Monday, September 19, 2011

Murder Is My Beat (1955)

Edgar G. Ulmer, the very mention of the name congers up of the dark images of his first U.S hit, The Black Cat and the suffocating femme fatale Vera from his noir tour de force on a shoestring, Detour. Via personal rather than professional pitfalls, involving his affair with the wife of the nephew of Carl Leammle, Ulmer never reached the heights of his German/Austrian counterparts and former co-workers; Fred Zinneman, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, and Fritz Lang, While resigned to work for the bulk of his Hollywood career for his personal transgressions within those studios collectively known as “poverty row,” Ulmer nevertheless carved out a niche for himself and remains in many noir camps revered for his mixed bag of films within the genre.

Occupying the grimy bottom of that bag is his final foray into noir Murder Is My Beat released by RPC in 1955. The stars are one time “party girl” Barbara Payton, the serviceable Paul Langton and the reliable Robert Shayne in a tale of murder, double blackmail, suicide, a cop gone bad and love conquering all.

While the debate still rages as to exactly what constitutes that thing called noir, the two most vocal camps are “it’s the story” and “its how the story is told.” Some overly zealous campers from the “how it’s told” camp have openly questioned the noiriness of Murder Is My Beat stating there’s nary an off-kilter, close-up, starkly contrasted frame in the whole of its abbreviated 77 minutes of running time. To them I say; you’re right!

On the other hand, those pitching their tents in the “it’s the story” camp will shout it’s got murder, in fact it’s got a couple murders; it’s got a double-crossing dame, it’s got blackmail, it’s got an urban setting (well sometimes), a cheating husband and a hard-boiled cop that goes soft. Plenty of elements to give it some noir cachet and if all that weren’t enough, it’s got Barbara Payton, the original walking, talking full sized noir windup doll in her last role.

The oft told story of debauchery and sin that came to signify the life of Ms. Payton is well known so I’ll not spend time to rehash it. That noted, it bears mentioning her physical condition in the film; the plainly visible paunch accentuated by the tight sweaters she wears, the beginning of a double chin and her almost moon-round face are tell tail signs of the grip alcohol had on her. Plainly her days as one of Hollywood’s favorite playthings with the likes of Bob Hope, John Ireland, Howard Hughes and even the equally reprehensible Tom Neal are long behind her. Also quickly fading into the distance were films with her playing opposite the likes of James Cagney, Gregory Peck, and Gary Cooper. Her most recent work was alongside the aforementioned Tom Neal and another of Hollywood’s “Bad Boys” the redoubtable Sonny Tufts. One could view her career as akin to pulling on a pair of shorts whose elastic has been stretched one too many times; up fast and down just as fast.

Had Ulmer been working within the ranks of a well-heeled studio, Murder Is My Beat may have amounted to something other than the strictly B production it is. Say you put Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum and William Bendix along with some location shooting and a half million dollar budget and you’d have something. Instead we get the three “stars” mentioned above, a couple of stock shots of the L.A. City Hall and Union Station along with a bunch of rear projection shots and some cardboard sets. Not too much to offer here in the way of filming with the one exception being the story itself.

Fortunately, we do have a decent story which begins with police Captain Bert Rawley (Shayne, who seems to be playing his long running Inspector Henderson role from TV’s Superman) catching up with wayward Homicide cop Ray Patrick (Langton). Rawley’s tracked down Ray and Eden Lane (Payton) who are holed up in a flea bag motel, or Ray as notes upon their arrival “We registered in the collection of dog kennels”. Busting into their room, Rawley finds Eden has taken a powder and left Ray holding the proverbial bag.


By virtue of their long working relationship somehow Ray is able to talk Rawley into giving him 24 hours to try and locate Eden and prove her innocence of the murder she’s recently been convicted of and sentenced for. Rawley grudgingly agrees but only as long as he and Ray work together to round up the recently disappeared Eden.

At this juncture the time honored noir flashback sequence begins with Ray called in to investigate the bludgeoning murder of Frank Deane. Deane was found by his neighbor with his face and fingerprints burned beyond recognition. As fate would have it, having being belted with a ceramic figurine, Deane landed face and hands first into his fireplace which resulted in them both being disfigured to the point that positive identification is impossible. Some quick questioning of the neighbor by Ray turns up the name of Eden, as the neighbor points out “…sounds like original sin” who works as a carney at a downtown bar.

