out how much Figlia made off his load of apples, he forces him to turn over the profit. After he calls Polly, he starts to head back to Rica’s apartment. While they walk by the trainyard, Rica tries to convince Nick to leave Polly, when they are jumped by Figlia’s two goons, Nick is beaten. Rica tries to stop them, but she runs away with Nick’s money until she is cornered, with them taking the cash back to their boss. He wakes up in Rica’s room, she must convince Nick that she had nothing to do with the ambush. While he rests, she goes to the bus depot and picks up Polly bringing her back to see Nick.
Polly learns that Nick has lost all his money. At that moment she reveals herself to be an opportunist as she breaks off their engagement. The hero’s golden apple girl is an imposter. Rica smiles impishly, “Polly and I have one thing in common, she loves money too.”
He decides to rest and wait for Ed before he can confront Figlia. As a refugee of the war, Rica weaves a thread into the story of the working-class. A woman of doubtful morality, she is the perfect soul that lay in ruin, showing off her earthy charisma. From her stance like a chanteuse in a raincoat, to her drying her rainy hair with a towel. Between her allure and Nick showing off his chest, appearing like Adonis, the scenes are so sensual, it’s a wonder that the code did not have a spell trying to keep it off the screen.
The scenes with Conte and Cortese are vividly suggestive, Dassin and Bezzerides had to maneuver the steamy scenes in a way that subvert the code. Ironically while there were rules against women showing too much flesh, there was nothing inhibiting men from doing the same. When Rica plays tic tac toe on Conte’s bare chest, there was nothing in the code that argued against it. Lucky for us, because it is one of the sexiest scenes in film, to this day I would wager. Nick “Soft hands.” Rica “Sharp nails”, while stroking his chest tracking a flirtatious game on his skin.
Pete and Slob poke fun of Ed’s truck, first it overheats, then as it putters down the winding road, “sounds like he’s dragging can’s up that hill.”
Nick doesn’t realize that Ed has lost control, cursed by a busted drive shaft, his brakes fail, and the truck goes over a steep grade on Altamont pass, outside the city and is killed when it crashes down an embankment and goes up in flames. The harvested gold scatter, rolling down the hill along with smashed crates, an avalanche of apples.
Dassin shared in an interview, that the scene with the apples rolling down the hill after Ed’s crash was actually an artistic accident. The sequence turned into visual memorable magic and powerful imagery.
When Pete (Pevney) and Slob (Oakie) arrive with this news of Ed’s death, Figlia offers Pete 50 cents a box to retrieve the apples scattered from Ed’s truck. Pete accepts the offer and goes out with Figlia. Slob is disgusted with Pete for taking money from Figlia, for the dead man’s load.
Enraged by the beating Figlia set up , Nick goes to Figlia’s warehouse where Slob tells him about Ed’s death. Together they go to the site of the crash and confront Figlia at a roadside cafe run by character actor Percy Helton. Pete discovers that Figlia does arrange ‘accidents’ for drivers that go against him. Pete and Slob, initially blowhards with their good-natured teasing finally reveal their decency.
Nick smashes Figlia’s hand with an axe handle and forces him to admit that he shorted Pete on the apples. Figlia exposes himself as the spineless coward, no more of the overbearing bully, he literally throws crumble money on the counter begging for his life. But Nick gives him a savage beating “This is for my pop, this is for my pop, this is for my pop!”, until the police show up after Rica calls them. Conte gives a painful performance as a man who musters the wounded wreckage of a man who feels so much love for his father.
Figlia feels that retribition is upon him, yet the film does not follow Bezzeride’s novel, the way it dispenses with the story. Thieves’ Market takes a more ‘literary and ambiguous’ (Muller) approach at the end of the novel. Instead by the film’s climax, the story takes a positive turn as Nick heads to San Francisco and proposes to Rica.
“The book leaves us dangling as Nick takes off after Figlia crazy for revenge but Bezzerides refused to show the vicarious thrill of retribution because he felt no real victory had been earned –Nick ended up a cynical angry and hard hearted as the crooks he despises”–(Muller)
Zanuck and Fox stuck their hand in the fluidity of the film at the end but, “Dassin managed to wring every drop of suspense out of that scene. They were guilty of stilted square ups. Despite that ineptly inserted shot of the cop preaching the law to Richard Conte.”
The raw, savage, screen-searing story of the Treasury’s tough guys!
