Monday, February 22, 2010

I Killed That Man (Monogram, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I Killed That Man was an intriguing 1941 movie made by producers Frank and Maurice King at Monogram after they’d made their producing debut at PRC with Paper Bullets, later known as Gangs, Inc., with a marvelous performance by the underrated Joan Woodbury as a woman who gets mixed up with the underworld in a medium-sized city and ends up running it. I Killed That Man was a remake of a now-lost 1933 Monogram film called The Devil’s Mate in which Woodbury was brought over to play a part originated by another one of my cult-favorite actresses, the classically beautiful Peggy Shannon. The star was Ricardo Cortez, cast in a part originated by Preston Foster, and the gimmick of the original story by Leonard Fields and David Silverstein (the 1941 script based on it was by Henry Bancroft) was a gimmick more famously recycled by Warners in 1944 for the film Murder in the Big House.

I Killed That Man opens in a hallway where a series of high-stakes craps games are going on and the participants are wisecracking through them — and then suddenly two large curtains in the back of the room are opened and it’s revealed that we’re actually in the viewing room of an execution and the gamblers are actually the reporters and criminal-justice personnel about to witness it. The victim announces just before he’s supposed to be put in the electric chair that he’s going to admit his guilt for the murder but also finger the person who hired him to commit it, who up to now has escaped justice — only just when he’s about to speak the name he keels over dead a few minutes ahead of scheduled, courtesy of a small poisoned dart fired at him from a blow gun. Inspector Roger Phillips (Ricardo Cortez) of the district attorney’s office immediately seals off the area and even makes all the people in the room strip so he and his men can search for the blow gun — and when one of the people being held challenges Phillips to strip himself, he does so (though, this being a Production Code-era film, they don’t go far beyond shirts).

The opening promises a powerful film noir, and while the rest of the movie doesn’t quite deliver — it’s a good, workmanlike thriller but doesn’t rise to the heights of the opening reel — it’s still a nice little movie and a good role for Cortez, delivering a much more authoritative performance in the lead that can’t help but remind one of his Sam Spade in the first (1931) version of The Maltese Falcon — a movie that was being remade even as I Killed That Man was being filmed. Joan Woodbury isn’t as good here as in her rangier role in Paper Bullets (which got reissued later in the 1940’s not so much because of her as because of Alan Ladd’s appearance in a key supporting role a year before his star-making part in This Gun for Hire) but, as a reporter who’s also Cortez’s girlfriend (a clichéd movie situation if there ever was one), she’s appealing and spunky and deserved a bigger career than she had. (She was apparently an heiress to the Woodbury Soap fortune and didn’t really need the money from acting, but she did it quite well and I suspect it was only her oddly bony face that kept her out of the top ranks of movie stardom.)

I Killed That Man was a movie that could have been better if it had delved more into the aura of corruption and powers-behind-the-scenes that supposedly motivated the murders (both the one the death-penalty defendant was convicted of and the one he was killed to cover up) and if director Phil Rosen (who also made The Devil’s Mate) had made it all more shadowy and noir, but on its own it’s still a good movie and it benefits from Monogram’s lack of a backlot, which forced them to shoot the exteriors on real L.A. streets and gave us a fascinating “look” at how rural the area still was in 1941.