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 André 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.

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 clichéd 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 armed 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.

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