Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dial 1119 (1950)

The disturbed veteran, wracked with guilt or shell shock gets the treatment once again in this 1950 release from MGM with one small twist. The “veteran” here isn’t a vet after all, just some loony punk with a vet fixation. The punk in this case is played by the poor man’s Arthur Franz, Marshall Thompson. This in itself is rather ironic, in that Franz played a very similar character a couple years later in The Sniper. So is it just me or are Franz and Marshall interchangeable?

As for the story, riding the bus to Terminal City, which we’re informed via a radio announcer, is the “fastest growing commercial center in the Central Valley” is Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson). The twisted Gunther needs to speak face to face with a Dr. John Faron (Sam Levene) whose psychiatric practice is located in Terminal City.

In the past Dr. Faron was instrumental in getting poor Wyckoff out of the joint and back on the street. Now the pressure of being out is crushing Wyckoff and only the soothing words of Dr. Faron can ease his pain.

Back on the bus, as Wyckoff rides towards his and several others grim end, we see a sign above the windshield that notes “Smoking Prohibited.” The sign is posted right next to the bus drivers .45 automatic which is resting upon the sun visor. So while smoking’s not allowed on the bus, the carrying of loaded pistols apparently is. Of course Wyckoff lifts the pistol at a rest stop and upon reaching Terminal City a passenger points out the gun is missing. When the driver confronts Wyckoff his gut becomes the recipient of the first of several slugs Wyckoff will dole out during his brief but violent stay in Terminal City.

Exiting the bus depot Wyckoff makes a beeline for Dr. Faron’s office. Failing to find him in his office, he exits the building and his eyes fix upon the glowing neon sign of the nearest bar, The Oasis. Like the moth to the flame he, as under the spell of a voodoo curse is drawn to the bar even committing the heinous crime of jaywalking in the process.

The Oasis Bar, where schemes and dreams and neighbor infidelities all blend together with the smell of stale beer and the swish of Chuckles soggy rag. The “Chuckles” here is the proprietor of one of the grimiest bars even seen on film. As Chuckles (William Conrad) himself puts it “What have I got to be happy about? Maybe if I have place with some class, carpet on the floor, plush around instead of being stuck with a crumb joint.”

In a twist right out of Bizarro World, Conrad now finds himself on the extreme opposite side from his turn, along with Charles McGraw as hired gunmen on the receiving side of the counter in ‘46’s The Killers. Now he’s stuck on the serving side dispensing cheap drinks and the occasional “sherry flip” to his patrons, whom he refers to as “crumbs,” all the while switching the channels on possibly the first ever big screen TV.

To go along with the cheap linoleum floor, peeling wallpaper, filthy doors, pin-up photos and burnt out light bulbs, the Oasis sports a 3 foot by 4 foot TV that shows the obligatory westerns, wrestling and police bulletins.

So into this den of inequities walks our boy Wyckoff who takes up a seat at the far end of the bar. The other “crumbs” in the joint are: Freddy (Virginia Field), a 28 year old unhappy woman who’s meeting up with, Earl (Leon Ames) a 40 something married man looking for a weekend fling, Helen (Andrea King) the local “barfly,” Harrison D. Barnes (James Bell), a reporter on the local rag and Skip (Keefe Brasselle), Chuckles right hand man and an expectant father.

As noted, police bulletins are a regular feature on the Oasis TV and in due time Wyckoff’s mug, along with a message delivered by long time local Los Angeles newscaster Bill Welch, is on the screen. This warning falls on mainly deaf ears as the “crumbs” in the joint are immersed in their small talk and none of them pay the slightest notice to the TV. The only one who takes note of it is Chuckles who sadly chuckles no more after trying to tip the cops by dialing, you guessed it “1119.”

Now that the jig is up the remainder of the short running (75 minutes) film bores in on the interaction of the disturbed Wyckoff and the assorted nuts he’s trapped and holding at gun point inside the Oasis. This gives rise to an early example of the “hostage” film as Wyckoff informs the soon surrounding bevy of cops; under the command of Capt. Henry Keiver (Richard Rober) that if Dr. Faron doesn’t show up by nine o’clock as he tells Keiver “Twenty-five minutes or every one of them will have to die.”


It needs to be noted, time is an important element of the film and clocks are seen on a regular basis. The entire plot unfolds in “real” time, with the film running time matching that of the action on screen.

As fate would have it, Dr. Faron happens to be returning home when he encounters the crowd gathered near the Oasis. Soon he and Capt. Keiver are engaged in a tug of war, with Keiver refusing to let Faron become one more possible victim and Faron arguing he can bring the stand-off to a peaceful closure by speaking with Wyckoff.

By now a TV crew has arrived at the scene and the action, again a precursor to today’s “news broadcasting” is being shown live to all, including those within the Oasis. While they and others watch, Dr. Faron has disregarded Keiver’s orders and once the Captain’s back is turned, makes his way towards and into the bar and the last house call he’ll ever make.

With the good doctor now dead as Kelsey’s nutmeg, and the police officer who tried to sneak in via a A/C vent somewhat ventilated himself thanks to Wyckoff, it’s clear to Keiver his only option is to place explosives on the door, blow it off and rush the place. It’s surprising this action took all inside by surprise, what with the TV cameras rolling. Be that as it may, the blast does take Wyckoff by surprise with allows the “barfly” the chance to grab Chuckles .38 from behind the bar and give Wyckoff and dose of his own medicine. As he stumbles outside the police finish off the job in a hail of bullets. Final score; copper’s one, Wyckoff five and peace once again returns to Terminal City.

Dial 1119 is pretty violent for the time as blood from gunshot wounds is actually seen, as opposed to the simple grab oneself and fall down routine we’re used to at the time. In addition, Wyckoff goes “Duryea” on the “barfly” by bitch slapping her and completely knocking her to the floor once she makes a play for him.

One other scene bears mentioning. As the crowd continues to grow around the Oasis in one more example of society’s unquenchable appetite for the sensational, is the arrival of an enterprising ice cream truck. This serves up a small bit of comic relief to the building tension and is a bit counter protective to the overall feel of the film. Then again, it may serve as a reminder of the callous nature of society similar to the carnival that sprung up in Ace in the Hole.

While noting the major players above, there are a number of bit parts filled with the usual and some usual suspects. Some of those along for the ride are; Dick Simmons (Lady in the Lake), Hal Baylor (99 River Street), Robert Foulk (Where the Sidewalk Ends). Some others, while packing noir credits, are better known for their work on the small screen; Frank Cady (Ozzie & Harriett), Kirby Grant (Sky King) and Barbara Billingsley (Leave It to Beaver).

The writing credits are split with Don McGuire, who spent a good deal of time in front of the camera in films like The Threat, Sideshow, and Armored Car Robbery sharing story credits with Hugh King.

Direction was handled by Gerald Mayer, whose sole noir credit is this film. Mr. Mayer, the Nephew of MGM Studios chief Louis B. spent the majority of his time behind the camera working on TV directing everything from “The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars’ to “Have Gun Will Travel” to “Lou Grant.”

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Written by Raven




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