Sunday, May 29, 2016

Destination Murder (1950)

Film noir loves strong characters, and not just men... Granted, the strong women are more often than not of the femme fatale variety, but still... you've got to be tough to survive in the noir universe, male or female. But aside from the many femmes fatales of noir, there are also instances where a non-fatal woman takes the initiative or is the driving force to solving the mystery/crime at hand. In a noir like 'The Dark Corner' it is secretary Lucille Ball who is the force behind private eye Mark Stevens, who is the weak link of their partnership. And Nina Foch can only rely on herself to unravel the truth in 'My Name Is Julia Ross'. Just like in that noir, in 1950's 'Destination Murder', the female amateur sleuth if you will, is personally and emotionally involved in her case, and in many ways can't trust anybody in her quest for the truth.

The amateur detective here is Laura Mansfield (Joyce Mackenzie, 'The Racket'). One quiet evening her dad, an influential businessman, is shot and killed by a courier, in front of Laura. As she checks up on her dad, she spots the killer skipping over the front porch to a waiting car... The police at first suspect her dad's main business competitor Frank Niles (John Dehner) to be involved somehow, but he is quickly cleared. Laura is then asked to identify the killer from a line-up of couriers, but the ones she picks as potentials, all have an alibi. After leaving the police station, she offers one of her picks, Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements, 'Canon City') a ride to apologize for the trouble she caused. But when she sees him skip the frontporch, like the killer, she realizes who he really is. And guess what? She starts to date the guy, to expose him and find out why he killed her dad! The longer they date, the more she realizes that there is more going on and that Wales might have been hired by Armitage (Albert Dekker, 'The Killers'), the owner of a nightclub that Wales likes to hang out at. She decides to go 'undercover' in the club by getting herself hired as a cigarette girl...
You see miss Mansfield, we're dealing with killers. And a killer has only one destination: murder.
The phrase 'everything but the kitchen sink' certainly applies here, the plot outlined above barely scratches the surface when it comes to describing this movie. Aside from the rather crazy notion that it's a good idea to date a killer in order to uncover the truth, this movie contains a lot of additional crazy and quirky elements. And that is not even counting the large amount of twists and double-crosses that happen at random intervals during the 70+min runtime. This one's a rollercoaster!

A word of warning, the rest of this review might contain (even) more spoilers than usual. This is almost unavoidable due to trying to explain some of various characters and relationships.

A few more of the movie's characters need to be introduced here. First off, Stretch Norton, played by Hurd Hatfield ('The Unsuspected'). Such a cool name with a 30s gangster ring to it. And lo and behold, he's not just the manager of Armitage's nightclub, he is well involved with Armitage's plans to take over the business run by Laura Mansfield's dad. There's even a bit of a twist/reveal, which actually makes some sense, in the relationship between Stretch and Armitage. Armitage himself is quite the character. He refers to himself as 'Armitage' in conversations, and needs to have the Moonlight Sonata played whenever he's about to beat or even kill someone. He even has a pianola set up with that tune in his office. The first time this happens he savagely beats Wales with his leather belt, later on the music announces doom for someone else in Stretch's apartment. Armitage and Stretch make a nice villainous pair, but the reveal I mentioned does lead to a rather awkward scene where Armitage falls out of character. Oh well, you can't have everything...
Jackie Wales: 'You're uh.. you're not two-timing me are ya?'
Laura Mansfield: 'If you only knew how I feel about you.'
And then there's also Myrna Dell ('Nocturne') as Alice Wentworth, who is Armitage's girl but only sees him as another rung in the ladder towards financial independence. She's the femme fatale of the movie, as she double-crosses and plays almost everybody in this movie, altho in this case she does it with the bad guys... And that can never end well... She even tries her hand at playing Wales by getting him to blackmail Armitage, and of course it works at first. But Wales is just a kid really, who thinks he's the real deal, but despite his cocky and brash attitude is just naive. I mean, he doesn't even hesitate for a second when the daughter of the man he killed starts dating him! To top it all off, he also has a gambling debt, so Alice's blackmail idea works fine for him. And it gets him some money at first, but it's never a good idea to double-cross or blackmail your boss, and that goes for Alice too!

Performances across the board are adequate to good, but it's up to Joyce Mackenzie to carry the movie. And she does well, combining a homely look with a more resilient character. She comes across look-wise as a younger Barbara Hale, and is very easy to sympathize, and emphatize, with. Her career in movies and TV was rather short, lasting under 10 years, not counting a random appearance in the TV-show 'Perry Mason' in the early 60s 7 years after her last credit. Maybe she decided Hollywood wasn't for her, but she had nice screen presence. The 'romance' angle with the much more juvenile looking, and acting, Stanley Clements doesn't really work because of Mackenzie's more homely and 'older' presence, despite Clements being 3 years her elder in real life.

The movie was directed by Edward L. Cahn, who directed well over a hundred movies, most if not all of them low-budget B movies, including the sci-fi cult classic 'It! The Terror From Beyond Space' from 1958. As with any decent B-director, he knew how to get the most out of the material he had to work with, as he proved here. He also co-produced this movie, which was then picked up for distribution by RKO. But make no mistake, even tho the movie starts with the familiar RKO logo, this movie is most definitely a low-budget movie, albeit a small step above poverty row level. There is also some nice, albeit not too striking, cinematography by Jackson Rose ('Dillinger') who worked on tons of (mostly B-)features, his earliest credits going back to 1914!

The movie throws all kinds of quirks, double-crosses and twists at the viewer, definitely a few too many to make this a great movie. Maybe this was an attempt by the writer of the original screenplay, Don Martin ('Shakedown'), to mix things up a bit. It does make this movie stand out, it is definitely not a routine programmer, even if in many ways it's B-fare from start to finish. But his screenplay, which also lacks the memorable type of oneliners and dialogue that typifies noir, does turn the movie into a bit of a mess. But to me, it's a fun and delightful mess. It is definitely one that has the ability to surprise you! Don't expect greatness, but expect a movie that requires you to stay focused.