Monday, December 20, 2010

Movie: The Underworld Story (1950)

Over the weekend I read critic David Thomson’s New Republic article on “feel-good noir.” Thanks to Megan Abbott for bringing it to my attention. (Checked out the blog Megan’s running with Sara Gran, the Abbott Gran Medicine Show, yet? It’s well worth your time.) I’m an admirer of Thomson’s but his latest is a windy, broad brush piece. “There are many things corroding America,” Thomson fulminates, “and this endless cultivation of noir must be on the list.” If you say so, but it had better be pretty fucking far down that list. It doesn’t help that Thomson is guilty of the very crime he protests against. Only by the broadest definition can Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and Ben Affleck’s film The Town, both of which I enjoyed, be considered noir.

Thomson’s sentiments chafed because over the weekend I also encountered genuine noir. Long forgotten, The Underworld Story has been brought back into circulation courtesy of the Warner Archive. It’s based on a story by Craig Rice, whose antic crime novels landed her on the cover of Time magazine. But the only laughs here come from the gallows. The movie whips up a paranoid atmosphere so intense it’s no surprise its director (Cy Endfield), screenwriter (Henry Blankfort) and one of its stars (Howard Da Silva) would soon be blacklisted.

When a story by reporter Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) about a witness against a crime boss gets that witness killed, he becomes the fall guy for the paper’s higher-ups. Non grata in his chosen profession, Reese waltzes into the office of the crime boss (the blazing Da Silva) to ask for payment for the service he unintentionally rendered. Reese uses the money to buy a stake in a suburban rag for people who like to see their names in print. Then he strikes pay dirt with a juicy society murder. The victim: the daughter-in-law of one of the press moguls (Herbert Marshall) who refused to give him a job. It’s immediately revealed that the killer is Marshall’s own son (Gar Moore), and that both men are perfectly willing to allow the family’s poor African-American maid to take the blame for the crime.

The Underworld Story captures several dynamics at play in the wake of World War II: the rise of the suburbs, the shift to either the trivial or the sensational in news. It also manages to shake one’s faith in every major American institution. The Fourth Estate? Reese’s initial plan for his new paper is to shake down his own advertisers. He brokers the maid’s surrender to the authorities only to claim the reward money. When that fails, he sets up a defense fund in her behalf so he continue to control the story and rake in chips. He ends up on the side of the angels simply because he’s got nowhere else to go. The lawyer who takes the maid’s case does so only for the publicity and the fee he’s splitting with Reese. The crusading D.A. puts his grudge against the reporter ahead of his responsibilities. And don’t expect any help from the top of the food chain. Marshall marshals the town’s elite and has them boycott the paper, using his influence to stifle debate. In a bone-chilling scene, respected citizens stand outside Duryea’s office glaring at him after the place has been vandalized, making it clear that they’ll escalate their tactics if necessary. The movie’s vision of a world dictated by bureaucracy and self-interest make it play like a proto version of The Wire.

It’s not a perfect film. Gale Storm doesn’t do much with the bland role of Reese’s new partner, Gar Moore is a vague presence as the killer, and the casting of a white actress as the maid (along with some strange dubbing in the scenes in which her character’s race is discussed) is jarring. But it’s a potent work that asks a lot of unsettling questions about where America was heading. When it’s over, nobody feels good.