I Love Trouble (1948): Enter Roy Huggins

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In the days before they were known as film noir, the melodramas of the 1940s have such evocative titles, which now verge on the edge of camp. One can imagine the plethora of quality bumper stickers noir aficionados could plaster on their jalopies and Cadillacs. Try these on for size: Kiss Me Deadly, Murder My Sweet, Touch of Evil, In a Lonely Place. You get the idea.

I’ve become so conditioned to hearing them — to referencing the actors and directors within their frames — sometimes it’s easy to forget how strange they sound. Well, you might as well add I Love Trouble to the bunch. Of course, it means absolutely nothing, but that’s the point isn’t it, stirring something volatile up within the viewer. It suggests a vivid mental picture and this is somehow equally important.

I Love Trouble is generally forgotten today, as is its director-producer, S. Sylvan Simon, and yet the movie is a swirling labyrinth capable of going toe to toe with anything Marlowe ever faced. The dividing line between tautness and plot holes or logic and absurdity almost ceases to have credence. If this will fluster you as a viewer — enrage your logical sensibilities — it’s best to look somewhere else for your two-bit entertainment.

The true pleasures come with getting swept up in the world with all its additions and misdirects courtesy of a neverending conveyor belt of characters riffing off snappy bits of repartee. It fills in fairly nicely between the confrontations and beatings, smoothing over any major issues.

The opening is simple. A man is trailing a woman and she confronts him. It turns out he’s a private eye in the service of one Ralph Johnston (Tom Powers), looking for the other man’s missing wife. So it’s a bit of a Vertigo set-up, except the woman he’s already confronted wasn’t her. Well, it was, but it might as well be somebody else. Because she altogether vanishes from the film.

What follows is as expected. Stuart Bailey (Franchot Tone) makes the rounds being his charming, slightly ingratiating self in order to dig up the facts at the behest of his employer. Tone is a dashing lead prone to cheekiness, but this is most of the fun, played in the vein of the best P.I. work of Bogart and Dick Powell if not quite as iconic.

No matter. It leads him to run around Los Angeles and take a venture to Portland, Oregon. The facts start unveiling themselves bit by bit but never in a clear, definitive manner. There must always be further convolutions and new moments of sheer incomprehensibility.

In a picture like this, every single Dick and Jane might as well have a motive and the cast just keeps on coming. To explain how all the characters fit together siphons off a bit of the gamesmanship of the drama. It’s safe to say John Ireland is a brooding heavy. Steven Gerray, though graced with pleasant features, somehow contrives them, along with his accent, into something vaguely sinister.

Then, there’s the bald-pated cafe staffer Buffin (Sid Tomack), who knew the dame in a former life when she was making the move to Los Angeles. There’s a Chauffeur who seems oddly invested in the whereabouts of Mrs. Johnston and his enigmatic employer Mrs. John Vega Cabrillo (Janis Carter).

Others might be far more astute than me, but upon a single viewing, it’s easy to admit never quite getting one’s head straight on which woman is which, and maybe that’s the point of it all. Regardless, it hardly seems necessary to avail oneself of the details.

Janet Blair has near-top billing and drifts into the story almost haphazardly on the pretense of finding her sister. Janis Carter is suitably brooding with that imperious allure of hers. Adele Jergens is just another pretty face who jousts with our protagonist because what would such a picture be without her? Finally, there’s Glenda Farrell with a bit of lovable fortitude as Hazel Bixby, Bailey’s hapless secretary.

It actually proves to be a fine asset, having so many female characters all of varying degrees of importance, but all getting a piece of the pie. Because granted some are more cursory than others, and yet I’m even disposed to remember the two waitresses (Karen X Gaylord and Roseanne Murray) at the sidewalk cafe. It says something about the characterizations, where the bit players get to leave an impression.

These whirling, often abstruse brands of noir often work best on this level. I Love Trouble can generously be christened a lesser disciple of The Big Sleep but nevertheless a decent go at the gumshoe genre. Because it has the peculiarities — small pockets of interest — placed within the befuddling signposts of the plot.

Roy Huggins would be remembered much later for his work in television for shows like 77 Sunset Strip, coincidentally starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Stuart Bailey, and then The Rockford Files, which owes more than a small debt to the hardboiled procedurals of the olden days with a James Garner twist for the 70s.

The final moments of I Love Trouble could play out as a male dreamscape. Our protagonist is surrounded by a myriad of women, and yet since the threat is abated, he’s taken in by the calls of matrimony. For being such an obscure entry in the noir canon, it’s quite a surprising piece of diversion if you go for such things.