Director Anthony Mann has contributed quite a collection of daring films in the noir canon that gear up with quite a high kick. (Strangers in the Night 1944, The Great Flamarion 1945, Railroaded! 1947, Raw Deal 1948, Border Incident 1949, Side Street 1949, Reign of Terror 1949, Winchester ’73 (1950), The Furies 1950). It was his first collaboration with cinematographer by John Alton (Bury Me Dead 1947, Raw Deal 1948, Canon City 1948, The Amazing Mr. X 1948, Hollow Triumph 1948, He Walked By Night 1948, The Crooked Way 1949, Border Incident 1949, Mystery Street 1950, The Big Combo 1955, Lonelyhearts 1958) whose highly stylized photography is arresting with its placement of characters at opposite ends of the frame, in deep focus, low angle camera shots and high contrast black and white cinematography. John Alton is a master of low key lighting and an adventurous use of shadows, darkness and light.
Both Mann and Alton believed that lighting would be the most critical element. What was born out of Mann’s vision as Jeanine Basinger puts it, T-Men is his ‘fully realized project.’ Alton uses visual iconography of anxious characters, in two-shot, who are concealed from each other, but are visible to us. This was a trademark of his work, most notably in The Big Combo 1955. Alton’s camera sets up the visual dichotomy that transports the duality of the story – the harrowing transformation of the agents as they are absorbed by their new identities as criminals.
I used light for mood. All my pictures looked different. That’s what made my name, that’s what set me apart. People asked for me. I gambled. In most cases, the studios objected. They had the idea that the audience should be able to see everything. But when I started making dark pictures, the audience saw there was a purpose to it.- Alton
For example when Moxie traps Schemer in the steam room. One of the most striking death sequences I’ve seen in film noir, Schemer dressed with only a towel around his waist, stomach protruding and body glistening in sweat, the imposing McGraw corners him in a profoundly unspoken moment of threatening intimacy using Alton’s low-angle two-shot. Alton manifests an eerie proliferation of light behind Ford’s head as he is about to die, Moxie smiling sadistically, as he enjoys his screams. It’s a beautifully done sequence for it’s subtlety of Schemer’s gruesome death.
The film’s narrative space exists between two characteristic landscapes, using frames that use high key-lighting, one at the Treasury Department alternating with scenes in the murky realm of the underworld, as if the two undercover agents descend into Hades. In this way Mann and Alton are able to visualize the ‘most distinctive stylistics of the film noir movement. Its split narrative seems offer an unassailable boundary between the criminal and law-enforcement environments’ ( Susan White and Homer Pettey) ‘The pull of the story itself is such as to make them schizophrenic: narratively they are stalwart heroes, visually they are brutal hoods’ (Blake Lucas). Mann’s earlier noirs did not retreat from graphic violence.
Alton establishes the men’s criminal facade by staging them in ‘hard top-lighting, diagonal compositions and wide angles. Mann’s direction and Alton’s eye make for a good team. Within a year, after the sleeper success of T-Men, director Anthony Mann and cinematographer Alton were hired by MGM.
Written by John C. Higgins and Virginia Kellogg. T-Men featured a cast of lesser-known stars like former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player Dennis O’Keefe as Dennis O’Brien, Mary Meade as Evangeline, Alfred Ryder as Tony Genaro, Wallace Ford as The Schemer, June Lockhart as Mary Genaro, Charles McGraw as Moxie, Jane Randolph as Diana Simpson, Art Smith as Gregg.
T-Men is a significant contribution to noir’s cycle of the ‘docu-noir’ aesthetic. In post-war America there was a growing taste for more realism in crime dramas coming out of Hollywood. T-Men was filmed on-location in Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., using a newsreel-style voice over.
There’s a patriotic anthem delivered in voic eover by Reed Hadley who’s narration also appeared in The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang! “These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist… and that fist hits fair but hard!”
The film opens with the wide view of Washington, D.C., which leads us to the Treasury Department and takes a turn as it melt away into the dark underworld that will prevail over the narrative. In shadow, shot using odd perspectives, an informant Shorty (Curt Conway) is shot dead in an alley by one of the elusive counterfeiting mob’s explosive devices – named Moxie (Charles McGraw). Shorty gets it while trying to pass a sample of the Chinese paper to Treasury agent Newbitt (Victor Cutler).
