Sunday, April 3, 2011

Men in Exile (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Men in Exile is a 1937 hour-long “B” from Warners that marked the directorial debut of John Farrow (Mia’s father). Written by Roy Chanslor from “stories” by Houston Branch and Marie Baumer (the plural was used in the credits and I take it to mean that two separately written stories by Branch and Baumer were combined by Chanslor to form the plot of this film), Men in Exile was a somewhat interesting movie and, for me, a rather odd case in which the marvelous economy of 1930’s film storytelling turned too economical (and hardly marvelous). The plot dealt with James Carmody (Dick Purcell, top-billed), a Miami cabdriver whose taxi is used as a getaway vehicle by a gang of robbers to flee the scene of a crime where they’ve just killed a man. (They enter the jewelry store they’re supposedly robbing and they come out again within a few seconds — a mighty quick robbery even for a Warner Brothers film.)

Since Carmody is an ex-convict (which makes his naïveté in the opening scene especially difficult to believe — if we can spot these people as thugs so easily surely an ex-crook could have!) the police naturally assume he’s part of the gang, and so he accepts an offer to facilitate his getaway to a tiny Caribbean island called “Caribò,” an independent state whose government “hasn’t even heard of extradition,” as the film’s dialogue goes. Even before Carmody arrives in Caribò he finds himself in a speedboat belonging to an old friend of his from prison, Rocky Crane (Norman Willis, doing his level best to channel George Raft), being chased by a Caribò government cutter — one wouldn’t think that a place noted for its hospitality for fleeing criminals would actually have a coast guard, but Caribò does — and it turns out Rocky masterminded Carmody’s escape to Caribò because he’s working on smuggling guns into the country for a revolutionary army headed by (ALERT: incredibly risible character name coming up!) General Alcatraz (Carlos DeValdez).

General Alcatraz tells Carmody that Caribò is a dictatorship, and though it has a nominal president the real power behind the throne is Colonel Emanuel Gomez (Victor Varconi, who played the Russian nobleman-in-exile who loses Irene Dunne to Randolph Scott in Roberta), head of Caribo’s police. Carmody is staying at the Hotel Imperial, run by Mother Haines (Margaret Irving, who played Margaret Dumont’s society rival in Animal Crackers and here shows herself as adept at playing a lower-class middle-aged woman as she was at playing an upper-class one in the Marx Brothers film), and naturally he falls in love with Haines’ daughter Sally (June Travis). She covers for him with Col. Gomez when he shows up at the hotel to find out why the new arrival hasn’t yet registered with the police, as Caribòan law requires (in the current atmosphere the mere thought of a registration requirement for a new immigrant was rather making my skin crawl), and he talks the Haineses into giving him a job at the hotel so he can be gainfully — and legally — employed, thereby earning the right to stay in Caribò.

Meanwhile, Sally’s brother Danny (Alan Baxter) has got mixed up with Rocky, who runs a high-class cabaret (or at least as high-class as anything gets in Caribò) on a set that looks very much like it was recycled as Rick’s Café Americain in a far more prestigious Warners film, Casablanca, six years later. (Everybody comes to Rocky’s.) In an intense finish, Danny kills Rocky and plants the gun in Carmody’s jacket pocket, and Carmody is about to be executed by firing squad (Caribò doesn’t bother with judges or juries; once Col. Gomez decides you’re guilty he just has you killed — John Ashcroft’s wet dream) when Danny confesses all, including the identity of the real mastermind behind Gen. Alcatraz’s revolution: former New York attorney H. Mortimer Jones (Olin Howland), whom we’ve seen before only as an alcoholic guest at the Hotel Imperial.

Men in Exile could have been quite a good movie with about a half-hour more running time — the extra length would not only have allowed Chanslor to fix the major credibility lapses in the plot and to explain much of what happens (the revelation that attorney Jones was the real power behind the revolution comes in a single, brief you’d-miss-it-if-you’d-blink closeup of Howland), it would also have punched up the production budget and forced Warners to use, if not genuinely major actors, at least better ones than Dick Purcell and June Travis. (Especially given how his career developed later, it’s tempting to imagine what Bogart could have done with the role of Carmody.) Indeed, the plot seemed to have so many potentialities that weren’t being exploited in an hour-long “B” that I thought this might have been a remake of a story used previously in a more prestigious film (much the way Warners recycled W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Narrow Corner, filmed in 1932 under Maugham’s title, into a really silly melodrama called Isle of Fury just four years later), but there’s no indication either in The Warner Brothers Story or the American Film Institute Catalog that this story was ever filmed before.