Once at the bar Ray tries to shake down the bartender, the always entertaining Jay Alder, but comes away with a bunch of nothing except that Eden rooms with the gal who snaps photos in the joint the shapely Patsy Flint (Tracy Roberts). Trying to get information out of Pasty ends up more of the same “know nothing” answers as he got from the bartender so he drags her back to her room where he turns up a clue that Eden’s hightailed it north on a Greyhound bus.

Using all his cop savvy, Ray tracks Eden down to a remote and snow bound cabin owned by Deane. With the snow piling up the two have no alternative other than to ride out the storm in the company of one another. While the stay is purely plutonic, Ray begins to doubt the guilt of Eden once he begins to view her as a woman rather than merely another suspect. The fact that she freely admits hitting Deane and is willing to face the charges, which she believes are minor completely unaware her blow to the head, could have resulted in anything like murder.

Once Eden’s convicted and sentenced, the still doubting Ray volunteers to ride along on the train with the police matron taking Eden to prison. During their ride north the sole excellent filmed sequence plays out. Ray’s torment and doubt is contrasted against shots of the speeding locomotive. Over the course of the minute or so, Ray’s wracked with questions of Eden’s guilt played against his growing non-platonic interest in her. The clackity-clack, clackity-clack, clackity-clack of the big engine’s wheels working in perfect concert with his churning mind brings on one real moment of tension to an otherwise drab film.

While on the train a string of convenient coincidences pop up. The first occurs when Eden spies what appears to be Frank Deane standing on a station platform as the train slowly passes by. This triggers Ray to put his job as a cop aside and act on his desire to aid Eden. Next, the train slows to 10 miles an hour allowing Ray and Eden of jump off at a point that just happens to be the home town of Patsy Flint. Later while driving around the town Ray spots Patsy walking down the street and for no apparent reason Ray visits a plant that makes ceramic figurines and sees the very same one used as the murder weapon. It’s a darn good thing all these “coincidences” occur as in one voice over Ray laments the fact that one man trying to solve a case is impossible for such a job requires the vast resources of the police department. As he earlier notes “Every Day I put behind us drawing nothing but blanks was a day put in the ash can and hauled to the city dump.” Shear poetry.

About this time is when Rawley shows up on the scene and we’re snapped back to the present. Now for all intents Ray’s doubled his police resources. Soon he and Rawley are on the trail of the shapely Ms. Flint and with a bit of illegal police work, such as unlawful entry into her hotel room and lack of a search warrant, Ray discovers a false bottom, in the suitcase that is, that’s full of dough. As the saying goes, “here’s where the plot thickens”. Without giving away the entire mystery, in short order, we soon find; the dead body of the blackmailing dame, the exposure of the double life of a prominent citizen and his scorned wife’s involvement in a combination blackmail/murder/suicide. All of which of course clears Eden of any wrong doing other than putting a small lump on the head of Deane. As far as her cutting out on Ray at the motel, she’d gone to turn herself in to the warden at the prison so everything’s Jake in her corner.

In the final analysis, Ulmer gets a pass for committing the final crime in the film and its one fatal flaw. One in which perhaps even those of the “it’s the story” camp will take umbrage with. Mainly that of giving us the corny happy ending as Ray and Eden head for the marriage license bureau with Captain Rawley in tow as the best man. Maybe it was the limited resources Ulmer had to work with. Maybe it was the knowledge his European cronies had to make it big while he languished and he was simply trying to put a happy spin on a bitter little world. Whatever the reason, I’d have preferred something with Ray just having the knowledge Eden was in the clear and let it go at that. Then again I don’t get the big bucks to direct Hollywood feature films. Then come to think of it, neither did Ulmer.

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Written by Raven

5 comments:

  1. I was hired to do a modeling gig recreating the character of The Ghost of Christmas Future into a Femme Fatale Film Noir look. Hope you enjoy!

    http://heidihastings.wordpress.com/2010/12/11/so-you-wanna-look-like-the-ghost-of-christmas-future/

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  2. Haven't seen this one, but anything by Ulmer is worth seeing (and Barbara Payton's presence always adds a frisson of the illicit to anything she's in) - thanks for your post.

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  3. I am hoping someone can help me identify a movie. Think it must be from the 40's - Basic idea is a man is diagnosed with a fatal disease, so he puts out a hit on himself. He then finds out it was a wrong diagnosis and needs to call off the hit. . ..

    Thanks,
    Lindee

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You may be thinking of The Whistler, The Pretender or even The Glass Alibi

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    2. Back Alley guys also mention Zig Zag (1969), or Paid to Kill (1954)

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