T-Men in the spirit of the noir police procedural, is about two treasury agents Dennis O’Brien now known as Vannie Harrigan and Tony Genaro, who has taken the name, Galvani (O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder) who after their fellow agent is killed, go undercover as small time crooks to infiltrate the counterfeiting ring run by the Carlo Vantucci gang. The mob is suspected of being connected to the counterfeiters’ liquor stamps operation.
Let’s just called the two agents by their operative names, Galvani (Ryder) and Harrigan (O’Keefe).
Galvani must temporarily leave behind his new wife Mary (June Lockhart) in order to assume his new identity. His real life, soon afterwards, almosts throws a wrench into the operation when Mary and Tony’s paths cross in San Francisco. The agents hit Detroit to obtain mob credentials before they head out to the west coast, trying to link the Vantucci mob to the “tough, tight outfit” in L.A.
Galvani tells Harrigan that his wife Mary would love to see him in his flashy new clothes, Harrigan tells him that he’ll have to put those thoughts away. “Don’t forget. You’re not married. You’ve been divorced for reasons of duty,” The two men have been recreated as the ruthless Harrigan and Galvani, members of the now disbanded “River Gang”, They can now immerse themselves in the underbelly of organized crime with its sleazy hotels and Turkish steam baths. Harrigan and Galvani befriend Pasquale the mob friendly hotel owner (Tito Vuolo).
Vantucci puts Galvani through a bit of a rough interrogation but he sells his cover story and is let into their counterfeiting syndicate. Both men seem to settle into their criminal milieu which makes them narratively tangled up in knots as both stalwart heroes and brutal thugs.
Tony Galvani sweet talks Pasquale by speaking Italian, allowing him to get some insight into the old River Gang, so he and Harrigan will be able to withstand any interrogation. Immediately Galvani is grilled by gangster boss Vantucci (Anton Kosta). Once the edge is taken off Vantucci’s suspicions, he hires them to work in a liquor warehouse he owns.
The Schemer (Wallace Ford) “Yeah. They been giving me the cold shoulder lately. Giving me the fish-eye, kicking me around. What’s behind all this?”
One lead they uncover is finding a paunchy con-artist named Schemer who has fallen out of favor with the Detroit mob. Harrigan heads to L.A to track him down. He is able to produce a phony bill and negotiates a deal with the gang for the plates, after he gets the green light to send for Galvani. One of the quirky habits of Schemer’s, aside from his obsession with steam rooms, is to chew on ‘Chinese dragon liver herb medicine’. This little tidbit helps Harrigan narrow his search. Like many of the striking scenes, Harrigan wanders through the hectic streets of Chinatown, the screen deluged by the shopkeepers with their wares, Harrigan looks for the right herbalist who knows Schemer.
This eventually leads him down a road with another haunt of Schemers. The steam baths of L.A. where Harrigan finally recognizes him by the scar on his shoulder. I’ve written in my essay Queers & Dykes in the Dark, about the eroticism of the homo-social tradition of men who are not queer (necessarily), but celebrate their gender bond. This is a very common theme seen in many of Howard Hawk’s films. The elements of eroticism implied by the semi-nudity and intimacy of the low lights adds to the atmosphere of a subversive universe. Harrigan lures Schemer into his orbit by getting him to notice he’s passed a phony bill (a little trick by folding money a funny way) in chiaroscuro during a heated dice game. Harrigan is beaten up by the other gamblers, and is left in a dark alley roughed up and bleeding. This is an instance when the two worlds blend together and going undercover at times can take over the agent’s reality.
Alton again shows off his visual style setting up frame within framed, set pieces to track Harrigan’s journey from a brightly lit nightclub deep into the shadowy center of the gang, whose chief lieutenant to the boss, (in a predominantly hyper-masculine film) winds up being Diana Simpson (Jane Randolph). He arranges to bring the counterfeit plates he’s been supplied by the Treasury in order to help the subterfuge and keep the ruse going that he’s legitimate.
In Detroit, Vantucci’s thugs rough up Tony Galvani under the burning hot, internal space of the interrogation lights. When he doesn’t crack he earns Vantucci’s respect. Harrigan begins to get closer to the secret of the ‘Chinese’ counterfeit paper and the film accelerates it’s penchant for violence.
Charles McGraw as Moxie with his gravel voice and stone like features- his threatening character emerges as the film’s evil spirit of torture, who has no aversion to causing pain, as seen in the sequence when he locks Schemer (Ford’s particularly engrossing role) in one of his beloved steam rooms to be scalded to death. And again, when Harrigan is being worked over by Moxie (and familiar lackey Jack Overman as Brownie) whose interrogating him, making snide remarks about his clothes and asking about the phony bill Schemer caught him passing at the dice game. Harrigan tells him he can’t hear, so Moxie swiftly whams his ears and asks, “You hear better now?
