US / 86 minutes / bw / Great Commission, Continental Dir: Dick Ross Scr: John O’Dea Story: Why I Quit Syndicated Crime (1951 autobiography) by James A. Vaus Jr. Cine: Ralph Woolsey Cast: Bill Williams, Georgia Lee, Douglas Kennedy, Richard Benedict, Stanley Clements, Paul Picerni, Ric Roman, Steve Conte, Phil Tead, Howard Wendell, Melinda Plowman, Dorothy Kennedy, Art Gilmore, Barbara Hudson, Evangeline Carmichael, Howard Wendell, Billy Graham.
Although this movie is a biopic (and despite the intrusive moralizing), it stands also as quite a good noir: its central character—not so much a bad man as a weak one who’s a captive of his ingenuity—wades into the noir quicksand and discovers it’s far less easy than he thought to escape from it. The movie even begins with the noirish message that “For understandable reasons certain names and events have been altered to protect the lives and careers of actual persons.”
It’s toward the end of WWII and improbably pretty young Alice Park (Lee) is being kept alive by regular letters from her absent beau, a genius electrical engineer who’s working all over the country on assignments for the military; it must be because his service to the country is so invaluable that he seems never to be granted a furlough. In fact, as we immediately discover, the reason Jim hasn’t been coming home is that he’s been serving a prison sentence for stealing government property . . . although the bit about him being an electrical genius is true.
Jim (Bill Williams) is unimpressed by the fact that WWII has come to an end.
With the end of the war, presidential pardons are issued for lots of prisoners in Jim’s situation, and, after a lecture of insufferable sanctimony from the prison chaplain (Wendell), he’s allowed to go home. There—still continuing to deceive Alice and her kid sister Helen (Plowman) and mother (Dorothy Kennedy) about his wartime status—he sets up an electrical engineering business in hopes of earning a nut with which to marry Alice. Alas for his aspirations, business barely whimpers.
Home at last from “war duty” – Jim (Bill Williams) with Alice (Gloria Lee) and her kid sister Helen (Melinda Plowman).
All that changes, though, when chauffeur Romato (Benedict) asks him to fix a radio. Jim tells him this is a job that’ll take some hours, and quotes a fee of $20. In fact, it takes him about 30 seconds; Alice, witnessing, is horrified that he could countenance the deceit, but her qualms are assuaged with a kiss.
Crooked lawyer Charles Rumsden (Douglas Kennedy).
After fixing the radio, Jim delivers it to its owner, mob-connected shyster Charles Rumsden (Douglas Kennedy). While there he’s asked to investigate why the front doorbell works only intermittently, and discovers Rumsden’s house has been bugged. Rumsden tells him to ease off on debugging the place for a while and asks him instead if he can devise a way of tapping phone lines—in particular those of one Marie Blanche, who’s head of a prostitution ring and thus a criminal rival to Rumsden. Jim obliges and the police, even though discovering his illegal act, are keen enough to turn a blind eye since he has helped them put Blanche away.
There are moral lessons for Jim to learn too. After Rumsden’s goon Herbie has interrupted Jim and Alice having a quick smooch, there’s this exchange:
Jim: Don’t ever try that again, Herbie. Rumsden’s work can wait a minute.
Herbie: Look, chum, Rumsden’s paying for that minute—and all the rest of your time.
Soon Jim is working all hours for the likes of Rumsden and the gangster Nick Castro (Roman) . . . and all the while managing to keep from Alice the seedy details of where the money for their home and marriage is coming from. Every time she catches a whiff of the truth he promises he’ll break off all contact with the hoods (“If [Nick Castro] ever calls I’m not in”) and she, like a fool, believes him. Even so, when he fails to turn up for the birth of their first child, Madeleine (uncredited), because he’s discovering and defusing a timebomb under Castro’s property, this represents almost the last straw . . . except that he immediately gets into hot water and she, out of loyalty and love, phones mom to say that she and Madeleine won’t be coming home after all.
Alice (Georgia Lee) becomes older and wiser.
One of Castro’s sidekicks has given Jim a great new idea: intercepting the horse-race tickertapes by a minute or two, just long enough for someone to place a last-moment bet on what he already knows is a winner. The scam is called past-posting, and it lay at the heart of the classic neonoir/caper The STING (1973) dir George Roy Hill, with Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw.
Castro (Ric Roman) showing off the new alarm system that Jim’s devised.
Jim goes into business exploiting this radical new technology with Tony (Clements), a rebellious sidekick of Castro’s. Unfortunately, after the pair have made a lot of money, they decide to do One Last Job; unknown to Jim, this is ripping off Castro. Tony is fatally shot in the back while Jim is picked up and savagely beaten. Rumsden and Castro explain to him he can escape with his life if he’ll do another One Last Job, this time in St. Louis.
Oh, look, there’s a biblethumpers’ meeting.
Jim and the once-more pregnant Alice and Madeleine set off in the car to her mom’s place so the latter two will (hopefully) be safe while he does the St. Louis job. En route, though, Alice spots a roadside Big Tent evangelical meeting with preacher Billy Graham (himself), and persuades Jim to go in with her. There they witness such cheesy, Oral Roberts-style lines, stressing subjugation rather than actual Christian deeds, as “The Bible teaches that you’re a sinner. . . . Every person in this tent tonight has broken the laws of Almighty God”; Jim speaks for many of us when he says, “I can’t stand any more of this.” But he does, and he’s converted, and he gives up his life of crime, and sure things are going to be difficult but he has the love of a good woman to keep him strong and . . . Overall, in other words, the last few minutes of the movie are pretty hard to stomach.
Billy Graham in full flight.
But the movie as a whole is a lot less ghastly than I’d anticipated. In part this is because of a charming performance from Lee but for the most part the credit must go to a very fine, committed turn from Williams; it’s perhaps the best I’ve ever seen him deliver.
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On Amazon.com: Wiretapper