Monday, November 7, 2011

Roses Are Red (Sol M. Wurtzel/Columbia, 1947)

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

The film was Roses Are Red, a 1947 Columbia “B” noir that according to an contributor had a story that originally started life as a Tim McCoy Western (!), which if true would be a reversal of the progress (if you can call it that) of noir stories like High Sierra into the Western Colorado Territory. Roses Are Red begins with the mysterious murder of one Peggy Ford, who’s found dead with a red rose placed in her hands (a plot development that, though it’s the basis for the title, is abandoned quite early on as the “whodunit” question gets swamped by other issues in the story) and, in her wallet, a photo of recently elected “reform” district attorney Robert A. Thorne (Don Castle). Only it’s not Bob Thorne, it’s his lookalike, ex-con Don Carney (also Don Castle), who went to prison for a two-year stretch, studied acting while in the big house (there’s a “Prison Players” program showing him as Othello, of all roles) and once dated the murder victim and may have killed her — though the cops actually arrest someone else for the crime. The someone else is George “Buster” Cooley (Paul Guilfoyle, turning in the kind of twitchy performance Elisha Cook, Jr. usually did in similar parts), and Thorne is convinced he can get a conviction. Cooley is a minor part in the criminal machine of super-gangster Jim Locke (Raymond Keane), who’s worried that under the pressure of a murder indictment and a possible death sentence Cooley will turn state’s evidence and implicate Locke’s assistant Duke Arno (Charles McGraw), who could in turn implicate Locke himself when he’s arrested.

To forestall all this, Locke hatches a plan to kidnap Thorne, hold him in an out-of-the-way mountain cabin for a week or so during which Carney, who’s also involved in Locke’s organization, can learn to impersonate him, then kill Thorne and send Carney to the D.A.’s office in Thorne’s place and have him use his influence to spring Cooley. Only Thorne manages to get the upper hand and escape, and the crooks kill Carney under the mistaken impression he’s Thorne — and Thorne returns to the D.A.’s office and impersonates Carney impersonating him! He even hires Locke’s man in the police department, Lieutenant “Rocky” Wall (Joe Sawyer), as his personal investigator, ostensibly to get Locke’s instructions but really to keep aware of what Locke is up to and what he wants from his “captive” D.A. His cover gets blown, though, by the women in both men’s lives: his own girlfriend, reporter Martha McCormick (Peggy Knudsen), and Carney’s wife Jill (the marvelous Patricia Knight) — both of whom (along with several other women in the film) wear such similar hair styles that for a while Charles thought they were supposed to be look-alikes, too. Ultimately Carney gets the information he needs out of Cooley and busts Locke’s organization.

It’s not much of a movie plot-wise, and it turns on the incredible coincidence not only that the two male leads look so much alike that they can be (and are) played by the same actor but that they would end up in the same city even though neither has any knowledge of the other’s existence until they see each other’s photographs, nor is it particularly atmospherically directed by James Tinling — but it’s fast (67 minutes), reasonably exciting and suspenseful entertainment. It also has an interesting supporting cast, including many actors who went on to biggers and betters later on: Jeff Chandler (as one of Locke’s thugs), Charles McGraw and James Arness (billed as “Aurness” in the opening credits!).