3.5/5 Stars

Framed (1947): Janis Carter and Glenn Ford

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The opening scene of Framed is glorious. It’s the epitome of why these old B pictures have some much to offer audiences often bloated on cinematic glut. A runaway truck careens down a mountain road as the driver sweats it out trying to punch the breaks uselessly. Entering a busy town, he’s forced to make a wild maneuver the other way. Finally, his big rig dies down lazily plunking a truck backing out into the street.

In the ensuing altercation, we learn so much about the tightwad trucking foreman who won’t pay for the damages and our nameless hero who took the gig for the cash and proceeds to hand over what’s coming to him to pay for the damages of the victim (Edgar Buchanan).

We’re finally allowed a breather as he steps into the nearby La Paloma cafe and conveniently our whole story is laid out before us in tantalizing fashion. We’re on board for the ride.

The internal logic of the film noir malaise means everything that can be stacked up against a man will be. Mike Lambert’s not a bad fellow; he seems as honest and frank as any. True, he drinks too much, he’s prone to gambling, but he’s been given the bum steer. In a matter of minutes, he sits down at the bar only to get whisked off to court and sentenced for his misdeeds. In this regard, the crook of the law seems to be bent in favor of the unscrupulous.

However, this is only a starting point or a pretense because Lambert is pulled out of the clink by the dubious generosity of an amorous barmaid bombshell with a pair of bewitching eyes (Janis Carter). Why she would stick her neck out for a stranger and dish out $50 remains to be seen.

Except everyone in a picture like this has an angle to work. Soon enough, we find out hers. Because she and an accomplice are looking for the perfect stooge, the perfect patsy, the perfect man to be framed.

The movie is built out of what feels like a chainlink of romantic entanglements with people strung out in a line between one another. Glenn Ford is romanced by Janis Carter to keep him in town and at the same time oblivious. Her real accomplice is a man named Steve Price who has married into money; his wife remains utterly disillusioned with their loveless marriage.

It’s also a contrived story where everything is conveniently interconnected — at least in cinematic terms — so all the relationships, even if they feel circumstantial, fit together in just the right ways to tease out the dramatic situation.

Consider for a moment how Ford, a field engineer, reconnects with the straggly man Cunningham (Buchannan) who happens to be a miner in need of a loan. Then, consider how the man in charge of loans at the bank is none other than Mr. Price. It’s his refusal that keeps Lambert waiting around town looking for a break as Paula continues to run interference and ingratiate herself to him.

However, the logic never feels like a lynchpin because it all builds up to this near fatalistic helplessness of a man unknowingly walking straight into a trap. Perceptive viewers might recognize that this ensuing sense of powerlessness setting in is not unlike North by Northwest or more aptly Double Indemnity — albeit from the inside out.

It gives us a different kind of investment as this time our “hero” is not the perpetrator but the victim. Because Lambert, without his knowledge, is being dragged into a grand conspiracy rife with larceny, murder, and any number of things. Although in the end, the trap is sprung in a different manner than expected.

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Do you think Ford’s about to get bested in his own picture? Not likely. As a steady leading man, he’s always easy to like even when he verges on the brusque in a movie like this. The film sets him up as a straight arrow, hampered by his vices though he might be. Edgar Buchanan falls into his role like most any of them with a familiar aplomb. Whether the part is stretching at all seems beside the point, because he manages to fill it so seamlessly.

Another character veteran, Art Smith, has a bit part as the none too solicitous, solitaire-playing hotel clerk. If nothing else, while I always enjoy coming upon him in a picture, his presence is a marker of the times. He too, like so many others, would become a casualty of the McCarthy-era witch hunts, self-imposed by Hollywood. Included in this unfortunate club was the film’s screenwriter Ben Maddow as well as actress Karen Morley.

Barry Sullivan is unscrupulous but fairly straitlaced and bland while end-to-end Janis Carter is yet again the unsung hero of the picture. Like all the great conniving dames of yesteryear,  beauty is an asset with which to utterly bewitch the opposite sex. She uses it handily.

We watch her continually modulating between moments of self-serving opportunism and genuine showings of sentiment and fear — as the fairer sex — with the movie somehow casting her in this duplicitous mold of both temptress and victim.

There you have the heart and soul of the femme fatale right there. So when Paula looks out the back of that car and Mike drops his cigarette butt in disgust, we are borne into the tension. It’s the tension between doing the right thing and getting to have someone like that look at you that way. In such a disquieting world, there might be right or wrong, but somehow, it doesn’t make it any more agreeable on the other side. Frankly, it stinks.

