Sunday, March 11, 2012

What Price Vengeance (Central/Columbia, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a better-than-average 1930’s indie we’d downloaded from What Price Vengeance (no question mark on the title in the original credits, by the way), which according to the American Film Institute Catalog was actually filmed in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada by an outfit called “Central Films, Ltd.” that was controlled by Columbia Pictures in the U.S. — though there’s no hint that the story takes place in Canada and virtually all the leading actors in it, including stars Lyle Talbot and Wendy Barrie, were from the “lower 48.” It was written by J. P. McGowan and directed by Del Lord — a surprise because the plot was a “straight” gangster story and Lord was best known as a comedy director: he’d been one of the original Keystone Kops (he was an ace stunt driver and he was behind the wheel when Mack Sennett’s crew shot that hair-raising scene of a car apparently moving sideways across a seemingly sheer cliff — the incline wasn’t quite as vertical as it looked but it was still a really amazing shot that got reused as stock footage again and again) and his main gig in the mid-1930’s (the production date on this was 1937) was directing the Three Stooges in their famous series of Columbia shorts.

Lyle Talbot plays police officer Tom Connors, who lives with his sister Mary McNair (Lois Albright), her husband Bill McNair (Arthur Kerr) — also a cop — and their insufferably cute tow-haired son Sandy (Wally Albright), whom Tom, a police contest winner in marksmanship, is teaching to shoot. (A minor plot glitch: we see a cup Tom won in a pistol-shooting contest but the gun he’s teaching Sandy to use is a rifle.) Tom’s only respite from the McNairs is at a local diner where he eats, and where he’s fallen in love with the counterperson, Polly Moore (Wendy Barrie — a surprisingly down-to-earth role for an actress mostly known for her semi-exotic portrayals opposite George Sanders and Tom Conway in the Saint and Falcon movies). Alas, one day while he’s heading out of the diner, escaped convict Pete Brower (Marc Lawrence) and a partner decide to rob the Central Bank, and Tom sees them and has a shot at Pete but doesn’t take it because, as good as he is on the pistol range, he’s never actually shot at a human being. Like the central character in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, that means that he has to spend the rest of the movie living down a reputation as a coward until he gets a chance to redeem himself — and his guilt burden only gets worse when Brower, fleeing the scene, crashes through a park where Mary has taken Sandy and his schoolmates for a mass picnic. Everyone else escapes, seemingly unscathed, but Sandy is grabbed by Brower and used as a hostage until his usefulness ends, when Brower coolly and cruelly throws him out of his car as it’s moving down a mountain road. Sandy lives but develops a brain concussion that blinds him, at least temporarily. Davidson, the Central Bank’s manager (neither the AFI Catalog nor lists the actor who plays this role), confronts Tom’s immediate supervisor, police inspector Blair (Reginald Hincks), and demands that Tom be punished for his cowardice — and, rather than offer a defense, Tom resigns from the force and throws down his badge.

When next we see him, he’s wearing cheap clothes and a growth of beard and posing as a crook named “Dynamite” Hogan (the moniker is explained when he says he used to be a professional boxer and got the nickname from his manager, but wasn’t good enough for a career in the ring), where he meets Tex McGurk (Eddie Acuff, in the sort of role Allen Jenkins or Frank McHugh would have played if this had been made at Warner Bros.), small-time crook who promises Tom an “in” with Brower’s gang. Eventually he works his way into a major warehouse robbery Brower has set up, and it’s only at this point that we’re told for sure what we’ve suspected all movie: that he’s still a cop and is working undercover, with Blair the only person who knows what’s going on, aimed at finding Brower’s whereabouts and busting him. Only the suspicious Brower reschedules the holdup for that night instead of the next day — the information Tom had previously relayed to Blair — and his only way of letting the police know when the robbery will take place is via Polly, who has come to see him at the gang’s downscale meeting place posing as a rough-and-tumble gun moll — and Polly is caught phoning the police by Brower’s girlfriend Babe Foster (Lucille Lund, an otherwise forgotten actress known these days, if at all, for her marvelously twitchy performance as Bela Lugosi’s daughter/Boris Karloff’s wife in their first on-screen teaming, the 1934 film The Black Cat). Brower kills Tex for bringing Tom into the gang and the police surround the warehouse, but not before Tom has finally redeemed himself by shooting Brower dead — and in a postlude at Polly’s diner which was thoroughly butchered (probably many years ago a projector ate most of the final footage on the one print that survive), Tom greets Sandy, recovered from his blindness.

Though the plot premise isn’t exactly the freshest one imaginable, What Price Vengeance is actually quite a good movie — Del Lord turns out to be a quite good dramatic director (the opening, almost wordless sequence in which Brower breaks out of prison is an action highlight) and the only giveaway of his usual métier in comedy is his use of fast-motion to speed up the many car chases which punctuate the film (as well as one speedboat chase; Lord and his writer were obviously following the dictum of Lord’s old boss, Mack Sennett, that whenever things start to slow down, start a chase scene). When Brower tells his driver to go faster — at a time when his car is already visibly traveling more quickly than it could have without a fast-motion camera artificially speeding it up — the effect is almost risible. But the film moves quickly, the plot raises issues of loyalty and redemption most gangster films of the time didn’t bother with (the scene in which Brower finally discovers that Tom is an undercover cop eerily anticipates the similar revelation scene between James Cagney and Edmond O’Brien in White Heat 12 years later), and while Talbot is hardly as good an actor as the ones who played similar characters later (Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots, Errol Flynn in Desperate Journey, and Humphrey Bogart in Across the Pacific), he’s certainly better than serviceable even though, given the later trajectory of his career in general and his association with Ed Wood in particular, in the early scene in which he’s oversleeping and Sandy wakes him, I couldn’t help but joke, “I was having a nightmare! I was making a movie in which the director was a guy who dressed like a girl!” Wendy Barrie is also quite good, but as usual in productions like this it’s the bad guy who takes the acting honors: Marc Lawrence plays a chillingly off-handed crook, neither guilt-ridden nor psychopathic but simply accepting murder as a necessity for his own survival and going about his dirty business in a scarily cool manner far more typical of gangster protagonists of the 1950’s than the 1930’s.