Harrigan showing off the ‘agonized facial expressions characteristic of the Mann protagonist under duress.’ (White and Pettey).
Moxie (Charles McGraw “What’s the matter, you getting the wim-wams?”
Dennis O’Brien/Harrigan “Did you ever spend ten nights in a Turkish bath looking for a man? Don’t.”
Schemer begins to get scared that the ring is out to kill him, he’s got a coded ledger with incriminating information about the gang. Schemer relies on using his information as leverage for his life and plans on blackmailing the mob bosses. His secret ledger could rip the lid off the entire organization. When Galvani is out with Schemer, he accidentally runs into his wife (June Lockhart) at the market and must pretend not to know her, but Schemer just gets a gut feeling and uses his hunch to try and persuade Moxie to lay off.
Galvani figures out a way to break Schemer’s code, but he is finally discovered to be a Treasury agent and in a very uncomfortable scene Harrigan must watch his friend die at Moxie’s vicious hands, while maintaining his cover, he is helpless to rescue him. Galvani still manages to pass on the whereabouts of the little black notebook to his partner. Harrigan finds the book and sends it to the Treasury. When he passes the plates to Diana, she realizes that they are the work of a notorious counterfeiter which makes her suspicious. Paul Miller (William Malten) is called in to study the plates. He tells Diana they are the real deal, but when Miller gets Harrigan alone, he tells him he recognizes the workmenship on the plates and realizes that the counterfeiter is still serving time in prison. Miller tells him that he knows he’s an agent, and wants to make a deal for clemency. But at that moment, Miller is shot dead.
By the conclusion of the film, there develops a parallel, as Harrigan’s personality begins to reflect Moxie’s. In a confined scene in the men’s room, Alton, visually suggests that Harrigan, has metamorphosized into an interchangeable character. This duality has already been graphically realized by showing, they both have a taste for assaulting people to force information out of them. Both have taken pleasure in toying with Schemer. Moxie in hard focus, is shown shaving in the ‘mirror’ while Harrigan’s right side profile is framed in the extreme left foreground making it look like Moxie’s reflection is his. The iconography of the noir mirror to illustrate duality is drawn upon brilliantly. Harrigan shown now in wide angle, attempts to grab the counterfeit bill from under the bathroom sink.
By T-Men’s climax, the action culminates on the ship where the fake currency is being manufactured, and becomes engulfed in tear gas, reminiscent of the hazy steam room, the Treasury agents drive out the gang from their criminal hideout. Filled with vengeance for the death of his partner, Harrigan kills Moxie just as the other T-Men arrive and take down the ring.
“A Black Paranoid Vision”
“Detour has legendary status as a landmark in the film noir movement… weird unsettling film that you’re not quite sure you’re watching it, or dreaming it.” -Eddie Muller
Errol Morris’ favorite film. He said of it: “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.”
‘A filmmaker at the margins’ (Noah Isenberg) Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat 1934, Girls in Chains 1943, Isle of Forgotten Sins 1943, Bluebeard 1944, Strange Illusion 1945, The Strange Woman 1946, The Man from Planet X 1951, Murder is My Beat 1955, The Amazing Transparent Man 1960.) directs this vision of ‘pulp poetry.’ The cheaply made Detour was shot in less than a week, with only a budget of $30,000, still proves that Ulmer had a striking noir sensibility. Filmed in just six days Detour is a low-budget B masterpiece. Detour was made by PRC, and acronym for Producers Releasing Corporation. an obscure studio who tinkered with low budget B-movies. Folks in Hollywood joked that it stood for Pretty Rotten Crap-(Muller). Then Ulmer, who escaped the rise of the Nazi’s and emigrated to Hollywood joined PRC after he was blackballed by every major studio after his indiscretion with Shirley Castle, who had a connection to Carl Laemmle the founder of Universal Pictures. He was sent the netherworld of poverty row for the rest of his career.
Screenplay by Martin Goldsmith based on his 1939 novel, and an uncredited Martin Mooney. Detour stars Tom Neal who’s an unsympathetic schmuck, the doomed Al Roberts, Ann Savage is the immortal noir harpy – Vera, Claudia Drake as Sue Harvey, Edmund MacDonald as Charles Haskell Jr., Tim Ryan as a Nevada Diner Owner, Esther Howard as the diner Waitress.
