Saturday, October 28, 2017

Railroaded! (1947)

September 25, 1947, release date
Directed by Anthony Mann
Screenplay by John C. Higgins
Based on a story by Gertrude Walker
Music by Alvin Levin
Edited by Louis Sackin
Cinematography by Guy Roe

John Ireland as Duke Martin
Sheila Ryan as Rosie Ryan
Hugh Beaumont as Mickey Ferguson
Jane Randolph as Clara Calhoun
Charles D. Brown as Police Capt. MacTaggart
Clancy Cooper as Detective Jim Chubb
Peggy Converse as Marie Weston
Ed Kelly as Steve Ryan
Hermine Sterler as Mrs. Ryan
Keefe Brasselle as Cowie Kowalski
Roy Gordon as Jackland Ainsworth

Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films
Produced by Producers Releasing Corporation

I was ready to be disappointed when I saw the cartoonish cover of the DVD copy of Railroaded! that I had borrowed. Instead, I found a very gritty film noir that was full of surprises, one of the first being Hugh Beaumont as a police detective, Sergeant Ferguson, and not his fatherly Ward Cleaver character from the television show Leave It to Beaver (1957–1963). Railroaded! was inspired by the same case on which another film noir, Call Northside 777, starring Jimmy Stewart, is based. Call Northside 777 is much closer to the real-life case.

Click here for more information at Wikipedia about the arrest and conviction of Joseph Majczek and Theodore Marcinkiewicz, whose case formed the basis for both Railroaded! and Call Northside 777.

The opening credits of Railroaded! appear over a nighttime city scene. The scene cuts to the camera moving closer to a nighttime street, then closer to street level, and finally to a storefront called Carla Calhoun: Your House of Beauty. The editing and the camera shots set up the story and the atmosphere from the beginning, going from a general urban scene to a location where the narrative begins. Pedestrians pass by Carla’s shop; one is a police officer walking his beat.

Two men with scarves over their faces hold up the beauty shop, but Clara, the proprietor, is remarkably unconcerned. She apparently is in on the plot: She signaled via opening and closing the back door that the beauty shop was closing for the day. Marie is one of Clara’s coworkers, and she screams when one of the robbers, Kowalski, puts his rifle barrel in her face. Kowalski is shot by Officer O’Hara, the one who strolled past the storefront just minutes ago. Officer O’Hara entered the shop after hearing Marie scream. Kowalski and Duke Martin struggle to escape because Kowalski has been shot by Officer O’Hara. Kowalski stumbles and pulls the scarf off Duke’s face and it drops to the floor before the two of them escape in a laundry truck from Larson’s Laundry.

In a matter of minutes, in a film that is barely more than an hour long, viewers are introduced to many details quickly and efficiently. I was pulled into the story from the start.

Marie and Clara, as witnesses, go to the police station and argue over the color of the men’s hair. Marie says that both had dark hair; Clara says that one had dark hair and one had sandy hair. The police believe Clara. Her statements to the police mean that she will be a witness at Steve Ryan’s trial, and Duke Martin, who is Clara’s boyfriend, has to make sure that she sticks to the story she told the police.

Detective Sergeant Mickey Ferguson and his partner Jim Chubb investigate Steve Ryan. He works for Larson’s Laundry, he has sandy hair, and his scarf was found at Clara’s beauty shop. The scarf is distinctive: It is navy- or army-issue and has Steve’s initials stenciled on it. In fact, he states that he stenciled his initials himself. Steve is taken on suspicion of armed robbery and homicide of a police officer. Both Rosie Ryan, Steve’s sister, and Mrs. Ryan, Steve’s mother, insist that Steve is innocent.

(This blog post about Railroaded! contains spoilers.)

John Ireland’s portrayal of Duke Martin is a real treat. He’s a man of few words, but he exudes evil and violence. He doesn’t trust anyone, and no one should trust him. Rosie Ryan tries to clear her brother’s name and uses any information she can get from Duke to do that. But Duke is interested only in self-preservation. Toward the end of the film, convinced that Rosie is double-crossing him, Duke pulls a gun on her and shoots her. This scene surprised me: Even in film noir, it’s unusual for the female lead, one who is not a femme fatale, to be the victim of such blatant violence.

Rosie misjudges Duke, but she doesn’t trust him as much as his girlfriend Clara Calhoun does. The realization that Duke will do anything to protect himself comes to Clara very slowly, only after his evasiveness about Marie’s disappearance (she’s been shot and her body dumped) and Sergeant Ferguson’s insistence that Duke is the one who murdered Marie.

