Saturday, March 19, 2016

THE SUN SETS AT DAWN (1950)


This thought provoking film, based on a true story, has the look of a late 1930’s melodrama. It falls into the noir category, perhaps from not knowing where else it should be placed. 

A young man is accused of murder and a group of reporters are on location to compile the news about the state’s first use of the electric chair. The newfangled electric chair keeps malfunctioning, much to their disappointment. With a few hours before execution, the chaplain is called in to offer wisdom and have the “boy” (as the script calls him) get right with his soul. Philip Shawn (aka Patrick Waltz) is actually 26 but could pass for 19. The good old days when anyone under 21 was still considered a boy. The lad repeats scripture passages but cannot honestly admit the sin of murder. Because he did not commit a murder. 

At dawn, the chair breaks down again, blacking out half the county it would seem. A result, the priest believes that was meant to be. God saved the boy’s life for a reason. The viewer might believe it is because they capture the real killer so the story ends justly. But this is a true story. The scene when the group of reporters, each with their own rapid responses about the electric snafu, is rather exciting and well edited. Two of the reporters are played by veterans, King Donovan, who always inhabits his roles, and Percy Helton, everyone’s favorite weasel. Both with distinctive vocal qualities.

But there is a good share of weak acting throughout. The girlfriend of the innocent man, played by Sally Parr, for one. A scene in particular involves a prison orderly. While collecting mail at a frequented diner, he recognizes the mobster thought to have been dead for some three years. He has a past with the criminal and tries to convince the off duty policemen in the diner who he is. But he nervously takes matters in his own hands. I found the scene awkwardly funny when he slips a wanted bulletin inside the menu for the mobster to see before he orders. “Somethin’ to eat? (pause) Mister!” He places the menu down with the quickness of The Flash and calls him by name. Coldly, the mobster rises and fires. The prison orderly’s final frantic lines, in an effective stark close-up, is a plea to get the mobster’s fingerprints as confirmation.

The script brings the tension right to the wire (sorry) as it appears the kid will fry. However, despite his effective plastic surgery, fingerprints do not lie. The doomed mobster sets the record straight and elects to peck out his own confession on the typewriter. One letter. One index finger. At a time. Taking forever. Funny. It will leave enough time to get that chair fixed once and for all.

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