Cover Up (1949): A Christmas Crime B Film

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Cover Up is one of the dime a dozen noir titles you have to really dig around for. It’s actually not really a prototypical film noir at all. However, if you’re a fan of forgotten unadorned small-town whodunits, it might just grab you.

Its main assets are in the script department and the presence of a couple old pros like Dennis O’Keefe and William Bendix. They practically eat crime for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so to see them in another one hardly stretches the imagination. Still, they’re as capable as ever and though the context might be pedestrian — a small Midwestern town with a murder mystery — it’s how we get to the reveal that matters most.

Take, for instance, the first time they meet at the sheriff’s office. O’Keefe is trying to file his report, and the sheriff keeps on getting distracted, telling him he should smoke less, get a pipe, etc. Meanwhile, he fumbles around wrapping Christmas presents. The quirks make the scene that much enjoyable, though we’ve doubtlessly seen the exposition umpteen times before.

One feather in its cap as far as fleshing out an atmosphere starts with a simple detail like setting the action during Christmas. Shane Black is one to use this technique, but it immediately adds another layer to any story because it’s instantly recognizable, instantly relatable to almost every one of us. It also makes a fine contrast with any of the criminal elements.

Because it’s safe to say two of the things most diametrically opposed to murder are the Midwest and Christmas. At least until now. The out of town bus arrives at the local depot and we have our meet-cute over a towering stack of tumbling presents.

Sam Donovan (Dennis O’keefe) offers his services to the radiant Anita Weatherby and she reluctantly concedes. Barbara Britton is only one effulgent face among the plethora of post-war beauties, perfectly epitomizing the traditional values of the time, but she fits this role capably.

In fact, it cannot be summed up better than the moment Donovan comes a calling on the girl at her parents’ home. There’s nothing more quaint and somehow innocent than courting culture involving the entire family in cozy drawing rooms.

Donovan remains an insurance investigator by day poking around about a purported suicide based on an insurance claim. He has other ideas about the cause of death, but seeing as the gun has disappeared and all the locals are quite reticent, little progress can be made. Not unlike Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) in The Killers, he’s trying to get to the bottom of it for his company.

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Soon it becomes obvious to him this was not simply a suicide as marked in the books, even a passing mention of a double indemnity clause suggests some form of foul play. But again, this is more The Thin Man Goes Home than it is any pernicious strain of crime flick. The token example is the sheriff’s office, which seems more in line with Barney Fife than Sam Spade.

Tired by the dead ends and the seeming evasiveness of the local authorities, Donovan nevertheless, spends his evenings in the company of the beautiful girl. They go to the movie house where they get gawked at by an inquisitive little boy who’s already seen the picture multiple times.

The next dramatic development is the death of a beloved member of the community, Dr. Giroux, and this year, the Christmas tree lighting normally carried out by him is a little dimmer. The murder weapon also looks to be a German Luger — with at least two different owners having one of the guns in their possession. The town’s own sheriff and Anita’s own father Mr. Weatherby. It starts to make her spine shiver because she’s deathly afraid Donovan’s digging will lead directly to her loved ones. She is split between protecting her family and her new man.

Thematically, Cover Up plays a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life except the two men dueling for the soul of the town are off-screen enigmas. We never know them intimately and of course, murder is at the seat of it all. The fact this humble movie would attempt such themes is to its credit, but since these characters are never witnessed in the flesh, we have little interest in them.

It is the characters in front of us with the most relevance. So while it can’t quite manage to keep up the steam, for what it is, Cover Up is a minor Christmas delight, especially for the Dennis O’Keefe and William Bendix faithful.

3/5 Stars

The Web (1947)

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An effort like The Web is precisely why many people would “die” for film-noir. Unless I am simply speaking for myself. But I don’t think so. Personally, I perked up upon reading the name William Bowers in the opening credits as one of the architects of the script because it’s quite easy to imagine some of the film’s choicest flirtatious patter being penned by him. He and his accomplices give our stars something to talk about in what otherwise might seem like idle moments. In fact, if it weren’t for its ultimately sinister outcomes, The Web carries a certain lightness of being through much of its run.

