11 October 2003 | bmacv
Conte stars in so-so thriller about journalistic ethics and a charity con
Richard Conte's 'journey down Twilight Avenue' (which presumably crosses Sunset Boulevard) begins with a couple of coincidences. (Or are they coincidences?) He's a human-interest columnist on a '7-cent newspaper' who's barely making ends meet. First an old chum (Bruce Bennett) from high-school days resurfaces after 10 years; he says he's inherited a million and now works as a charity fundraiser. Then Conte's told that, in repayment for an old favor, he'll receive anonymous tips from a source deep in the underworld. When he follows up his first lead, he finds a gambler just shot dead in front of his own home. But a story's a story, and Conte runs with it, incurring the displeasure of the police.
Meanwhile Bennett and his assistant? protegee? mistress? Constance Smith urge Conte to make use of their skills to benefit a cause dear to his heart.
And so the annual bazaar at a Catholic school rakes in oodles of dough despite the misgivings of skeptical nun Cathy Downs, who presses Conte on how much he really knows about Bennett and his organization questions that he shrugs off.
The next tip and consequent story (the slaying of a prominent gangster) land Conte a month in stir for refusing to reveal his source. But the notoriety gains his column a syndication deal. Now a household world, Conte emcees a late-night telethon organized by Bennett and Smith to raise big money for a new charity hospital. (We get to hear snatches of numbers by bandleaders Chuy Reyes and Spade Cooley.) It's a triumph, except that Bennett has already thrown Smith into the drink at his Malibu beach house (which looks curiously like an old motel) and framed Conte with some of the money skimmed off in a grift. Conte busts out of custody to seek redress....
There are promising elements the journalistic ethics, the phony charity racket in the story by Steve Fisher, either a writer of variable talents or a writer whose talents were variably served. (He wrote the novel on which both I Wake Up Screaming and Vicki were based, and the screenplays for several noirs, from the highs of Dead Reckoning, Lady in the Lake and Roadblock to the low of Las Vegas Shakedown before moving to television Peter Gunn and Cannon among many more.)
The Big Tip-Off is just so-so, compromised by limp direction, a frugal budget and merely passable performances by its two women (one of whom makes a recovery little short of a miracle). Its chief surprise is Bennett, a solid actor who endures the misfortune of being remembered mainly as Mr. Mildred Pierce.