The copy of Behind Green Lights that I watched at the Internet Archive is less than sixty-two minutes long, although that might not be completely accurate because the Internet Archive’s print is a bit jumpy, especially at the start of the film. It’s especially noticeable when Carol Landis’s character, Janet Bradley, holds private investigator Walter Bard at gunpoint and then walks out with something worth threatening him for; the jump in the film garbles whatever she accuses him of having. But details are provided in subsequent conversations with other characters. And even though viewers never really learn exactly who Janet Bradley is hoping to protect by taking incriminating evidence from Walter Bard, the film still has a very satisfying ending.
Behind Green Lights is in the public domain. Click here to see the film online for free at the Internet Archive.
The first ten or so minutes set up multiple points, ideas, and threads of the narrative. As is true of many films noir, it is important to pay attention to details because they matter to the resolution of the plot and subplots. For such a short film, there is plenty going on. Viewers get to see all the pieces of the story and how they are related, even when the film’s characters don’t participate in all the events. And even though Behind Green Lights can be called a film noir, it does have some other elements, such as humor and romance. The noir elements include corruption, betrayal, murder, sensationalism in newspaper reporting.
The narrative starts with a shot of a clock tower that looks like Big Ben in London, but I do believe that the film takes place in New York City (more on this later). The clock in the tower reads 10:30, and it is nighttime. This same clock is used again and again to mark time in the progress of the story, which takes place over the course of one night and mostly in a police station.
Johnny Williams, a new reporter on the police beat and working for a paper called the Herald, is being introduced to the police station by Ames, another reporter who works in the press room at the police station for a different newspaper. Viewers see some humor during Williams’s introductory tour, for example:
◊ A mother has brought in her young son, who has a glass globe stuck on his head. A police officer pretends to smash it with a hammer.
◊ A husband wants to report his wife for stealing their car. A police officer explains that she can’t steal something from her husband when it is considered community property. The husband’s answer: He is a member of the community.
Lieutenant Sam Carson is in the middle of lecturing teenagers about going to bars before they are of legal age when Ames arrives to introduce Johnny Williams to Carson and Detective Sergeant Oppenheimer.
The film cuts to a driverless car rolling slowly down the street and coming to rest in front of the police station. The shot of the car approaching the camera in extreme close-up must have been impressive on the large movie screens of the 1940s. Carson and Oppenheimer find the car outside as they leave the police station. When Lieutenant Carson opens the front driver’s side door, the body of Walter Bard falls out onto the pavement. Both Carson and Oppenheimer recognize him, as do all the reporters in the press room at the police station. They come out to have a look and then return to the press room to report to their respective newspapers. Walter Bard was shot in his own car. Detective Oppenheimer wonders aloud if it was suicide; Lieutenant Carson thinks it was murder because the police at the front desk of the station would have heard the shot if Bard killed himself up the street.
Later Carson finds Bard’s appointment book among his effects, and in it, Bard recorded an appointment with Janet Bradley just around the time of Bard’s death. She is the daughter of Luther Bradley, the reform candidate for mayor. If she is involved in Bard’s death, it would be a public scandal, and the election is only a week away. Many in town would like to ruin Luther Bradley’s chances at political success and reform, among them Dr. G. F. Yager, the medical examiner at the police station and one of the corrupt elements on the police force. He goes to Max Calvert at the Express newspaper about Janet Bradley’s possible involvement.
Max Calvert arrives at the police station to talk to Carson. He reminds Carson that there is an election the following week and that he would love to ruin Luther Bradley’s political chances. He tries to bribe Carson with promotion to police chief, but only if Carson would agree to book Janet Bradley and help smear the Bradley name, whether the police have evidence to suspect her or not. Calvert also reminds Carson about Captain Mike Shea, who died in the line of duty and never “cooperated,” as he puts it. The implication is that he had some help dying in the line of duty.
Behind Green Lights is short, and even this brief description shows that the story has many elements to it. But my interest in the film goes beyond the story itself. The title and the film’s prologue prompted me to do some research, which probably took a lot longer than it did to watch the film!
I was intrigued by the title because I had no idea what it meant. Why “green lights”? What did green lights have to do with any of the subplots in the film? Perhaps audiences in 1946 would have known more about it, but I had to do some investigating. According to a New York Police Department tweet quoted by PIX11, “The green lights that hang outside the entrances of police precincts are a symbol that the ‘watch’ is present and vigilant.” (For more information about the green lights outside police departments in New York City, click here.) The information in the article at PIX11 suggests to me that the film takes place in New York City, despite what the film’s opening prologue says about the story taking place in just about any city and despite the clock tower resembling Big Ben.
The written prologue appears after the film’s opening credits, and it reads as follows: “This is the story of one night in a big city police station—your city or mine—where anything can happen, and very often does—where all kinds of people in every kind of trouble rub shoulders while John Law sorts them out.” I was pretty sure that the term John Law referred to police officers, but I decided to research this, too. The online Urban Dictionary defines John Law as “[a] police officer who does not abuse their power, and honorably upholds the motto ‘To Serve and Protect.’ An officer who remembers what it’s like to be a kid and carries insight for all people.” It also quotes a song called “John Law” by the Dropkick Murphys that was released in 2000. (You can find the lyrics at Lyrics.com.) So even though I hadn’t heard the term John Law myself, it seems it’s not out of date quite yet.
I wanted to see Behind Green Lights for some time, but I had no idea it would inspire so many questions for me. I enjoy this aspect of film noir. In addition to finding these films very entertaining, I like learning more about the historical context and especially the use of language. Viewers get both entertainment and a history lesson in Behind Green Lights, which certainly isn’t one of the more well-known films from the 1940s.
February 15, 1946, release date • Directed by Otto Brower • Screenplay by W. Scott Darling, Charles G. Booth • Music by Emil Newman • Edited by Stanley Rabjohn • Cinematography by Joseph MacDonald
Carole Landis as Janet Bradley • William Gargan as Lieutenant Sam Carson • Don Beddoe as Dr. G. F. Yager • Richard Crane as Johnny Williams, reporter • Mary Anderson as Nora Bard • John Ireland as Detective Sergeant Oppenheimer • Charles Russell as Arthur Templeton • Roy Roberts as Max Calvert • Mabel Paige as Flossie • Stanley Prager as Ruzinsky, milkman • Charles Tannen as Ames, reporter • Bernard Nedell as Walter Bard • Charles Arnt as Daniel Boone Wintergreen • Fred Sherman as Zachary, the Philadelphia Phantom
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox • Produced by Twentieth Century-Fox