Saturday, January 8, 2022

Undertow (1949)

When I heard that Scott Brady is the star of Undertow and that he was the brother of another noir actor, Lawrence Tierney, I had to put Undertow on my list. It’s always fun to see the Brady/Tierney brothers on the screen. I know that both had a few scrapes with the law and were tough guys in real life. Seeing them on the screen puts them at a safe distance, however, and I can admire both of them as much as I like in a film. And Scott Brady did not disappoint in the role of Tony Reagan in Undertow.

Tony Reagan’s story starts in Reno, Nevada, with him leaning against a car marked “Mile High Lounge.” (Blink and you’ll miss it.) From across the street, he sees two people, an older man (Pop) and a young boy (Willie); they are the family of someone he knew while fighting in World War II, someone who died in the war. Tony is a new partner in their lodge thanks to his friendship with his fallen comrade. Tony would be going back to the lodge with them right then and there, but he wants to go to Chicago and propose to his sweetheart, Sally Lee. In other words, he is a returning war veteran with big dreams, both financially and romantically.

(This article about Undertow contains spoilers.)

Tony runs into an old friend from Chicago, Danny Morgan, in the street while he is still in Reno. His plane doesn’t leave until later that day, so he as the time to go with Danny to the casino that Danny runs. They talk about old times in Chicago, before the war. Tony shows Danny the engagement ring he bought for Sally. Danny shows the engagement ring that he bought for his own girlfriend, although he doesn’t give any details at all about this person. It’s a little bit of foreshadowing about what’s in store for Tony when he returns to Chicago

Tony walks around the casino and literally runs into the same woman named Ann McKnight twice. They start chatting, and Tony advises Ann about gambling technique. He helps her win some money, then warns her about quitting while she is ahead and still has her winnings. Tony and Ann meet again by chance on the plane. Ann is also from Chicago, where she is a schoolteacher. She is instantly attracted to Tony: She is visibly disappointed when he says that he doesn’t plan to stay in Chicago and that he has a girlfriend that he plans to marry.

Getting off the plane, Tony runs into another childhood friend: Detective Chuck Reckling. Reckling is quick to make it clear that this meeting is not a social call. He is meeting Tony at the airport with Detective Cooper because Captain Kerrigan wants to talk to Tony. At the police station, the captain accuses Tony of wanting to kill Big Jim Lee. The captain has no proof and Tony has no such intention, but the police did receive an anonymous tip. Big Jim Lee is Sally Lee’s uncle, and he ran Tony out of town several years ago, before the war, because he doesn’t want Tony involved with his niece. Captain Kerrigan is using that information, combined with the tip, to warn Tony about staying in Chicago. Tony knows his rights, however: If the captain has no evidence and isn’t going to arrest him, then he is free to leave, and he does. But the captain sends another detective to follow Tony, who loses him by ducking into an overhead El station.

Sally Lee and Tony Reagan arrange to meet, and Sally tells Tony that there has been no one else in her life since he left Chicago seven years ago. She is lying; she is Danny Morgan’s girlfriend, the one he is planning to marry. Sally is the one who plays the role of femme fatale in Undertow. She and Danny are in on a setup: They plan to kill Sally’s uncle, place the blame for the murder on Tony, and then take over Big Jim Lee’s businesses. Sally knows that Tony is determined to break the news about his marriage intentions to Big Jim Lee himself, and when Tony arrives at the Lee residence, someone ambushes him and knocks him unconscious. It’s all part of Danny’s and Sally’s plans.

When Tony regains consciousness, he finds two men putting him back in his car and staging it to make it look like he had been in an accident. He knows that he is a wanted man because he overhears a police radio broadcast stating that he is the main suspect in Big Jim Lee’s murder. It’s going to be hard for him to hide in Chicago. He has plenty of friends and everyone seems to know him—and the police are checking with all of them. His only recourse is to look up Ann McKnight. She is the only one who doesn’t have an obvious connection to him.

Or that’s what he thinks. Tony Reagan then goes to Charles Reckling’s apartment to see if Reckling will use his police connections to help him find evidence and clear his name. Reagan holds Reckling at gunpoint because he is desperate for the help; he knows that he is innocent of Big Jim Lee’s murder and he is convinced someone is trying to set him up. Reckling is willing to help Tony out of loyalty to an old friend and eventually comes around to Tony’s way of thinking. But his loyalties are divided because he is also a law enforcement officer. He also knows how to find Tony because he remembers Ann McKnight from the airport.