By far the best aspect of this film was John Farrow’s direction, richly atmospheric and clearly influenced by Sternberg’s work on Morocco — even on a “B” budget Farrow and cinematographer Arthur Todd were able to reproduce some of the Sternberg atmospherics in their portrayal of Caribò — and though this doesn’t go as far in terms of marking its director as an up-and-comer as Charles Vidor’s work on Sensation Hunters (a somewhat similar but far superior movie) did, it still looks ahead to the promise fulfilled in Farrow’s finest works (both from Paramount in 1948), The Big Clock and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes. — 1/12/03


The film was a moderately interesting “B” from Warners in 1937, Men in Exile, which has a family resemblance to William Wellman’s 1931 masterpiece Safe in Hell in that both take place in and around an island in the Caribbean in which criminals wanted in other countries (particularly the U.S.) can hide out indefinitely (at least as long as they can come up with some legitimate means of earning a living) because it has no extradition treaties with any other country in the world. Here the island nation is called “Caribò” and, though its actual location within the Caribbean Sea is carefully unmentioned, from our glimpse of it on a map it looks like Cuba and was quite possibly intended as a thinly veiled version of Cuba.

The Safe in Hell connection probably comes from Houston Branch, who wrote the Safe in Hell script solo and is co-credited with the original story for Men in Exile with Marie Baumer, though the actual script is by Roy Chanslor. The director is John Farrow (Mia’s dad) in his directorial debut; he became a marvelously atmospheric noir director later on and here gets the occasional interesting visual but for the most part shoots it pretty plainly, though at least it benefits from the usual relentless Warners’ pace that crowds an awful lot of plot into a 58-minute movie. The plot revolves around Jimmy Carmody (Dick Purcell), an ex-con who as the movie begins is successfully going straight as a cabdriver in Miami — only through sheer bad luck his cab is rented as a getaway car in a jewel robbery, one of the robbers shoots a clerk in the store and so the cops want everyone involved for murder, and naturally they assume that Carmody was in on the robbery because of his criminal record.

Rocky Crane (Norman Willis), who knew Carmody when both men were in prison together, tells him about Caribò and arranges to smuggle him onto a ship whose captain has an “in” with him; the ship will anchor off the Caribòan coast and Rocky will pick Jimmy up in a speedboat. Only a cutter with the Caribòan coast guard chases the speedboat because it turns out that Rocky is in league with a rebel general, Alcatraz (Carlos DeValdez), who wants to overthrow the existing Caribòan government in a coup d’etat and install himself as the new president. We never find out who the current president is but we learn that the real power behind the throne is the chief of police, Colonel Emanuel Gomez (Victor Varconi, who was also in Safe in Hell — also playing a character named Gomez! — though his most famous role was Pontius Pilate in the 1927 DeMille King of Kings), with whom all new arrivals in Caribò are supposed to register or face immediate deportation. Carmody ends up at the Imperial, a hotel marginally less run-down than the rest of Caribò, run by two women who are probably the only decent, upstanding people on the entire island: Mother Haines (Margaret Irving) and her daughter Sally (June Travis).

Mother also has a son, Danny (Alan Baxter), who’s mixed up with Rocky’s gang and hangs out with him at Rocky’s own café, represented by a quite familiar set that’s been in quite a few other Warners’ movies — including Casablanca, where it was the interior of Sydney Greenstreet’s Blue Parrot Café, though it looked enough like the set of Rick’s Café Americain that I joked, “Everybody comes to Rocky’s.” Danny’s interest in Rocky’s gang seems to be less Rocky’s money than Rocky’s wife Rita (Veda Ann Borg), whom he’s hoping to get to run away with him. Rita cooperates by tipping the authorities the next time Rocky sends a boat to pick up guns for General Alcatraz’s revolution, and when the smugglers are busted Danny and Rita assume that Rocky will have been killed — shot either during the raid or afterwards by one of Gomez’s quickie firing squads (due process is yet another one of those Western niceties the Caribòan government has dispensed with) — only he turns up alive. Danny shoots Rocky and stashes his body in the cellar of the Imperial, where Gomez discovers it and accuses Carmody of the murder.

Mother Haines never liked Carmody and forbids her daughter to alibi him, but she does so anyway, and then Danny tries to get himself off the hook by fingering Carmody and saying that Sally is lying to save her lover, Carmody. Then Danny confesses and Gomez decides to spare his life and let Carmody and Sally go off together, and the final shot is their clinch. It’s not much of a movie — the premise was used far more honestly and dealt with far more effectively in Safe in Hell — here it’s merely an excuse for lots of action and intrigue, though Charles said the makers of Men in Exile deserved credit for at least treating the theme seriously instead of making a mockery of it as in I Like Your Nerve (another Warners’ film, this time from 1931, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as a young man who gets caught up in a Latin American revolution in the sort of breezy comedy his dad had regularly made about 15 years before).