Welcome to Noirvember!
Yeah, yeah, I know. That sounds kinda silly, doesn’t it? However, November is traditionally the month that classic film bloggers tend to concentrate on writing about film noir. It provides a bit of grit and cynicism in between the horror fun of October and the holiday schmaltz of December.
I have to admit that I’m a little bit torn when it comes to taking part in Noirvember. On the one hand, I love a good film noir and there’s quite a few obscure and underrated ones available on YouTube right now. On the other hand, as a natural-born contrarian, I don’t like the idea of hopping on any bandwagons.
In the end, my love of film noir won out. So, welcome to my first entry in 30 Days of Noir.
The 1942 film, Lady Gangster, opens with Dot Burton (Faye Emerson) walking up to a bank. She’s carrying a small white dog with her. Though the bank isn’t due to open for another 30 minutes, she explains to the bank guard that she’s got a train to catch and she simply has to deposit a check. The guard unlocks the door and lets both her and her dog inside.
While filling out her deposit slip, Dot puts the dog down on the floor. The dogs runs off, distracting the guard just long enough for three men with guns to slip into the bank and rob the place. Though the police quickly arrive, the men manage to escape, taking $400,000 with them.
The police are immediately suspicious of Dot, especially when she struggles to keep her story straight as to why she’s at the bank. The lead detective thinks that Dot was in on it. Dot says that she was merely out for a stroll with her dog. Dot says that her dog is named Tiny. The dog, which looks exactly like one that was recently reported missing, is wearing a collar that reads “Boots.”
The district attorney announces that Dot will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. However, a crusading radio broadcaster named Ken Phillips (Frank Wilcox) is convinced that Dot is being railroaded. Once he realizes that he went to high school with her, Ken is even more determined to help Dot. Using the power of the airwaves, he forces the district attorney to release Dot into his custody. Once free, Dot promptly confesses to Ken that she was a part of the robbery and that she’s hidden the money. An indignant Ken turns her into the police.
So now, Dot’s in prison and no one’s sure where the money is. One of the bank robbers even dresses up like a woman so that he can see Dot on visiting day but she refuses to tell him anything. Dot isn’t going to reveal where the money is unless it means she can also get parole. She needs to get released soon because she’s already got two psychotic snitches targeting her.
Fortunately, Ken has had a change of heart and is lobbying for her release. Unfortunately, Dot has been tricked into believing that Ken has once again betrayed her so, naturally enough, she sets him up to be murdered. When Dot discovers that she’s been fooled, can she find a way to warn Ken before it’s too late?
Believe it or not, all of this happens over the course of 62 minutes. With that many betrayals, twists, and crimes packed into that short of a running time, there’s never a dull moment in Lady Gangster. Though the film itself is full of huge plot holes and Frank Wilcox is a bit of a stiff as Ken, the film is totally worth seeing for Faye Emerson’s ferocious performance as Dot Burton. Dot is a force of nature. When the robbers try to steal her money, Dot instead steals from them. When Dot believes that Ken has betrayed her, she sets him up to be murdered with a moment of hesitation. When Dot discovers that Ken didn’t betray her, she immediately starts scheming to prevent the murder that she arranged. Even when Dot confesses to being a part of the robbery, she does it on her own terms. Nobody tells Dot what to do and, in that way, she represents the best of America. As Dot herself explains it, “I’ll play ball with anyone but Hitler.”
The film has a rather odd ending, one that makes you wonder just how forgiving people generally were back in 1942. But no matter! Lady Gangster is a quickly paced movie that’s just melodramatic enough to be enjoyable. It’s in the public domain and on YouTube. Watch it for Faye Emerson’s performance.