What follows is a bit of a blur because Reagan and Reckling move fast once the general public knows that Reagan is a wanted man. I’ll have to see the film again to make sure I didn’t miss any plot details. It won’t be a hardship because Undertow is a fun for a film noir. I won’t have any trouble watching Tony Reagan fighting fate and winning in the end.

I watched Undertow on a DVD collection of four films called Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers, Volume Two, released by TCM Classic Movies. Each film came with a featurette starring Eddie Muller, who, as always, gives some great facts and background for all the films, including Undertow. Muller describes Scott Brady as very charismatic, virile, and comfortable in the lead role, probably because Brady was a war veteran himself. Nothing to argue with there! I already think Scott Brady looks great on the movie screen.

But then Muller mentions that a lot of people have trouble with Peggy Dow because she is so sweet and charming in the role of Ann McKnight; they cannot understand what she sees in Scott Brady. This last observation left me scratching my head after I saw the film. I didn’t think anything of it when I watched the featurette (I watched the featurette before seeing the film, even though Muller advises against it!) because Undertow is a noir after all, and someone acting a bit psychotic wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary.

But Scott Brady plays the good guy in this noir, the guy who is set up and wrongly accused, the guy who desperately wants to clear his name. Peggy Dow’s character Ann McKnight might have fallen in love with Tony Reagan very quickly, but I think most people would call that love at first sight. That’s what I call it, at any rate, and I believe that the on-screen romance and chemistry between the two leads are genuine: I bought the romance angle completely.

Considering the way that the film ended, with Tony Reagan and Ann McKnight getting married, I don’t think the film’s screenwriters and producers had an unhappy outcome in mind for the two of them. It’s an uncharacteristic ending for noir—that’s true. But Tony Reagan deserves an uncharacteristically happy ending after all he had been through!

December 1, 1949, release date    Directed by William Castle    Screenplay by Arthur T. Horman, Lee Loeb    Based on a story by Arthur T. Horman    Music by Milton Schwarzwald    Edited by Ralph Dawson    Cinematography by Irving Glassberg

Scott Brady as Tony Reagan    John Russell as Danny Morgan    Dorothy Hart as Sally Lee    Peggy Dow as Ann McKnight    Bruce Bennett as Detective Chuck Reckling    Thomas Browne Henry as Captain Kerrigan    Charles Sherlock as Detective Cooper    Gregg Martell as Frost    Robert Anderson as Stoner    Daniel Ferniel as Gene    Rock (as Roc) Hudson as a detective    Anne P. Kramer (as Ann Pearce) as the clerk in the airport    Robert Easton as Fisher, the parking lot attendant    George Eldredge as Pop    Almira Sessions as Prentiss, the landlady

Distributed by Universal-International    Produced by Universal-International

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Trapped (1949)

I wasn’t enthusiastic about seeing Trapped. I had read that the film used the semidocumentary style and started with a voice-over narrator who explained what the U.S. Treasury is and how it works. Maybe such background information is necessary for the counterfeiting operation that is at the heart of the story, but I was afraid that the film was going to be a yawner.

It’s true that the film opens with voice-over narration about the Treasury Department. A lot has changed since 1949, and I could tell that the information was outdated. Many films noir are a step back in time, which I find to be a plus, especially if history is an interest. But not that many films noir give so much historical data. One example from the voice-over narration in Trapped is that the U.S. Treasury Department used to oversee the U.S. Coast Guard; today, the Coast Guard is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Yes, indeed, the opening is packed with information.

Once the voice-over narrator gives over to the fictional story, viewers learn still more. A restaurant proprietor, Mrs. Flaherty, wants to make a deposit to her bank account. The teller notices that one of the twenty dollar bills she plans to deposit is a counterfeit. She asks for the bill back, but the teller won’t return it. Mrs. Flaherty is out twenty dollars because it is her responsibility to check that all legal tender given to her is indeed legal. (This also applies to the foreign coins I often receive from gas station and grocery store transactions.)

The bank turns the counterfeit bill over to the Secret Service, whose agents recognize Tris Stewart’s brand of counterfeiting. He is in prison, but he didn’t have the plates for making the counterfeit bills when he was arrested, so someone else must be using the same plates to distribute counterfeit currency once again. Secret Service Agent Raymond visits Stewart in prison to start the investigation.

