Saturday, June 28, 2014

Step by Step (RKO, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d recently recorded off TCM, Step by Step, a 1946 film that when I first saw it in the TCM listings I assumed was a Monogram production because it reunited the two stars from Monogram’s 1945 film Dillinger, Lawrence Tierney and Anne Jeffreys, and its director, Phil Rosen, was also a Monogram “regular.” Surprise: it was actually made at RKO — Rosen, who’d made one of the two best films of his career, Dangerous Corner, at RKO a decade before[1] probably regarded the assignment as a welcome relief from the Monogram salt mines — and enough of RKO’s standard personnel (producer Sid Rogell, composer Paul Sawtell, musical director C. Bakaleinikoff, art directors Albert D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller, set decorators Claude Carpenter and Darrell Silvera) are in the behind-the-camera credits that it’s clear RKO produced this film itself and didn’t simply buy a finished negative from Monogram — even though the “original” story (quotes definitely appropriate!) is by another Monogram regular, George Callahan (author of most of the Charlie Chan films made at Monogram), though the script is by the slightly more prestigious Stuart Palmer. RKO had already lucked into “their Bogart” with the surprise success of Murder, My Sweet (1944), which transformed Dick Powell from 1930’s musical star to 1940’s tough guy, but they were looking for similar actors who could also play tough roles, and they found them in Robert Mitchum (who’d been kicking around Hollywood for about five years when he landed the part in United Artists’ The Story of G.I. Joe that made him a star) and Lawrence Tierney.

They grabbed Tierney from Monogram after the success of Dillinger and started giving him a buildup, only Tierney was as much a tough guy off screen as on and his career trailed off into a series of tabloid scandals in which he’d continually start fights in bars, get arrested and embarrass the hell out of the studio. Basically Step by Step is a knock-off of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, only set in an old Gothic house instead of on a train. Secretary Evelyn Smith (Anne Jeffreys) has come out to the house to work for Senator Remmy (Harry Harvey), who wants her to transcribe a list of German agents being dictated to him by James Blackton (Addison Richards) — only Blackton notices a microphone dangling from just outside his hotel window, decides it isn’t safe to give the list out over the phone, and tells Senator Remmy he’ll come out west (this is one classic-era film that was not only shot in Los Angeles but actually takes place there) and give him the list in person. The conceit in the Callahan-Palmer script is that the German High Command has remained in overall power despite having lost two world wars and is still meeting and actively planning to regroup and have another “go” at conquering the world. There was quite a bit of this sort of propaganda during the latter stages of World War II (one remembers The High Command, a bonus item on Kino on Video’s DVD of Erich von Stroheim’s Blind Husbands, which was based on the same idea as this movie: that the Prussian High Command had been intact at least since Bismarck’s time and they regarded military defeats as just minor setbacks from which they would recover), and Charles was amused that when Step by Step was made the Zeitgeist was still worrying about Germany, not the Soviet Union, being the dastardly evil country that was out to rule the world by force.

Anyway, Remmy sends Evelyn out because he won’t be needing her after all until Blackton actually arrives, and says he has bathing suits available so she can dress in one and swim at the beach. She does this, and while she’s doing so she’s spotted by Johnny Christopher (Lawrence Tierney), who instantly falls in lust with her, strips down to swim trunks himself (and turns out to be a nice hunk of man-meat and even gets to show a little chest hair — the studios were lightening up after the 1930’s, when on the rare occasions a man got to show his chest on screen either he was naturally hairless or he was required to shave his body hair) and goes out to cruise her. Only when he gets back he finds he’s locked himself out of his car — his only companion is a wire-haired terrier (at least I think that’s the sort of dog represented) who, like quite a few members of his species, out-acts the human performers. Johnny gets a ticket from an obnoxious cop and takes Evelyn back to the house — only everyone else in it is different: there’s a new person posing as Sen. Remmy, Bruckner (Jason Robards, Sr.), as well as a vaguely British-accented German named Von Dorn (Lowell Gilmore) and Gretchen (Myrna Dell), a horse-faced woman who says she is Evelyn Smith. These three overpowered and knocked out the real Senator and Norton (Phil Warren), the Senator’s chauffeur, and took over from them, knocked off Blackton and are now looking for his secret list of the German High Command’s 200 co-conspirators worldwide (which they don’t know, but we do, he typed on a torn ribbon of bedsheet and concealed inside the lining of his leather jacket). The cop accepts the phony Senator and Evelyn as the real deals and threatens to take Johnny to a mental institution, but eventually Johnny and Evelyn escape and hide out in a seaside motel owned by Captain Caleb Simpson (a very Will Geer-ish performance by George Cleveland). Since he needed more clothes, Johnny took a pair of Norton’s pants and put on the leather jacket that, unbeknownst to him, contains the secret information. Suspected by the police of Blackton’s murder, and also being pursued by the bad guys, Johnny and Evelyn realize they have to solve the crime themselves. What they don’t know is that the bad guys are also staying at the motel, and they come close to discovering the leather jacket when the captain buries it, along with some fish, and Johnny’s dog digs it up.

Johnny and Evelyn become convinced that the chauffeur Norton was involved in Blackton’s murder, and Johnny roughs him up — ironically, Phil Warren was actually sexier than Lawrence Tierney but gets knocked off all too quickly after one of the baddies sees him and Johnny fighting and fires at him through an open window, killing Norton and setting Johnny up for murder number two — providing the fisticuffs that people going to see a Lawrence Tierney movie expected to see. It all ends as it should, of course, with the cops rescuing Johnny and Evelyn in time and a federal agent exonerating them and recovering the secret list from inside the jacket. Step by Step is one of those movies that isn’t exactly fresh entertainment — it’s hard to keep track of how many earlier, better films it borrows from (including an odd self-plagiarism from Rosen’s Dangerous Corner in which Johnny steals a tube out of Captain Simpson’s radio so Simpson can’t hear the police description of him and turn him in; in Dangerous Corner a burned-out radio tube forces the guests at a weekend retreat to talk to each other, and their secrets — particularly their illicit sexual couplings with each other — come out; then the story is repeated but with a replacement on hand for the burned-out tube and with the secrets thereby staying secret) — but it’s fun, it’s filmed by Rosen and cinematographer Frank Redman in a quasi-noir style even though the script features good-good guys and bad-bad guys with very little of the moral ambiguity of true noir, and it offers Lawrence Tierney a role that fits his limited acting skills without making him actively unpleasant to watch the way he was as an out-and-out psycho in Born to Kill. It also leaves one mourning that Anne Jeffreys didn’t have more of a career; she was one of those not-quite stars who made enough films to show off her considerable talents without ever getting the chance she deserved to make it to the “A”-list.

[1] — His other good one was The Phantom Broadcast, made for the first — and decidedly more interesting — iteration of Monogram in 1933.