Thanks to YouTube and TCM, I have recently become reacquainted with some movies from the classic period in Hollywood that I haven't seen for decades. Such encounters with films enjoyed as a youth have proven disappointing as time and viewing experience changes our perspective; what was great when I was a teen hasn't been so wonderful four decades later. The three productions discussed here were, upon seeing again, supportive of my original positive opinion of them. These three are indicative of my taste for melodrama and genre entries, but retain qualities that should make them better known.
And so, without further introduction, let us once more appreciate...
A MAN BETRAYED (1941)
Also shown as Wheel of Fortune -- the title under which I initially saw this on New York's WNEW-TV in the early 1970s -- A Man Betrayed was not only an ambitious project for its studio, Republic Pictures, but an important step in John Wayne's rise to superstardom, acquitting himself well in a modern-dress. non-western role in which the actor's natural charm was employed to good effect.
Wayne is Lynn Hollister, a folksy small-town attorney who comes to the big city to get to the bottom of the shooting death of a family friend, college basketball star Johnny Smith, soon after the victiim left a notorious nightclub/clip joint. Lynn's quest brings him into conflict with the club's oily owner T. Amato (Alexander Granach), his half-witted brother (Ward Bond) and the local political boss, Cameron (Edward Ellis) who allows such dives as Amato's to stay in business.
Falling for the politico's daughter Sabra (Frances Dee), Lynn joins the combine, roots out Johnny's killer and brings down Cameron's crooked machine. For his part, the chastened Cameron is content to forsake the hurly-burly, settle down in Lynn's hometown and challenge its poker champion, as Lynn and Sabra make plans to tie the knot.
Most folks prefer the Duke in his later, larger-than-life roles, but his initial 1940s movie leads tend to emphasize his likability and on-screen ease. In A Man Betrayed, he's easygoing but ready with the punches when things get rough, and he's supported by an intriguing story and better-than-average cast, including Wallace Ford as a peppery newspaper reporter who aids Lynn's investigation. The role of Lynn Hollister seems like something James Stewart would have done in his sleep, but Wayne makes it his own and as engaging as Stewart's hero Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
For Republic, a second feature and serial studio with whom Wayne had been associated for several years, primarily in oaters, A Man Betrayed was a more expensive proposition, a try for the upper half of the bill, and it mostly succeeds in that attempt. The company had to be pleased to have Wayne, now in demand at other studios following his breakout role in 1939's Stagecoach, as a regular in its leading man roles. It was a mutually beneficial affiliation between the star and Republic that continued for another decade, climaxing with The Quiet Man (1952). John H. Auer, whose directorial career was mostly spent at Republic, helmed A Man Betrayed in an efficient and involving fashion.
STREET OF CHANCE (1942)
Somewhere between a B and a "shaky A" endeavor, this Paramount release I first saw in the summer of 1972, again on WNEW (now WNYW), is a gripping mystery that manages to capture some of the urban despair and paranoia lurking in the background of The Black Curtain, Cornell Woolrich's 1941 novel from which Garrett Fort based his screenplay. With its brooding atmosphere, Street of Chance may even qualify as an early example of Hollywood film noir a few years before it became fashionable.
While walking near a construction site, a man (Burgess Meredith) is brained by falling debris. When awakened by an emergency crew, he finds he is Frank Townsend, an accounts manager with no idea why he's in that part of town. He returns to his apartment, finding to his amazement that his wife Virginia (Louise Platt) has moved and taken back her maiden name. Locating her, Frank discovers he's been missing for a year and may have been the victim of amnesia caused by an accident similar to the one he experienced earlier in the day.
Plagued with unease, Frank is alarmed when he finds he's being stalked by police. Packing his wife off to her mother and safety, Frank goes on the lam. Realizing the answer to questions he cannot answer may lie in the neighborhood where his accident occurred, he returns there as fate puts him in contact with Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor), a maid in the suburban estate of recent murder victim Harry Dietrich.
Ruth recognizes Frank as Danny Nearing, with whom she fell in love while he was employed by the wealthy Dietrich during Frank's amnesiac period. Danny is the lead suspect in the slaying, and Frank returns to the Dietrich home for a final recokoning with the real killer and his own past.
Boasting a sense of entrapment and desperation, accented by Meredith's sensitive portrayal of an Everyman trying to fathom a big blank in his existence, Street of Chance delivers the goods as a thriller but in that deliberate, sometimes languid manner that marked such other Paramount efforts of the time, such as its horror entry from 1941, The Monster and the Girl. The viewer remains interested in where the situation Frank confronts will take him, and even the resolution turns out to be a surprise.
