Friday, October 12, 2007

Webb of suspicion

In Appointment with Danger (1951), diminutive movie tough guy Alan Ladd plays Al Goddard, a postal detective who’s investigating the murder of a colleague named Gruber—and in the course of his examination finds that the only witness to the crime is a saintly nun in the form of Sister Augustine, played by Phyllis Calvert.  Sister Augustine singles out a suspect from a mug book, but his “friends” manage to croak him before Goddard can get to him—necessitating that the postal cop pretend to be “on the take” and infiltrate the gang undercover to find out what their game is…namely a big payroll heist on a postal truck.

I know, it sounds pretty routine—and truth be told, it pretty much is.  But the soon-to-be-pushing-up-daisies hood is played by Harry Morgan (billed as Henry here, he later changed it so as not to be confused with the acerbic radio-TV comedian) and his buddy, who beats him to death with a pair of bronzed baby shoes, is none other than Jack Webb.  Watching the two of them before their celebrated stint on Dragnet in the 1960s is all the fun—in fact, this movie, directed by Lewis Allen (The Uninvited, Suddenly), has the stink of Dragnet all over it.  The screenplay was co-scripted by longtime Webb crony Richard L. Breen, and two of Dragnet’s “road company” players appear in it—Stacy Harris as the “inside” man at the post office and Herb Vigran as the cop in the scene when Sister Augustine peruses the mug books.

Before creating what would become his radio and television legacy, Jack Webb appeared in a number of feature films and to be honest, he wasn’t too bad an actor.  From small, unbilled roles in films like Hollow Triumph (a.k.a. The Scar) (1948) and Sword in the Desert (1949) he went on to do first-rate work as one of Marlon Brando’s fellow paraplegics in Elia Kazan’s The Men (1950) and as William Holden’s jovial buddy in Sunset Blvd. (1950).  Dragnet, unfortunately, completely changed his personality—transforming him into the stick-up-his-ass, crime-fighting automaton that we’ve all come to know and love.  (That’s why I was disappointed to learn that Webb turned down John Landis when he was offered the role of Dean Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House—he would have been sensational.)  In Danger, he plays vicious low-rent thug Joe Regas, whose job skills offer little outside of beating people up…but it’s interesting to note that he doesn’t trust Ladd’s character through the course of the movie, and he turns out to be right.  (The scene where he and Ladd play handball is worth the price of admission.)

Danger features character great Paul Stewart as the gang’s leader; an Orson Welles crony, Stewart had many memorable moments in silver-screen villainy—he’s the guy who menaces annoying little Bobby Driscoll in The Window (1949), and the sebaceous Carl Evello in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).  (Even when he was playing a half-way decent guy, like in Champion [1949], there was still something a bit seedy about him.)  TDOY fave Jan “Smoochie” Sterling plays Stewart’s main squeeze, and if you look fast, Kathleen Freeman has a bit part as a nun—long before she was rapping the knuckles of Jake and Elwood Blues with a ruler in The Blues Brothers (1980).

Danger was filmed in 1949, but wasn’t released until 1951—which allowed Morgan to appear on a couple of Webb’s Dragnet programs long before he filled in for Ben Alexander as Joe Friday’s new partner in the 1967-70 TV version of the seminal cop show.  (You can definitely hear Morgan’s distinctive tones on one September 17, 1949 broadcast, where he doubles up as both a hotel manager and bank teller.)   Someone at Paramount must have liked the teaming of the two men, because they ended up on the wrong side of the law again in Dark City (1950), a seldom-shown noir that served as Charlton Heston’s introduction to the big screen.  Still, they remain the best thing in Appointment with Danger—a well-worth-your-time film noir that I purchased from the good people at Five Minutes to Live.

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