Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Homicide (Warner Bros., 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1949 Homicide is a decent but cripplingly routine thriller, starting with an assemblage of stock footage (all too reminiscent of the opening of Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?) that establishes the locale of the greater Los Angeles area and establishes the concept of homicide as equivalent to murder (which it isn’t: “homicide” as a legal term involves any killing of one human by another, including first- and second-degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter — one wonders why the feminists haven’t demanded that be changed to “personslaughter” — as well as self-defense and other forms of justifiable homicide) and continuing with a narrator catching up with a drifter on the road in the farm country near “Glorietta Springs” (read: Palm Springs). The man, Brad Clifton (Warren Douglas), has a U.S. Navy serial number tattooed on his forearm and is clearly down on his luck; he’s looking for the Webb Ranch because he has reason to believe they’ll be hiring farm workers — only when he gets there he sees two men, Nick Foster (Richard Benedict) and Pete Kimmel (John Harmon), bending over the corpse of Mr. Webb, whom they’ve obviously just killed. Through a combination of bribery (one of the killers stuffs $500 into Brad’s shirt pocket) and intimidation, they persuade Brad to lie at the coroner’s inquest so that Webb will be found to have died of a fall from his tractor onto a rock while drunk — and then, just to make sure, a third member of their gang, Andy (Robert Alda — “Oh, my God, it’s George Gershwin!” I couldn’t help but joke when he appeared), picks Brad up as he’s hitchhiking away from Glorietta Springs, rents a room for him at an L. A. rooming house and hangs him in it, staging the killing to make it look like suicide. Lt. Michael Landers of the LAPD (Robert Douglas, top-billed — the script by William Sackheim explains away his slight but noticeable British accent by establishing him as a native Canadian whose family brought him to the U.S. when he was 11) is immediately suspicious for a variety of reasons, not only the absence of a suicide note but also the sloppy way the noose was tied; he reasons a sailor committing suicide would know how to tie a proper noose that would break his neck and kill him immediately rather than a bad one that would slowly strangle him.

Thanks to a matchbook for the ritzy Glorietta Springs Hotel Lt. Landers found on Brad’s body, Landers traces him back to Glorietta Springs; and when his hard-ass boss, Detective Lieutenant Boylan (James Flavin), refuses him permission to go there on official duty, Landers demands he be given a vacation so he can go there himself and pose as a private insurance investigator to try to solve the crime. While there he meets Andy, who (it turns out) works as the bartender at the Glorietta Springs Hotel and is a diabetic who takes insulin (at first, when Landers discovers his needle, syringe and ampule, conditioned by more recent movies we assume it’s a cover for something else — though at this time the Production Code still forbade even the mention of drug addiction and in this case the “insulin” is really insulin). He also runs into two former stars of the silent era, Monte Blue (as the local sheriff) and Creighton Hale (as the desk clerk of the Glorietta Springs Hotel) and ends up falling in love with the hotel’s cigarette girl, Jo Anne Rice (Helen Westcott, a decent if unspectacular looker and a competent but uninspired actress). His investigation leads to a climactic fight in the middle of the desert between himself and Andy — it’s faintly reminiscent of the fight scenes in Greed and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre but it’s vitiated by the fact that it’s obviously a studio interior with a painted backdrop representing the desert sky, though the fight scene itself is well-staged and about the only thing of note in Felix Jacoves’s otherwise surprisingly dull direction. The biggest surprise about Homicide (aside from the Code-bending finish in which Nick Foster and Pete Kimmel are still at large at the fade-out — their identities as the killers are known and presumably they’re going to be apprehended, but they haven’t been when we see Robert Douglas and Helen Westcott in their final clinch) is that these sorts of workmanlike but nondescript crime films were still being made in 1949, well into the noir era and at a time when even some pretty otherwise undistinguished “B”’s were being elevated in quality by the use of noir’s visual stylistics.

