Little-known cinema: 'Crime Against Joe'

Just over an hour in length, designed as a second feature for dual bills and treated as such by most critics, Lee Sholem's CRIME AGAINST JOE rises above its humble origins as a murder mystery to explore longing, nostalgia turned sour and mental disquiet simmering beneath the surface of small-town life.

These elements, backed by sincere acting and a quick pace, give this Bel-Air production released by United Artists on March 21, 1956, an edge over similar thrillers of the period, a distinction Bel-Air earned during the company's brief life on the Hollywood scene. Little remembered today, CRIME AGAINST JOE is an involving piece of storytelling whose sympathetic lead characters drive home the growing desperation of hero Joe Manning (John Bromfield) as he fights for not only his freedom but his self-respect.

A Korean War veteran once hospitalized for battle fatigue, Joe took up art in therapy and decided to pursue it as an occupation upon his return home, supported by his practical yet devoted mother Nora (Frances Morris). "Anyone in town will tell you I'm subsidized by my hard-working mother," Joe explains at one point. "She believes I have talent. Everyone else thinks I'm a bum." One fateful night, frustrated with lack of progress in his career, Joe opts to go on a toot, a practice that hasn't gained him much support among the townsfolk. He goes to the local drive-in (the burgers and shakes kind, not the movies) for small talk with carhop and longtime friend Frances "Slacks" Bennett (Julie London), who's involved with one of Joe's high school acquaintances, beefy cab driver Red Waller (Henry Calvin). Worried about Joe's condition and his driving under the influence, Slacks calls Red, who transports Joe to the Pango-Pango Club.

Joe's entrance antagonizes bartender Harry Dorn (John Pickard), who becomes even more irate when the club's singer, Irene Crescent (Alika Louis) toys with Joe, who's out looking for a "nice girl" to bring home to Nora. Irene abruptly brushes off Joe, who warns her that she'll regret doing so. Harry hustles Joe out to the parking lot, belts him one and leaves him there. The scene is witnessed by smirking George Niles (Rhodes Reason), a failed rancher who, like Harry, was a member of Joe's senior class a decade earlier. In the interim, one of Slacks' co-workers, Gloria Wayne (Joyce Jameson), runs screaming into the police station claiming she was attacked by a man she cannot describe.

Joe stumbles on toward home and meets Christine Rowen (Patricia Blair, billed here as Patricia Blake), whose non-responsive nature tells him she's sleepwalking. Joe escorts her to her home where her possessive father Philip (Joel Ashley) rushes her back into the house. At the same time, police Sergeant Hollander (Robert Keys) responds to a report of a dead woman lying beside a rural road. The strangling victim is Irene Crescent. Officers have found a critical piece of evidence at the scene: a local high school graduation pin clutched in her hand.

Joe awakens to bad news as Hollander is convinced Joe's the killer and also responsible for attacks on women like the one experienced by Gloria, based on his quick row with the victim and past history of bad behavior when drunk. Additionally, Joe's pin is nowhere to be found. Booked on suspicion of murder, Joe becomes even more of a pariah as word spreads of his arrest. Slacks informs the authorities that Joe was with her after she finished her shift, which effects his release, but her story is a lie. Unhappy with Red and secretly in love with Joe, Slacks' false alibi is her attempt to save him from the murder charge. Christine Rowen agrees to confirm Joe's meeting with her, but she's shut down by her father, who has denied the incident to the district attorney (Addison Richards) to keep Christine's condition a secret and preserve his standing in the community.

Doing some detective work on his own, Joe focuses on his graduating class, who all received pins. He narrows his list of suspects to Harry, George, attorney Luther Wood (Morgan Jones), who's refused Nora's request to represent Joe, and Ralph Corey (James Parnell), a blowhard running for city council who also won't get involved. Slacks attempts to locate George's pin at risk of her life and escapes an attempt by George, unhinged by the loss of his ranch, to run her down with his car. All climaxes as Hollander forces Rowen to admit he lied about Joe, while at the high school alumni dance, Joe and Slacks check the permanent records of his suspects for personailty quirks, and are in turn menaced by the killer.

