Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Argyle Secrets (1948)

Strange as it may seem nowadays, radio plays were hugely popular back in the 40s, before TV really started to take off. Popular movies would be performed live on radio, often with some or all of the original movie stars reprising their roles. But the reverse also happened, with radio plays being adapted into movies. A hugely popular radio series called 'Suspense', aired a radio play called 'The Argyle Album' twice, first in 1945 starring Robert Taylor and again in 1947 starring noir icon Edmond O'Brien. Its author, Cyril 'Cy' Endfield, would later on turn the radio play into a screenplay and even direct the movie adaptation. Released in 1948 under the new and slightly more provocative title 'The Argyle Secrets', the low-budget B-movie, made in 8 days time, is another great example of the workmanship and efficiency of the independent B-studios of the era. BTW, for those interested, both radio plays, as well as many other 'Suspense' episodes, can be found here.
Oh, it's great to be on the winning side... All you respectable crooks hang together, and we... we just hang.
The Argyle album is an album owned by popular newspaper columnist Allen Pierce (George Anderson). After promising to reveal its scandalous contents in an upcoming column he has a heart attack and is hospitalized. Fearing he might die soon, he tries to give the full details to newspaper reporter Harry Mitchell (William Gargan). But after showing Mitchell a photo of the cover of the album, and before getting to its contents or whereabouts, he has another heart attack. When Mitchell returns with a doctor, they find Pierce with a knife in his stomach, as well as Mitchell's photographer also stabbed to death on the floor. Mitchell immediately becomes suspect #1, and he decides to make a run for it, so he can try and find this elusive album as well as the real killer. But he still doesn't know where the album is, or what's in it. As he soon finds out however, he is not the only one looking for the album. There is the shady Southerner Panama Archie (Jack Reitzen), the threatening trio of Winter (Jack Banner), Scanlon (Peter Brocco) and Hobrey (Mickey Simpson) and the femme fatale Marla (Marjorie Lord). At first Mitchell is offered money in exchange for the mysterious album, but soon the stakes get raised and become more life threatening... And he still has no clue where the album might be, despite everybody else thinking he has the album.

The movie moves at a breakneck speed, as Mitchell runs across town in search of the Argyle album, whose contents are eventually explained to Mitchell by Marla. The album contains a list of collaborators and men who profited from the Nazis during World War II, including prominent businessmen. So while its contents are highly volatile, the viewer, nor Mitchell, ever actually sees the real album. Not even at the end of the movie when he's given a bag, he doesn't even bother to check whether it contains the album or not! A macguffin if ever there was one!

As times this movie comes across as a variation on 1941's 'The Maltese Falcon', and not just because it centers around an elusive object which the main character has never seen but is trying to locate and which everybody else wants. It even seems to directly reference, some might say copy, the 1941 blockbuster, with for instance the Panama Archie character looking remarkably like Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman, and Marjorie Lord coming off as, and at times even looking like, Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy. But it's also quite different and does feel like it's more than a mere copy of said classic.

Gargan's Mitchell is also more of a bastard than Bogart's Sam Spade. Early on in the movie he knocks out Pierce's secretary Ms. Court (Barbara Billingsley) with a punch to the face. But it gets worse, as he even chokes Marla unconscious. Admittedly with her consent, but it's still a rather disturbing scene to see in a 40s movie! Made even crazier when we are made aware of Mitchell's thoughts in voice-over as he's strangling her:
It was a funny experience, choking a woman deliberately. I squeezed pretty hard, scuffing bruises at her throat to make it look good. I got so mixed up I didn't know what I was doing and I stopped once and kissed her very hard.
The voice-over was done by Gargan, and is used throughout the movie to great effect. A one-time Oscar-nominee, William Gargan's career in Hollywood had moved to B-movies and character roles by the time this movie was made, but he was a solid actor who could play parts like this one effortlessly. His look, and especially his pleasant but slightly worldweary voice, worked well in noir and detective roles. He played in a few more B-noirs like 1946's 'Behind Green Lights' but as private eye Martin Kane he really came into his own. He first played Kane on a radio series, and then played him again on 2 separate runs on TV in the 50s (other noir actors also portrayed Kane on TV, like Lloyd Nolan and Mark Stevens).

Co-star Marjorie Lord gives a great performance as a beautiful femme fatale who is initially conspiring with Winter but eventually falls for Mitchell, or does she? As with any good femme fatale, you can never be too sure of where she stands. It's shame she didn't do more noir, at least that I'm aware of, she really impressed me here. The rest of the cast are adequate, but almost all of the principal baddies have quirky accents, giving the movie a slightly silly edge, incidentally adding another 'The Maltese Falcon' hint. Altho appropriate for their characters and origins, the accents themselves sound too forced and put on, and not natural at all.

For a B-movie made in just over a week's time on a tight budget, it certainly pushes the envelope in terms of sets. Maybe they were also recycling sets from other movies, but the movie definitely has a lot of noir visuals, with plenty of deep shadows. Its cinematographer, Mack Stengler ('Fall Guy', 'I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes') also makes effective use of the set-ups. The best example happens when Mitchell is trapped inside a dingy office with Winter and Hobrey trying to gain access to the office using a blowtorch. The blowtorch is the primary source of lighting used in this scene, and it works well to add a threatening atmosphere. But the movie looks like noir heaven from start to finish really, there's even a small dream sequence with faces moving in and out of Mitchell's blurred state. Unfortunately the print I saw was rather murky and washed out, but even so it's clear that visually this movie offers first rate noir visuals.
Oh, I forgot to tell you... Never offer a cigarette light to a woman of uh... questionable background.
Director Cy Endfield ('The Underworld Story') would soon find himself blacklisted by the HUAC. He spent the remainder of his career in the UK, where he directed the great and gritty trucker Britnoir 'Hell Drivers' (1955) as well as the British classic 'Zulu' (1964). He was also a prolific screenplay writer, both credited and uncredited, and this movie shows he had a real knack for good, snappy lines and dialogue.

What can I say? I really enjoyed 'The Argyle Secrets'. It's far from original, and yes, there are more than a few resemblances to 'The Maltese Falcon', but the movie does work. It's got some pretty solid acting, it looks great, has some good lines and dialogue and at just over an hour is a lot of fun. You really cannot go wrong with this one. I hope someday a decent print of this movie is found and cleaned up, because it really deserves it. Recommended!


You can watch this movie on youtube, just keep in mind it's in pretty rough shape:

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