Monday, July 18, 2011

Shoot to Kill (Lippert/Screen Guild, 1947)

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

I squeezed in an hour-long movie I’d downloaded from a 1947 “B” noir called Shoot to Kill (not to be confused with a much more famous 1988 film with that same title, starring Sidney Poitier) which managed to crowd quite a few plot elements and some spectacular reversals into a 63-minute running time. It was a Lippert Pictures production, released through Screen Guild Productions, though considerably better than the usual mix of cheap horror movies and Westerns Bob Lippert usually made. Much of the staff seems like PRC in exile — especially David Chudnow, the music supervisor, whose PRC origins show in this film in the virtually wall-to-wall accompaniment of shrilly recorded stock music that sometimes takes away from the power of the movie — though the director is William Berke, who had begun in independent movies and was now returning to them after RKO had let him go when they closed their “B” movie department and ended the Falcon detective series (many of which Berke had directed) in 1946.

Working from a pretty convoluted script by Edwin V. Westrate — I joked that they couldn’t afford an east-rate writer so they got Westrate — Berke managed to come up with a convincing and atmospheric film noir despite, or maybe because of, a no-name cast. (There’s one advantage working with no-name actors: we don’t bring our associations of them with the roles they played in other movies and therefore can more readily accept them as the people the script tells us they are.) The film starts with a rapid (probably shot with speeded-up motion) car chase in which a police car is chasing a civilian car through city streets and onto a mountain road, where the driver of the civilian car loses control and it crashes down the hillside. When the cops inspect the wreckage they find three people — recently appointed district attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmond MacDonald), his wife Marian Langdon (Luana Walters, using the first name “Susan,” probably so people wouldn’t think of her as the girl in distress from Monogram’s awful Bela Lugosi movie The Corpse Vanishes) and the criminal Dale recently helped convict and send to prison, Dixie Logan (Douglas Blackley, a.k.a. Robert Kent).

Wondering why the D.A. and his wife would be in the same car as a notorious criminal — who, we learn several reels later, staged a daring prison break (none of which, this being a “B” movie, we actually get to see) and escaped vowing revenge against Dale, the cops can’t wait to question Marian, who’s the only survivor of the crash. She meets with reporter George “Mitch” Mitchell (Robert Wade), the only genuinely sympathetic character in the film, in her hospital bed and promises him an exclusive story. Then the film fades into flashbacks — and sometimes even into flashbacks within flashbacks — as we get the story from Marian’s recollections. She was vaguely dating Mitch when an opening on Dale’s staff for a secretary opened up, and with Dale’s boss, D.A. John Forsythe (Charles Trowbridge), about to retire, Dale seemed unstoppably headed for the D.A.’s office and a sky’s-the-limit political career — especially when he created a media sensation with the successful prosecution of Dixie Logan. Only — as we started to suspect from the get-go if only because of the hairline-thin “roo” moustache Russell Wade was wearing in the role — Dale is himself a crook, in league with the city’s other major gangsters, Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva), Al Collins (Ted Hecht), and Mike Blake (Harry Chesire), and in order to get rid of the competition he framed Logan by bribing two of Logan’s men to testify against him.

Meanwhile, Dale is romancing Marian and she seems to be going along with it (among the shots in the montage sequence showing them dating is a marquee advertising a film starring Carole Lombard, who died five years before this film was made), only once he marries her (the ceremony is performed by a justice of the piece who’s an old family friend of hers) she reveals to him that she knows exactly what his real game is, and the price for her silence is that he’s going to run the D.A.’s office the way she tells him to, protecting the crooks she wants him to protect and leaving alone the ones she wants him to leave alone. Her number one priority is to get Logan officially freed (he’s escaped from prison in the meantime). Dale hatches a plot to nail Miller, Collins and Blake by promising each that he’ll help put the others out of business, then busting them all so he will be the unquestioned boss of the city’s rackets, only Marian tips them and in the final reel she drops the last reversal bomb: she and Dale are not legitimately married because she was really the wife of Dixie Logan, and her whole relationship with Dale — professional and personal — was simply part of a revenge plot to free Logan by destroying the reputation of the man who had busted (and framed) him.

The flashbacks within flashbacks and the neck-snapping reversals get to be a bit too much to take after a while — though modern-day filmmakers like Tony Gilroy put you through more, and less believable, ones — but overall Shoot to Kill (a title that’s never really explained in the movie and which does nothing but give the whole thing a sense of “crimeicity”) is a pretty good noir, reminiscent of quite a few other stories in which the supposed “reformers” in big-city politics are as corrupt as the old guard they’re supposedly out to displace — Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and the 1942 MGM film Kid Glove Killer (as well as the 1938 Crime Does Not Pay short They’re Always Caught, of which Kid Glove Killer was a remake) — but with a few twists and turns of its own that make it worth watching.