Wednesday, September 03, 2003


An archetypal hard-boiled film noir, based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, which clearly was an influence on the Coen brothers when they made MILLER'S CROSSING. The convoluted plot doesn't matter as much as the character dynamics. Brian Donleavy is a big-shot political boss and Alan Ladd is his trusted right-hand man. Donleavy decides to support a judge (Moroni Olson) in an election and winds up sweet on the judge's daughter (Veronica Lake). Ladd isn't sure the whole thing is such a good idea as it sets up some bad blood with a gangster (Joseph Calleia). The judge's son, an effete wimp played by Richard Denning, ends up dead and Donleavy is implicated, partly because his sister (Bonita Granville) was dating Denning. Ladd, as his counterpart Gabriel Byrne does in MILLER'S CROSSING, seems to betray his boss but is actually sniffing around trying to clear Donleavy. There is more, but that's the crucial plotline.

Ladd ends up in the hands of Calleia's goons and suffers an extensive and brutal beating (more precisely, a series of beatings) from brawny William Benedix. Many critics find homoeroticism in this relationship, as Benedix keeps calling Ladd "sweetheart" and seems unduly excited about dishing out the beatings. Ladd's make-up after he's been worked over is unusually realistic for the era; his face is pulped and he's almost unrecognizable. He escapes in a great sequence involving a fire, an awning, and a kitchen. There is a subplot with a shady newspaper editor and his wife, with whom Ladd flirts. Dane Clark has a small role as a thug who gets thrown through a plate glass window in an early scene, then gets more punishment later on. Lillian Randolph, the Bailey's maid in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, is a nightclub singer. The happy ending is rather improbable (and apparently quite different from the novel's outcome), but it doesn't ruin what's come before. The most interesting scene is the one where Benedix catches up with Ladd and takes him up to his squalid little room to finish the beating (to the death, perhaps)--the tension is high, but the violence, when it comes, winds up aimed at a surprising target. I'm not really a big Alan Ladd fan, but he's very good here; Lake doesn't have a lot to do. Quite good, and a must see for fans of film noir and/or the Coen Brothers.

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