Sunday, August 29, 2010

Loophole (1954)

Editor's note: This week Alan K. Rode -- film historian and all-around noir expert -- is our special guest writer. Alan has written a biography on one of Loophole's stars Charles McGraw. It's a thoughtful look at a film noir tough guy.

Hollywood was taking a standing eight count in 1954. The Paramount anti-trust consent agreement of 1948 had forced the major studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains. Second feature “B” movies specifically created for double bills evaporated as television increasingly kept Americans in their living rooms and out of theatres. While the majors radically cut production and resorted to gimmicks including Cinemascope and 3-D to sell tickets, Poverty Row entity Monogram Pictures persevered by producing lower budget movies under the recently unfurled banner of Allied Artists.

Although the Mirsch Brothers would add prestige and money to several Allied Artists releases, the studio stayed true to its roots by continuing to grind out staple fare including the interminable Bowery Boys series along with crime dramas and horror movies leavening the repetitive stream of westerns. This determination to continue producing low budget feature films at a profit was largely due to Lindsley Parsons’ production company that operated under the auspices of Allied Artists. Lindsley Parsons was a Monogram veteran who got his start writing oaters during the Depression and knew cut-rate film making inside and out.

Loophole was a prototypical Parsons project as noted by Lindsley (Lin) Parsons Jr. who served as production manager, assistant director and whatever else was needed on his Father’s pictures.

The screenplay for Loophole by actor/scribe Warren Douglas hinged on the tried-and-true plot device of an innocent man being wrongfully accused. The picture gained additional heft via the experienced directorial touch of former cutter Harold Schuster and a professional cast of leading and supporting players. Not that anyone cast in Loophole could be considered as an expensive star. As Lin Parsons remarked during a June 2006 interview: “My Father’s pictures during this period were budgeted at no more than $200,000 with a two week shooting schedule. He typically used actors who were on the way up or on the way down; the price always had to be right.”

Conscientious bank teller Mike Donovan (Barry Sullivan) is left holding the bag when a clever thief (Don Beddoe) blends in with visiting bank examiners and cleans out Donovan’s bank drawer to the tune of $50 large. Sullivan doesn’t notice the loss until close of business Friday and after nervously prevaricating over the weekend, he reports the loss on Monday morning and immediately becomes the sole suspect.

When the police and bank insurance bond investigator Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw) enter the picture, matters become extremely bleak for Donovan and his wife, played by Dorothy Malone. It is at this point where Loophole picks up steam. McGraw’s Slavin is a medieval inquisitor outfitted for mid 20th century L.A. with a creased fedora and a pack of Luckies complementing a pitiless bureaucratic resolve. The script throws in a specific reference to the Slavin character being a former policeman who was apparently cashiered for some type of malfeasance. One immediately visualizes McGraw in the darkened anteroom of a precinct squad room, wielding a blackjack during questioning.

Rather than resorting to physical abuse, Slavin mercilessly hounds Donovan even after the bank fires him and the police essentially wash their hands of the case. The insurance investigator is utterly convinced of Sullivan’s guilt and his own divinity to force a confession through the infliction of pain. Working under a deadline to prevent his firm compensating the bank’s loss, Slavin strives to keep Donovan trapped and broke in a cheap apartment-the house was lost with his position at the bank-through a scurrilous campaign of gossip and innuendo with prospective employers. At his lowest ebb, the former bank teller realizes the organizations that he gave unquestioning trust, the police, the bank, insurance companies, are malicious failures.

Donovan gathers himself, knowing that if he doesn’t find the actual thieves and clear his name, no one else will. Leapfrogging through a set of coincidences that are only believable in a movie like Loophole, he discovers and traps the thieves, gets back his name, his job and ultimately triumphs … or does he? The finale creates a sense of anxious perplexity using the chiseled visage of a lurking McGraw.

In addition to one of Charles McGraw’s most visceral performances, Loophole benefits from a surplus of L.A. location photography and an enjoyable pair of thieves, the reliable Don Beddoe and a wonderfully trampy Mary Beth Hughes. The underrated Barry Sullivan remains a credible protagonist and Dorothy Malone imbues realism into what could have been a thankless role. The movie’s thematic parallel with the Blacklist and Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose historical reckoning during the televised Army investigative hearings was underway when Loophole was released on March 28, 1954, is unmistakable. Six decades afterwards, the film holds up as an able example of late term noir that topically reflects the mores and mood of mid 20th century America.

Lin Parsons candidly recalled that Loophole could have been cast, “…at AA” what with the reputation of hard drinkers such as Sullivan, McGraw and Parsons Sr. He remarked that McGraw’s gruff exterior on screen was not the disposition that the affable thespian brought to the set everyday. Parsons, who would work with McGraw again on The Cruel Tower (1956), remarked that the veteran actor was “…as professional as it gets.”

I’d recommend where you can obtain a quality copy of Loophole except I can’t. The only ones that I’ve located are grainy VHS and DVD transfers from a battered 16mm print. Warner Bros is the rights holder on this Allied Artists title, but does not at present have a screenable 35mm print. What with the recent emergence of obscure titles via the Warner Archive Collection, we can only hope that Loophole will eventually be included as a future release. Unfortunately, I have misplaced Gus Slavin’s telephone number and cannot contact him for assistance.

Written by Alan K. Rode


  1. Great stuff, Alan. Thanks for joining the NotW crowd!

  2. Great review of an undeservedly forgotten film noir. Here's hoping Warners will restore their print to a watchable state.

  3. Loophole has a new 35mm print that will premiere the final weekend of Noir City 9 in San Francisco!


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