The “feature” Charles and I watched last night was one I’d long wanted to see: Most Dangerous Man Alive, a sci-fi/horror/gangster genre mashup that was the last film ever made by director Allan Dwan. His career had started in the very early days, in 1911, with a Western one-reeler consisting of two stories, the comedy Brandishing a Bad Man and the drama A Western Dreamer. He was one of the first directors to work regularly in southern California — that 1911 reel was shot at San Juan Capistrano and shortly thereafter Dwan became the principal director for Flying “A,” a producer of one-reel Westerns. The company was based in San Diego County, shooting first in Lakeside and then in La Mesa. Dwan then moved to the American studio in Santa Barbara and formed a separate company to make Wallace Reid’s first films (Reid is known today, if at all, only because he was the first — though regrettably far from the last — major star to die from the effects of drug addiction). In the 1920’s Dwan was an A-list director who worked regularly with Gloria Swanson and got to make one of the biggest blockbusters of the silent era, the 1922 Robin Hood starring (and co-written by) Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. His career took a bit of a nosedive when sound came in; he relocated to Britain for three years, discovered Ida Lupino for a film called Her First Affair, then returned to Hollywood and directed the framing sequence at the end of the monumental (and monumentally incoherent) 1934 MGM musical Hollywood Party, got a contract with 20th Century-Fox and made Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm with the studio’s biggest star, Shirley Temple. (In a book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich published in 1971 as Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer, Dwan freely admitted that the plots of those films had only a vague resemblance to the books on which they were ostensibly based.) From then it was all downhill: to Republic Studios in the 1940’s (where he discovered Natalie Wood and gave her her first substantial part in a 1946 film called Driftwood, a year before she made Miracle on 34th Street) and to a hookup with independent producer Benedict Bogeaus in the 1950’s. Dwan’s films with Bogeaus ran all over the genre map, from the 1954 Western Silver Lode (in which he cast both the leads against type — Dan Duryea as the hero and John Payne as the villain!) to the Ronald Reagan Westerns Tennessee’s Partner and Cattle Queen of Montana (in the latter the female lead was Barbara Stanwyck in a precursor of her part in the TV series The Big Valley), to South Seas adventures like Pearl of the South Pacific and Enchanted Island (the latter at least nominally based on Herman Melville’s Typee) and the superb noir Slightly Scarlet, based on James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and for which Dwan used the great cinematographer John Alton, who proved once and for all that you can do the classic noir look in color without making everything look dirty green or brown.
For Most Dangerous Man Alive — note the absence of a “the” in front of the title — Bogeaus and Dwan went for a genre neither of them had ever worked in before, science-fiction. The film opens, though, as the sort of gangster movie Dwan and other 1930’s directors churned out by the carload back then: mob boss Andy Damon (Anthony Caruso) is holding a board meeting of his vending-machine company (of course it’s a front for their criminal activities) when he receives word that the car carrying his former partner Eddie Candell (Ron Randell, top-billed) to San Quentin has crashed in the Nevada desert, and Candell has escaped. Both Damon and his wife Linda Marlow (Debra Paget) are scared shitless of Candell, in Damon’s case because Candell blames him for his murder conviction (in an earlier meeting, which we see in a flashback, Damon and the other gangsters upbraided Candell for maintaining too high a public profile and letting himself be profiled in World View magazine — read: Life — and Candell responded by pulling out a gun and shooting one of Damon’s associates) and in Linda’s because she’d previously been his girlfriend and after his conviction dumped him for Damon. Wandering through the desert, Candell stumbles on a tower from which a team of scientists led by Dr. Meeker (Tudor Owen) is about to set off a test of a new atomic weapon based on something called “Element X” (the synopsis on line at imdb.com says this is an isotope of cobalt but that’s not at all clear in the film itself). Seconds before the bomb is supposed to go off, Meeker spots Candell near ground zero, but it’s too late to stop the test; miraculously, Candell survives the blast but his body is transformed so it literally can absorb steel, and will ultimately turn completely into steel. That means that when he’s shot, the bullets — instead of killing or wounding him as they would a normal human, or bouncing off him like Superman — actually enter his body and become part of him. Of course, Candell becomes a monomaniacal revenge machine, distracted only momentarily by the appearance of his other girlfriend from the old days, Carla Angelo (Elaine Stewart). The police seek the aid of Dr. Meeker to tell them how Candell can either be captured or killed — natch, Meeker wants him kept alive in a “scientific prison” so they can study him but the cops and the crooks just want him dead — and at the end they go after him with giant flamethrowers. That would seem to be workable only if the flamethrowers spat out fire hot enough to melt steel, but we’re supposed to believe that they ultimately do kill Candell.
