Saturday, January 14, 2017

DIAL 1119 (1950)


This MGM feature might have been a startling film in its day and critics generally seemed to like it. A powerful opening score by Andr√© Previn suggests a winner. But despite an obvious low budget, the movie still lost money at the box office. There were no big name stars to draw an audience and it is almost entirely filmed on studio backlot sets. I also wonder if audiences accepted a nice looking boy, Marshall Thompson, in this early lead role. His getting on a bus to “Terminal City” might have been an omen, yet hardly justifies shooting the bus driver with his own personal security device. The script somewhat awkwardly addresses mental illness. Initially, Thompson appears only to be in a sleepwalking trance and it is hard to figure if he is innocent or guilty of something. Past or present.


Thompson's cold, unemotional search for his former psych doctor, Sam Levene, goes nowhere and he eventually wanders into a bar where we meet a slice of society with their own personal foibles. Virginia Fields, Leon Ames and Keith Brasselle (bartender) make up the more notable actors for this story. Finally, there is bar owner, William Conrad, who knows each patron well, holding contempt for a few regulars. On the bright side, his bar is equipped with a state-of-the-art, remote controlled television monitor suspended over the counter that would equal the size in most sports bars today. This had to cost a pretty penny. And for what? Wrestling. And of course, the news break about an escaped mental patient who Conrad recognizes at the end of the counter. When he calmly goes to the back to call the police, Thompson is right behind him, putting Conrad’s life on permanent hold with a bullet. This instantly gets the attention of all the patrons and the previously invisible Thompson becomes larger than life itself. This innocent looking, unassuming and perspiring man happens to have no regard for human life. Especially his own. Thus initiates the stereotypical hostage situation with the police plotting their next move to end the situation.

Through clich√©d interaction between killer and hostages, Thompson lays out his mental disqualifications, blaming the military for teaching him to kill. The Army was referring to the enemy, by the way. In his eyes all the patrons are pitiful excuses and he is not impressed with their petty problems. His comments put the patrons in a reflective, albeit terrified, mood. Thompson's only demand, other than having the patrons not move a muscle, is that he talk to Dr. Levene. Though unadvised repeatedly by the police, Levene sneaks inside the bar where Thompson confronts him about his historic bad advice. The doctor’s blunt assessment quickly regresses Thompson into a frightened child. He shoots Levene when pushed too far.


A revolver that Conrad kept behind the counter is spotted by Fields, whose character seems to know her way around firearms. She wounds Thompson who then tells her she had no right to do that. The patrons disagree wholeheartedly with his assessment. After a seventy-five minute running time, all hope seemingly gone with the words, “The End” approaching, he slowly escapes out the back entrance that is very well covered by the police. Welcome to Terminal City.

Some today find this film some sort of lost treasure but it is really not innovating in any aspect. It is well acted and there may be enough to hold the viewer in suspense but not surprising in any Hollywood hostage staging.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

CITY OF FEAR (1959)


Columbia Pictures footed the bill on this suspense drama which bears a striking similarity to so many later television disaster-of-the-week movies. A night scene opens the film with a speeding car driven by a known drug pusher, now an escaped convict wanted for murder and the stolen sealed canister in his possession. The driver getting annoyed by the constant moaning from his mortally wounded partner. His only interest is that canister of a million dollars worth of experimental heroin. In reality it is a radioactive synthetic, Cobalt-60. Highly contagious and deadly when in its presence. Opened, it could wipe out a city according to the film. An eighty-four hour search unfolds with the police, a nervous environmental authority and scientist working in concert to find the convict, preferably the canister.


Vince Edwards actually stars as Vince, “geigerman,” who thinks he has a bad cold. Edwards’ acting solidifies the movie as we watch him completely be drained from fits of coughing, sweating and feeling stupid for not getting a flu shot. The character is as one-dimensional as can be mustered. He is despicable in every scene and refuses to trust anyone but himself.

We find out about a nervous shoe store owner, television staple, Joseph Mell, who has profited from Edwards’ past drug deals. Driving a 1958 Lincoln land yacht is a dead giveaway the “Buster Browns” could not be moving that well. Director Irving Lerner again brings together Edwards with Cathy Browne and screenwriter Steven Ritch as the shoe store assistant and scientist, respectively. Waiting two years for Edwards is his girl, Patricia Blair, who has come in contact with the canister. When later questioned by the police she repeatedly denies seeing Edwards but her profuse sweating and “smoker's cough” give her away.


This is a pretty decent film which hides its limited budget. A creative score by Jerry Goldsmith adds excitement, bringing the crime thriller up a notch or two. The middle of this thriller is filled with the usual angst in trying to track down Edwards and save the city. There is action for the automobile historian with in-car cameras that put the viewer in the back seat. Several competent actors with familiar faces are on hand to lend credibility.


I found the rapid ending not perfectly thought out but at least funny. When Edwards stumbles out of a diner he collapses clinging to the sealed canister. The authorities, keeping their distance, fail to convince Vince there is still a chance he could survive. Slim. At best. They actually ask for the canister. Bad idea. Though Edwards may still be breathing, they immediately cover his body with a blanket and place a “high radiation area” sign of caution on top of it. Do not leave headquarters without that sign! The police captain then says to the scientist with relief, “Come on. I want to go home.” Someone will be by later to shovel him up I guess. Dead or alive.