The film’s conclusion is a neat wrap-up that seemed a little quick to me, but Railroaded! was almost certainly a B film on a 1947 marquee bill, which meant that brevity served the story and the theater lineup at that time extremely well. The ending lets viewers know that they are back on safe ground: The final scene is brightly lit, and Steve Ryan is home from jail, Rosie has her arm in a black sling, and Mickey Ferguson asks Rosie if she has changed her mind about cops.

Most of the time, however, Railroaded! is mostly darkness and shadows. In fact, I sometimes wished that many scenes had a bit more lighting so I could see what was going on. Near the end of the film, Duke Martin and Sergeant Ferguson get into a shootout at the Bombay Club (where Duke works—just barely, that is). It was impossible to see who was shooting at whom and when. Maybe that was supposed to add to the suspense, but I wanted to know who I was looking at at least some of the time. That’s really my only complaint. Railroaded!, at just over an hour, is a compact story. It must have been a lot of fun to watch on a Saturday afternoon at the movies in 1947.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Book) (2017)

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
New York: Doubleday, 2017

List of main characters:
Mollie Burkhart, Osage living in Osage County, Oklahoma
Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s husband
Anna Brown, Mollie’s sister
Rita Smith, Mollie’s sister
Bill Smith, Mollie’s brother-in-law
William K. Hale, Ernest’s uncle
Tom White, special agent assigned to the Oklahoma City field office for the Bureau of Investigation
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Bureau of Investigation, precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

This new book by David Grann is a page-turner: literally. I finished it in four days. I found myself reading ahead every time I picked it up. But before you judge me, did I mention that the book contains numerous pictures? I just couldn’t wait to put faces to the people Grann wrote about (and, yes, to find out more). Flowers of the Killer Moon reads like a novel, although it is based on a true and sad chapter of U.S. history.

(This blog post about the book Killers of the Flower Moon contains spoilers.)

Here is a partial description of the book from the author’s website (click here for complete information):
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. . . .

Martin Scorsese might or might not (most likely would) be making a film version of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI with Leonardo DiCaprio in the not-so-distant future. I was pleased to think that another neo-noir would likely be coming to theaters and video-streaming services in a year or so. And the book itself has so many noir characteristics: greed, betrayal, murder, violence, fear. From David Grann’s research and his writing in the third part of the book, it seems the fear spans generations.

Here are some links about the future of Killers of the Flower Moon as a film. Click on the publication title for the article:

Killers of the Flower Moon is divided into three distinct parts, called chronicles, and each of the three parts focuses on a particular person. The first, “The Marked Woman,” introduces Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who is losing her family members because of a murderer who seemingly cannot be caught. The second, “The Evidence Man,” focuses on Tom White, the special agent assigned to head the investigation into the mysterious deaths and murders on the Osage reservation.

The first two parts of the book reminded me of many films noir, but one especially came to mind: The Phenix City Story, which is based on real incidents in Phenix City, Alabama, in the 1950s. Corruption pervades everything, but the extent of the corruption is deep only because so many are complicit in it and profit from it. The combination is deadly in many films noir, and it is especially so in The Phenix City Story and in noir literature like Killers of the Flower Moon.

The third part of the book, “The Reporter,” brings readers back to the present and describes some of David Grann’s research findings that seem to have eluded the agents working the case in the late 1920s. Some of the investigators working under Tom White may have been bribed, but it seems more likely that many of them were so close to all the cases (and there were many of them) that they couldn’t put all the pieces together. And they couldn’t have known then how the fear and the threat of violence would be passed down. Even generations after the murders, interested parties don’t want secrets exposed.

I mentioned that the book has pictures, right? The photos, of both places and people, drew me in right away. The book is that much better because of their inclusion. Dividing the book into three parts that focus most closely on the principals—the people at the heart of the story—also brings readers in more easily and helps to increase the human interest aspects of an already fascinating story.

I do have two complaints about the book. A more detailed map on the endpapers would have been helpful. I kept wondering why Ralston, for example, wasn’t given a place on the map because the town is mentioned frequently. An index would also have been helpful in keeping track of all the names and places referenced throughout. The list of main characters that I provide above is abbreviated out of necessity: The author’s investigative work is detailed and exhaustive, and the entire period, the so-called Reign of Terror, introduces the reader to many, many names. When a last name cropped up that I knew had been mentioned already, however, I had no way (no index) to look it up and refresh my memory.

Please don’t let these omissions stop you from reading the book. Like I said, Killers of the Flower Moon is a page turner. I can’t imagine that other readers will be disappointed.