Presented in a mostly straightforward fashion, the film's director, Jack Hively, provides a few stylistics that endow the city-based sequences of Street of Chance's first half with a knowing bow to reality, and offer its remainder at the darkly-lit Dietrich home a suitably gothic air.
As noted, Meredith commands our attention as the perplexed hero whose anxiety mounts as his character works frantically to free himself from a murder accusation. He has terrific support from Trevor and Platt as the womrn in his life, the former laying the groundwork for her brilliant Hollywood noir performances later in the decade, and the latter excelling in the comparatively smaller role of the wife, Platt's last role before leaving movies for the stage and television. Solid support also comes from Sheldon Leonard as the cagey cop on the case, and Frieda Inescort and Jerome Cowan as two likely suspects.
In his most fertile period during the '40s, pulp fictioneer Cornell Woolrich produced several novels with the the world "black" in their titles, almost all of them made into movies. The Black Curtain, the second of this group, was adapted for CBS radio's Suspense in 1943, providing Cary Grant with a change of pace role as Frank, while Richard Basehart guest-starred in a 1962 TV version of the story for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on NBC.
THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950)
An under-appreciated noir, The Underworld Story is considered by some critics to be a poor relation to Billy Wilder's media manipulation diatribe Ace in the Hole (1951), but this United Artists release is actually a lower-keyed and absorbing drama of high pressure journalism, murder and organized crime affecting a small town. (Prior to catching it again in August on TCM, the last time I saw this was about a dozen years ago on Encore's Mystery Channel).
When a key witness against mobster Carl Durham (Howard DaSilva) is murdered on the courthouse steps, the furious district attorney (Michael O'Shea) blames headline-hungry newsman Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) and his story outing the witness. Mike, a muckraker of the old school, is fired from his newspaper ("I just want to see how far the yellow goes," he tells his startled ex-boss after grabbing the man by his collar) and is blackballed by the city's other papers. Never lacking for nerve, Mike figures he did Durham a favor and the gang leader fronts him $5,000 to buy half-interest in a sheet owned by Cathy Harris (Gale Storm) in the nearby town of Lakeville.
Mike's arrival coincides with the discovery of the strangled body of Diana Stanton, daughter-in-law of newspaper magnate and local big shot E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall). The victim's maid, Molly Rankin (Mary Anderson), a friend of Cathy's, is accused of the killing. Not convinced of her innocence but sensing a ticket back to the big time, Mike launches a print campaign in Molly's defense that he turns into a national sensation.
However, the move backfires, and the town turns against not only Molly, but the paper and Mike as well. Mike finds himself coming to believe Molly, and his quest to exonerate her makes him a target for the real criminal and Durham, who also looks to profit from the murder.
The script by Henry Blankfort and director Cy Endfield from a story by Craig Rice is a convulated affair but worth following as Mike, going from heel to hero, looks to rescue the things he comes to care about -- Molly's innocence, the paper he now co-owns and his budding romance with Cathy. Endfield and cinematographer Stanley Cortez imbue The Underworld Story with an autumnal New England feel that seems to reflect the town's chilly attitude toward Mike and his tactics. This visual approach blends with underlit interiors to give an impression of eternal twilight masking the evil that lies underneath Lakeville's tranquil surface ("It needs some shaking up," a citizen says of the place).
Admittedly, I'm drawn to The Underworld Story for two reasons: It deals with newspapers, my former occupation, and Dan Duryea leading a terrific cast. Coming from the days when papers were the primary news source for everyone and bore more responsibility, The Underworld Story takes sensationalism to task (a theme that enters into Endfield's other 1950 feature, the anti-lynch mob drama Try and Get Me) but also recognizes a free press' role in the community by not blindly accepting Molly's guilt, despite Mike's self-serving motivations. (At one point. a disgusted Cathy asks, "Tell me, Mr. Reese, do you also rob graves?" Mike flippantly responds, "No future in it.").
Duryea, a favorite of mine from way back, made a career out of playing louses -- it was the year of one of his more notabler villainous parts, Waco Johnny Dean in the western Winchester '73 -- and while Mike Reese is frankly a rogue and not a very charming one for most of the film, Duryea manages a convincing switch to heroism against the hostile forces arrayed against him. An excellent supporting cast includes Roland Winters, Harry Shannon and, as Stanton's venal son Clark, the little-known Oklahoma-born actor Gar Moore, who made his film debut in Roberto Rossellini's neo-realistic study of post-World War II Italy, Paisan (1946).
Jack Dietz and Hal Chester, who produced The Underworld Story, also gave us the seminal plus-sized monster movie of the postwar period, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) featuring the late Ray Harryhausen's magnificent stop-motion special effects.