2 February 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
...but not daring enough
'The Man Who Dared' is an awkward film. It is presented as a work of fiction, but the plot line is clearly inspired by the true story of Anton Cermak, the son of East European immigrants who overcame his impoverished childhood to become mayor of Chicago despite rampant municipal corruption and voter fraud. In 1933, Cermak (a Democrat) was standing beside Franklin Roosevelt's car, outside their party's national convention in Miami. A man jumped out of the crowd, aimed a revolver at FDR, and then fired ... killing Cermak. The gunman was arrested and identified as Giuseppe Zangara, who claimed to be an anarchist. He was brought to trial, convicted, and executed.
The 'official' version of this story is that Zangara was a genuine anarchist who meant to assassinate Presidential candidate Roosevelt but accidentally shot Cermak instead. However, Cermak had been active in breaking up the lucrative Cosa Nostra rackets in Chicago (bootlegging, illegal gambling rings, etc), and Cermak had cost the Mob a lot of money. Credible evidence indicates that Zangara was a small-time Mafiosa who intentionally carried out a 'hit' on Cermak, carefully staging it to look like a failed attempt to kill FDR so as to avoid government reprisals against the Mob for Cermak's murder.
The whole Cermak/Zangara affair was retold in 1960 on the 'Untouchables' TV series, as a two-part episode called 'The Gun of Zangara', which I recommend for its comparatively accurate depiction of the case.
'The Man Who Dared' was rushed into production immediately after Zangara's arrest, and the haste shows ... abetted by the very low production budget. This movie follows the Cermak case closely, except that the names are changed: the Cermak character (played earnestly but blandly by Preston Foster) is renamed Jan Novak. Given the name changes, it's surprising that this story of urban corruption is explicitly set in Chicago, rather than in some anonymous 'big city'.
The best performance in the film is given by Zita Johann, whose real-life Hungarian accent is here (perhaps for the only time in her Hollywood career) an asset rather than a debility. In this film (as Novak's wife) and elsewhere, Zita Johann had a remarkable ability to convey that she was genuinely in love with her male co-star. Leon Ames is good in the early scenes as Novak's father.
An interesting visual device runs sporadically through this movie. Early on, we see a billboard which reads 'Welcome to Chicago', but the billboard is so caked with mud that it is nearly illegible. When Cermak/Novak is first elected mayor, we see a municipal employee scrubbing the billboard so that it is slightly cleaner. Later, as the new mayor institutes his civic reforms and his crime-busting activity, we see a worker hosing down the billboard until at last it is finally clean.
SLIGHT SPOILERS. Movie audiences in 1933, recognising this film's parallels to Cermak's life and death, must have realised that the entire film is building up to Cermak's murder and the assassination attempt on Roosevelt. Sadly, this climactic event is tossed away almost as an afterthought. Throughout the second half of the film, we hear ominous dialogue to the effect that Novak/Cermak has 'enemies'. In the last few minutes of the film, we see him attending a political rally. (This movie's small budget doesn't allow for a full-fledged convention.) We see Novak smiling and walking towards the camera, about to shake hands with a political bigwig (presumably FDR) who is located just offscreen. Suddenly the camera cuts to a tight close-up of a man's hand clutching a revolver as it fires two bullets. We do not see Novak fall ... instead, the camera cuts to the last shot in the film: the Chicago billboard one more time, once again splattered with mud. The message here is that nothing has changed, and that the real-life Anton Cermak accomplished nothing more than a brief respite in the war against organised crime, which went back to business as usual immediately after his death.
Sadly, 'The Man Who Dared' tells us absolutely nothing about the murder of either the real-life Anton Cermak nor the fictional Jan Novak. We never see the man who killed him, apart from that close-up of his hand. We never learn the gunman's motives: was he aiming for Novak, or did he kill Novak by mistake while aiming for the Presidential candidate? None of this is addressed in any way. For a film about a man who dared to take on the rackets and a corrupt political system, this movie is disturbingly gutless. The script is by Hollywood stalwarts Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, both of whom have done much better work in other films.
I'll rate 'The Man Who Dared' 4 out of 10, as an interesting example of high-speed low-budget Hollywood film-making, and for Zita Johann's fine performance in a too-brief role.