That brings us to our stars who are a fine teaming of talent for a B-grade picture. In fact, they are probably about as good as you could get considering. We have Edmond O’Brien, a personal favorite as a noir hero (The Killers, White Heat, D.O.A, etc.) and then Ella Raines, another often unsung but no less important noir heroine (Phantom Lady) of the 1940s.

Vincent Price is impeccable playing his at times beguiling businessman with that usual mixture of charm and slithering cunning. Between his lankiness and those distinct imperious eyes of his, he’s rarely been better. Our last prominent figure is the coolly perceptive William Bendix who despite his persona, knows far more than he lets on, as a generally competent member of the police force.

One morning a cocksure young lawyer named Bob Regan (O’Brien) goes barging into the offices of Mr. Andrew Colby on the pretense that his client, a man named Emilio Canepa who had his fruit cart upturned by negligent driving and he’s calling for $68.72 in damages. The businessman amusedly agrees to it, after all, it’s only a small trifle. But along the way, Regan tries to pick up the man’s loyal secretary Noel (Raines) as well as unwitingly piquing Colby’s interest. He could use someone with guts.

It’s such a dandy and a rather outrageous sequence that we almost forget the actual opening shot showing an elderly fellow being released from prison after a five-year stint. The only person there to greet him is his daughter. We gather he has a bone to pick and that is important for all that is inevitable in the near future.

For now, it’s all Edmond O’Brien. He notes that they have a snug little setup going on within Colby’s closest inner circle. They seem real buddy-buddy in all facets of their affairs. However, straight away Regan joins the operation when $5,000 is waved in front of him to act as a bit of an unofficial bodyguard and it comes with a gun permit he’s able to finagle out of his old friend at the Police precinct.

Of course, he doesn’t realize that just the following day he will be unloading the pistol on someone and killing a man no less — the same man who was just released for prison with the charge of embezzlement. But it was all done with clear intention as bitter Mr. Kroner was going to kill Mr. Colby so in that regard Regan has little to worry about.  And yet he can’t help but start to get ideas because between the police and nighttime visitors he’s given a lot to chew on.

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The film’s script has its share of veiled double talk both sensual and then increasingly threatening as it pertains to the curious events at hand. Because what reveals itself is a deliciously twisted reality that calls for the reevaluation of what we know to be true and who we trust as an audience.  The rational and yes, even the believable might very well fly out of the window but what a noir like this gives us is something arguably more satisfying in terms of impending doom.

Where something like a net — a web of destruction — begins to descend upon and close in around our heroes. It’s been cleverly orchestrated with the clearest of intent clearing up all the loose ends and framing them handily.

The police nab them easily in this case, involving multiple murders, a whole lot of money, and two tickets to Mexico. The question is who will gain from such a resolution and since that question is quite simple to answer, the better one yet is how might they possibly catch the culprit?

I’m not too proud to admit thoroughly enjoying The Web because it embodies everything that the dark genre is promoted as being and you leave the picture satiated after being caught up in something supremely sinister. It was never high art nor did it claim to be but that’s all part of the immense allure. O’Brien, Raines, Price, and Bendix might as well all be character archetypes. The parts they play do the picture a distinct service.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Steal (1949)

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Granted you have star power but it’s easy to assume that The Big Steal will be a no name picture. A minor triumph at best. Not so! This film fares far better than countless of its bigger competitors.

It proves to be a winking romp full of bedroom brawls, car chases, and twists and turns every which way that send us whipping through Mexico. Equally important to the pace of the action is the levity of the script from Daniel Mainwaring (under a pseudonym) that gives our stars something to do and they do it effortlessly.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (partnered again after the undisputed classic Out of the Past) meet as the two obvious foreigners in a sea of locals as Mitchum is getting accosted by a street vendor to buy a parrot. He’s one of those foreigners coming off as a buffoon navigating other cultures and the languages that go with them. Though I can’t ride him too hard as one of those blundering Americans myself. Still, his Spanish is mediocre at best and she is aghast at his cultural insensitivity. So right there you have the needed romantic tension and things only get better going forward.

