Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Noir City Northwest: Okay, America! (1932) / Afraid To Talk (1932)

In the words of our master of ceremonies Eddie Muller, the movies of the 1930s were growing up too fast for some major social institutions. The pressure that these forces brought to bear led to the Motion Picture Production Code. Ironically these moral guidelines allowed film noir to flourish, the imposition of restrictions giving birth to the cinema of suggestion. On Monday night at Noir City, a pair of punchy proto-noirs released by Universal in 1932 illuminated what had come before.

Okay, America! spins the yarn of a yarnspinner, a powerful newspaper columnist and radio personality who has his town wired. The mild-mannered Lew Ayres is miscast but game as the Walter Winchell manqué who targets gangsters, grafters and glitterati alike, making the rich and powerful tremble. The film’s first half is sensational, following Ayres’ Larry Wayne on his rounds of New York nightclubs, taking in risqué shows as he picks up information from a network of cigarette girls and souses. He’s tracking one tale in particular, the disappearance of a power broker’s daughter. But as Wayne finds himself part of the story he’s reporting – becoming the go-between for the kidnappers and even ending up in the Oval Office for a consultation with the Commander in Chief – the pace lags. The closing moments don’t lack for action but don’t make a lick of sense, either. Still, there’s no denying Okay, America!’s early energy.

Actors Louis Calhern and Edward Arnold as well as a distinctive dress from the Universal wardrobe department all turn up again in Afraid to Talk, also known as Merry-Go-Round, the title of the original play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. The resulting film is an astonishingly cynical piece of work that bristles with righteous anger. A young bellboy (Eric Linden) witnesses gangster Arnold bumping off his rival in a hotel room and almost gets ventilated himself. He dutifully reports what he saw to the authorities, who prepare to lower the boom on the killer. Only once the powers that be learn that Arnold now has the goods on them, they’re forced to back off. All they need is a fall guy for the murder Arnold committed – and poor sap Linden is it. Afraid To Talk details a dense web of corruption in a mere 69 minutes, sketching out a system where justice is only done when compromised men are finally pushed too far. It also provides a startling glimpse into America’s mindset at the height of the Great Depression; homeless men grumble about fatcats not missing any meals, while one of the cops who subjects Linden to the third degree pointedly tells crooked assistant D.A. Calhern that no politician or crime boss would be subjected to the punishment Linden receives. Featuring Mayo Methot, other half of the Battling Bogarts, as a dame not to be trifled with, it’s a tough, two-fisted film.