Some actors came to film noir uniquely equipped to play against the treacherous background of emotional intrigue that leads to crime and doom. Robert Mitchum's laconic, sleepy-eyed presence masking a keen intelligence and cynicism about the human condition represented a new kind of hero, while Dick Powell's rakish good humor and prior experience as a light leading man made him expert at comeback in verbal exchanges with good and bad guys (and women) alike.
More in the Powell mode is Dennis O'Keefe, who rose through the ranks working at roles ranging from dashing daredevils, pleasant secondary leads, Irish tough guys and everyday Joes to become a noir icon thanks to a brace of movies he made in the late 1940s and intermittently into the mid-'50s. Unlike Powell, who for a time specialized in noir portrayals in film and radio, O'Keefe varied his screen roles to star in comedies, adventures and other kinds of action entries. Alternately intense and breezy, O'Keefe's fame in the noir field rests with two of the form's best Hollywood examples, T-MEN (1947) and RAW DEAL (1948), but encompassed similar melodramas of the period.
Born Edward Vance Flanagan at Fort Madison, Iowa, on March 29, 1908, son of a husband-and-wife vaudeville team, the young man nicknamed "Bud" absorbed much of the show business atmosphere into which he was born, writing and submitting original material to performers during his college years in the last half of the Roaring '20s. Taking the professional name of Bud Flanagan, O'Keefe's first film part came in 1930 as a party guest in Radio Pictures' Amos 'n' Andy feature CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK, according to the IMDB.
Thus began a lengthy climb through the extra ranks for Flanagan as he performed day part duties as a dancer, co-pilot, salesman, background scenery at parties, whatever he could snatch during those years of the Depression. About the time he earned his first screen acting credit (notes the IMDB) in Paramount's GIRL FROM SCOTLAND YARD (1937), he had become something of a favorite in the M-G-M casting office. Working with Clark Gable in that year's SARATOGA is believed by some biographers to have led to his being signed by the studio and undergoing the name change to the more box office-sounding Dennis O'Keefe.
By the end of the decade, O'Keefe was a freelance actor but the Metro experience had given him exposure as a featured player, primarily in B product such as BURN 'EM UP O'CONNOR and THE KID FROM TEXAS (both 1939), and he found himself in demand at Universal, Hal Roach, Republic and Radio's successor, RKO Radio Pictures. There he played band manager and straight man Chuck Deems to the acquired taste comesy of Kay Kyser and the Kollege of Musical Knowledge in THAT'S RIGHT -- YOU'RE WRONG (1939) and its cringe-inducing sequel YOU'LL FIND OUT (1940), and was cast in the occasional melodrama such as LADY SCARFACE (1941, opposite an impressive Judith Anderson in the title role).
It was also at RKO where O'Keefe first encountered the world of dark film in its early stages when cast as the hero of THE LEOPARD MAN (1943). Although this collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur is considered a horror movie, which Lewton had been hired by the studio to create to compete with Universal and other companies profiting from the boom ib fright flicks, the Lewton movies are also seen as a milestone in the establishment of noir in Hollywood. They contributed to the smooth, shadowy, deep-focus look of RKO product that some attribute to Orson Welles, Gregg Toland and CITIZEN KANE (1941), but had been present in some of the studio's more stylized releases going back to the mid-'30s.
THE LEOPARD MAN benefits from this visual design in telling its story of a southwest U.S. community terrorized by slayings blamed on a leopard that escaped from a night club act for perfortmer Kiki (Jean Brooks). Adding the animal to the routine is the idea of Kiki's press agent Jerry Manning (O'Keefe), whose guilt over the deaths fades when he becomes rightly convinced that the killings are the work of a human agency. Lewton and Tourneur, who had crafted suspense-laden, inagination-driven set-pieces for their initial effort, CAT PEOPLE (1942), repeated the approach for THE LEOPARD MAN, beginning with the first murder and ending with the killer's capture during an unnerving historical ceremony.
As Jerry, O'Keefe suggests the template of U.S. noir heroes as a product of the school of hard knocks whose flippant manner masks a more sensitive soul who feels responsible for the calamity that has beset the town and undertakes an investigation to prove the leopard is not the killer. Jerry is a survivor but also one with a conscience that helps put the audience on his side, and his performance is matched by the underappreciated Brooks as Kiki, like Jerry a superficially tough individual who risks her life to prove Jerry's suspicions.
Independent producer Edward Small signed O'Keefe the following year and after showcasing the actor's considerable comic talent in updates of such chestnuts as UP IN MABEL'S ROOM (1944), GETTING GERTIE'S GARTER (1945) and, significantly, in BREWSTER'S MILLIONS (1945), O'Keefe was recast as a tough guy facing down the mean streets of noir in Small's presentation of T-MEN, released by the fledgling Eagle-Lion Films, formed earlier in 1947 partly out of the remains of B flick studio Producers Releasing Corp.
