Sunday, July 31, 2011

Riot Squad a.k.a. Police Patrol (Harry S. Webb/Merit/Mayfair, 1933)

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

The film was a download from called Police Patrol, which turned out to be a 1950’s TV reissue title for a 1933 Harry S. Webb production released first by Merit and then by Mayfair (studios, or attempts to start studios, came and went so quickly during the Depression years that often a company would go out of business while its films were in release and another company would take over their distribution) called Riot Squad. Neither title is that appropriate for the story, which is a thriller (at least in intent) about police officers but they’re shown doing little if any patrolling and there is no riot. (Probably Harry S. Webb couldn’t have afforded to stage one on his budget.)

The print we were watching was the 1950’s Police Patrol version, with a new set of opening credits that gave the title and the cast members but no one else — no writers, director, cinematographer or anything — but references like the American Film Institute Catalog (which marked the movie “not viewed”) and (which called it a “lost film”!) reveal that Harry S. Webb both produced and directed, the screenplay was by Jack Natteford and Barney Sarecky (who was later involved as a producer on some of the Bela Lugosi Monograms, in connection with which it’s irresistible to point out that his last name rhymes with “drecky”), the cinematographers were Roy Overbaugh and H. C. Ramsay, the film editor was Fred Bain and the sound recorder was Tom Lambert, assisted by M. Leon and J. C. Landrick.

The cast was almost as obscure as the behind-the-camera folk; the only actor I’d heard of before was Madge Bellamy, top-billed — she’d been a silent ingénue of some reputation, had fallen in the early sound era, but had made her best-remembered film, as the heroine of White Zombie (another Lugosi connection!), the year before this one. Riot Squad begins with our two police-officer heroes, detectives Bob Larkin (Pat O’Malley) and Mac McCue (James Flavin), coming across a dying gangster and asking who killed him. With the rotten sound quality of this film (especially as it’s no doubt deteriorated over the years) at first I thought the actor said, “No one,” and was intending on keeping his omertá to his grave, but later it developed that the noise he made just before he expired was “Nolan.” Nolan (Harrison Greene) is a nightclub owner who’s the head of the rackets in town, but the real boss — at least it’s hinted from a phone call between the two — is his girlfriend Lil Daley (Madge Bellamy).

Nolan’s right-hand man, Diamonds Janeck (Addison Richards), tells Lil she should seduce McCue so the gang can set him up and kill him, thereby eliminating the key witness to Nolan’s guilt, but McCue leaves Lil’s apartment before the trap can be sprung. The next day, Larkin, with his own designs on Lil, visits her and McCue recognizes his car outside and steals his distributor cap. Larkin is late getting back to the police station and he and McCue get in a fight, allowing a prisoner to escape. Because of this, the police chief at first tells Larkin and McCue they’re fired, but later relents — sort of: they can continue to be cops, but they’re busted from plainclothesmen back to uniforms and assigned to the worst job in the department, the riot squad. McCue testifies against Nolan and he’s convicted, but before Judge Moore (Ralph Lewis) is to sentence him, his daughter Peggy (Alene Carroll) disappears. McCue asks Lil where Peggy is, Lil’s maid Ruth (Bee Eddels) overhears him, and Ruth calls Jareck, who has McCue kidnapped. Eventually Larkin finds out where McCue and Peggy are being held and leads the riot squad there, where they’re released, Larkin is paired with Lil and McCue with Peggy.

What’s frustrating about Riot Squad is it’s actually a pretty serviceable crime story for the period that with major-studio production values and actors (imagine it at Warners with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and Bette Davis!) could have been an exciting, entertaining thriller. Instead it gets the full weight of the budgetary limits on indie producers in the early 1930’s. Webb’s direction is reasonably paced (though without the relentless speed a Warners director would have brought to it) but the cinematography is bland, showing scenes that cry out for the noir treatment in harmonious gray tones and offering almost no close-ups: the camera is miles away from the action and scene after scene gets played in a static setup before an immobile camera. Turn the sound off and ignore the cars and this would look like a film from 1913, not 1933.

The acting is also nothing to write home about — except for Bellamy, who made it clear why she’s the one member of the cast you’re likely to have heard of before: though she’s hamstrung by the failure of writers Natteford and Sarecky to give her character much of a motivation or to give her much of a handle on when she stops being an agent of the gang out to entrap the cops and when she starts genuinely falling in love with one of them, she still manages to create a convincingly multidimensional characterization in what is — let’s face it — the only part in the whole movie the writers actually made a genuinely conflicted character. The rest of it is a routine indie for the day, not especially bad but not the gripping gangster movie the story had every right to be, either.