Saturday, November 2, 2013

Between Midnight and Dawn (Columbia, 1950)

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

The film was Between Midnight and Dawn, a 1950 policier from Columbia that stars Mark Stevens and Edmond O’Brien (billed in that order, for some reason) as police partners in a patrol car — indeed, a tiny note at the bottom of the main-title credit indicates that the film’s name was originally Prowl Car, and even with the title change it’s still unusual for a police-procedural to make uniformed cops, not plainclothes detectives, its focus. The uniformed cops are Dan Purvis (Edmond O’Brien) and Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens), and among their other duties — most of which are either picking up drunks or answering domestic-violence calls — they’re keeping an eye on a young, up-and-coming gangster named Ritchie Garris (Donald Buka, a charismatic young actor who got trapped on TV and didn’t have the feature-film career he clearly deserved on the basis of his powerful, if sometimes overacted, performance here). Garris got staked by a couple of older mobsters to open a club at which his girlfriend, Terry Romaine (Gale Robbins), performs as a singer and pianist when she isn’t at home babysitting the daughter of the building super and his wife. Barnes has a crush on a woman whom he’s never met but whose voice he’s heard from the dispatch room; she is Kate Mallory (Gale Storm — surprisingly, given her fame as a singer at Monogram, she doesn’t get the singing role in this even though she’s quite good as an actress, and she’s photographed by George Diskant and made up by Clay Campbell, Gordon Hubbard and hair stylist Helen Hunt to look surprisingly like Nancy Olson at Paramount), who doesn’t want to date police officers because her dad was one and he was killed in the line of duty, forcing her mom to raise her as a single parent. Between Midnight and Dawn was directed by Gordon Douglas from a script by Eugene Ling based on a story by Gerald Drayson Adams and Leo Katcher, and it’s listed on as a film noir — which it is at least sporadically visually (George Diskant was an experienced practitioner of the noir look) but not thematically; it’s the sort of film in which the cops are very, very good and the crooks are very, very bad, with little or none of the ambiguity of the best films noir. It’s interestingly mainly for the casting — Mark Stevens is relatively weak but O’Brien is good (incidentally, there are a lot of close-ups showing him behind the wheel of his patrol car in which Diskant’s camera gets close enough you can actually see the cataracts in his eyes: O’Brien suffered from cataracts so severe that by the time Don Siegel directed him in China Venture three years later, he literally couldn’t read scripts; instead, at night he’d have his wife read him the pages he was scheduled to shoot the next day and he’d memorize them from her reading) and so are the two women, while Buka is magnificent as a barely in-control psycho, essentially a younger, hunkier but just as hot-headed version of Edward G. Robinson’s character in Little Caesar.

He offs one of the gangsters that set him up in the nightclub business, gets arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. Then he stage-manages an escape from the county jail by hammering his already wounded arm against the bars of his cell until it starts bleeding again, thereby giving him an excuse to be moved to the prison sick ward — outside of which two of his gang are able to station themselves as snipers, fire their rifles into the window and knock off or force to the floor everyone else in the room so their guy can escape. Meanwhile, Kate and Barnes have become engaged, so naturally the escaped Garris tracks down the two cops who arrested him in the first place, shoots into their car and kills Barnes. In the final shoot-out between the good guys and the bad guys — which happens at Terry’s apartment while the super’s kid is visiting, which gives Garris the chance to use her as a hostage — Purvis kills Garris (I joked that as he exited, he should say, “Mother of mercy — is this the end of Ritchie?”) and then ends up with Kate on a rather odd-seeming rebound. Between Midnight and Dawn is the sort of decently entertaining film that could have been better than that; its biggest flaw is that midway through the police-procedural aspects come to a dead stop for 20 minutes during which we get a very dull depiction of the romantic triangle between Kate and the two cops, though fortunately things pick up again when Garris re-enters the story (the villains in pieces like this are almost always more interesting as characters than the heroes!). It was a good movie but also a bit of a disappointment compared to what it could have been! Also, through most of the running time Charles and I thought Gale Storm was playing the nightclub singer who was Garris’ girlfriend, and it was a surprise to look the film up on and find she wasn’t.