Sunday, June 21, 2015

"C"-Man (1949)

Film noir is almost by definition a style that suited the low-budget poverty row studios. It allowed for cheap sets, low-key lighting and does away with glamour. A shadow-filled world for shady characters living in seedy apartments. 1949's '"C"-Man' is an excellent example, as it's clearly a low-budget movie yet it manages to rise above its low expectations and deliver a great noir. This movie shows how a lack of budget does not mean a movie is not deserving of more attention. In fact, I'd say '"C"-Man' is kind of a hidden gem. It was the first of 3 movies produced by the short-lived Laurel Films production company, the next would be the Zachary Scott noir 'Guilty Bystander', and finally a wrestling comedy called 'Mister Universe'

Dean Jagger plays Cliff Holden, a customs agent, or "C"-man, working for the U.S. Treasury Department. His new assignment is to take over a case previously worked on by his best friend, who got killed because of it. It revolves around the theft of a valuable necklace belonging to Lydia Brundage (Edith Atwater), somewhere in France. The only lead they have is Matthew Roy (Rene Paul), who is flying back to the States soon and who they expect will smuggle the necklace back into the States. Holden is to fly to France and catch the same flight back. While waiting at the French airport, he meets Kathy Von Bourne (Lottie Elwes) who is flying to the U.S. to marry her war-time love. But on the plane Kathy is drugged by Doc Spencer (John Carradine), planting the necklace on her underneath bandages he wraps on her head, so it can be smuggled past customs. As both Holden and Kathy quickly find out Roy and his gang, including a crazy Owney Shor (Harry Landers), will literally kill for the necklace.

The movie starts off thanking people from the Treasury Department without whose help this movie apparently could not have been made. I suspect the title card was inserted to add some sort of credibility to the movie, because nothing from the sets to the story itself really point to something that required official government help.

I'm not really familiar with Dean Jagger. In this movie he seems to be channeling Dick Powell's Philip Marlowe from 'Murder, My Sweet' mostly, coming off as a second-rate version in the process. He's adequate, good even, but in terms of noir actors, he's no Powell. He would win a best supporting actor Oscar for the psychological WWII drama 'Twelve O'Clock High' the same year, but he's not as suited for this sort of darker, more cynical material as Powell turned out to be. Despite appearing in a few more noirs like 'Private Hell 36', film noir simply wasn't Jagger's best match.

Lottie Elwen was a really nice surprise, her portrayal of the Dutch Kathe van Bourne is pretty good and engaging. But according to IMDb this was her only on-screen appearance, I have no idea what happened to her, was she perhaps primarily a stage actress? In any case, it's a real shame, she had talent. Legendary character actor John Carradine, often cited as having more acting credits on IMDb than anybody else at close to 350, makes the most of his limited screen time. His alcoholic Doc Spencer is a minor character in the movie despite Carradine being billed second, but he leaves quite an impression. The same can be said for Harry Landers ('Guilty Bystander', 'Drive A Crooked Road') as the vicious and volatile Owny. He does a good job, altho he does ham it up a bit, sometimes a more restrained performance can exude more menace than a crazy one. The rest of the cast are good too, giving fairly solid performances, which help elevate the movie.

Besides the solid acting lifting this movie out from the bottom-scraping level, there are additional factors that elevate this flick. There is an unusual high amount of location shooting on the seedy streets of New York City. And it works really well here, it gives a great impression of NYC, not just in the scenes where Holden is walking across the city looking up all the liquor stores in search for information that will lead him to Doc Spencer, but also stock footage of people rushing around the Staten Island ferry terminal and such.

And then there's the music, composed and conducted by Gail Kubik. It is pretty unique and sounds way more modern than late 40s. A few years later he would win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his overall work. His score here plays throughout a large part of the movie, in some places it's almost a quiet muzak-like tune, but it is still there. But during key scenes his music adds a weird vibe and also provides almost horror-like sound effects, most noticably during the brutal beating of Doc Spencer by Owny. He's also responsible for the song that is played in a jazz club, which again sounds like something you'd hear in a mid to late 50s movie, not a late 40s movie.

Both director Joseph Lerner and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld started out with this movie, and also worked on the other 2 Laurel Films movies. Lerner's career fizzled out rather quickly but Hirschfeld stayed behind the camera well into the 90s! They both do great jobs here actually, if one manages to look through the beat up, washed out public domain print that is available online. The script by Berne Giler, who would write mostly for TV shows, is not exactly remarkable in any way, it's straight-forward and with decent but not very exciting dialogue that is clearly inspired by far better movies. But on the flipside, it means it's got a nice noir sensibility to it, that will appeal to noir lovers.

'"C"-man' is a low-budget noir and it shows. It also lacks any real star-power, an original story or anything really surprising. However, its sum is bigger than its parts. The movie as a whole, judged as film noir, works far better than expected. It rises above what it should be, and that is always a good thing. In fact, this to me is worthy to be called a hidden gem. If you love film noir, you need to check out this movie. If you're not into film noir however aside from 'the classics', this might not be your new favorite.