When a Treasury agent looking into a major counterfeiting ring is murdered in Los Angeles, fellow operatives Dennis O'Brien (O'Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) go undercover as career criminals to infiltrate the gang manufaturing and passing the funny money, which is so close to the real thing it posis a threat to the economy. Surrounded by danger and the threat of exposure as the pair ingratiate themselves with the counterfeiters, Genaro is killed when edgy enforcer Moxie (Charles McGraw) becomes suspicious of the agent. O'Brien goes it alone to break up the operation and bring the killers to justice.
With T-MEN, Small essentially copied the formula Louis de Rochemont brought to Fox's successful THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET (1945), a police procedural based on fact and told in a stark, everyday evocation of life that came to be known as "semidocumentary." John C. Higgins' screenplay for T-MEN was fictional but the use of actual locations and a spoken narration sounding as if it came from an official source gave the film a sheen of reality that resonated with audiences. Anthony Mann left behind B films for Republic and RKO with this effort, and working in concert with cinematographer John Alton, refined and improved on the look of noir.
This is established in the opening scenes of T-MEN as a startling closeup of McGraw's chiseled features, signifying menace and nothing else, emerge from blackness into light as Moxie observes the arrival of the Treasury man who soon meets his demise. Low angles, contrast of light and shadow, and swift and deadly action defined T-MEN and a brace of similar thrillers in the semi documentary manner, such as HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948, credited to Alfred Werker but believed to have been largely shot by Mann), PORT OF NEW YORK and TRAPPED (both 1949), all also from Eagle-Lion.
Not the traditionally conflicted noir hero, O'Keefe becomes appropriately intense as the agent out to avenge his partner's murder, which he is forced to witness as Moxie and friends shoot down Genaro, who bravely keeps O'Brien's identity a secret. The sequence ends with a closeup of O'Keefe's anguished face following his friend's slump to the floor as Genaro defiantly calls Moxie a "sucker" with his dying breath. The acting supporting O'Keefe is impressive, with McGraw a convincingly loathsome killer and Wallace (billed here as "Wally") Ford offering an outstanding performance as a small-time underworld contact known as "Schemer" who unknowingly leads the T-men to the gang.
O'Keefe is on the wrong side of the law in the next Small-Mann-Alton collaboration, RAW DEAL, but the audience is on his side even with censorship's pre-ordained ending looming throughout the film. As Joe Sullivan, escaped convict caught between two women (Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt), a double-crossing ex-partner (Raymond Burr) and a relentless police manhunt, O'Keefe shone as a crafty criminal who manages to hang on to some humanity, eventually sacrificing himself to save Hunt's social worker who's fallen in love with him from the clutches of sadistic Rick Coyle (Burr in a notably slimy performance), who wants Joe permanently put out of the way.
The Leopold Atlas-John C. Higgins script and Mann's somber approach to the material make RAW DEAL a grim bit compelling movie and it's no wonder it's considered one of the decade's top noirs. (It evidently had an effect on writer Harlan Ellison, who made note of RAW DEAL as the only flick available at the local movie house in his similarly bleak post-apocalyptic 1969 novella "A Boy and His His Dog.")
O'Keefe's intensity as Joe -- who rescued someone from a house fire at age 12 but hocked the medal he was awarded at 16 in order to eat -- is singular, commanding our attention all the way. He is backed by terriific performances from Trevor as Joe's devoted girlfriend, Hunt as the career girl drawn to the puzzle that makes up Joe and John Ireland as Coyle's equally detestable catspaw, Fantail. Although Richard Fraser is credited as Fields, the cop pursuing Joe, the part is actually played by Regis Toomey.
Small's production company then went into partnership with Columbia for O'Keefe's next noir-related project, WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948), an attempt to re-create the mood and manner of T-MEN, yielding acceptable results but no improvement over the previous release. This time, O'Keefe is FBI agent Brian T. O'Hara, assigned to expose an information leak from a nuclear research facility. He's joined by Louis Hayward as a Scotland Yard man, Philip "Scotty" Grayson, in coming to a rip-snorting conclusion in which the apparently Communist spy ring siphoning off secrets from the lab and threatening the free world is brought to book.
While the role didn't involve the emotional repression O'Keefe brought to T-MEN's Dennis O'Brien, who had to maintain his undercover role despite all of the evil surrounding him, his O'Hara in WALK A CROOKED MILE is a likable law enforcer and heroic defender of America's secrets, with the Reds (one of them played by a bearded Raymond Burr) representing the forces of darkness that must be contained if not destroyed. Gordon Douglas, the dependable all-around man of postwar movies, directed in capable fashion without the stylistic flourishes that distinguished the Mann-Alton films for Small.
