The Underworld Story (1950)

“You know what’s inside of ivy Mike? Little crawling things. You should feel right at home there.”

The Underworld Story is full of these wild narrative beats forming the foundation of a new normal. It’s like playing an unwieldy game of connect the dots. Take the opening scene. It’s straightforward enough. The district attorney and a gangster informer named Turk are injured on the steps of the hall of justice. They didn’t fall down. There’s a deliberate hit put out on them.

But this particular story has no special investment in apprehending these perpetrators with shotguns and a high-powered car. It plays like more of a misdirect than a primary plot point. Instead, the story slingshots to The Times Gazette‘s hard-bitten reporter Mike Rees who is on the chopping block for not withholding a story.

It’s this breaking news flash that got those same men killed. It’s all his fault, and he finds himself blackballed throughout the industry for breaking their unspoken code of conduct. He’s finished — a leper in the industry.

Dan Duryea is nothing if not a journeyman actor. He went through a number of phases even for the uninitiated. I can think of seeing him in things as diverse as The Little Foxes and The Pride of the Yankees (also as a journalist). Then, came the days of ill repute in everything from Scarlet Street to Too Late for Tears. These were his bread and butter, and he fit the mechanics and the malaise of the material like few others.

What’s marvelous in a picture like The Underworld Story is how he gets leading man status — he was an actor of that caliber surely — but he still plays a starring role as slick and unprincipled as ever.

It goes to show he can play either side of the spectrum — good or bad — and it still comes off mostly the same. There’s something in his delivery that makes it always sound like he’s sneering, disgusted with every human being he has the displeasure of running across. The feelings are mutual.

With nowhere else to go, he sets up shop in Lakeville. In an apt bit of exposition, we learn it is home not only to a church lane but also to a church street…and a graveyard. This is the world he’s walking into. He does his best to play the part of an honest-to-goodness, salt-of-the-earth American. He’ll do anything to survive.

In fact, he gets out of the big ocean so he can poison the water somewhere else. In a small pond where the water’s stagnant, all his rancid practices can fester and congeal into pond scum. The humble paper itself is run by Catherine Harris (Gail Storm) wet behind the ears and her faithful colleague Parky who is a veteran, but he’s used to a leisurely, benevolent sort of reporting. Harris wants none of Mike’s local news with a slant.

When the daughter of the local newspaper magnate (Herbert Marshall) is found murdered in the woods, they have no recourse to run the story. Reese is way ahead of it, prepared to nuke the news flash and blow up circulation all around town. It’s the kind of tactics that might easily get him back into the big leagues.

It also occurred to me right when we see the hustling, bustling frenzy around the murder scene, it plays a bit like a B-side to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (though it does sit on the right side of history having premiered a year earlier). We have some of that media circus going on here albeit in an alternate small-town setting.

The waves of swirling melodrama are the movie at its most overwrought and tiresome. None of this is original or attention-grabbing in the way a good news story might be. It also pushes the envelope on plausibility with these wonky near-nonsequiturs cropping up every which way.

As such, The Underworld Story proves to be a wildly uneven picture. At times there’s so much to latch on to and ruminate over. Other passages of the film feel downright tacky, whether it’s the dialogue or the rather fervent scoring providing a rampant array of dramatic underpinnings.

When it’s grounded in ideas of the press of what it stands for and how it can be used to manipulate and capitulate situations, that’s when the movie sings with something wielding a definite voice.

We watch Reese continually taking advantage of the situation. First, he’s rather comically running up the bargaining price for their exclusive to his liking by juggling two phone calls at once. He’s also prepared to use Molly Rankin. She’s the girl wanted as a suspect in the young woman’s murder.

The Sentinel vows to prop her up, but far from championing her as a symbol of prevailing justice in the town, it feels dangerously close to a trial, with free publicity attached for the paper. Of course, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The Defense Fund becomes his latest scheme, which actually proves itself to be very successful in earning public support.

Alas, the public is fickle. The local paper starts sinking in quicksand as they meet a media juggernaut and watch Molly lose all credibility. The last thing to be done is to concede and plead guilty. However, Molly comes from a place of integrity — all she has are her personal convictions that she’s innocent and she won’t give it up — even if pleading guilty to manslaughter might actually allow her to keep living. To pragmatic, unscrupulous sorts, throwing in the towel makes logical sense. She, however, must abide by the truth.

Ultimately, Mike pleads with a newspaperman in his ivory tower — there’s actually some genuine concern there for once — but he also gets fingered by the jovial gangster who lays out threats with a smile. Howard da Silva makes an early appearance only to show up later and practically steal the show. It’s not simply about malice; it’s how he’s able to mask it with this kind of menacing conviviality. There’s a dissonance between the threat in each of his measured words and his outwardly cordial manner.

In the end, true to form, Duryea gets the crud beaten out of him, enough that he earns a date with an ambulance at the end of the picture. Even then when his girl steps in to ride off by his side, it’s hard not to consider their chemistry in the moment. They never felt like a couple, at least not to the degree such an action implied. Gail Storm, no fault of her own, is written to flit back and forth between indignation and admiration. She isn’t allowed to really stand on her own two feet.

