US / 86 minutes / bw / UA Dir: Arnold Laven Pr: Edward Small, Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy Scr: The Gordons, Bernard C. Schoenfeld Story: Case File: FBI (1953) by The Gordons Cine: Joseph Biroc Cast: Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman, Martha Hyer, Marisa Pavan, Casey Adams (i.e., Max Showalter), Kenneth Tobey, Gene Reynolds, William Johnstone, Harlan Warde, Jay Adler, Claude Akins, Suzanne Alexander, Myra Marsh, Joe Bassett, Alexander Campbell, William Schallert, Charles Tannen, William Woodson, Dede Gainor.
Presented in the same docudrama style as The NAKED CITY (1948) and its many imitators, complete with the hard-voiced narration (Woodson) and the implication that the story we’re being told is true history, not invention, this is the first movie to feature FBI Agent John “Rip” Ripley, the hero of several of The Gordons’ novels; the other (and fractionally more noirish) Ripley movie was EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962) dir Blake Edwards, in which Ripley was played by Glenn Ford.
FBI Agent Zack Stewart (Tobey) is assigned the case of renegade hoodlum Joe Walpo (Bassett) after Walpo’s latest killing, the shooting of a gas jockey, Ben (Schallert), who recognized him. Stewart is already working on the case of Vince Angelino (Reynolds), an ordinary joe who managed unwittingly to get involved with a gang of car thieves and is now terrified of possible repercussions should he tell what he knows. When young, recently widowed fashion designer Katherine “Kate” Martell (Roman) phones the FBI to tell them she’s just had a threatening phonecall—in an electronically disguised voice—from an extortionist demanding her husband’s insurance $10,000 payout or else her little daughter Vicki (Gainor) gets it, this case too is passed to Stewart. According to the narration it’s standard practice for FBI agents to be handling three cases at once.
Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) interviews Kate Martell (Ruth Roman).
Stewart gets a call from a distraught-sounding young woman, Brenda Ralles (Alexander), who says she has information for him on one of his cases and asking him to call at her home at 11pm that night. Stewart’s colleague John “Rip” Ripley (Crawford) goes along to provide backup. When they reach the place, it’s clear that Brenda has company; as she tries to get rid of the FBI men, her unseen friend slips out the back way. Stewart goes in pursuit and is gunned down.
A frantic phonecall from Brenda Ralles (Suzanne Alexander).
Ripley’s boss, FBI Chief Frank Pace (Johnstone), infers that the killing must be connected to one of the three cases Stewart was handling, and gives all three to Ripley on the grounds that, if he can solve them, he’ll also solve the murder. Soon it becomes two murders, because Brenda manages to lose her cop tail and, a night or two later, is discovered dead in a trash bin.
The first port of call is Connie Anderson (Hyer), Walpo’s floozy, a knockout babe who falsely advertises her general availability and presumably states her profession to the IRS as Kept Woman. She claims that she barely knows Walpo, but later in the movie, when Ripley tricks her into believing that Walpo is shacking up with another dame, she’s clearly very much perturbed and eventually leads the feds to the man’s hideout. By then, though, they have proof that he was out of state the night Stewart was killed.
Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer) is not shy when the policemen call by . . .
Next Ripley and his sidekick, Agent Greg Barker (Warde), visit Julie Angelino (Pavan), the blind wife of the jailed Vince. She’s completely convinced of her husband’s innocence of car theft, and gives his side of the story. Unfortunately, she never met or spoke to the man who offered Vince $50 to drive a car into the next state, so can’t help find him.
The blind Julie Angelino (Marisa Pavan) answers Ripley’s questions.
Later in the movie, though, she gets called on by that man, Matty Pavelich (Akins), who threatens her with severe damage should Vince squeal, and knocks her around savagely to make sure she gets the message. What he doesn’t realize is that the blind woman is able to pick up all sorts of information about him, and indeed the feds soon pick him up. When Vince learns that Pavelich has maltreated his wife, he’s tripping over himself to spill the beans. But, once again, Ripley and his team by now know that Pavelich couldn’t have been Stewart’s killer.
The basement phone-tappers. Things have moved on a little since then.
That leaves the third case, the extortion attempt on widowed Kate Martell. Ripley has a 24-hour tap on her phone and mounts a surveillance operation on her apartment. They focus on four of her regular contacts as possible suspects:
- an old friend of Kate’s husband who now seems to have a pash for Kate, Dave Millson (Adams/Showalter), who has “sleazebag” written all over him;
- Kate’s old, lecherous and scrounging uncle-in-law, Max Martell (Adler), who lives with her and Vicki, has a criminal record and has “sleazebag” written all over him;
- Kate’s elderly, over-inquisitive neighbor, Alex Shurk (Campbell), whose past is likewise none too spotless and who has “sleazebag” written all over him; and
- the postman.
Spoiler Warning: It’s not the postman.
Dave Millson (Casey Adams/Max Showalter) turns on the ersatz charm.
Sure enough, when Ripley solves this final case he also has the murderer of Stewart and Brenda, after a dramatic confrontation at the base of the HOLLYWOOD sign—the extortionist’s final instruction was for Kate to leave the money under the “W”.
Where Kate (Ruth Roman) must go to place the money.
Despite its hackneyed setup and format, this is a surprisingly good movie, and it builds up a fair head of tension in many of the right places. The race to the HOLLYWOOD sign and the clash there is a sequence as exciting as one could hope for, but it’s if anything outmatched by one of the earlier sequences. Kate has been instructed by the extortionist to take the money to the Williams Mausoleum in Hillview Cemetery at midnight, and to leave Vicki in the car as she goes the last distance to the mausoleum on foot. At Ripley’s suggestion, Kate takes a tailor’s dummy of a child rather than Vicki. She waits as long as she can make herself wait at the mausoleum, but then, convinced (correctly) that the extortionist has no intention of keeping the appointment, hurries back toward the car. She’s intercepted by a man (Tannen) in another car, whom she believes at first to be the extortionist but who proves to be just a would-be lothario hoping to pick up a dame. The whole sequence is very creepy, not just because we expect the extortionist to leap out at any moment from the shadows but also because of the confrontation with the stranger: it’s an early statement of how vicious the effect of sexual harassment can be, even if the harasser doesn’t know it.
Ripley (Broderick Crawford) separates Matty Pavelich (Claude Akins, left) from the vengeful Vince Angelino (Gene Reynolds).
Crawford’s performance is the solid rock around which the rest of the movie eddies, but he’s given some excellent support—by Hyer, in celluloid-scorching form as the brassy, sexually open “model”; by Akins in his small role as the thug; and most particularly by Pavan as the trusting, loyal, vulnerable and genuinely courageous wife. With Biroc’s great cinematography and very taut, swift-moving direction from Laven, this movie deserves far more attention than it ordinarily receives.
On Amazon.com: Down Three Dark Streets