Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Destination Murder (1950)

Destination Murder is another in a long line of B thrillers in the RKO style, with a plot more complicated than The Big Sleep”
wrote Bob Profirio in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. That sums it up nicely. However, I will say despite no good reasons to rewatch this film I do - and on a regular basis.

Destination Murder was directed by Edward L. Cahn. Wheeler Winston Dixon had a nice piece on Cahn's career a few months back. That and Mr. Nighthawk talking about the classic RKO noir machine says all you need to know about the making of this film.

The plot: A young woman infiltrates the mob to find her father's killer.

Let me just say what I like about this “B”. First, Destination Murder has no real star. The four top-billed actors are quite fun to watch during their moments but there's no real standout. The second thing I enjoy is the focus of the movie (probably due to incompetence and no budget) keeps moving from character to character resulting in a wrap up by the police that doesn't make a lick of sense.

Joyce Mackenzie is top billed. She had a short career in Hollywood. Mackenzie appeared with James Stewart in the great Western Broken Arrow; and was a supporting actress in the Jane Russell 3D movie The French Line (See Jane Russell in 3-D - She'll Knock BOTH Your Eyes Out! was the tag line. Mackenzie had no problem filling a sweater either.) After Mackenzie's Hollywood acting career fizzled she retired and eventually became a High School English teacher. I wonder if her students knew she paraded around in a cigarette girl outfit in Destination Murder? (I confess that I thought the part of Laura Mansfield was actually Barbara Hale)
Not Barbara Hale. Joyce Mackenzie in Destination Murder

Stanley Clements - of all people - is billed number two. The short, fast-talking ferret-faced actor spent a career playing bellhops and two-bit con men. Here he's a messenger boy that doubles as a killer. The opening scenes showing him taking care of an execution during the movie intermission. It's the cleverest part of Destination Murder. He hand-feeds his girl - one of a number of knockouts somehow attracted to the little guy - popcorn after offing a rich man for the mob. It'd be a spoiler to say that part of the bellhop would have probably be played by one of RKOs leading men if it weren't for the fact that he dies half way through the film. But as it is, his role as the lover-boy messenger boy is good while it lasts. (Checking his IMDB page apparently he was married to film noir queen Gloria Grahame for a short time in the 40s. Looks like his player ways in Destination Murder wasn't too far off the mark!)

From then on it's mostly about Hurd Hatfield as Stretch Norton and Albert Dekker as Armitage. Armitage speaks about himself in the third person. And the name Armitage is said so often the film should never be used as a drinking game:

Dekker is probably best known for the freaky way he was found dead in real life. Film noir fans will recognize him in a familiar role as the the criminal with a taste for the fine things. See also Kiss Me Deadly and The Killers. He's not what he appears to be and a doppelg瓣nger device is deployed making Destination Murder's mystery impossible for the viewer to solve.

Armitage's “partner” in crime is played by Hurd (The Picture of Dorian Gray) Hatfield. Always the elegant menace, Hatfield drums up a relationship with Joyce Mackenzie that's harder to believe than her dating Stanley Clements' messenger boy/killer. At one point, apparently joking, foppish Hatfield screams at the manipulating bombshell Myrna Dell (The Locket, Nocturne), “Haven't you heard? I don't like women!” Even filmgoers in the early fifties probably snkickered at the line. Armitage and Stretch's relationship is only hinted at, and they --of course-- play everything straight.

Throw in a player piano that plays whenever anyone is tortured and you have all the ingredients for one of my favorite b-noirs. The guys a RiffTrax would probably appreciate the strange sets (Clement's apartment is gigantic), a stunt double for the lead cop that looks nothing like the actor he's doubling (James Flavin). That and the Armitage drinking game makes this film ripe for spoofing. As it is it's more than watchable. No flashy Impressionistic camera work, no sense of dread. A light noir with a light touch.

Cahn's Experiment Alcatraz is literary more fantastic and would make a fun double feature with Destination Murder if you're looking at the DVDs at the Warner Bros. Archive.

Written by Steve-O


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