Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fall Guy (1947)

Cornell Woolrich's novels and short stories were a rich source of inspiration for films noirs and beyond. Noirs like 'Black Angel', 'The Chase', 'Fear In The Night' and 'Phantom Lady' but also the Hitchcock classic 'Rear Window' were all based on his writings. 1947's 'Fall Guy' was based on his short story 'Cocaine' which first appeared in the legendary pulp magazine Black Mask in 1940 under the title 'C-Jag', and was also published in other magazines under the titles 'Dream Of Death' and 'Just Enough To Cover A Thumbnail'.

Director Reginald Le Borg and cinematographer Mack Stengler don't have a lot of noir credentials under their belt, they worked mainly on quick programmers for the lower end of a double bill. Stengler did work on another Woolrich adaptation tho, 1948's film noir 'I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes'. First time producer Walter Mirisch would later, together with his brothers, produce several classic movies like 'Some Like It Hot' and 'West Side Story'!

Tom Cochrane (Leo Penn, credited as Clifford Penn) is the 'fall guy' here. One night he passes out in a dark alley, with someone else's blood all over his clothes and his pocket knife. In hospital the next morning, police inspector Shannon (Douglas Fowley) is asking him what happened and who the victim is. Cochrane decides to escape rather than get arrested there and then. He manages to convince his fiancee Lois (Teala Loring) and his brother-in-law Mac McLaine (Robert Armstrong) that he's innocent even if he has only a vague recollection of what happened. He remembers getting dragged to a party by an elevator jockey called Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.), whom he just met that evening. At the party torch singer Marie (Virginia Dale) slipped him what must've been a spiked drink... After he woke up, he found the dead body of a girl in a closet in the apartment. Barely able to stand up, he managed to go outside before collapsing in the alley... Mac, who's a cop, decides he wants to help Cochrane find out the truth before turning him in. Together they go in search of the apartment, Joe, and Marie...

I was not really aware of Leo Penn (credited as 'Clifford Penn' here) before watching this movie, and I can't say I was impressed by his acting in this movie. 'Lightweight' seems to be the right word to describe him. At no point does he convince or seem terribly upset with the predicament he's supposed to face. Penn would quickly move on to work in TV, both as an actor as well as a director. As an interesting sidenote, he's the father of more famous actors Sean & Chris Penn.

Teala Loring comes off as a 'B' version of Rita Hayworth in the looks department, which is not a bad thing at all! She is also pretty decent in this movie acting-wise altho her part as Tom's fiancee is fairly limited. 'Fall Guy' was one of her final movies before retiring from acting, her credentials include such B's as 'Bluebeard' and the Charlie Chan vehicle 'Dark Alibi'. In 'Fall Guy' she lives in with her uncle Jim while waiting for Tom to make up his mind about their marriage and future life. Uncle Jim is played by Charles Arnt, a very familiar face in dozens of 40s movies including noirs like 'The Man Who Cheated Himself', 'Strange Illusion' and 'Hollow Triumph'.
- I take trips in my dreams too, but I don't call it killing!
- Yeah but you don't wake up with blood on your clothes... on your hands... on your knife.
Robert Armstrong is good enough as the grumpy but steadfast brother-in-law. However, whoever cast Armstrong forgot that this 50-something year old actor, with his rugged face and grey hair that made him look even older, was supposed to play a 36-year old man, as shown in a newspaper article halfway through the movie! Not that I have a problem with Armstrong, he's fine, but it makes you wonder if the casting director even looked at the script. Also watch closely as Mac, with Cochrane and Lois, drive away from a cinema. The marquee of the theater shows it's playing a double bill consisting of 'Decoy' and an unnamed 2nd movie. 'Decoy' is a wacky, unique film noir from 1946, with Robert Armstrong as a criminal who dies in the gas chamber and is then brought back to life again!

Saving the best for last, noir favorite Elisha Cook Jr. is far and away the biggest name in this movie. He is his usual solid self, but he doesn't have to do a whole lot here. It's one of the unwritten laws of film noir that Elisha Cook Jr. does not make it to the end of a noir alive or victorious. This noir is no different! And that's not giving away too much. Either way, it's always a pleasure to see him turn up in a noir.

Despite the obvious low budget for the movie, production company Monogram Pictures wasn't one of the so-called Poverty Row film companies for no reason, the movie looks fairly decent, also by cleverly mixing in quite a bit of stock footage for the sequences showing Mac and Cochrane walking all over NYC to find clues. In an unintentionally funny instance tho, there's a birds eye view of a NYC street at night that clearly freezes for a second or so, cars stopping all at the exact same moment, before dissolving into the next shot. Sets are also recycled, interior sets doubling for several apartments and such. But this is most painfully obvious when several entrances to subway stations all look exactly the same, except for a banner hanging above the entrance with a different street number. Chances are all those scenes were shot in a single afternoon as well.
Then I saw the singer, she wasn't bad-looking. You might not give her a second thought, but you'd look twice.
The movie starts out quite decent, with an intriguing set-up. But the middle part with Mac and Cochrane wandering around NYC and a too-long semi-comedic segment where they're questioning the owners of what they think is the apartment where the party was, almost feel like filler even if it's decently done. Things pick up again for the last third of the movie with a few minor twists. The final reveal however comes almost completely out of left-field, hats off to anyone who saw that one coming. I have no idea if this was also lifted from Woolrich's story, but it's more of a 'hmmm' ending than a real 'wowza' twist. So after the promising start, the movie doesn't quite live up to it afterwards. It also doesn't quite have the dark noir look either, apart from a few spots here and there. But at least it moves along at a fast pace, which is pretty much the main requirement for these types of cheap programmers. It's worthy of a watch if you're into these cheapo B's, it has its charms, but if you're looking for a good Woolrich adaptation, look elsewhere.