Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Destination Murder (Prominent/RKO, 1950)

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

Charles and I watched another movie after we got home, an oldie I’d recorded off TCM, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Wake. The film was Destination Murder, a 1950 “B” noir from RKO (actually one they bought for distribution from an outfit called Prominent Pictures, headed by Maurie Suess and Edward L. Cahn, the latter of whom also directed from a script by Don Martin) that had a nice, exciting opening that promised better things than the rest of the movie delivered. Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements) is attending a movie with his girlfriend — the theatre was a real one, the Marcal at the so-called “wrong” end of Hollywood Boulevard, and they showed revivals (the marquee bills the current attractions as the 1942 Columbia “B” Flight Lieutenant and the 1943 PRC “B” Corregidor — one imdb.com contributor thought the film had been shot in December 1949 and the theatre was commemorating the eighth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack — and outside the theatre there are posters for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the 1947 Roberto Rossellini import Germany: Year Zero) — when a large Cadillac pulls up outside the theatre during a five-minute intermission (Jackie has told his date he’s going out for a smoke and will return with some popcorn by the time the next movie starts) and its occupants, Armitage (Albert Dekker) and Stanley Clements (Hurd Hatfield), pick Jackie up, tell him to get into a Blue Streak messenger’s uniform and pose as a messenger at the home of Arthur Mansfield (Franklyn Farmer), whom he is to shoot to death.

He does so and is then whisked in the Cadillac back to the theatre, where he buys the popcorn and joins his girlfriend as if nothing untoward had happened in the meantime. Alas, the rest of the film gets very talky as Mansfield’s daughter Laura (Joyce MacKenzie, top-billed) witnesses the murder and gets a view of the killer, though only with his back to her. That’s enough for her to come down to the police station and view a lineup of Blue Streak messengers — why the cops are so sure the killer was a bona fide Blue Streak messenger and not simply a hit man who got hold of a Blue Streak uniform as a disguise is never made clear, but apparently we’re supposed to believe the killer really does work for Blue Streak since he’s there in the lineup, although Laura is unable to recognize him. Instead he starts courting her and she actually dates him (so this was the second movie we watched last night in which an innocent young woman was dating a murder suspect!), including him taking her around to the nightclub which Armitage and Clements are using as a front for their gangster activities.

Despite a couple more murders — both of them committed on the premises, with Armitage’s player piano (he seems to have only one roll for it, the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata) being used to cover up the fatal shots — most of Destination Murder is pretty dull and talky, and Martin’s script makes no effort to create a climate of suspicion that will undo Laura Mansfield’s relationship with the man who (unbeknownst to her) killed her father — instead she goes right ahead either believing in him or pretending to (Martin’s script is not sure which) until the very end, when in a pretty wild reversal [spoiler alert!] it turns out that, despite his proletarian job, it’s really Jackie who’s the boss of the crime ring and Armitage and Clements who are reporting to him. (The gimmick of the secret crime boss who’s working a lower-class job as a cover was done a good deal better in the 1940 film Johnny Eager, with Robert Taylor as a newly paroled gang boss who works the job the parole authorities have helped set up for him — as a cabdriver — to cover up his continued domination of the enterprises he had run before his conviction; and it was done even better in Fritz Lang’s 1928 German film Spies, in which the crime boss Haghi was also a legitimate banker and a successful vaudeville entertainer.)

Destination Murder had real potential but was muffed at almost every turn — Cahn’s direction and Jackson J. Rose’s cinematography utterly lacked the atmospherics needed for good noir; Joyce MacKenzie was virtually bovine as the over-the-hill woman at the center of the plot; and the movie was easily stolen by Myrna Dell as Armitage’s girlfriend in a characterization obviously stolen from Marilyn Monroe’s performance in The Asphalt Jungle — though Dekker and Hatfield were decadent as usual and Hatfield, whose career started at the top with MGM’s 1945 production of The Picture of Dorian Gray and went downhill quickly after that, seemed out of place as a gangster in a modern-dress movie. By far the best aspect of our evening watching this movie was Charles’ joke before it began, in which he adopted the persona of someone working the ticket booth at a train station: “Larceny — aggravated assault — vehicular manslaughter — Destination: Murder!