30 Days of Noir #13: Undertow (dir by William Castle)


In the 1949 film, Undertow, Scott Brady plays Tony Reagan.  Tony used to be a member of the Chicago mob but that’s all in the past now.  He served his country in World War II and now, as he tells his old racket friend, Danny (John Russell), all Tony wants to do is settle down and run a hunting lodge in Reno.

However, before Tony can forever abandon Chicago for Nevada, he has to make peace with his future in-laws.  He’s engaged to marry Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart).  In fact, he’s so in love with her that not even meeting a single teacher named Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) can distract Tony from his plans.  The only problem is that Sally is the niece of a Chicago gangster named Big Jim Lee and, in the past, Big Jim and Tony haven’t always been the best of friends.  In fact, the Chicago police are constantly harassing Tony because they’re convinced that he wants to start a gang war with Big Jim.  Instead, Tony just wants to make peace with Big Jim before the wedding.

Tony goes to visit Big Jim and …. well, you can guess what’s going to happen, can’t you?  If you’ve seen enough film noirs, you know that no one is every totally out of the rackets.  No one believes an ex-mobster when they say that they’re no longer interested in making trouble.  Even worse, any murder committed with automatically be blamed on anyone who says that they’re no longer a member of the rackets.  That’s what happens to Tony.  Not only does he discover that Big Jim has been shot dead but everyone thinks that he’s the one who did it.  Fleeing through the shadowy streets of Chicago, Tony finds himself not only being pursued by the police but also by the murderers.  Everyone wants to either capture or kill Tony.

In fact, the only person who seems to be on Tony’s side is Ann McKnight.  Ann lets Tony hide out at her apartment while he tries to figure out what’s going on.  Of course, Ann does have a nosy landlady who has no hesitation about letting herself into the apartment whenever she feels like it….

The plot of Undertow isn’t going to win any points for originality.  It’s not going to take you long to figure out who is setting Tony up, if just because there really aren’t enough characters in the film for there to be much suspense about who is betraying who.  But no matter!  The film is still an atmospherically shot and briskly-paced thriller.  Undertow was directed by William Castle, who is probably best known for directing campy B-movies like The Tingler and Strait-Jacket.  There’s nothing campy about Castle’s direction of Undertow.  The majority of the film was shot on location and Castle makes great use of Chicago.  When Tony tries to lose the cops that are tailing him, it helps that he’s not running across a soundstage but instead down real city streets, ones that feels alive with tension and danger.  There’s also a great chase that takes place in a long and dark corridor in an underground garage.

Scott Brady (who was the brother of tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney) gives a sympathetic performance as Tony and he and Peggy Dow have a really likable chemistry in their scenes together.  Dorothy Hart is also well-cast as the film’s femme fatale, while Bruce Bennett has a few good scenes as a detective who is an old friend of Tony’s.  Fans of “classic” matinée idols will want to keep an eye out for Rock Hudson, making a brief appearance in his second film and credited as “Roc” Hudson.

Shattered Politics #4: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (dir by Frank Capra)


mr-smith-goes-to-washington

So, when you read that I was going to be reviewing 94 political films here at the Shattered Lens, you probably knew that one of them would have to be the 1939 best picture nominee, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

So, we all know that story right?  The senator from an unnamed state dies.  The weak-willed Governor (Guy Kibbee) has to appoint a new senator.  Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) demands that the governor appoint one of his cronies.  The state’s reformers demand that the Governor appoint a never-seen crusader named Henry Hill (who, whenever I hear his name, makes me think of Ray Liotta snorting cocaine in Goodfellas).  The Governor’s children demand that he appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, of course!), who is the head of something called the Boy Rangers.  The Governor flips a coin.  The coin lands on its edge but it also lands next to a newspaper story about Jeff Smith.

So, of course, Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Now, as the movie quickly makes clear, Jeff Smith is immediately out-of-place in Washington.  For one thing, he’s actually excited to be there.  He’s convinced that he’s there to make America a better place.  When a bunch of drunken reporters (led by the great Thomas Mitchell) make Smith look foolish, Smith responds by running around Washington and punching them out.  (That whole sequence probably serves as wish fulfilment for a lot of politicians.)  When his cynical legislative aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him that he’s too naive to survive in Washington, he wins her over with the purity of his idealism.  When his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), is revealed to be a part of Washington’s corrupt culture, Smith is stunned.  When Taylor tries to destroy his political career, Smith responds by giving the filibuster to end all filibusters.  He’s one man standing up against a culture of corruption and…

And there’s a reason why, 76 years later, aspiring political candidates still attempt to portray themselves as being a real-life, modern Jefferson Smith.

This is one of those films that everyone seems to agree is great and, of course, there’s many reasons to love Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  There’s the lead performance of Jimmy Stewart, of course.  While this may not be his best performance (I prefer the more layered characterization that he brought to It’s A Wonderful Life and Anatomy of a Murder), it is Stewart at his most likable and, most importantly, he makes you feel Jeff Smith’s pain as he discovers that Washington is not the great place that he originally assumed it to be.  Claude Rains was always great when it came to playing good men gone wrong and he’s perfect as Sen. Paine.  Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur are perfectly cast and I always enjoy seeing the bemused smile on the face of Vice President Harry Carey as Smith conducts his filibuster.

But I think the best thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is that it actually makes you believe that there are Jeff Smiths out there who actually could make a difference.  And, until Judd Apatow gets around to remaking the film with Adam Sandler, audiences will continue to believe.