Saturday, November 3, 2012

Missing Witnesses (Warner Bros., 1937)

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

The film was Missing Witnesses, a 1937 chip off the old Warners’ gangster block dealing with one of their old standbys: so-called “protection rackets” in which the gangsters bled local merchants dry with demands for money and threats to wreck their businesses if they didn’t pay. As the movie begins we see such a gang at work on café owner Hartman (Michael Mark, who looked so much like veteran character actor Vince Barnett I thought it was he); he’s already paying their “protective association” but they’ve raised the prices on him past what his bottom line can afford. He says no, they wreck his place, but they’re spotted by a mystery woman and also by a homicide cop, Bull Regan (Dick Purcell, later the screen’s first Captain America), who nabs them and arrests them. The prosecutors are able to get a grand-jury indictment against the three mobsters — Little Joe Macey (Raymond Hatton), Chivvy Prado (Earl Gunn) and Heinie Dodds (Louis Natheaux) — but on the witness stand at the actual trial Hartman recants his testimony, saying that other thugs wrecked his restaurant and Macey, Chivvy and Heinie came by afterwards and rescued him.

The prosecutor, Regan and even the judge all realize that Hartman has been threatened into refusing to testify, but the judge has no choice but to dismiss the case. The scandal leads the city to appoint Inspector Robert L. Lane (John Litel, top-billed) to head a special police squad to bust the rackets, and Lane gets Regan transferred to it despite his concern that Regan’s hot-headedness and unscrupulous methods will only be counterproductive. Regan deduces that Frank Wagner (Ben Weldon), who owns a restaurant just down the street from Hartman’s, was probably also a victim of extortion from Macey’s mob, but he comes down so hard on Wagner that the restaurateur thinks he’s part of Macey’s gang — and when he drags Wagner down to the police station he finds that Lane has already brought in Wagner’s wife Gladys (Sheila Bromley) to testify voluntarily. Wagner is put in a room at Lane’s office and told to go through giant books of photos of crooks to identify the ones who were putting the bite on him; he does so, but the gang gets to him by threatening Gladys and he tries to recant at trial — only his identification was clandestinely filmed and recorded by the police and the film is shown in the trial (oddly, it’s not until after the film has been run that Macey’s attorney bothers to object!), Wagner recants his recantation and Macey, Chivvy and Heinie are duly convicted. Needless to say, though, there’s actually a higher-up, a secret boss of the rackets, and he’s the real target of Lane’s investigation.

Regan decides to visit Macey in prison and get him to turn state’s evidence — and of course he doesn’t bother to tell Lane, who’s been working more gradually to get Macey to talk — and Regan’s bull-headedness gets Macey targeted for elimination by the gang. We see an elaborate way to smuggle a note from prison which the gang’s allies on the inside use to alert the big boss, who turns out to be stockbroker Ward Sturgis (Harland Tucker), that Macey is about to talk so they can have another prisoner kill him. We’re given his secret identity halfway through the film and so it’s evident the writers, Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan, weren’t planning to have the big boss be someone who was not only publicly respectable but was posing as part of the racket-fighting effort even while he was secretly running the racket himself. It also turns out that Sturgis’ secretary, Mary Norton (female lead Jean Dale), is the mystery woman Regan saw at Hartman’s café and again at Macey’s first trial; she took the job thinking Sturgis was just a stockbroker and then found out he was really a crook, whereupon she sought the right opening to expose him. Only Sturgis is ahead of the cops; when they raid his yacht, they find a “clean” set of his books replacing the ones Mary had seen earlier documenting his ill-gotten gains, and they also find a body and identify it as Sturgis. Mary is suspected of killing him and flees, but by announcing her arrest Regan lures her into the open — and learns that Sturgis is still alive: the body was that of his assistant, Jennings, whom he killed so he could fake his own death and frame Mary for his “murder.”

The gimmick of the bull-headed cop who ends up nearly blowing an assignment in which intellect and finesse are important, and the gimmick of the rich criminal faking his own death and blaming an innocent woman for the crime, were both used by Warners four years earlier in Bureau of Missing Persons (1933), in which the innocent woman was Bette Davis (billed as the star even though she didn’t appear until the 32nd minute of a 73-minute film), and it ends with Sturgis traced to a hotel room from which he’s getting ready to flee the country; he’s duly arrested and Regan and Mary end up together. (In Bureau of Missing Persons Davis’s character was the wife of the man who framed her for murder, and he’s killed in the final shoot-out so she and the cop can pair off at the end.) Directed by the always workmanlike William Clemens, Missing Witnesses (which for some reason is listed in the American Film Institute Catalog as Missing Witness — singular — though the actual credit lists the title in the plural) is a perfectly ordinary Warners gangster films, liberally filled out with stock footage from Warners’ previous efforts in the genre, and much of it (especially the scenes taking place in prison) taking advantage of huge standing sets on the Warners backlot that couldn’t have possibly been built for a film with a “B” budget —and the fact that Clemens, Gamet and Ryan were able to tell such a convoluted story in just an hour of running time is a testament to the cool, professional efficiency of the studio system and its ability quickly to dispatch stories a modern filmmaker would linger over for a film twice as long and less than half as entertaining.