Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Falcon's Alibi (RKO, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Falcon’s Alibi, a 1946 RKO “B” production towards the end of the Falcon detective series and a quite good movie in which I remembered one of the key characters — “Nick the Night Owl,” a D.J. who broadcasts from midnight to 3 a.m. on radio station KGR from inside a hotel, played by Elisha Cook, Jr. in one of his best performances (rivaling his work in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and The Killing) — though somehow I had transposed him to The Falcon in San Francisco instead (perhaps because the “K” at the beginning of his station’s call letters indicated a West Coast or Rocky Mountain zone location, and “KGR” sounds an awful lot like the real San Francisco station KGO), though Cook’s casting and the writing of his role (by Dane Lussier and Manuel Seff, with uncredited additional work by Edward Dein and Charles “Blackie” O’Neal, Ryan O’Neal’s father) are a weird breath of film noir air in an otherwise pretty formulaic plot line. Like several other Falcon adventures, this one begins at a racetrack, where the Falcon, a.k.a. Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway), runs into dotty dowager Mrs. Peabody (Esther Howard) and her secretary/companion Joan Meredith (Rita Corday, whose hint of a European accent sits oddly on an “American” character with an Anglo name). Lawrence is immediately taken with Joan Meredith and agrees to help her — as part of her job she took Mrs. Peabody’s pearl necklace to a jeweler to be copied and appraised, and as a result she found it was a fake, so she’s worried she’ll be accused of stealing the original and wants the Falcon’s help in keeping her name clear — and the action pretty quickly moves to (and resolutely stays in) the hotel where Mrs. Peabody and her entourage, including a dispossessed baron (Lucien Prival) and his wife (Jean Brooks) and a man named Beaumont (Jason Robards, Sr. — father of the Jason Robards we’re familiar with), as well as an insurance man named Metcalf (Emory Parnell) who’s investigating a series of jewel thefts in the hotel to see if they’re part of an attempt by jewelry owners to scam his insurance company.

There’s a nightclub within the hotel wherein Alex Olmstead (Paul Brooks) and his band perform. His star singer is Lola Carpenter (Jane Greer), who’s secretly married to Nick the Night Owl but wants to leave him and marry Alex because he can do so much more for her career. One of the members of Mrs. Peabody’s entourage gets murdered — it’s hard to remember which one — and eventually so does Lola Carpenter, and it turns out Nick is the real culprit; he killed his wife out of jealousy and because she had reacted to his confession that the jewelry he had given her had been financed by robberies from the hotel guests. To alibi himself, he transcribed his radio show so he could play the transcription record on the air and people would think he was in his booth broadcasting his show. Only the Falcon figures this out — which wouldn’t have been that difficult; in the mid-1940’s transcribed shows were a relative novelty and several movies of the period, including Laura (which I think was the first one to use this gimmick), featured radio performers pre-recording their programs and playing the transcriptions over the air to give themselves an alibi for the murder they were about to commit. At the end, Nick is doing this again — though he knew, or should have known, that someone was on to him since his transcription disc was moved from one part of the studio to another (by the Falcon as part of his test to see if he was right) — so he can knock off Jane Meredith, only the Falcon arrives in time, saves Jane and Nick takes a header off the balcony from which he had been planning to push Jane so he dies. It also turns out that Mrs. Peabody herself, who up until the end has seemed like just another ditzy comic-relief character, is the mastermind of the insurance swindle — something that upsets Metcalf, who ends up whining, “I thought we were friends!” The Falcon’s Alibi was directed by Ray McCarey (Leo McCarey’s far less prestigious brother — when Charles and I watched a movie in which Ray McCarey directed Bob Crosby I joked that both of them had brothers with far bigger reputations than theirs!) and produced by William Berke, who’d directed some of the previous Falcon movies and who came to the major studios from a background in independent production in the late silent era (and who actually returned to indies and made the first two films of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels before dying relatively young in 1958), and it’s an oddly schizoid movie in which Elisha Cook, Jr. and the character arc featuring him seem to have come in from the film noir world and settled uncertainly into the more genteel mystery story represented by the Falcon series. If he weren’t in it The Falcon’s Alibi would be just another series entry, and a relatively weak one at that, but his performance gives this otherwise mediocre movie real dramatic power and scope. And it did occur to me that it was interesting that just one day after having watched a crime film featuring George Sanders, here we were seeing one with his less well known and less highly regarded brother, Tom Conway!