Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Miami Exposé (Clover/Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Just as I ran Charles The Beast of Hollow Mountain on Saturday night after Lifetime’s Bad Tutor was finally over and I could invite him back to the living room, I ran him Miami Exposé, the next film in sequence in Turner Classic Movies’ 2013 tribute to actress Patricia Medina, after the Academy Awards telecast last Sunday. The film was made at Medina’s usual home studio, Columbia, under the auspices of Sam Katzman’s Clover Productions and directed by Fred F. Sears (Katzman’s usual go-to guy for his rock ’n’ roll movies, though in the film Calypso Heat Wave — produced by Katzman in 1957 in line with his and quite a lot of the rest of the industry’s spectacularly wrong prediction that rock was on its way out and the next big musical fad would be calypso — he showed quite a lot more sympathy for calypso and its rhythms than he’d ever had for rock) from a script credited to “James B. Gordon” but really our old friend and baseball fan, Robert E. Kent. The defining anecdote for me about Kent was when one of his friends went to see him while at work at a studio, and Kent received his friends and regaled him with a play-by-play description of the baseball game he’d attended the night before — while Kent’s fingers continued to fly over his typewriter and generate the latest pile of Hollywood’s clichés he was cranking out for the people paying him. This time, at least, Kent seemed to give a damn about what he was writing — maybe it was the off-season — and he and Sears turned out a quite lively, economical 71-minute thriller with the then-trendy real-life allusions.

The film starts with an avuncular middle-aged white man behind a desk: he is Mayor Frank Christmas of Miami, Florida, playing himself on screen (and apparently that was his real name!) and explaining that had it not been for the real-life heroism of the cops you were about to see dramatized on screen, his city would have turned into a cesspool of vice and crime thanks to an effort by sinister organized-crime forces to get Florida to legalize gambling and thus turn the city into the “Las Vegas of the East” as a gambling and organized-crime mecca. The person behind all this is former attorney Raymond Sheridan (Alan Napier, who made this film the same year he hit the low point of his career in Universal-International’s The Mole People; his high point was playing the “Holy Father” in Orson Welles’ late-1940’s film of Macbeth and the part most people remember him for was as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the 1960’s Batman TV show), who’s conceived of getting all the leading 1-percenters in Florida to get behind his initiative campaign to get the voters to legalize gambling in the state. He hires veteran lobbyist Oliver Tubbs (former Capra villain Edward Arnold, in his last film — he died of a heart attack in April 1956 and it’s not clear whether he actually finished his part or not, though there aren’t any cutaways or scenes with a stand-in’s back to the camera or any of the other usual dodges when filmmakers have to complete a movie after one of the leading actors has died) to persuade the Florida big-wigs to join the effort, offering them shares in the riches to be made — and blackmailing them with information Sheridan has provided him on them if he can’t get them to agree willingly. The scheme comes to the attention of the police when a small-time crook named Hodges gets knifed to death in his room at the Cromwell Hotel in Miami (though I doubt if Robert E. Kent was being deliberately ironic writing a film about an effort to legalize gambling and naming one of the key locations after a famous Puritan!), and so is the head of the detective unit of the Miami Police Department when he goes to investigate the case. Faced with two bodies, one of them a cop’s, the newly hired replacement lieutenant, Barton “Bart” Scott (Lee J. Cobb), launches a major investigation. 