And while most noir purists don't consider COVER-UP, issued by United Artists in February 1949, to be a dark film, it builds a convincing atmosphere of conspiracy and secrets in a small town that ultimately turns out to be much ado about nothing. This is partly due to O'Keefe, not in his performance but in the screenplay he co-authored with Jerome Odlum under the pseudonym of Jonathan Rix.
But as a scenarist, O'Keefe had lost none of the facility for writing he displayed in his salad days. In an attempt to be different, COVER-UP goes for a lighter ending, but then overturns a suspenseful and promising build-up. Insurance investigator Sam Donovan arrives to probe the circumstances behind the death of a policyholder, Roger Phillips, whom he finds was despised by most of the residents. The man's passing appears to be suicide, but Sam comes to believe it's homicide, given the stonewalling he gets from the town and especially the laid-back sheriff (William Bendix).
Sam's suspicions eventually center on the town banker (Art Baker) whose daughter (Barbara Britton) Sam takes a shine to, leading up to the underwhelming climax in which the mystery of Phillips' shooting and the seemingly unrelated death of a kindly old general practitioner is revealed.
O'Keefe's hero is typical of the hard-boiled variety that populates the world of noir, rootless and single-minded about his job. "The company I work for has some funny ideas," he explains. "They expect a day's work for a day's pay." But softened some by the cozy, home-and-mother atmosphere of the town, which is gearing for the Christmas season, Sam agrees to let things be when he becomes aware of what's been happening behind the scenes. A watchable and well-made effort directed by veteran Alfred E. Green, COVER-UP is on the outskirts of but not quite in the community of noir.
Embracing noir is Universal-International's ABANDONED, issued later in the year, which cast O'Keefe as a newspaper reporter, Mark Sitko, who becomes interested in the plight of a young woman (Gale Storm) seeking her missing sister. Their investigation leads to a baby adoption racket in this slick production directed by Joseph M. Newman that is rarely seen today and deserving of re-evaluation. It is one of a number of crime-and-intrigue movies U-I released in the late '40s and early '50s, some of which, such as WOMAN IN HIDING and UNDERTOW (both 1949), are finding their way into DVD release.
O'Keefe's last major noir of this period was WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950), which -- spoiler alert! -- cast him in an unusual but engaging light as the villain of the piece. Playing another newsman, O'Keefe's Dan Leggatt is breezy, charming and determined to track down a trioubled artist (Ross Elliott) because the man witnessed the murder of an underworld figure. The artist flees and Leggatt ingratiates himself with the man's sardonic wife (Ann Sheridan), joining her in a search of the highs and (mostly) lows of the city to locate him before his weak heart gives out.
Unknown to her, but gradually revealed to the viewer, is that Leggatt is the killer and wants Sheridan's spouse out of the way. Along the way, Leggatt also disposes (offscreen) of someoine else who can link him to the murder.
Using benighted San Francisco locations to maximum effect, director and co-writer Norman Foster manages both suspense and a sense of life on the edge in this independently-made feature released by U-I, one of the first films in which Sheridan appeared following her lengthy association with the Brothers Warner. The onetime "Oomph Girl" attracts more attention than her co-star, but O'Keefe makes his scenes count in an interesting thriller that, once it fell into the public domain, became widely available on the video market.
As freelance opportunities began drying up in Hollywood, O'Keefe joined other thespians and prospective producers in seeking out jobs in the United Kingdom and Continental studios. After starring in two British crime features, THE FAKE (1953) and THE DIAMOND WIZARD (1954, whose science fiction-tinged story was authored by O'Keefe as Jonathan Rix), the actor not only starred in but co-directed an Italian-made stab at noir, ANGELA (1954).
In a storyline highly reminiscent of DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (both 1944), O'Keefe is an American car salesman in Rome who becomes enamored of a young woman (Mara Lane) working for a businessman, and is later entangled in a plot surrounding the man's death. With Rossano Brazzi in a villainous role, O'Keefe has his hands full trying to establish his innocence in another rarely seen movie. In LADY OF VENGEANCE (1957), a British film directed by American Burt Balaban, O'Keefe starred in a noirish and somewhat different endeavor as a hard-driving publisher bent on killing the man who drove his young female ward to suicide.
O'Keefe, who in later years kept busy in episodic television (headlining the DENNIS O'KEEFE SHOW in 1959-1960), died of cancer in Los Angeles on Aug. 31, 1968, remembered as a light leading man in the heyday of the Golden Age.
His innate talent, however, made him a familiar face in the pantheon of noir movies as they became popular in the years following World War II. As hero or occasional bad guy, O'Keefe represented not only the professionalism but star quality of the studio era, making him a natural for the comedies and dark thrillers that kept him an audience favorite for decades.