Monday, June 22, 2009

Behind Green Lights (20th Century-Fox, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Behind Green Lights — I’m not sure why it’s called that, though since it takes place mostly in and around a police station maybe in 1946, when it was made, the lights outside a police station were green. It’s a 64-minute thriller from 20th Century-Fox that’s an example of what I like to call film gris — a basically ordinary crime film that’s trying to gussie itself up with a few chiaroscuro lighting techniques and oblique camera angles to pass itself off as film noir — though the story is a compelling one and in better hands it might have been an interesting film. Even as it stands, it’s entertaining and mostly makes sense.

Directed by Otto Brower from a script by W. Scott Darling (clearly moving up in the cinematic world from his days writing the Mr. Wong series at Monogram!) and Charles G. Booth, Behind Green Lights begins with a scene in which sleazy private detective Walter Bard (Bernard Nedell) is attempting to blackmail Janet Bradley (Carole Landis, top-billed), daughter of the reform candidate for mayor who’s attempting to sweep out of office the current administration, with which the police department is aligned. (As in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, we get the impression that the “reformers” are as corrupt as the people they’re trying to displace.) Bard is shot and his body is loaded into his car and dumped in front of the police station, and the head of that particular precinct, Lt. Sam Carson (William Gargan), and newly assigned police reporter Johnny Williams (Richard Crane), who’s from a paper supportive of the current city government and skeptical of the “reformers,” team up to solve the crime.

There are a lot of incidents in this movie, including all too much rather forced “comic relief” — including a scene in which a crook needing a quick hiding place dumps Bard’s body in a closet inside the police station’s press room (there’s a lot of Front Page-ish byplay between the reporters, and even a Bensinger-like character named Daniel Boone Wintergreen, played by character actor Charles Arnt) and hides himself on the gurney that was supposed to take it to the morgue; he therefore gets out of the police station, and when the morgue attendants get ready to unload Bard’s corpse, of course they find it isn’t there. As if that wasn’t enough misplaced humor for you, Johnny Williams finds Bard’s body in the closet and thinks he’s got the scoop of his career — only when he tries to call it in both Wintergreen and a flower seller (Mabel Paige) interrupt him.

The problem with this film that keeps it from achieving noir is the lack of really interesting characterizations, and the problem that keeps it from being more than a standard-issue thriller is that there are way too many plot incidents and too little is made out of any of them. The extent to which the crime is interconnected with the city’s upcoming election and the political struggle between its factions would have made a quite compelling plot theme if Darling and Booth had followed up on it; as it is, though, they mention it a few times in passing but otherwise pretty much forget about it. What saves this film is the cool major-studio professionalism with which it’s executed — and also the performance of William Gargan; heavy-set and no longer suitable for leading-man types, he’s actually quite good as the dedicated, coolly efficient lead cop who ultimately [spoiler alert!] fastens onto a peripheral character, Dr. Hastings (William Forrest, Jr.) as the killer — though Darling and Booth aren’t especially forthcoming about his motive. Behind Green Lights is one of those frustrating good-movies-that-could-have-been-better; certainly the premise could have inspired a far greater film than this, yet like Gargan’s character it’s coolly efficient and a nice 64-minute time-killer.