Detour is a cult classic allegory that makes clear and stripped down to its simplest unveiling, the terrifying force and unpredictable power of fate, which is the grand reverberation of film noir and it’s fatalistic credo. The film tells the story of a tortured composer Al Roberts (Tom Neal) who’s on a road trip to hell, when he chases after his girlfriend, a nightclub singer who goes to Hollywood in search of stardom. His nightmarish journey is a dark adult fairy tale tethered to a series of mischance and bad decisions that have grave consequences. En route to the west coast hitch-hiking Al Roberts is picked up by Charles Haskell, who winds up dying from a freak accident when the guy hits his head on a rock. Al makes the mistake of picking up Vera, a drifter, and the mythic ideal of ‘the monstrous feminine’ who causes him misery. She’s straight out of the infernal pit, sent to terrorize him, on his irreversible journey, damned to a netherworld of paranoia and fear. Al steals Haskell’s identity fearing that he will be accused of his murder, but Vera knows the truth and uses it to blackmail him into participating in a scheme to collect Haskell’s inheritance by continue to impersonate the dead man. Ulmer and Ann Savage create an unrelenting vampire in Vera who becomes one of the most venomous femme fatales in the history of noir cinema. Al Roberts too, possesses a hostility that lays in a very shallow pool, just waiting to come to the surface. As illustrated when he wallops the piano as if it were Sue after she leaves him behind. Al tortures the piano with his deranged version of the Brahms waltz.
Vera winds up becoming the second person that dies in a freak accident in Al’s orbit when he unwittingly strangles her with a telephone cord that gets caught around her neck.
“Ulmer is actually taking several American fantasies (going West, looking to Hollywood for success and happiness, finding freedom and happiness on the open road…) and performing unnatural acts on them, with devasting effects.”– David Coursen
“Give a lift to a tomata you expect her to be nice!”
A deeper look: The voice-over narration opens the film having the spirit of a confessional with Al’s self indulgent soliloquy. He looks back on where he’s been and sees no future ahead. Wallowing in self pity at a roadside diner, Al Roberts traces his steps in flashback, on how he got to this destination in noir purgatory. Al is a classically trained pianist and his fiancée Sue, a torch singer (Claudia Drake) perform regularly at the Break O’Dawn Club in New York City. She leaves Al behind to pursue her dreams of stardom. He calls her one night and finds out she’s working as a waitress. When a drunk tips Al a ten spot for playing a request, the bitter sad sack is so jaded the only thing he comes up with is, “What was it, I asked myself-a piece of paper crawling with germs? It couldn’t buy anything I wanted.” But now disaffected by his life playing cheap night spots, he can at least head for Los Angeles to follow Sue.
Al Roberts “Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.”
He hitchhikes across the country on his way to Hollywood where she’s slinging hash. Fate has other ideas and throws a chummy motorist in Al’s path, a guy named Haskell, carrying a large bankroll, who is on his way to L.A. He offers him a hot meal before they hit the road again. At the diner Al devours his food like a starved animal.
What appears to be a primer to luck winds up becoming the beginning of his spiral down the rabbit hole, inescapable with unlikely coincidences. In the car Al sees the scratches on Haskell, “Whatever it was, it must have been big and vicious” It was a woman Haskell says who went wild when he made a pass.
Al Roberts [as narrator after thumbing a ride] I guess at least an hour passed before I noticed those deep scratches on his right hand. They were wicked, three puffy red lines about a quarter inch apart. He must have seen me looking at them because he said…
Charles Haskell Jr. Beauties, arent they? They’re gonna be scars someday. What an animal!
Al Roberts Whatever it was, it must have been pretty big and vicious to have done that!
Charles Haskell Jr. Right on both counts, New York! I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman!
Al Roberts She must’ve been Tarzan’s mate! Looks like you lost the bout!
Charles Haskell Jr. Certainly wasn’t a draw! You know, there oughta be a law against dames with claws!
When Haskell, who’s been popping caffeine pills finally begins to feel tired, Al takes over the wheel. Haskell either dies of a heart attack from all the pills or he’s just fallen into a deep sleep, when it begins to rain. Al wants to pull the car over to put up the ragtop, and when he tries to rouse Haskell, he falls out of the car and hits his head on a rock. Either way, he’s dead. Al is certain he’ll be accused of murder, so he disposes of the body, switches wallets and takes off in his car.