Not that Homicide, most of which takes place outdoors in full daylight, would have been an easy script to noir up (though James Kern’s The Second Woman and E. A. Dupont’s The Scarf both managed quite effective noir despite the similar handicap of mostly outdoor daylight locations), but Sackheim could have dropped a few hints of Jo Anne’s possible involvement in the crime plot (which was essentially a telephone wire running from the Webb house to L.A. to give a bookie joint real-time information on the outcome of horse races; supposedly Webb was killed when he accidentally discovered the wire during routine plowing) and thereby created a love vs. duty conflict for Robert Douglas’s character, who as the film stands is the annoyingly infallible cop who pisses off all his colleagues for being right about a crime they were all wrong about. About the only thing Homicide has going for it is two quite good performances from the male leads: though hemmed in by the script, Robert Douglas does a good job projecting the policeman’s implacable dedication to seeing justice done; and Alda, though he probably lamented the direction of his career — getting stuck with third billing in a “B” thriller just four years after starring as George Gershwin in the Rhapsody in Blue biopic (the last big-budget musical ever made in black-and-white), and like Patricia Morison he escaped Hollywood the next year for a major stage comeback in a hit Broadway musical (as Sky Masterson in the original production of Guys and Dolls) — is properly slimy and oily as the villain and a much more interesting screen presence than his often stuffily self-righteous son Alan. (Offhand Alan Alda and Melanie Griffith, Tippi Hedren’s daughter, are the only children of stars I can think of who became bigger stars than their parents.) Clive Hirschhorn’s entry on Homicide in The Warner Bros. Story calls Sackheim’s screenplay “above average,” though I didn’t find it so, and it’s interesting to note all the “plugs” inserted for other Warners’ films; the musical score (credited to William Lava but apparently also including a lot of stock tracks left over from Max Steiner’s work for the studio) contains a lot of quotes, not only from standards by the likes of Gershwin and Porter (both of whom had been the subjects of big Warners biopics in the mid-1940’s) but also “It’s Magic” and “It’s You or No One,” two of Doris Day’s main songs in her film debut, Romance on the High Seas, released the year before; and when Helen Westcott’s character is introduced she’s shown behind her cigarette counter in the hotel lobby reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a major Warners’ release in 1949. — 3/26/05


The film was Homicide, a 1949 “B” thriller from Warner Bros. whose description on the Turner Classic Movies catalog — “Killers scare a murder witness into silence” — made me think it was going to be a film noir with a dark urban setting. Surprise! It was actually a movie we’d already seen, and it began with a pseudo-documentary opening sequence with a narrator giving us homicide statistics over whatever sorts of murderous mayhem Warner Bros. could dig up from their ample supply of stock footage. Then a dramatic design of sorts emerged: Brad Clifton (Warren Douglas), a Navy vet who’s fallen on hard times since he was mustered out of the service in 1946, is hitchhiking through California’s farmlands looking for work. He visits the Webb Ranch, where Mrs. Webb (Sarah Padden) tells him she’ll have to visit her husband (“in the lemon groves … just behind the orange groves”) since he does all the hiring, only when Brad finally gets to the lemon groves and sees Mr. Webb, Mr. Webb is dead and the two people who killed him, Nick Foster (Richard Benedict) and Pete Kimmel (John Harmon), are standing over the body and an upturned tractor. Rather than knock off Brad right away, they intimidate him into testifying at the coroner’s inquest that he witnessed a drunken Webb lose control of his tractor and fall from it to his death. The coroner’s jury accordingly returns a verdict of accidental death, but just to make sure their patsy doesn’t change his mind and report the truth to somebody in law enforcement, they follow Brad to the city of Los Angeles, find him in a cheap hotel and hang him in his room, faking the scene to look like he committed suicide. Only LAPD homicide detective lieutenant Michael Landers (Robert Douglas, billed as a Canadian immigrant to explain his mild but unmistakable British accent) is convinced it’s murder. His superior, Lt. Boylan (James Flavin), jokes to him, “You’re not Sherlock Holmes, you’re just an ordinary detective” — but in fact he is Sherlock Holmes, deducing that Brad was murdered because instead of the neatly tied noose any sailor would have made if he’d decided to off himself, the noose was sloppily tied and reflected a lack of the basic knowledge of knots any sailor committing suicide would have brought to the task. Landers discovers a small saccharin tablet and a matchbook from the Glorietta Springs resort, and from that deduces that Brad was killed by a diabetic who lives at the resort. Boylan is willing to let Landers keep working the case but, because Glorietta Springs is way outside the LAPD’s jurisdiction, Landers is told he’ll have to work with the “county police department” there (a goof: in California, county law enforcement agencies are called sheriff’s departments, not police departments).

