Monday, 10 July 2017

RAILROADED: THE BACK ALLEYS OF NOIR I

THE BACK ALLEYS OF NOIR is a title I'll use for occasional essays on the films I'm catching up with (or maybe revisiting) that fall into the general category of film noir. Or perhaps reflect in some ways upon it. I won't go into a great definition debate about what is or isn't noir right now: but I'm going through two editions of the Encylopedia of Film Noir which sit by my bed, and I may have something to say about that later. In the meantime, here's an early Anthony Mann I finally caught up to, and just yesterday I was talking about it with my friend Jeanine Basinger, who wrote the first and best book on Mann, which has been reissued and is still in print...

ANTHONY MANN'S RAILROADED

I'm not sure how I managed to miss Railroaded before, because this early Anthony Mann noir is fascinating at times on its own account, and moreso for what it says in relation to Mann's other work. According to IMDB it was released in 1947 after T-Men, which is often considered Mann first classic, done in a semi-documentary style. The title Railroaded implies some kind of police malfeasance, which would play into a documentary style; some variation on 'Framed' would be more accurate a title. But we do get some of the technical detail, as we did in T-Men: the laboratory forensics (discovering a perfume-scented bullet!), the quick access to the villain's rap sheet, the police radio broadcasting across the nameless city.And more interesting, as in T-Men, we have a top cop, the hard-boiled Capt. MacTaggart, smoking through a cigarette holder, as disconcerting in this movie as in that one, and no accident, as he's shown doing it in multiple scenes. It's sometimes seen as an easy way to make a stock character stand-out, but I think there's something slightly more sinister, more unsettling about it; something about the way the bureaucracy may impinge on the character of those it rewards.

The movie belongs to John Ireland as the villain Duke Martin, and, whenever he's in a scene, the centre of attention (note the poster above right). He could be the template for Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, only he's cooler, more convinced of his superiority, and his violence is more controlled, and thus more vicious. Jane Randolph sadly has to play her part with more vulnerability because of this, but she starts out brassy and tough: Clara Calhoun owns a beauty salon that's a front for a bookie joint; she and Duke plan to rob her take one night and keep the cash. When the heist goes wrong and a cop is killed, they frame young Eddie Ryan for the crime, and it's up to his sister Rosie and hero detective Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont) to learn the truth.

Stella Ryan, as Rosie, is most interesting when she's trying to get close to Duke by playing up to him; there's just the slightest suggestion she might be drawn to dark side of the Club Bombay forever, especially when she (gasp) accepts a cigarette from Duke. Beaumont isn't bad as the cop, though he's almost constantly having to play against his own innate niceness. Which hurts in a sense since his romance with Rosie almost parallels Dukes in its forcefulness, but he has nowhere to go with that.

As in other noirs, from Mann and others, relationships can be highly ambiguous and eminently mutable. Duke rubs down his gun (and its bullets) with a handerchief soaked in Clara's perfume (the scented bullets turn out not to be a key plot point), as well as using his (still-scented) handkerchief to polish his cigarette case feverishly as he tries to seduce Rosie. This frenzied wrist motion highlights Duke's manic sexuality: he's the epitome of what his boss, Jackland Ainsworth (played with great relish by Charles D Brown as he reads to Duke and his own moll passages from Oscar Wilde about the need to keep women under control with force. When Duke eventually shoots him, he does it while telling him about killing his previous boss, up close and facing him. His name, Jackland Ainsworth might be a subconscious kind of clue. This subplot of violence against women also explains why Eddie Ryan has been framed; he beat-up Duke's actual accomplice in the robbery for coming on too strong to Rosie.

But what's most fascinating is watching Mann (working with cinematographer Guy Roe) using the template of noir. It's at its best in interior scenes; the opening is brilliant in Clara's salon (we know she's bad because she has her initials embroidered gaudily on her uniform) where the robbers literally materialise out of the shadows, and where the curtains create dark effects as the robbery and shootings take place. When Duke stashes Clara in a waterfront dive, it looks too elegant for its setting, but when he shoots her he's framed in stark contrast to that setting, turning it into a trap. Even better is the scene when Clara goes to the drugstore phone booth to get help from Mickey, who's at the Ryan's house (don't ask): shot from the outside, framed by the drugstore window and the booth's windows, it's Hopper crossed with black and white Richard Estes. Finally there is Club Bombay, shot through small windows from the outside, and a hidden window that looks like a television screen from Ainsworth's office. The final shootout in the shadows, which Mann expands to include a brilliant bit behind the piano, ends with Duke being shot in the back, dominating the screen as he dies. Sharp contrast to the way he's killed Ainsworth, facing him, previously. There's a subtle diminishing of Beaumont as a hero in that. Duke also plugs Rosie as she stands in the shadows of the Club Bombay, set off in the chiaroscuro shadows, but it's only the inevitable shoulder wound, though in the final scenes it appears that the wrong shoulder has been bandaged.

The plot stalls repeatedly, because it cries for Rosie to be more active in it, and for Beaumont to perhaps get caught up more severely in her ambiguity. One of the key scenes is a cat-fight between Rosie and Clara in Clara's luxury flat, while Duke looks on from behind a doorway. She's brilliant in a three-way scene at he club where Duke and Mickey spar over her at a table. But this story's really about getting from one point to the next. I'm still trying to figure out how writer John C Higgins, who also wrote T-Men simply keeps things moving, to get to the confrontations that are set up so intriguingly by Mann.

Ferguson's partner, the aptly named Jim Chubb (played with great B movie relish by Clancy Cooper) is able to find out where Clara is stashed, as supposedly only she and Duke know where she is. Or why Duke has to write down the number to Rosie's phone, when he already knows it and it's dead easy to remember. But that's just plot and frankly we don' need no steenkin plot. There is more than enough to savour in Railroaded.

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