CRIME AGAINST JOE unfolds in a swift but fascinating manner thanks to director Sholem, a B movie and TV veteran whose credits included the theatrical feature SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (1951) and the first season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. Reportedly shot in five days on location in Tucson, Ariz.,* CRIME AGAINST JOE is lent an everyday kind of ambience to contrast with the dire situation that confronts Joe and Slacks, with scenes played out on city streets as the actors blend naturally into the scenery. The casting of what appear to be local residents lend a realistic air to the proceedings, as when Joe seeks Corey's help during an impromptu political rally.

Although complex, Robert C. Dennis' screenplay from an original story by Decla Dunning packs a lot into the 69 minutes it takes to unreel the film, much like another Bel-Air picture directed by Sholem, EMERGENCY HOSPITAL (1956). The storyline, combined with the everybody-knows-everybody nature of the community, provides CRIME AGAINST JOE with shocks of familiarity for viewers who graduated with less than 100 people from their high school, and how changed or unchanged, good or rotten, former classmates are after 10 years. Any notions Joe, a popular kid back in the day, entertained about these folks helping him are dashed as they turn away from him; only Slacks and Red, whom Joe befriended even though Red admits everyone thought he was "a big joke," believe in his innocence. At the close, as Hollander admits he was all wrong about Joe, our harried hero offhandedly finishes his thought: "Yeah, I know. You're sorry." He then runs into Slacks' waiting arms, having found the "nice girl" he sought in the first place.

Psychological themes were popular at the time and are used not only to explain Joe's motivations but that of the murderer, whose rage at past failed relationships drive him to assault women and eventually kill one of them. After being subdued by Joe, the killer (whom I won't name here) breaks down and admits, "Something's wrong with me, Joe." The subplot involving Christine and her dad also becomes murky; before finally walking out on him, Christine reveals that her psychiatrist has found her sleepwalking symbolic of a greater desire to escape her parent's controlling behavior.

Such offbeat themes were not unusual for Bel-Air, founded in 1952 by film industry veterans Aubrey Schenck, Howard W. Koch and Edwin Zabel initially in a three-picture deal with United Artists.** The success of those films led to a continuation of the company's connection with UA and saw, among other and more ambitious projects, the making and release of two genre movies that went further than many of their kind at the time.

BIG HOUSE U.S.A. (1955), a well-cast mix of crime and prison picture ideas that starred Broderick Crawford and Ralph Meeker -- and netted some notoriety for its on-screen brutality -- was directed by Koch. THE BLACK SLEEP, released three months after CRIME AGAINST JOE, was a horror thriller that presaged some of the gruesome detail of England's Hammer Films. It was headlined by four of old Hollywood's veterans of the form in Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine under the direction of Reginald LeBorg, who worked extensively with Chaney at Universal in the '40s. Bel-Air closed up shop in 1957, although Schenck and Koch continued their collaboration with such projects as the Koch-directed FRANKENSTEIN 1970 that starred Boris Karloff and distributed in June 1958 by Allied Artists.

Although sometimes better at playing smooth villains, as he had in 1955's THE BIG BLUFF for producer-director W. Lee Wilder, John Bromfield (1922-2005) delivered a career best as CRIME AGAINST JOE's disillusioned Joe Manning, keeping the viewer in his corner all the way despite the mounting evidence against him. Although more known as an action type, Bromfield gives Joe not only the sensitivity the part demands but also an average kind of guy sensibility.

Bromfield, a South Bend, Ind., native and Navy veteran of the Second World War, developed an affinity for the ocean that led him to work as a fisherman in Venice, Calif., in the latter '40s, where he was discovered while at work by some individuals interested in making an adventure film about whale hunting Alaska.***

Bemused at the idea of screen work -- "I looked at these guys like they were nuts!" Bromfield told interviewer Jeff Jessings -- the newly-christened actor signed on as the lead in Ewing Scott's HARPOON (1948), which Bromfield described as a "takeoff on the old film NANOOK OF THE NORTH ... It was a very nice picture to work on."@ Returning to California, he was cast as a detective in the same year's SORRY, WRONG NUMBER with Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster at Paramount, and his movie days were off to a flying start. The momentum of his career slowed in the early '50s, but Bromfield was back in demand by the time he played Joe Hayes, whose ill-fated challenge of the Gill Man in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) -- the exciting sequel to the smash monster movie hit CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) -- has won him a lasting fame among genre fans.