Benedict Bogeaus was a producer who always liked to do things on the cheap, and for Most Dangerous Man Alive he not only arranged to shoot at the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, he told all the participants — Dwan, the actors, the crew members — “that it was to be a pilot for a television series — in two episodes — and employed everybody on that basis. But when he presented the two parts to the syndicates in Mexico, they said, ‘This is a script that’s cut in half. It’s a continuous story, so it’s not a television film but a feature. Therefore you can’t make it on TV terms, with a skeleton crew and everything at much lower rates. You must take a full crew and do it at full feature rates.’ Well, as a matter of fact, that’s what it was. He had just cut the script in half and was making the two parts.” Forced to pay full feature-film wages not only to the crew members but the actors as well, Bogeaus blew his whole budget, and as a result Dwan had basically to direct at warp speed: “What should have been shot in five weeks was done in one. And everything in interiors — nothing built. The actors didn’t want to stay. All they wanted to do was get home. And I was in the awkward position of trying to keep it together with all this schism going on around us.” The circumstances under which Dwan was forced to shoot Most Dangerous Man Alive may account for the fact that given a script by Phillip Rock, Michael Pate and James Leicester that freely mixed gangster, horror and sci-fi tropes, Dwan focused on the gangster elements because those were the most familiar to him. The sci-fi gimmick at the heart of the story — an already criminal person becomes super-powerful as a result of an industrial accident of some sort — had already been done in films like the Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicles Man-Made Monster (1940) and The Indestructible Man (1956), but the most memorable borrowings from other movies here — especially at the end — are the gangster classics High Sierra (1940) and White Heat (1949), both ironically directed by Dwan’s colleague and friend from the silent days, Raoul Walsh.
With virtually no budget for special effects, Dwan is utterly unable to visualize Ron Randell’s body turning into steel — the best they can do is have him crush a cigarette lighter with his bare hand — and about the only visual concession to depicting him having survived a nuclear weapons test is a square-shaped scar on his right cheek. Oddly, Most Dangerous Man Alive is actually fairly well acted — Anthony Caruso gets only one note as a thug but plays that one note brilliantly, and the two women (playing much more conflicted characters than any of the men!) manage to nail the tension between love and fear they’re in from this bizarre relationship with a man who’s changed from a normal-powered psycho to a super-powered one. And at least in the opening reel, it’s well directed — there’s something to be said for putting even a cheesy film like this in the hands of a master with nearly 50 years’ worth of career behind him instead of a hack recently promoted from the studio mailroom — though it gets a bit slow towards the end as the clichés come popping out and years of previous moviegoing make you all too aware of where the plot is taking you. Most Dangerous Man Alive was also collateral damage from the financial collapse of RKO studios (Bogeaus’ distributor) in 1958; where other late RKO movies found homes at other studios relatively easily (From the Earth to the Moon at Warners and The Girl Most Likely at Universal), this one didn’t see the light of day until Columbia picked it up in 1961. “They just didn’t let it escape until then,” Dwan told Bogdanovich. “They were probably short of a picture, so they let it go out. It might have just been an accident. Though Bogeaus sold it to Columbia at a flat price, that was more than it cost. The studio thought they were buying a big bargain — they didn’t know how cheaply it had been made.” Dwan spent the remaining 23 years of his life in retirement — he died in Woodland Hills, California on December 28, 1981, at age 96 — making only one comeback attempt with a film called Marine!, a biopic of Marine general “Chesty” Puller, at Warners (a film which was cancelled when Jack Warner sold the studio) — though at one point he told Bogdanovich he wanted to open a screenwriting clinic where young aspiring filmmakers having trouble with their scripts could come to him for advice. “I have no desire under today’s circumstances to get back into the grind — the idiocy that’s being perpetrated now,” Dwan said. “Still, you never get it out of your blood. Every book I read, I see a picture in my imagination.”