Friday, April 11, 2014

Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

One of the problems with watching obscure b/w B-movies from the lower end of a double bill is that even if you can find a DVD or a source online to watch em, the video & audio quality can be pretty bad. In some cases, the movie isn't all that much better, but it also happens it's a shame there's not a more decent version around. Case in point, 1949's 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' which is a good noir but the seemingly only version of it available online is sourced from what appears to be a VHS recording of a late-night broadcast on the German WDR TV channel. And I've yet to find/see a version of it which doesn't seem to come from the same source. Which is unfortunate, 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' deserves better. I wish I could say this one has the worst video/audio quality of all noirs I've seen so far tho, but that's a whole other can of worms...

The movie was directed by William Castle who is known mostly for his cheap, but effective, horror movies like 'House On Haunted Hill' (1959) and '13 Ghosts' (1960). But he also directed some of the Whistler movies, as well as some noirs, 'When Strangers Marry' (1944) and 'New Orleans Uncensored' (1955). The original story was by Henry Jordan, which was adapted into a screenplay by Robert L. Richards. The cinematography was handled by Maury Gertsman ('The Glass Web', 'Rogues' Regiment'). All music played in the movie was stock music by uncredited composers including according to IMDb Miklós Rózsa ('The Killers', 'Double Indemnity').
You may be an awful tough man with those hoodlums of yours, but to me you're a dime a dozen.
George 'Mort' Morton (Howard Duff) is a young and ambitious federal agent working for the narcotics squad. He's investigating an up and coming international narcotics ring, and is about to arrest one of the lower people in the outfit who the bureau thinks can help them get to the people at the top. However, mere seconds before they can arrest the guy, he's killed by gun-for-hire Joey (Tony Curtis). The only lead they find on the dead body is the name of a Canadian trading company. Morton decides he needs to go undercover and check out this company to get anywhere in this case. He gets Johnny Evans (Dan Duryea), a gangster he put behind bars, out of Alcatraz so he can help him. Evans does not want to be Morton's stool pigeon (explaining the title of the movie) but after seeing his dead wife, who was addicted to drugs and died of an overdose, he reluctantly agrees. Together they go to Vancouver to meet up with crooked businessman William McCandles (Barry Kelley) to see if they can force their way in. McCandles arranges a meeting for them in a resort in the Arizona desert and sends his gun moll Terry Stewart (Shelley Winters) along with them. At the resort they find out the resort's manager, Nick Avery (John McIntire), who prefers dressing up as a cowboy, is the big man behind the drug smuggling operation. As Morton and Evans gain Avery's trust in order to set up a deal, his bodyguard/gun-for-hire Joey recognizes Morton's face, but he can't quite place it... Until he does.

1949's 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' is a relatively obscure entry in the exposé noir field, films noirs that deal with exposing, and always busting, some sort of criminal network or syndicate, usually with a government agent who almost single-handedly brings down the bad guys. Some of these noirs, like 'The House On 92nd Street' (1945), are shot in a documentary-like style, typically with some government official giving an introduction of some sort as well as a quick overview at the end of what happens to those who walk on the wrong side of the tracks. This movie walks the middle ground between a more straight-forward police procedural movie and this documentary-style. It's got most of the docu-noir elements at the very start and end of the movie. There are also a few instances however where a character does a brief monologue during the movie explaining the evils of drugs and the danger of addiction and death when taking drugs, which come off staged and awkward, because they're not aimed directly at the viewer as in more conventional docu-noirs, but at other characters.

The movie's finale is quite exciting and well-executed and includes a plane crashing into a car, which looks really well-done and convincing, even with the bad video quality. I have to say, the movie's budget must have been very modest, given it was clearly intended to be on the bottom end of a double bill, but the production team did wonders with it, they made great use of outdoor scenes and whatever sound stages they used, or more likely re-used, they look good as well.

Howard Duff ('The Naked City', 'Brute Force') is decent here as the young, straight as an arrow agent who thinks he knows it all and that he can crack this case. Also in 1949, Duff would play a very similar role, that of a man going undercover to bust a smuggling gang, in 'Illegal Entry'. Here his character is too focused on the case to really notice that Terry Stewart is taking an interest in him. He also doesn't notice that Johnny Evans has been around the block more than a few times, and can think faster and more creatively than he can. Morton is way too strict and much of a typical 'copper', as Evans likes to call him, to really be a noir anti-hero/protagonist. For that we have to turn to Johnny Evans. The hardened gangster who does have a good side to him, who recognizes that Terry deserves a break and not the same deadly fate his wife did. Dan Duryea is fondly remembered in noir circles for his portrayal of villains and other sorts of slimey characters in movies like 'Criss Cross', 'Ministry Of Fear' and 'The Great Flamarion'. Even when he plays a good guy, there's usually still a dark, twisted edge to his character, and likewise when he plays a bad character, he brings something sympathetic to the table, which is also the case here. His performance is easily the best of the movie for me.
You think you can get me on the outside and I get a taste of it and I go crazy. Well, let me tell you something... I'll rot in this place forever before I'll be a stool pigeon for a copper.
Shelley Winters ('The Night Of The Hunter') also does well with the little she's given. Terry is supposed to be a fairly complex character. She's had a rough life and wants out of McCandles' clutches. She sees Morton as an opportunity to get out and even tells him 'maybe after a while we might even make a go of it.' When he brushes her off she tells him all she really wants is money, because it's the only thing you can count on, and which probably drove her straight into McCandles' arms in the first place. Her character starts out as a potential femme fatale but once the movie settles at the resort she becomes almost a prop, which is a shame. Both Winters and Terry Stewart deserved better.

This was one of the first movies for which Tony Curtis receives credit, still called Anthony Curtis here, after appearing in an uncredited role in 'Criss Cross' the same year (but he was dancing with Yvonne De Carlo in that movie, I'm sure he preferred that over receiving credit!). He's even credited fourth, the first name below the title so to say, which is quite an accomplishment for a non-talking role! Here he plays a mute bodyguard/killer. So he doesn't have to do a lot here besides look intently yet quizical at Howard Duff, trying to recall where he first saw him. His stare definitely has some menace to it tho, which is what matters most for this part, so he does well here. He would of course go on to become a huge movie star, as well as give a superb performance in a classic noir called 'Sweet Smell Of Success'.

The main area where this movie is lacking is in the bland cinematography. The movie doesn't really have the dark, starkly lit look you expect and want from noirs, apart from a few small scenes. For the most part the movie is fairly heavily lit like you would expect a more 'normal' movie to be, and the overly bright washed out video quality doesn't help there either. The stock music is also pretty bland, and because of using work from so many composers (IMDb lists 4 names) there's no real theme or cohesiveness to the music. But as I said earlier, this a good noir, and I stand by that. It's lean and moves at a rapid pace with a 71 minute run-time, with solid performances and a nice story. This movie deserves a nice restoration and re-release on DVD or Blu-ray. It's a movie most noir lovers will enjoy I think, so until that restoration happens, don't pass up on this one based on the crappy video quality and give it a shot. It's worth it!

Oh btw, if anybody can get me these records, that would be awesome, thank you! I am also curious to know if other noirs had similar promo records made for them, and if so, which ones.


Here's the trailer, which is in much better shape than the movie!

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