It’s a final dagger in a movie that’s a bumpy excursion and still a calculated risk for Dan Duryea aficionados. The movie certainly isn’t averse to risks, taking on the theme of a black woman accused of murder and theft. It has a lot of potential, although the incisive edge is neutered by whitewashing the part and casting Mary Anderson in the role, no doubt to placate southern audiences. It’s a shame.

There’s only one last point that I feel compelled to bring up given the historical moment. The Underworld Story oozes Blacklist from the moment Duryea gets forced out of town and can’t win a favor, even from his friends. This is indicative of the story, but we can also consider all the personnel involved. Cy Enfield and Howard da Silva among them would wind up victims of HUAC destined for ex-communication from the Hollywood majority.

Mind you, these weren’t coincidences. People on both sides knew what they were doing. It proves that art really does have an impact on life. I would use the term art loosely with Enfield’s picture, though it does have a certain trashy allure around the corners — flaws and all.

3/5 Stars

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

220px-happened5avenueThe fact that Miracle on 34th Street and this film came out the same year seems to suggest that there was something special in the air of New York City that year. It was a magical place, specifically during the Christmas season with Santa Claus going on trial and winning, while tramps helped reform millionaires. Admittedly, It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of those films that could easily come under fire for its implausible plot, its unabashed sentiment, and any number of other things.

But if you have any amount of Christmas cheer at all, it’s overwhelmingly difficult not to enjoy this cheering story for what it offers up in the areas of heartwarming comedy and holiday spirit. There’s even a bit of misty-eyed sentimentality that’s sure to weaken the callous heart that’s ready to be melted.

And the story finds its roots in some very real issues. One is the housing crisis following the end of World War II with GIs flooding back into the country with families to raise and no jobs and no homes to be had. The situation further aggravated by the wage gap. The rich just seem to get richer, buying up all the land and resources in town,  namely the notorious John O’Connor — the second richest man in the world by latest figures shouted by passing tour guides on sightseeing buses. Ironically, in such an environment the panhandling community is especially strong and foremost among their ranks is sophisticated tramp Aloyisius McKeever (Victor Moore).

He migrates as the crow flies to Winter palaces and Summer getaways belonging to those in the affluent sectors of society. He has set up a bit of a revolving timeshare but you could say it only goes one way. None of his benefactors seem to know they are being so charitable and Mr. MeKeever does his best not to draw attention to himself. Letting himself in through fence boards, sneaking down through manhole covers, and setting up an elaborate trigger system to turn off all lights at the moments notice. In this way, he manages to live a rather comfortable life undetected in the boarded up estate of the aforementioned magnate John O’Connor.

Although he’s a rather peculiar character, a conniver and a bit of an opportunist, it should not go unsaid that he does have a conscience — a moral code if you will — that makes him increasingly compelling. Aside from his quirky ways, Aloysius McKeever is quite generous even if it involves someone else’s capital. Soon his great home that he is “borrowing” is filled with a few GIs and families including the drifting Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) who was thrown out of his apartment after Mr. O’Connor bought the land. Now with a place to gather himself, Jim has the seed of an idea — retrofitting old army barracks into track housing for returning GIs. The only problem is they need real estate, real estate being snapped up by the one in the same John O’Connor. You’ve probably gotten tired of hearing his name by now.

All of this would be unrelated if it weren’t for a girl who ran away from finishing school, Trudy O’Connor (Gale Storm). Her last name says it all already, and when she flees to seek asylum at her father’s  winter estate, she’s surprised to find it occupied. It makes for a funny scenario but rapidly she settles into the community and simultaneously falls in love with Jim.

At this juncture, Trudy asks her father for perhaps the biggest favor of her life — that he would play it her way — masquerading as another vagrant so that he can meet her love and not sway him to marry Trudy with the imminent promise of great wealth. And that’s the next enjoyment of the film, watching stuffy old Mr. O’Connor forced to be a guest in his own home, bossed around by Aloysius. But he’s not the only one out of sorts, Trudy’s mother (Ann Harding) also comes to live with them as a cook and this creates yet another complicating layer of wistful romance.

In the process, everyone learns something. There is a newfound appreciation for people and life. What it means to make an honest day’s wages. What it means to live for more than money. What it means to truly love someone so much that you don’t want to live a day without them. Even what it means to live in a caring community that looks to bless each other and share resources in such a way that no one is in need. I would even wager a bet that this is less socialism and more of what the early Christians talked about in Acts.

The film is blessed by some lovable, wonderfully comic performances from a couple great Hollywood actors, most notably Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles who highlight the storyline’s oddities. Meanwhile, some of the younger stars have winning charm that would translate into several solid careers in the growing medium of television. For some ready made feel-good Christmas magic, look no further than 5th Avenue.

3.5/5 Stars