3.5/5 Stars

Night Editor (1946) and a Femme Fatale Worse Than Blood Poisoning

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This expedient B noir opens with the most peculiar of narrative devices. The only guess is it’s somehow tied to the film’s roots in serial radio drama. A pack of poker-playing, late-night newshounds is chewing the fat, and out of their nattering comes the story of Tony Cochrane (William Gargan).

The real film starts in a kid’s bedroom. A father talks cops and robbers with his son along with roller skates and going fishing like they used to. The boy watches his “Pops” leave before entreating him to “Keep his nose clean.”

Gargan, a gruff, marble-mouthed type, fits the role of the nondescript detective on a beat, though he doesn’t seem like much of a family man. It’s not the only seemingly incongruity around him. His doting, overly angelic wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell), a typical noir staple, wants to see more of him because she loves him dearly. Expectedly, her very presence sets up an uneasy queasiness in the cinemagoer’s stomach. Where there exists a “noir angel” her foil must be nearby — a woman whose feet go down to death.

Sure enough, he’s knee-deep in a clandestine affair. He’s got another dame and what a vicious creature of deception she is. We’ve jumped from the seat of matrimony and domestic tranquility to the front seat of his car stashed away in some neglected place all the more convenient for necking.

Janis Carter doesn’t get too many kudos these days, even in noir circles, but a picture like Night Editor alone is worthy of hoisting her out of the shadows into a place of ill-repute. It’s more than scummy and vindictive enough to put her on the map.

Granted, a lot of the film’s dialogue is clunky but some of it is also too delicious to pass up in terms of noir-speak. One opening exchange between the surreptitious lovers springs to mind, “You’re just no good for me. We both add up to zero. You’re worse than blood poisoning.”

This is fertile ground for something devastating to happen. It turns out we don’t have to wait around because Cochrane and Jill happen to witness a nighttime murder just across the road. It’s the kind of punchy jolt movies like this thrive on.

Instantly the dramatic situation is placed before us conveniently because our protagonist is a cop — bound by some sense of morals and justice — he’s not completely ditched his conscience yet.

Still, her pleading words ring in his ears as he sticks out his gun to apprehend the killer. It’ll be a scandal. His wife and kid will suffer. And the worst part: She’s right. So the assailant runs off into the night and for the rest of the picture, he’s got to wrestle with his decision. It’s a petrifying situation to be in, and it’s got him all twisted up inside.

Soon enough, news of the murder breaks, and the game is afoot as Tony is called on to help with the case (and simultaneously looks to cover his tracks). Ole (Paul E. Burns) is his amiable colleague at the police station. Although he’s more Swedish and less imposing, he shares some overlapping qualities with Barton Keyes, employing the same kind of uncanny intuition. But, best of all, he’s a loyal friend.

Meanwhile, the newshounds sitting around the station wait with bated breath for scraps. There’s a feeling the case could blow wide open at any moment. It just so happens his gal is a smarmy high society gal where it counts, married to an affluent old boy. She’s a trophy wife out on the prowl. However, she’s also got another budding love affair — no doubt one of many — but this one is of particular importance.

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A flattering man named Loring who works at the local bank holds the keys to the case. Except only Tony and Jill know it. When she effectively provides him a fictitious alibi, Tony is all but forced to live a lie and eat his words as she walks off with another man. Truth is often created by the people who speak first, and there’s no way for him to easily refute her.

What’s before him now is an extension of his living nightmare. No girl, no relief, and, of course, his home life has suffered due to his increasing aloofness. There’s little recourse but to take a stand against Julia — with one final stab at veracity — lest the lies eat him alive.

It’s a foregone conclusion. Their final confrontation cannot end well. There’s too much between them, of both malice and consequence, for any decision to resolve itself smoothly. And so in the kitchen, sure enough, he lets her know he’s going to talk — someone’s going to believe him.

Her reaction is almost cute. The doe eyes. The breathiness. The physical touch and the vaguely genuine show of sincerity. There’s an inkling that it might be true. But even if it is, she’s predisposed toward the violence and self-preservation all but ingrained in her very nature.

He staggers out into the living room in a near surreal state, with a new resolve and calm cast over him. Still, we’ve witnessed something bearing irrevocable consequences. Out on the doorstep stand the authorities. Surely, this is the end…Then, he crumples to the ground — the dramatic exclamation point to a sordid procedural.

Sadly this quagmire of fatalism was not to be, all but remedied by the same hokey radio program hoax as the editors tie the story up with an ending fit for an innocuous Disney movie. Until this final false step of pollyannaism, Night Editor more than earns its keep as a wanton noir gem. You just have to look between the bylines.

3.5/5 Stars