As if Al wasn’t pitiful enough, he winds up offering a ride to hitchhiker Vera, and quickly figures out that she’s the creature who drew her claws on Haskell. She figures out what has happened and uses it to keep the poor fool under her thumb.
Al Roberts How far you goin’?
Vera How far YOU goin’?
Al Roberts [as narrator] That took me by surprise, and I turned around to look at her. She was facing straight ahead, so I couldn’t see her eyes. She was young – not more than 24. Man, she looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world! Yet in spite of that, I got the impression of beauty, not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about with your wife, but a natural beauty, a beauty that’s almost homely, because it’s so real. And suddenly she turned to face me…
Vera How far did ya say you were goin’?
Vera Say, who do you think you’re talking to – a hick? Listen mister, I been around, and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?
Vera growls- But if you act wise, well Mr. – you’ll pop in the jail so fast It’ll give ya the bends!”
What almost makes Detour not only a sort of black comedy/tragedy but also an exercise in psycho-sexual foreplay, Al is both oddly repulsed by Vera, and yet drawn to her magnetism. She’s “almost homely because it’s so real.” Her ugly nature shows no mercy and has no limits. “I’m not through with you by a long shot” and “Not only don’t you have any scruples, you don’t have any brains” and “You’re making noises like a husband.”
Once they arrive in L.A. they rent a room and Vera plans for them to sell the car and continue to have Al pass himself off as Haskell.
Vera I’m gonna see that you sell this car so you don’t get caught.
Al Thanks. Of course, your interest wouldn’t be financial, would it? You wouldn’t want a small percentage of the profits?
Vera Well, now that you insist, how can I refuse? 100% will do.
Al Fine. I’m relieved. I thought for a moment you were gonna take it all.
Vera I don’t wanna be a hog.
She discovers that Haskell was an heir to a dying millionaire and the family hasn’t seen him for 15 years. In the motel room they argue about the scheme and a sauced Vera runs into the other room and locks the door, threatening to call the police on Al. Once again, fate reaches out to the disastrous pair and the telephone cord gets wrapped around her neck, with Al pulling on it from the other side of the door, accidentally strangling her.
Al ditches the idea of ever seeing Sue again and flees to Reno where the story opens as he sits in the diner reflecting on the bizarre circumstances that have cast him out of the ordinary world and cursed him to an eternity of hopelessness and guilt. In truth, it isn’t Vera’s hold on Al that chains him to his circumstances but the dynamism as a couple that binds them together.
As poverty row as Detour is, the film doesn’t need to compete with more distinguished noirs. With Ulmer directing, it almost certainly ensures that he will challenge the traditionally accepted model and delve into something more subversive. Haskell and Vera equally predatory, are actually both extensions, a conduit of Al’s self-loathing and belligerence. The detour is an allegory of his self-fulfillment.
Eddie Muller- “The action is confined to what’s rolling around in Al Robert’s head. Ulmer used every trick in his quiver to make an engrossing noir out of virtually nothing. Ulmers’ vision was to transform the rambling roadside saga into a head-trip”
In the film’s final scene Al gives us a word of warning- That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you. Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.
Ann Savage played another ruthless femme fatale in Monogram’s Apology for Murder 1945, which was a ‘shameless knock off of Double Indemnity.’ But it was Detour that earned her a place in the low-grade world of noir man eaters we’ll remember.
According to Ann Savage, she and Tom Neal did not get along during filming. Savage stated that Neal embarrassed her on the set by putting his tongue in her ear. She retaliated by slapping his face as hard as she could. After that incident, they did not speak to each other except when filming scenes.
Whilst setting up to film a hitchhiking scene, a passing car tried to pick up Ann Savage made up to look dirty and disheveled), causing laughter in the rest of the crew.
Was the first “B” movie chosen by the Library of Congress for its National Film Registry, in 1992. Also the first Hollywood “Noir” honored.
German filmmaker Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire 1987) called Ann Savage’s performance as Vera “30 years ahead of its time.”
It is frequently reported that this film was shot only in one week. In truth, the shooting schedule was 28 days. The “one week” myth appears to be based on an off-hand remark by director Edgar G. Ulmer toward the end of his life.
Peter Bogdanovich planned a remake in the mid-’70s.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Long Shot (1955) in the first season (November 27, 1955) has a somewhat similar plot line.