Saturday, December 5, 2009

Port of New York (Aubrey Schenck Productions, 1949)

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

After watching the Idem video Charles and I put on Port of New York, a 1949 film gris from Aubrey Schenck Productions noteworthy as one of the first films to depict the work of agents from what was then the Bureau of Narcotics attempting to halt the smuggling of illegal drugs into the country — or, failing that, to find drugs that had already been smuggled and confiscate them and arrest the criminals before they could market the drugs and do social damage. It’s a blending of film noir and pseudo-documentary naturalism — though a lot of other movies, including Boomerang, Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777 and T-Men, were doing this blend considerably better at the time.

It benefits from actually having been shot in New York and from some decent noir atmospherics by cinematographer George Diskant (the go-to guy for New York-based productions at the time), but it isn’t helped by an even more stentorian and overwrought narration than usual in the genre, surprisingly flat and dull direction by Laslo Benedek (who later made The Wild One after the originally set director, Joseph Losey, was blacklisted) and a pretty weak pair of male leads, Scott Brady and Richard Rober. What saves this one are some pretty marvelous supporting players — even though only one of them went on to major stardom. That was Yul Brynner, billed fourth (this was his first film and he didn’t make another for six years, until The King and I), who plays the head of the drug ring — at least the highest-ranking member we actually see; there are the usual veiled (or not-so-veiled) allusions to the “Big One” that gives him his marching orders and who’s the one the agents would really like to bust, but we never actually see him and he certainly isn’t apprehended by the end of the film.

Brynner still had hair then, though his hairline was clearly receding and he was having his male-pattern baldness way early — reason enough that after shaving his head to play King Mongkut in The King and I, first on the Broadway stage and then in the film, he decided to keep doing it and make baldness a trademark. What’s more, this early he was also an incredibly charismatic actor who dominates every scene of the film that he’s in — and he’s especially chilling in the withering coldness with which he disposes of people who are no longer convenient to him, including his combination girlfriend and mule (K. T. Stevens, in a pretty cool performance of her own that ought to have marked her for biggers and betters, but didn’t) once he realizes she’s about to turn state’s evidence on him and meet with the narcotics agents. The other especially remarkable performance in this movie comes from Arthur Blake as a homely, heavy-set nightclub comedian with a rather mincing air about him — he’s shown doing an impression of Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty (pretty damned well, too) — who’s part of the ring and also an addict himself who gets caught when he diverts some of the recently imported shipment to his own use. Blake is a remarkable actor who creates real pathos out of a character written as just an unimportant subsidiary bad guy.

But aside from these nice performances from the supporting cast, Port of New York is just another movie, one which doesn’t really look all that noir (except in a few scenes showing Diskant’s gift for mood lighting even in a naturalistic outdoor environment) and ends with one of the agents getting killed and the other impersonating a crook to get in with the drug ring, only the Blake character’s girlfriend “outs” him and it ends with a shootout in which the good guys get the drugs and the bad guys end up arrested or dead. It’s really just another movie except for Brynner, Stevens and Blake — but they’re enough to make it worth watching.