Because their association doesn’t end there. Of course, it doesn’t. Duke Halladay is out to nab the man named Fiske (Patric Knowles) who absconded with some of his hard earned cash and Joan had a similar job pulled on her — the man of questionable integrity also just happened to be her boyfriend.

The unlikely partnership is formed after Mitchum leaps for the running board of the other man’s fleeing vehicle and winds up dragging Greer in front of the Inspector General to explain the public disturbance.

The Inspector General (Ramon Novarro) happens to be a budding pupil in English as his second in command (Don Alvarado) attended the University of California which while being convenient for the story also manages to make our Mexican characters into actual individuals who are endowed with an animated quality all their own.

If the main chase is our leading couple trying to track down Fiske, who gives them the slip on multiple occasions then the scenario simply gets more convoluted as Duke’s superior (William Bendix) is tailing him. They have some unfinished business to attend to because Blake believes the other man took part in a theft of his own. Thus, The Big Steal is just that. Even the soft-spoken John Qualen (probably best remembered for Casablanca) gets in on the party and flaunts a bit of a villainous side.

Some of the finer moments are the lighter ones. There’s the ongoing patter of the dialogue firing off between Mitchum and Greer which couldn’t be better and it comes from the days where a guy could call a dame “Chaquita” and it’d stick. But the beauty of their relationship is Greer with that quizzical look of hers can dish it right back in Mitchum’s direction.

Likewise, during a winding car chase, the same character can quite seriously exclaim “Watch out for the cow” only to turn right around and create a livestock blockade of his own. Or because we are in rural Mexico cars can get stuck behind a caravan of hay wagons ambling along leisurely. They have no respect for the drama at stake. On another note, I’m flabbergasted that the cars involved survived at all with the dubious amount of off-roading they managed. I guess in the 1940s they built things to last.

There’s one hilarious roadblock in particular where Jane Greer uses her Spanish and Mitchum’s obliviousness to tell a local road worker (Pascual Garcia Pena) that they are madly in love and running away from her disapproving father. They must get through at all costs and it just so happens that Captain Blake is right behind him and receives a fine welcoming committee.

But the key is that the film ends not on the downward plunge but on the upswing as our two lovebirds observe the local mating rituals and give it their own twist. What a great picture and sure, it’s no Out of the Past but no one needs it to be. We already have one of those and The Big Steal is a leisure ride of its own making.

Set this against a backdrop beyond the Mexico border, a spliced together version of on location atmospherics and studio shots, and you are blessed with the wonderful patchwork of authenticity and artificiality that old Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s.

What’s more fascinating is that The Big Steal at least in this form might never have been. Robert Mitchum was hot off his notorious jailtime term because of marijuana possession, an event that undoubtedly solidified his reputation as an antihero. Meanwhile, not too happy with Jane Greer, RKO studio head and temperamental mogul Howard Hughes gave her this role out of spite.

How could a picture this small be any good with a leading man saddled with bad publicity? I cannot speak to contemporary audiences but today The Big Steal plays quite well. We have our stars and screenwriter to thank as well as a young up and coming director named Don Siegel who started out as a montage man and transitioned into B-pictures.

What makes him a wonderful worksmith is how he always seems to have a pulse on the action and he turns situations into truly dynamic entertainment even when it’s on a small scale. He didn’t need a big budget to still make a rip-roaring good time. The Big Steal is a stellar testament to what the Classic Hollywood studios were capable of with meager means. It’s an absorbing effort.

4/5 Stars

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

bluedahliaSoldiers returning home from war is a recurring theme in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives and Act of Violence and given the circumstances it makes sense. This was the reality. Men returning home from war as heroes. But even heroes have to re-acclimate to the world they left behind.

Blue Dahlia is not so much about the assimilation of G.I.s though. It’s more an excuse to show the noir world creeping into a man’s life infecting all he left behind. As he returns, Johnny Morrison’s wife (Doris Dowling) is keeping company with another fellow (Howard Da Silva) and everyone else seems to know about it except Johnny. Also, his young boy died tragically while he was away and his wife has taken to a life of drinking and partying. He’s not expecting any of this but then again what happens in film-noir is very rarely what we expect.

