This is a real original and just about everybody involved knows it. A documentary style police drama with real New York locations -- "Nothing was shot in a studio!" And it does capture New York City, circa 1947, entering a late florescent age. Many of the shots were "stolen," taken on real streets from a van with tinted windows, with only the principal actors knowing that a movie was being made.
White collar workers all wear suits and ties. There is a sidewalk salesman hawking neckties. An ice man with those over-sized calipers. A milkman driving a horse and wagon. A Kosher Deli. Little girls playing jump rope -- "Out goes the doctor, out goes the nurse, out goes the lady with the alligator purse." Kids on swings. People reading newspapers over someone else's shoulder while jolting along on the subway. A shootout on a tower of the Williamsberg Bridge. A blind man and his dog. Stillman's Gym with two professional wrestlers being coached in how to register pain. Two girls gawking at a wedding dress in a shop window and mooning over "Frankie." Ethnic people -- Italians, Irish, Jewish, Polish. Accents -- "A boxer-fighter maybe? What do I know?" "Eh, bene, bene -- encore." Scrubby walnut trees in brick-strewn vacant lots. Working class accents mostly, including that of the narrator, Mark Hellinger. Nobody is black or Puerto Rican. The taxi drivers speak English. No bums or dopers. It's all here, or rather it was all there.
Now, of course, it's all a little familiar because we've gotten used to location shooting and wince when shots are obviously studio made. But this was new at the time and is still enjoyable to watch.
The performances are adequate. Don Taylor is bland and doesn't have any accent but he's easy to identify with, at least for me, because he's so pleasant and handsome. Barry Fitzgerald has an oddly creased face and crudely shaped cranium. His smile is almost a mile wide, a caricature of itself, a lovable guy. Howard Duff is -- well, Howard Duff, a liar and a thief. Ted deCorsia is great. We first meet him working out in his shabby apartment, flexing and admiring himself in front of the mirror, his body pale and flabby, a shock of coarse black hair over his sweating forehead. And that voice, like a coffee grinder. And check out the list of supporting actors. Wow. Arthur O'Connell, Nehemia Persoff, James Gregory, inter alia.
The story itself isn't very much. Rather routine. Could have been a good radio drama of the sort that were popular at the time -- "Suspense" or "The Whistler" or "Inner Sanctum." And the narrator's voice-over sometimes creaks at the joints as it strains for hard-boiled sonority -- "Yesterday she was just another pretty face. This morning she's the marmalade on everybody's toast." (That line kills me.)
And, I have to admit, that it paints a kind of pretty picture of police procedures. Barry Fitzgerald in particular is folksy, humorous, and compassionate. I kept waiting for him to remove his pipe and mutter, "Ego te absolvo." The police offices look too CLEAN. There are no dents in the wall from suspects having their heads slammed against it. Every surface seems too recently to have been painted. Suspects who shout angrily at their police interrogators and are obviously lying are just politely reasoned with. It was a time of relative civility. The dective's job is to maintain that civility. Like a doctor, he isolated the criminal who functions as a kind of disease. The city wasn't yet the vicious game preserve it was to become in the 60s. At the end, isolated, the murdere is perched high atop the Williamburg Bridge and there are minuscule dots in white below him, playing tennnis, oblivious to the presence of the "other."
In a neat little touch, the cops are examining the scene of the crime and have found a few stray long hairs. From behind, Fitzgerald leans over the rather mopey middle-aged neighbor on the couch an compares the hair sample to hers. She looks around in surprise. "Er, don't mind me," says Fitzgerald, "I was only admiring your lovely hair." The neighbor clutches her hands together with delight and gazes up at him with an adoring dimpled smile. Fitzgerald pauses a moment, clears his throat, and hurries away.
Well, okay. This might have been "gritty" at the time but now it's just an interesting picture, a little glossy maybe, but a lot of fun, and ahead of its time with that location shooting by Daniels.
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