Sunday, May 20, 2012

Secret Evidence (PRC, 1941)

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

The film was Secret Evidence, a workmanlike 1941 “B” from PRC (though, interestingly, made with a number of people more usually associated with another cheap studio, Monogram: director William Nigh, star Marjorie Reynolds and musical director Edward Kay) pretty closely modeled on the 1934 MGM film Evelyn Prentice and all the reworkings that had been done on the central premise since, including MGM’s own The Unguarded Hour (1936) and Stronger than Desire (1939). As the film begins, attorney David Harrison (Charles Quigley) is preparing to leave a large law firm to become an assistant district attorney (doesn’t it usually work the other way around?) so he can start his planned political rise to be elected district attorney and then governor. He’s made it clear to his loyal secretary, Linda Wilson (Marjorie Reynolds, one year away from her breakthrough role as Mary Martin’s last-minute replacement in Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; a break like that should have sent her career into superstar orbit, but though she got to do a number of big films after that, including a reunion with Crosby in Dixie and Fritz Lang’s marvelous thriller Ministry of Fear, by the 1950’s she was mostly working in television), that he’s not taking her with him in his new job. She’s a bit put out by that — until he presents her an engagement ring and makes it clear he has in mind that she’ll play a quite different role in his life from now on. She blows her savings on clothes for her family — dad Frank (Charles R. Phipps), mom (Dorothy Vaughan) and younger brother Jerry (Howard Masters) — and everything looks like it’s breaking right for her until her ex-boyfriend, gangster Tony Baxter (Ward McTaggart, delivering a movie-stealing performance that should have marked him for biggers and betters in James Cagney-style roles), returns, out on parole after four years in prison. Tony insists that she meet him that night at the Arcadia, a sleazy motel on the outskirts of town, even though she’s going to have to break a dinner date with David to do so. He’s got a hold over her: the crime he was convicted of in the first place was a robbery of a jewelry store, and Jerry Wilson was involved as the receiver of the stolen goods — though at Linda’s insistence, instead of keeping them and stashing them as a nest egg for when Tony got out of prison, Jerry returned the jewels to the police and was somehow able to get them back to their rightful owner without Jerry’s own involvement in the crime coming to light.

On his way to the Arcadia Tony angrily brushes off another old confederate of his, Sniffy (Bob White) — who was also after his share of the (nonexistent) proceeds from Tony’s last pre-prison robbery — and Sniffy is shown ominously fingering a gun. So when Sniffy turns up at the Arcadia — and so does Jerry with a gun of his own (he bothered it from his dad, a jewelry store owner, who had a legitimate permit to carry it), and Linda catches Jerry with the gun in his hand, they struggle over it and it goes off, we’re sure we know what’s going to happen: Tony is going to turn out to be dead, Linda will be arrested for the crime and David is going to be saddled with the task of prosecuting his fiancée for murder. Only writers Edward Bennett (story) and Brenda Cline (script) don’t take it that way: instead Sniffy’s shot only wounds Tony and it’s Jerry who’s implicated and whom David has to prosecute. Though David receives a report from his forensics people (not that they were called that then!) that they have recovered the bullet that wounded Tony and it doesn’t match the gun Jerry had, he takes the case against Jerry to trial anyway (though he hedges his bets by recruiting an attorney from his old law firm to represent Jerry), hoping to get Tony to do the right thing and exonerate Jerry … only when Linda appeals to Tony to do that, Tony tells her his price for cooperating with Jerry’s defense is Linda dumping David and marrying him. Eventually David calls Tony as a witness in Jerry’s trial, Tony identifies Sniffy as his assailant — and just then Sniffy, who’s been able to bring a gun into the courtroom in those pre-security, pre-metal detector days (though metal detectors did exist then — Fritz Lang’s 1937 film You Only Live Once features one — they weren’t routinely used in government buildings and courtrooms the way they are now), brings it out and is about to shoot Tony again when the court marshals are able to subdue him, get his gun away from him and take him into custody.

 Secret Evidence is the sort of movie you think  you’ve seen before even if you haven’t, and the stock music cues Edward Kay was able to dig up are pretty cheesy (notably the themes used in the opening and closing credits, treacly string instrumentals vaguely reminiscent of “Home, Sweet Home” and totally out of place for something that’s supposed to be a crime thriller), but William Nigh’s direction has far more energy than we usually get from him (not that that’s much of a compliment) and he and cinematographer Arthur Martinelli actually get a few shots of visual interest (including one in which the shadow of Venetian blinds falls over the back of one of the attorneys in the trial scene — Venetian blinds were the one atmospheric visual effect Nigh loved, judging from how often they and the shadows they cast appear in his films). Nigh was notoriously indifferent to the sorts of performances his actors gave as long as they said their lines and hit their marks, but fortunately he had a solidly professional cast this time and there’s none of the atrocious overacting that mars so many of Nigh’s films — and McTaggart (who also used the first names “Malcolm” and “Bud”) is quite impressive, making Tony obnoxious and believable as a crook but also not entirely unsympathetic: one gets the impression that life with him would be edgier but also a lot more exciting than life with the comparatively dull “good” guy Linda’s dating. (Alas, McTaggart didn’t get the big roles he was clearly cut out for; for the next eight years he got the usual “C”-lister’s combination of big roles in little movies and little roles in big ones, and he died May 29, 1949 at the age of only 39.) And it’s curious, looking over Marjorie Reynolds’ filmography on, that she seemed to get stuck with the same character names over and over again: she’s “Linda Wilson” here, “Linda Mason” in Holiday Inn, and a character named “Mason” in at least two of her other roles, “Anne Mason” in Up in the Air (1940) — a good comedy/mystery about radio from Monogram — and “Jean Mason” in Dixie.