Raymond Chandler weaves together his first original screenplay here, a production that was hampered by the impending deployment of Alan Ladd as well as Chandler’s own bouts with alcoholism and writer’s block. It’s hard to know which one caused the other. But either way, the film finds its roots in a murder and the man who is suspect just happens to be the returning G.I. Before he ever knew people were looking for him he playfully took the name Jimmy Moore after meeting a lady (Veronica Lake) who happens to be closer to him than either of them realize.  Their paths cross more than once.Then he’s on the run. His war buddies (Hugh Beaumont and William Bendix) are worried about him after being questioned by the cops. And the cops are anxious to hone in on the killer because no one is of any real help. No solid leads come their way and that means Johnny has to track down the killer himself.

The direction of George Marshall is not particularly inspired but his players are compelling enough. Alan Ladd can still play the brusque tough guy and William Bendix steals the show with his own blue-collar bravado and snarling bluster. Veronica Lake doesn’t show up until well into the film and in many ways, despite her billing, she feels relegated to a smaller role. She’s not particularly memorable in the majority of it even with her scenes with Ladd. She’s mostly just there which is grossly unfortunate. It feels like a waste.

After the novelty of Hugh Beaumont wears off it makes sense why he transitioned to TV while Howard Da Silva and Doris Dowling denote a certain sleaze that comes off quite well. Meanwhile, Frank Faylen plays an integral role as one of his typical curmudgeon types. He made a killing off of that niche. Still, Ladd and Bendix are the main attraction in this adequate serving of film-noir. On a darker note, this film also gave its name to the unsolved Black Dahlia killing of Elizabeth Short in 1947. It’s one time when perhaps reality was more tragic than fiction. Raymond Chandler could not have even dreamed up such a grisly drama. At least not for the silver screen.

3.5/5 Stars

The Glass Key (1942)

the-glass-key-1942With Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon making a splash just the year before and giving a big leg up to its star Humphrey Bogart as well as its director John Huston, it’s no surprise that another such film would be in the works to capitalize on the success. This time it was based on Hammett’s novel The Glass Key and it would actually be a remake of a previous film from the 30s starring George Raft.

But instead, we had Alan Ladd in the lead fresh off a career-making performance the year before. True, Ladd’s no Bogart and the forgotten Stuart Heisler is hardly the caliber of Huston, and still, the film is somehow entertaining in its own way. It channels the political corruption of Force of Evil with a bit of the unfathomable plot and mile-long laundry list of characters rather like The Big Sleep. And once more like any comparison with the Maltese Falcon, it hardly holds a candle to these other films but it’s not trying to be overly smart. It never makes an attempt at commentary or some deep philosophical character study but it does ladle out some unabashed noir entertainment.

There’s the pairing of Ladd and Veronica Lake once more to capitalize on their breakout success in This Gun for Hire. Noir regular Brian Donlevy stars alongside them playing a tough guy and political boss named Paul Madvig. His right-hand man Ed Beaumont (Ladd) stands stalwart by his side until Madwig gets caught up in politics as well a murder accusation. By day he tries to win the hand of the pretty daughter (Lake) of an aspiring governor while at night he looks to run out the towns gangsters namely one Nick Varna. As one might expect murder, corruption and familial turmoil all become integral plot points

Once more Ladd shows his aptitude for playing “leading roles” that still somehow allow him to stand on equal footing beside other stars. His most prominent performance as the gunslinger Shane is a fine example because although he is the title character, still somehow he manages to walk in the periphery and he does so with a quiet confidence. Similarly, in This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, there is a cool curtness to his demeanor that he pulls off well. It allows him to be the star without really seeming like it. That’s the quality he’s able to cast and Lake works well to balance him out. Donlevy gives a surprisingly spirited performance but he’s not a magnetic star. If anyone, this is Ladd’s film with Lake too.

As we would expect with any decently entertaining noir thriller, the rest of the film is filled out with quite the menagerie of characters the most memorable of those being William Bendix as a rough and tumble henchman. He and Ladd have it out in a couple of scenes and in real life, they would become lifelong friends. The way they beat each other up though it’s sometimes hard to tell.

3.5/5 Stars