Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bullets for O’Hara (Warners, 1941)

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

The film we watched last night was a 1941 Warners’ “B” called Bullets for O’Hara, interesting mainly for the presence of Anthony Quinn in a key role and also the director, William K. Howard. Just how a man who’d been a major filmmaker in the 1930’s, shooting important big-budget movies like The Power and the Glory (1933) — a precursor of Citizen Kane not only in its subject matter (the life of a major industrialist) but its “narratage” technique (the use of multiple narrators, all characters who knew the central figure, offering their various points of view about his life just after he has died) — and The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), ended up doing a 50-minute “B” at Warners that was itself a remake (of Public Enemy’s Wife, a 1936 Warners programmer helmed by another “fallen” director, Nick Grindé) is a major mystery, especially since Bullets for O’Hara is a quite accomplished piece of work for the budget and the time that expertly uses the major-studio infrastructure and moves smartly through a difficult-to-swallow plot (by P. J. Wolfson and Raymond Schrock, based on an earlier story by Abem Finkel, Paul Muni’s brother-in-law) even though the acting isn’t much to speak of.

The film stars Joan Perry — who had started at Columbia, caught the amorous attentions of studio head Harry Cohn, continued to date him even after she switched companies and finally retired after just two more movies (International Squadron and Nine Lives Are Not Enough, the latter a not-bad crime thriller with Ronald Reagan) to marry him — as Patricia Van Dyne, née Patricia Mortimer, who for the last year has been married to thief Tony Van Dyne, née Tony Millard (Anthony Quinn) without knowing just what he does on those out-of-town “business” trips that supply the couple with their income.

When the film opens they are house guests of the Standish family in Coral Beach, Florida, and Van Dyne has hatched a plot to trick the Standishes into opening their safe (he’s had Patricia store some bonds in the safe so she has a legitimate reason to ask that it be opened) so he and his gang can steal the Standishes’ jewels. He hopes to slip in and out and execute the crime without leaving the Standishes — or his own wife — any the wiser, but the execution goes horribly wrong and he ends up “outing” himself as a crook and having to lock the Standishes in one room of their house, having forced them there at gunpoint, to give himself time to get away. On the train from Florida back to his home base in Chicago, she pleads with Pat to understand him and accept how he makes his (their) living — but she is totally disgusted with him (Joan Perry does her best, but registering the character’s combination of surprise and moral revulsion is pretty much beyond her limited acting skills), wants nothing to do with him and doesn’t try to stop him when he escapes from the train. Pat is arrested and taken back to Florida for trial on charges of conspiracy to commit robbery, but she’s acquitted thanks largely to the services of a high-powered defense attorney secured for her by the police detective in charge of the Van Dyne case, Michael Aloysius ‘Mike’ O’Hara (Roger Pryor). (In Public Enemy’s Wife Pat O’Brien played the Pryor role, Margaret Lindsay the Perry role and Cesar Romero the Quinn role; in that version the woman is actually convicted of being involved in the robbery and serves a year, after which she and the cop team up to catch her ex.)

O’Hara hatches a scheme to flush Van Dyne out of hiding by having Pat divorce Van Dyne and marry him — platonically — on the theory that Van Dyne, who’s already threatened to kill any man that comes between him and his wife, won’t be able to resist the temptation to crash the wedding and the cops will be able to spring a trap and arrest him. Only things go wrong, as they usually do in movie plots like this, and Van Dyne ends up with the upper hand, holding a gun on O’Hara (though he doesn’t actually get to fire any bullets into him, despite the title) until O’Hara courageously gets Van Dyne’s gun away from him, duly places him under custody, and in the final scene O’Hara and Pat are driving away from the scene when she, to absolutely no one’s surprise, declares that she’s going to stay married to him and make theirs a real relationship.

The plot conceit is clever — especially in O’Hara’s decision that merely faking a marriage is not good enough; he has to marry Pat in a legally binding fashion for his plot to work — and the film benefits majorly from the big-studio infrastructure, including a major cinematographer (Ted McCord, at the top of his game even in a nothing assignment like this) and the usual fast Warners pace that gets the story on and off the screen in just 50 minutes. It’s the sort of reliable studio filmmaking that pretty much got relegated to television after the studio system finally collapsed.