Not wanting to get caught up in inter-jurisdictional red tape, Landers asks Boylan for his accrued vacation time so he can go to Glorietta Springs and investigate as a private citizen, posing as an insurance investigator supposedly hunting down Brad Clifton to pay him $5,000 on a policy. He visits the Glorietta Springs resort and is immediately attracted to the counterperson, Jo Ann Rice (Helen Westcott), whom we first see at the desk reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead — a book choice that makes it hard for us to believe her later statement, “I don’t believe in heroes. I’m a realist.” Still, she’s not only attracted to our hero — and he to her (they get a lot of breaking-down-the-ice byplay from writer William Sackheim on the order of the “ … or maybe just whistle” lines from To Have and Have Not) — she’s genuinely helpful and level-headed. The other person from the hotel staff Landers meets is Andy (Robert Alda, best known for the 1945 Gershwin biopic, Rhapsody in Blue; the original 1950 cast of the musical Guys and Dolls; and siring a far more famous son, Alan Alda), who turns out to be Brad’s killer: he has an insulin kit in a drawer behind the bar (indicating that he’s diabetic and needs to inject himself) and he’s in league with Foster and Kimmel. But Landers doesn’t really find out the motive behind the murder until he visits the scene of the crime (where, inexplicably, the tractor is still there, exactly where it was left when Foster and Kimmel killed Webb just before Brad discovered them) and finds a piece of a special telephone wire used only during World War II and discontinued immediately afterwards. He learns from the local telephone company that they didn’t install a private wire using that sort of cable, and is loaned an induction coil (an electrical apparatus the size of an attaché case) to trace what’s left of the cable and where it was strung from and to. Alas, the baddies trace him there and shoot him, leaving him to die as a sudden thunderstorm drenches the area with rain — which, ironically, makes Landers come to in time. Eventually he and Andy confront each other in the desert and there’s an oddly Greed-like sequence in which the two fight, with the upper hand changing between them, until Landers finally wins and apprehends all three bad guys, then says an oddly unsentimental goodbye to Jo Ann that hints they’re going to try to sustain a relationship even though neither is going to move to the other’s city.

Directed by a no-name named Felix Jacoves (that’s how it’s spelled on his credit!), Homicide is a workmanlike thriller and a whydunit rather than a whodunit; it also hints at the later CSI shows, though in this instance the entire LAPD forensics department seems to be one rather harried old guy (John Elliott) in something that looks like a high-school science lab. Charles was also amused that a uniformed cop at Brad Clifton’s murder scene was played by Fred Kelsey, the “old ham actor” who posed as a cop in Gold Diggers of 1933, and I liked seeing Esther Howard, drunken hag Jessie Florian from the 1944 film noir classic Murder, My Sweet, considerably more sober but just as embittered as the landlady of the hotel where Brad got hanged. Homicide is not a great movie but it is a neatly entertaining one, and I’m surprised from the search that the title hasn’t been used more often: Homicide is listed as an alternate title for William Castle’s 1961 film Homicidal (the one whose writer, Robb White, said in a Filmfax interview that for the first time in their long collaboration, Castle started dictating specific scenes to him instead of just approving the overall story and letting him write it on his own; later he saw Hitchcock’s Psycho and realized all the scenes Castle had told him to put into Homicidal were scenes Castle was stealing from Psycho); there’s a 1991 Homicide, a 2000 TV-movie called Homicide: The Movie and the 1993 TV series Homicide; Life on the Street, as well as a 2007 TV series called City Homicide and other series called Robbery Homicide Division (a later reorganization of the LAPD jammed robberies and homicides into the same division, probably because they so often occur together), Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda and Southern Fried Homicide. That last one is listed as from 2013 and has supposedly been scheduled for 10 episodes, though so far only one has already aired; the synopsis says, “Against a backdrop of Southern hospitality, etiquette, and Christian values, evil creeps in like vines on a time-worn plantation. ‘Southern Fried Homicide’ proves that ugliness lurks behind beauty when cracks in good ol’ moral values give way to cold-blooded murder. Actress Shanna Forrestall, a native of Louisiana, serves as the gatekeeper to these salacious stories from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.” In the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!” — 6/12/13