Monday, June 20, 2011

Arson, Inc. (Lippert, 1949)

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

The film was Arson, Inc., released by Lippert Pictures in 1949 and boasting considerably more talented help both in front of and behind the cameras than Bob Lippert’s organization usually had access to. The stars are Robert Lowery (one year after he played Batman in the second Columbia serial, Batman and Robin) and Anne Gwynne, with supporting players including Ed Brophy, the marvelous Douglas Fowley (wasted as usual in a generic bad-guy role; he got to shine as a twisted hero in PRC’s marvelous 1944 Lady in the Death House because most of the hotter-looking actors were away fighting World War II, and he got to appear in a major musical as the director in Singin’ in the Rain, but mostly he got “typed” as a slimy gangster, as he is here), Marcia Mae Jones and the great Maude Eburne.

The film is introduced with a top official in the Los Angeles Fire Department giving a Crime Does Not Pay-style exposition at a desk as he narrates the story of firefighter Joe Martin (Robert Lowery), who’s convinced the supposedly “accidental” fire in the warehouse of furrier Robert Peyson (the wonderfully oily Byron Foulger) is arson and Peyson either started it himself or hired someone else to do it in order to submit a false insurance claim. He’s even more convinced that there’s dirty work afoot when another firefighter, arson investigator Bob Halloran, is killed when a chunk of the ceiling of Peyson’s building falls on top of him — that too is ruled accidental but Our Hero is convinced Halloran was murdered, since the leather notecase he always carried with him is not on his body when it’s found. He and his boss, the deputy fire chief (William Forrest, who’s also the narrator), hatch a plot to get Joe fired from the fire department and disgraced, so the head of the gang will pick him up and hire him.

The head of the gang is Fred Fender (Douglas Fowley), who’s also an insurance representative — so he’s the one processing the phony claims and splitting the awards with the clients — and he also runs a whole empire of criminal enterprises, including a bookie joint, with which he lets his marks run up debts so he can blackmail them into taking part in arson for insurance fraud. While at the Peysons’ apartment to interview Robert and his wife (Lelah Tyler), Joe meets their babysitter, Jane Jennings (Anne Gwynne), and they fall in love virtually at first sight, though when Joe first comes to Jane’s apartment he encounters her grandmother (Maude Eburne), who gives him a hug on his way in and then says it’s been a long time since she was hugged by such a hot man. Later, as the two come closer to penetrating (no pun intended) the gang, Fender invites Jane to his home for obviously illicit purposes — much to the disgust of his secretary and previous mistress, Betty (Marcia Mae Jones) — only Jane double-crosses him by sending her grandmother instead.

The plot kicks into high gear when Joe notices the man Fender has assigned to tail him, Pete Purdy (Edward Brophy, much less obnoxious than usual and actually playing a character with some definition), and not only discovers but actually befriends him; they end up together at a bookie joint (we assume it’s one of Fender’s enterprises), where the bettors get to watch the races in real time on a 1948 Stromberg-Carlson TV set (it was rare this early to see a TV set in a movie, especially given how much the major studios feared TV as competition!); the police stage a raid and Joe punches out a police officer, thereby getting his picture in the papers in a decidedly negative fashion, and being forced to resign from the fire department. Of course, it’s all a setup to give him bad-guy cred — though for a whole his girlfriend Jane doesn’t know that and understandably wonders why the seemingly nice guy she fell in love with is taking her to sleazier and sleazier locations and introducing her to nastier and meaner people — until the finale, when Fender figures out he’s being set up and leaks an address that supposedly contains all the furs that were reported as destroyed in the various fires (but were really removed before Pete torched the buildings and replaced with worthless pelts like rabbit and muskrat), thereby sending Joe into a trap, though things go awry; Pete tries to burn the place down and kill Joe, but Our Hero escapes, while Fender, speeding to the scene and trying to outrun a cop (the police had their own agent on the case and were in constant contact with the fire department — though nowadays suspected arsons are investigated by a joint force containing both police officers and firefighters who are trained to work together), crashes his car and he and Betty are both killed … a disappointment, since one wants Fender to get his comeuppance at the hands of the law rather than an accident ex machina.

It isn’t much as a movie, and it was a real stretch for writer Arthur Caesar to take credit for an “original” story (worked up into a script by Maurice Tombragel), but Arson, Inc. is ably directed (by William Berke, who started out making indies and finished with them, though in between he was an RKO contractee who turned out most of the later Falcon films with Tom Conway) and is an effective thriller that maintains a fast pace and at barely over an hour doesn’t overstay its welcome. Maybe a longer running time could have filled in some of the plot holes (we never know just how the fire department investigators identify Fender as the brains behind the arson gang) and got more out of the pathos of Betty’s plot line, but Arson, Inc. as it stands is a nice bit of unpretentious entertainment that offers Robert Lowery as a more prosaic crimefighter than Batman but also a much more believable one!