(This article about Trapped contains almost all the spoilers.)

Agent Raymond asks Stewart about his contacts on the outside. Stewart refuses to talk, even with the offer of reduced prison time. Several weeks later, however, Stewart is being transferred by bus to another prison in the custody of a U.S. deputy marshal. He grabs the marshal’s gun and forces him to take off the handcuffs that bind them together. Then he demands to be let off the bus. At first, it appears that a friend is waiting to pick him up, but viewers quickly learn once Stewart is in the car that the “friend” is Secret Service Agent Foreman.

While in the custody of Agent Foreman, Stewart makes phone calls to help locate the old counterfeiting plates. Before he can provide any useful information, Stewart fakes an accident with a broken glass to escape and meet his old girlfriend Meg Dixon. Viewers subsequently learn that this second escape has also been staged, but this time Tris Stewart doesn’t know anything about it.

Meg Dixon is working as a cigarette girl under the alias Laurie Fredericks at a nightclub in Los Angeles. She has caught the eye of someone named Johnny Hackett. Viewers learn before Dixon and Stewart do that Hackett is an undercover Secret Service agent. Dixon and Stewart also don’t realize at first that Dixon’s apartment is bugged. Agents learn from their conversation that Stewart’s ex-partner still has the counterfeiting plates and that Stewart wants to get them back and go to Mexico with Dixon.

Trapped has many plot twists, which was a welcome surprise to me. Only one plot twist bothered me a bit. An old army buddy blows Johnny Hackett’s cover in Chanteclair, the nightclub where Laurie Fredericks (Meg Dixon) works. The man’s name is Bill, and he is out for the night with his wife. He recognizes Johnny Hackett as John Downey from their wartime service in the U.S. army. Downey/Hackett denies knowing the man, and Bill’s wife Betty is the one who cuts short Bill’s insistence that he knows Downey. When Bill and his wife get to their table, he explains that when he knew Downey, he worked in military intelligence. Bill admits that the man is probably still working undercover, and he says all this within earshot of Meg Dixon.

I found this particular coincidence hard to believe because I wasn’t so sure that someone who knew Downey and knew something about military intelligence would be so insistent about the man’s identity or about knowing him, or would be so quick to explain everything to his wife while they were sitting in a crowded nightclub. This incident is an important plot point because Meg Dixon uses the information to warn her boyfriend Tris Stewart and his partner Jack Sylvester, but it seems to be based on a flimsy assumption about the behavior of former service members.

Eagle-Lion Films is one of the old Hollywood Poverty Row producers, so I wasn’t expecting star power or crisp production values. I’m not sure that Trapped even makes the grade of B movie. The action is sometimes obliterated by nearly complete darkness, which is certainly one way to save money and time.

But the film doesn’t skimp on violence. Meg Dixon is shot by Jack Sylvester, and when federal agents arrive on the scene, they step over her body to chase down Sylvester. Sylvester electrocutes himself trying to hide in a trolley yard. A couple of fight scenes between Tris Stewart and Secret Service agents are long and physical. I was surprised that one of them survived his head being beaten against an iron bedframe. In 1949, and in a Poverty Row production, there is (thankfully) no blood or other physical damage to witness.

Lloyd Bridges was fantastic, however, as Tris Stewart. He exudes menace, and he is completely believable when Stewart’s plans don’t go the way he had hoped and his character becomes increasingly desperate. I didn’t have high expectations for Trapped, and I must confess that I didn’t enjoy it as much as other noirs. At seventy-eight minutes, however, Trapped is worth a look, especially for fans of film noir and U.S. history.

October 1, 1949, release date    Directed by Richard Fleischer    Screenplay by Earl Felton, George Zuckerman    Based on a story by Earl Felton, George Zuckerman    Music by Sol Kaplan    Edited by Alfred DeGaetano    Cinematography by Guy Roe

Lloyd Bridges as Tris Stewart    Barbara Payton as Meg Dixon, alias Laurie Fredericks    John Hoyt as Agent John Downey, alias Johnny Hackett    James Todd as Jack Sylvester    Russ Conway as Chief Agent Gunby    Robert Karnes as Agent Fred Foreman    Douglas Spencer as Sam Hooker    William Woodson as the narrator

Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films    Produced by Bryan Foy Production, Contemporary Production