Sunday, May 16, 2010

Smuggler’s Gold (Columbia, 1951)

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

The film was Smuggler’s Gold, a 1951 “B” from Columbia I’d recorded earlier in the week when they were showing a whole stretch of these vest-pocket movies and I decided to grab them for Charles’ late-nights when we would want to watch something short (this timed out at only 62 minutes). The stars were Cameron Mitchell and Amanda Blake (pre-Gunsmoke), which will give you an idea of how cheap a movie this is. Mitchell plays deep-sea diver Mike Sloan, who’s scared to go in the water again after an accident during which he blacked out and another diver he was working with was killed. He’s living in a seaport with his girlfriend Susan Hodges (Amanda Blake) and a character she and everyone else refers to as “Pop” Hodges (Carl Benton Reid) even though he isn’t her father, but her uncle. What neither Mike nor Susan know is that “Pop,” in addition to his above-board business running a fishing boat, is also smuggling gold into the country for gold mine owner Arthur Rayburn (William Forrest). This was back in the day when it was still illegal for American citizens to own gold; if they found any they had to sell it to the government for the legally stipulated price of $35 an ounce, and Rayburn has hired people to “steal” gold from his own mind and smuggle it so he can sell it on the world market and get far more than the U.S. government-stipulated price.

Too scared to take up his previous career as a salvage diver, Mike hires on to Pop’s boat — and witnesses Pop brutally murder Hank Peters (Robert Williams), who in a drunken rage was threatening to blow the whistle on the gang unless he got more money for his participation — which Pop was unable to give him because Rayburn was shorting him. Eventually Mike figures it all out — including that Susan isn’t part of her uncle’s scheme and knows nothing about it — and there’s a big confrontation at the end in which the smugglers are apprehended or killed. The Coast Guard looms as a presence over this film’s action but, like most movie cops, they’re too stupid to put the plot together until the final reel — and that’s true of the crooks as well: this is one of those damnable stories in which the crooks are established for the first half as operating in a careful, cautious manner — and then they lose all self-control and start acting like idiots because they have to be made stupider than the cops in order for the cops to be able to catch them.

Vaguely reminiscent of a far finer film, I Cover the Waterfront, made 18 years earlier and also featuring a hero in love with a girl who doesn’t know her father (instead of her uncle) is a smuggler and killer, Smuggler’s Gold has little to offer other than surprisingly atmospheric direction by the usually hacky William Berke (who both began and ended his career as an independent filmmaker, though he had a substantial if unprestigious career in the major studios in between), taking a story by Prison Shadows author Al Martin turned into a script by one Daniel B. Ullman and making at least a visually engaging story out of it, even though it hardly makes any sense.