Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Bullet for Joey (Bischoff-Diamond/United Artists, 1955)

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

The night before last Charles and I had watched a far less exalted movie: A Bullet for Joey, a 1955 independent thriller made by producers Sam Bischoff and David Diamond for United Artists release with the over-the-hill gang: the stars are Edward G. Robinson and George Raft, and the female lead is played by Audrey Totter, a talented and powerful actress who never quite got on the “A” list — though comparing her performance here to her work in a similar role in the 1947 film of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake makes clear that she was just as striking a screen personality and had got considerably better as an actress in the intervening eight years. The film is a good one but one which could have been considerably better: the plot deals with Raoul Leduc (Robinson), a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who heads an investigation into the bludgeoning to death of one of his officers. The officer was killed by an organ grinder — actually a spy disguised as an organ grinder — who was keeping watch on a nuclear physics professor at McGill University, Dr. Carl Macklin (George Dolenz) and who had concealed a movie camera in his barrel organ to photograph Macklin’s morning routine so the head of his spy ring, Eric Hartman (Peter Van Eyck), could make arrangements to kidnap him. To head the kidnapping ring he hires Joe Victor (Raft), a criminal who insists that his whole gang be brought in as part of the deal — including his former girlfriend Joyce Geary (Audrey Totter), who’s running some sort of legitimate business in Cuba and really doesn’t want to rejoin Joe on the dark side, only one of Joe’s other men blackmails her into it.

The film was directed by Lewis Allen from a script by “Geoffrey Homes,” a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring, and A. I. Bezzerides (two much better writers than one would gather from this movie) based on a story by James Benson Nablo, and the main reason it isn’t a better film than it is is Allen’s paceless direction; scene after scene that needs relentless pacing to make its effect ambles along at a lackadaisical pace that gives the audience all too much time to ponder the plot holes. The biggest one is one Charles spotted: why, when the seemingly all-important professor — obviously the writers were thinking the Soviet Union wanted to kidnap the professor so he would work on their nuclear arsenal instead of America’s — has utterly no security detail around him at all, the bad guys go through all this elaborate planning instead of just grabbing him. Maybe the idea was that they were setting the Audrey Totter character to seduce him and ultimately either get him so far in sexual thrall or make him spend so much money on her as to get him so far in debt that he’d agree, more or less willingly, to change sides in the Cold War and go to work for the Soviets voluntarily — but nothing in the script even hints at that. Instead the writing committee pulls one of the stupidest clichés in the book and has Totter’s character fall genuinely in love with the professor — and they actually go off together after Robinson’s character and his squad of Mounties figure out the plot and get their men.

 A Bullet for Joey has the air of a penance project for both Robinson and Mainwaring, who’d been blacklisted for their Leftist connections and seemed to have taken the chance to work on an open piece of anti-Soviet Cold War propaganda in hopes that would get them off the list (though in Robinson’s case the man who got him off the blacklist was Cecil B. DeMille, who cast him as Dathan in The Ten Commandments a year later). Cold War propaganda films can be good movies on occasion (the Paramount cheapie The Atomic City with Gene Barry is a tight, exciting thriller and as long as you view the “atomic bomb secrets” as just another MacGuffin you should be fine with it) but this isn’t one of them, and it’s less the fault of Robinson or Raft (who turn in perfectly polished, non-groundbreaking old-pro performances — it was their second film together, after Manpower in 1941, but the publicity for it made it seem like their first) than of that damnably sluggish director, who made his first mark in 1944 with The Uninvited — a ghost story, and one expects ghost stories to be slow!