CRIME AGAINST JOE -- "That's my wife Mary's favorite movie of mine," Bromfield said@@ -- was one of seven pictures he saw released in 1956, including MANFISH, which he also did for W. Lee Wilder. It was also the year he signed on as Frank Morgan in THE SHERIFF OF COCHISE, a syndicated modern-day western TV series produced by Desilu that lasted for two seasons and 78 episodes until it morphed into U.S. MARSHAL, which continued for another 64 episodes. When production on that show ceased in 1960, Bromfield retired from acting to produce sports shows and engage in commercial fishing. The first of his three wives was French actress Corinne Calvet, who also worked at Paramount in the late '40s and early '50s and acted with Bromfield in ROPE OF SAND (1949).

Some viewers aware of Julie London's fame and looks as a singer and '40s pin-up might find the sultry beauty rather unbelievable as a carhop in CRIME AGAINST JOE, but London's sincerity and tough delivery of dialogue makes Slacks an endearing character for her devotion to Joe. Perhaps given her nickname for tomboyish behavior, Slacks pauses early in the film when the buzzed Joe asks what her real name is. She then smiles and responds, "I've been called Slacks for so long I can hardly remember myself ... Frances."

At the time, London (1926-2000) was riding a crest of popularity following the December 1955 release of what became her signature tune, "Cry Me a River," which exemplified her vocal style in pop, jazz and blues-tinged compositions. A professional singer since 14, London made her screen debut in the jungle flick NABONGA (1944) with Buster Crabbe, but did not receive any further roles of consequence until she was cast as a bad girl in THE RED HOUSE (1947) and as Susan Hayward's treacherous sister in TAP ROOTS (1948). She continued plugging away at screen work while her night club and recording career progressed. Her seven-year marriage to fellow jazz enthusiast Jack Webb ended in 1954; five years later she wed musician and occasional actor Bobby Troup, who produced "Cry Me a River."

While her movie projects improved after CRIME AGAINST JOE, including a subtle turn in the offbeat impersonation thriller THE THIRD VOICE (1960), London focused on TV and music until Webb, with whom she had remained close, cast her as Nurse Dixie McCall and Troup as Dr. Joe Early on the popular NBC series EMERGENCY! (1972-1977). Having appeared in every episode of the series and in the four made-for-TV movies built around the show until 1979, London retired to enjoy the acclaim yielded by her numerous fans.

Henry Calvin made his screen debut with CRIME AGAINST JOE following a career in radio, television and Broadway that made ample use of his rich singing voice. His portrayal of the ultimately pathetic Red is compelling, first as Slacks' self-confident beau of the moment who crumbles when he fears old buddy Joe will take her away from him ("All the girls wanted you, Joe ... Can't you let me have Slacks?"). A year later, the Texas-born Calvin, a graduate of Southern Methodist University, was cast as Sergeant Garcia in the Walt Disney-ABC television adventures of Zorro, a role that made him as popular as the lead character portrayed by Guy Williams. Having recorded a well-received version of the show's theme song, Calvin also provided vocal background music for various episodes.

Calvin survived ZORRO's cancellation in 1959 to continue performing and appearing in such Disney projects as BABES IN TOYLAND (1961) and in guest spots on other TV shows. The most notable of these was the 1963 DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode "Sam Pomerantz's Scandals," in which Van Dyke and Calvin enacted a skit as Laurel and Hardy, Calvin offering a dead-on impression of Oliver Hardy and Van Dyke honoring his comic idol, Stan Laurel. Calvin's fame as Garcia continued until his untimely death in 1975 from throat cancer. He was 57.

CRIME AGAINST JOE, a modest production offering a lot of entertainment value, still exists in that state of little-known movies deserving of wider recognition. While very much of its time, the film expresses some emotions that are as true today as they were then, while playing out a gripping mystery whose melancholy climax provides a real surprise.

* International Movie Data Base entry on CRIME AGAINST JOE.
** My thanks to David J. Hogan for his account of Bel-Air Productions' history in his analysis of BIG HOUSE U.S.A. for Gary J. and Susan Svehla, eds., MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: LON CHANEY JR., Baltimore, Md.: Midnight Marquee Press, 1997, p. 237.
*** Jeff Jessings, "Between the Devil and the Deep: John Bromfield," Scarlet Street, No. 46, 2002, p. 49.
@ Jessings, pp. 49-50.
@@ Ibid., p. 50.


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