by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film I picked out was The Payoff (one word, no hyphen), made by Warners in 1935 (though the ending credit read “A First National Picture”) that TCM showed as part of a recent tribute to James Dunn, who seemed to alternate as a “type” between wisecracking and whining. In this one he plays Joe McCoy, a junior sports reporter for a New York newspaper, whose wife Maxine (Claire Dodd) is whining about how little money he makes and how few opportunities she has to get out — either with or without him — and have fun. When the paper’s star sports columnist, George Gorman (Frank Sheridan), gets sick and has to miss the opening game of the World Series. McCoy fills in for him and, bored by the game itself, turns his binoculars on the audience and spots Marty Bleuler (the marvelous villain-type Alan Dinehart), a gambler who was banned from all major league baseball games for life after having participated in the (genuine) 1919 World Series fix, but who’s somehow sneaked back in.
McCoy makes that the first item in what’s essentially a gossip column about sports, and shortly thereafter Gorman decides he’s too ill to continue working and recommends to his editor, Harvey Morris (Joseph Crehan), that McCoy take his place full-time. McCoy’s pay gets doubled from $75 to $150 per week and he establishes a reputation for incorruptibility despite repeated attempts by Bleuler to get him to take bribes — as well as a beating in a subway station by three of Bleuler’s goons after McCoy rejects Bleuler’s bribe offers once too often. Meanwhile, his wife is spending his increased income faster than he can earn it, and when he gets sent by the paper to California to cover the Rose Bowl (which turns out, defying the promised California sunshine, to take place in driving rain) and the spring training camps of the major baseball teams, Maxine, who’s agreed to accompany him, bails within a day or two and heads back to New York.
The next thing we see, she’s blowing all her husband’s money and racking up I.O.U.’s in Bleuler’s casino, and cheating on Joe to boot — first with an anonymous “roo” (we know because he’s got one of those pencil-thin moustaches that for some reason was acceptable on Ronald Colman but marked any other male who wore one as a flea-bitten Lothario and bad news for any girl unlucky enough to get involved with him) and then with Bleuler himself. When Joe returns from his trip, Bleuler presents him with $5,400 in his wife’s I.O.U.’s and says now he has to accept bribes and write what Bleuler tells him to write to pay off the gambling debts. Too stuck on his wife (even now!) to do the obvious thing — report the whole affair to the police — Bleuler agrees, and to assuage his own guilt feelings he starts drinking heavily and missing deadlines, and eventually Harvey fires him and he hits the skids, ultimately ending up in Bellevue (his wife reports him to get rid of him and announces she’s filing for divorce) and then sleeping on park benches, until his old friend Connie (Patricia Ellis), still employed by the paper, finds him.
Jimmy Moore (Frankie Darro), a newsboy Joe once befriended, has become a jockey and reports to Connie that Bleuler has offered him a bribe to throw a big race — and Connie seeks out Joe, sobers him up and the three of them work out a plot to entrap Bleuler: Jimmy will take Bleuler’s money but double-cross him and win anyway — despite the efforts of two of Bleuler’s jockeys to box him in during the race so he can’t get by even though he has the fastest horse — only Bleuler and his new girlfriend (he’s dumped Maxine for a blonde) show up at the race and one of Bleuler’s gang shoots Jimmy during the final turn once it becomes apparent they’re not going to beat him either by bribery or on-track tactics, and while it’s just a shoulder wound and it’s indicated he will recover, Jimmy barely makes it across the finish line on his horse’s back before falling off from the wound. The police, tipped off by Joe and Connie, arrest Bleuler and his gang members, Joe is rehired at the paper, and later we’re told — not shown! — that when Bleuler was taken to the courthouse for arraignment, Maxine showed up with a gun, murdered him and then committed suicide. (This seemed like an overwrought way to get rid of her character and pave the way for Joe to marry Connie; I thought it would end with her divorcing him, then getting rejected by Bleuler, and thereby ending up with nobody — which one would think would be enough of a punishment for her even under the Production Code, which generally frowned on suicides but might have O.K.’d this one because it wasn’t actually shown.)
The Payoff has a certain similarity to The Finger Points, another Warners film in “First National” drag about a corrupt reporter (Richard Barthelmess) under the thumb of a gang boss (Clark Gable, on loan from MGM), made four years earlier and altogether a much tougher, more incisive drama — in that one it’s the reporter himself who decides he wants the crooked money, rather than his wife corrupting him — and while the script for The Payoff was co-written (with George Bricker) by a real reporter, Joel Sayre (he worked for the New York Herald-Tribune and wrote a New Yorker article on a potential suicide that became the basis for Fourteen Hours, Grace Kelly’s first feature film, in 1951), and the film was directed by Robert Florey, it’s pretty much just chips off the Warners’ cliché log.
It suffers from a weak cast — the parts of Joe and Maxine cry out for James Cagney and Bette Davis, and get James Dunn and Claire Dodd — and also from Florey’s clear disinterest in this sort of story: only in the scenes of Joe McCoy’s descent and dissipation do Florey and cinematographer Arthur Todd get to do the rich, chiaroscuro, proto-noir compositions, oblique angles and stylized backgrounds Florey liked so much and used so effectively in his great movies. The Payoff is an exciting movie, it holds one’s interest for its blessedly short 64-minute running time (about as much as its slender story can sustain), and yet James Dunn is annoyingly whiny through much of it and the writers never make it believable that he’d be so stuck on his wife he’d be willing to give up everything, including his integrity, for her.