Bart is single but is dating Ann Easton (Eleanor Tanin), a widow who’s raising her son Stevie (Barry L. Connors) as a single parent — only she wants him to work as a police detective just for the two years remaining on the 20-year minimum to collect a pension, then retire from the force and seek a less dangerous line of work, because she understandably doesn’t want to be widowed a second time and doesn’t want Stevie to lose a second father-figure. The key witness whom Bart must first find and then protect is Hodges’ widow Lila, played by Patricia Medina in a marvelous good-bad girl performance reminiscent of Gloria Grahame’s work in Fritz Lang’s 1953 Columbia noir classic The Big Heat — and I suspect Kent was looking over his shoulder at the work of the writers of The Big Heat, William P. McGivern (source novel) and Sydney Boehm (screenplay), in creating Lila Hodges. She’s described as a woman of loose morals — though married she was dating another guy, small-time crook Louis Ascot (Michael Granger, speaking with such an ambiguous accent I wondered if the character was supposed to be white or Latino), and she goes after Bart in a weird way, not really wanting his protection but also at least occasionally realizing that she needs it. To keep the Florida thugs from killing her, Bart and his partner, Detective Tim Grogan (Harry Lauter) take her to Havana, Cuba — and it looks like Katzman sent a second-unit crew and actually shot there, this being 1956, three years before the fall of Fulgencio Batista’s corrupt regime and its replacement by the Castro government, when in real life it was Cuba that the Mob was hoping would be “the Las Vegas of the East” and where they’d invested heavily in resort hotel/casinos. (The Mafia was behind some of the U.S. government’s crazier attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, including the exploding cigars and the poison-lined wet suit, and they also felt betrayed by President John F. Kennedy for refusing air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion and for cutting a deal to end the Cuban missile crisis in which the U.S. pledged never again to attempt to overthrow the Castro regime — and as a result the Mob turned their ire from Castro to Kennedy and determined to kill him, which they did on November 22, 1963. A lot of explanations have been offered for the JFK assassination over the years, but that’s the one that makes the most sense to me.) In Havana Bart and Grogan take her to an already operating legal casino and end up in a car chase in which the Mob’s attempts to kill Lila are stopped by the Cuban police, whom Bart notified in advance and asked for support. 

Meanwhile Sheridan’s enforcers in Florida have knocked off Harry Tremont (Lauren Gilbert), the one 1-percenter who stood up to them despite the threat of blackmail (not against him but against his son-in-law), and deliberately using an open intercom channel they know Oliver Tubbs is monitoring (they’ve arrested him for the murder of Lila’s husband even though they don’t think he actually did it personally), they let the Mob know that Lila is alive — earlier they’d put out the word that she was dead. The climax occurs at a wood cabin Bart owns in the middle of the Everglades, to which he, Ann and Ann’s son Stevie take Lila to hide her out from the killers — only the killers figure out where she is and they go chasing after her. They rent an air boat (the craft used in the Everglades in which the propeller is mounted on back of the boat so it can push it through the air, like a propeller plane, because a normal propeller mounted under the boat would get stuck in the sands and/or kick up too much mud to be useful), not realizing that the driver is a police agent and he’s got the boat bugged so Bart and his crew can listen in. Bart and the other cops on the case get into an air boat of their own and hope they can get to his cabin before the crooks — they know exactly where it is, though the crooks don’t — and the movie ends with Ann and Lila joining forces in a shoot-out to stay alive and hold off the crooks until Bart and the cops can get there, rescue them and arrest the baddies. They do that, but later when they go pick up Sheridan — one of his gunmen blurted out on the boat that they were doing this on his orders, thereby giving them the evidence linking him to the conspiracy that they need — they find him dead, shot by Tubbs, who hated him because even though he was a lobbyist, fixer and blackmailer, he drew the line at murder. 

Miami Exposé has been listed as a film noir, which it is thematically but not visually; despite an excellent cinematographer, Benjamin H. Kline, who could have shot it in noir style if Katzman and Sears had let him, most of the movie is in an even grey tonality without much attempt to do dramatic lighting. It’s really a reflection of what happened to crime films after the unexpected success of Anthony Mann’s T-Men in 1949: instead of meticulously re-creating an urban environment in a film studio, Mann and his crew went out and shot on real streets, reflecting the story’s alleged basis in fact, and they also used a third-person voice-over narrator to explain what was going on and how the various plot threads connected with each other. Still, it’s a quite nice, exciting thriller and Patricia Medina gives perhaps the most multidimensional performance of her career: instead of the damsel in distress awaiting rescue by the butch action hero, she’s a complex character, morally ambiguous, hard, determined to preserve her own skin but still with something of a broader sense of morality, and also on one level ashamed of the criminal life her late husband dragged her into. It’s not a great film but it’s a very estimable one, and Fred Sears turns out to be a better director than he’s usually given credit for being (or that he got to show in Katzman’s cheap-jack musicals).