Sunday, January 29, 2012

Special Agent K-7 (C. C. Burr Productions, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked last night was a recent download called Special Agent K-7, an intriguing 1936 indie from C. C. Burr Productions, directed by old Western hand Bernard B. Ray and a movie of such low repute that one reviewer posted a comment that Special Agent K-9 would have been a better title. (The joke is actually somewhat appropriate since Ray did direct several of the movies starring one of the later Rin Tin Tins.) It’s actually a much better movie than that jibe would indicate, though it’s also one of those 1930’s thrillers that takes an audacious plot premise and moves it along at such a stately pace that despite a relatively short running time ( lists 71 minutes and the print we watched was 64) it gets surprisingly dull. It’s yet another movie from the classic era that would have been vastly improved if it had been made at Warner Bros., with James Cagney as star and one of their speed-demon directors, but as it stands it’s still an engaging if somewhat slow-moving thriller. FBI agent “Lanny” Landers (Walter McGrail), code-numbered K-7, wants to retire but is told by his superior, John Adams (Richard Tucker), that now that he’s traveled around the world busting crime syndicates, his services are needed at home to attack organized crime in the U.S. He’s particularly needed to bring down crooked nightclub/casino owner Eddie Geller (Willy Castello), who as the film opens is on trial for murder but isn’t convicted because the jury is hopelessly deadlocked.

The reason the jury is hopelessly deadlocked is because Geller’s attorney, Lester Owens (Irving Pichel), has bribed two of its members to hold out for acquittal no matter what. District attorney Ames (George Eldredge) announces his intention to hold Geller for a retrial, and the judge in the case — who’s already read the jury members new assholes, stating from the bench that there was ample evidence to convict and he’s ashamed of them (a gimmick used in several movies of this period even though today it seems awfully far out of line for a judge to say that from the bench!) — says that Geller will remain in custody until then. Owens promises to have him out on bail and indeed wins his release. The trial is being covered by woman reporter Ollie O’Dea (Queenie Smith), whom Landers used to date but who is now engaged to Billy Westrop (Donald Reed), a rich man’s son who ran up $2,000 in gambling debts at Geller’s casino and whose promissory note has been altered to read $5,000. The principals meet at the casino — Landers wants a chance to get to know the man who’s engaged to marry his ex — and Westrop is summoned to Geller’s office, shown the (altered) note and told to come up with the $5,000 immediately … or else. Westrop and Geller get into an argument, the door of the office closes, a shot is heard, Tony Blank (Duncan Renaldo) is seen in the corridor, and when the door opens again Landers finds Geller dead, killed with a gunshot. Westrop is immediately suspect number one, but he insists that he and Geller merely struggled over the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for keeping him in business!), it went off and he left Geller still alive.

Landers figures out that if Geller and Westrop had actually been struggling the way Westrop said they were, the shot would have gone wild and the bullet would have gone into the office wall — and, sure enough, he finds a bullet hole in the wall at precisely the trajectory he predicted. Only that doesn’t let Westrop off the hook because, even though only one gunshot was heard, the slug recovered from the wall and the one in Geller’s body were fired from the same gun. (Ballistics tests were a relative novelty in 1936 — as was the scientific investigation of crime scenes in general — and the FBI were widely credited as pioneers in forensic science.) Tony offers to meet Landers and turn state’s evidence, but (in a quite creative scene that stands out in an otherwise pretty plainly photographed and staged film) Landers sees a commotion on the street below from his apartment window and realizes that Tony has been shot dead just in front of his building — and it turns out the killer used the same gun as the one that killed Geller. Suspicion falls on Westrop again — Ollie arranges for Lester Owens to represent him but Owens is clearly throwing the case — and when Westrop is proven not to be the killer Owens tries to frame another character, small-time gangster “Silky” Samuels (Malcolm McGregor), but not surprisingly it turns out that Owens himself committed both murders, that he was the secret “Mr. Big” bankrolling Geller and all of organized crime in the city, and at the end Landers arrests Owens and says a bittersweet farewell to Ollie (with whom he’s still in love) and her new husband Westrop.

According to a long note from an reviewer, Special Agent K-7 was based on a hit radio show and was intended as the first in a series — though only this one was made; producer C. C. Burr promised exhibitors not only a whole series of K-7 movies but also musical Westerns starring George Eldredge, none of which materialized. As it stands, it’s a good though not great movie: the script by Phil Dunham and Lester Spillet is a serviceable assemblage of thriller clichés with just enough fresh spins that we don’t get the feeling (as one sometimes does with 1930’s “B”’s) that we’ve seen this movie before even if we haven’t. Ray’s direction is serviceable — there are a few shots that anticipate film noir but mostly the framing and lighting are straightforward and plain — and so is the acting, with Irving Pichel taking the honors as the villain and a quite appealing performance by Joy Hodges as Peppy, Tony’s girlfriend and a singer at Geller’s casino (she does a song called “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” and is shot playing a piano — whether it’s her on the soundtrack, either vocally or instrumentally, the number is appealing and it looks like Hodges actually knew how to play). Walter McGrail is a bit too much like Walter Huston for comfort — their voices are almost indistinguishable and one gets the impression McGrail would have been the sort of actor sent out in the road companies of Huston’s big Broadway hits — and he seems oddly avuncular for an action hero, but like most of the rest of this film, his performance “works” even though it seems quite a bit less inspired than it could have been.