Convicted (1938)

US / 59 minutes / bw / Central, Columbia Dir: Leon Barsha Pr: Kenneth J. Bishop Scr: Edgar Edwards Story: “Face Work” (1936 Black Mask; vt “Angel Face”) by Cornell Woolrich Cine: George Meehan Cast: Charles Quigley, Rita Hayworth, Marc Lawrence, George McKay, Doreen MacGregor, Bill Irving, Eddie Laughton, Edgar Edwards, Phyllis Clare, Bob Rideout, Michael Heppell, Noel Cusack, Grant MacDonald, Don Douglas.

Convicted 1938 - 0 opener

Nightclub dancer Jerry Wheeler (Hayworth), billed as Mistress of the Rhumba (which of course Hayworth was!), is told by Mary Allen (MacGregor), fiancée of Jerry’s kid brother Chick (Edwards), that Chick is about to run away with the floozy Ruby Rose (Clare). Jerry goes to Ruby’s apartment and confronts her—unsuccessfully, of course, because Ruby has no heart of gold. It’s in this sequence that some of the movie’s best snappy lines are traded, such as

Ruby to Jerry: “Well, what am I supposed to have done? Cured him from wiping his nose on his sleeve or something?”

and

Jerry to Ruby: “Look here, Ruby. You’ve been around and so have I. And ‘around’ hasn’t been pretty.”

Having gotten nowhere with Ruby, Jerry goes home:

Jerry to Chick: “You’re out of your mind passing up a sweet kid like Mary for something that ought to be shampooed out of your hair with gasoline.”

Chick will have nothing to do with Big Sis’s argument and so, suitcase in hand, off he goes to Ruby’s apartment to pick her up en route to illicit joys in Chicago. When he gets to the apartment, though, he discovers Ruby sprawled on the floor, strangled. As he tries to bring her round her maid Aggie (Cusack) returns from an errand and, assuming the worst, calls the cops. They arrive in the form of Detective “Burnsie” Burns (Quigley) and his dumbcluck sidekick Cobble-Puss Coley (Irving), whose “comic” routines are thankfully kept to a minimum. Burnsie arrests Chick but, even so, has difficulty disguising his instant attraction toward Jerry—whom he promptly starts calling “Angel Face,” because the one thing attractive young women whose beloved brothers might face the death penalty relish is to be chatted up by the cops who’ve put said brother in that predicament.

The trial comes and, thanks to the evidence of Burnsie, Aggie and the doorman to the deceased’s apartment building, Charlie Baker (Laughton; the character’s misnamed “Berger” in the credits), Chick is convicted and sentenced to death. Jerry and Mary resolve to find the evidence that will prove Chick’s innocence. One venture is to the home of the maid Aggie. Jerry gets there just in time to see Aggie run down by a car driven by two obvious hoods. Burnsie arrives just in time to take Jerry away from the ghastly scene.

Convicted 1938 - 1 The gormless Chick (Edwards, who also scripted)

The gormless Chick is played by Edgar Edwards, who also scripted.

Both of the women go to an auction of Ruby Rose’s belongings and are alerted to something suspicious when an apparently valueless box is promptly bid for by a pair of men . . . whom Jerry immediately recognizes as the hoods in the car that ran over Aggie. The women spend their last dime to buy the box, inside which there’s a self-incriminating letter from local vice boss Milton Militis (Lawrence). Jerry knows that Militis is looking for dancers, and so gets herself hired at his Scrat Club, ingratiates herself with him, and starts trying to find out if the $10,000 bracelet Ruby was wearing just before her murder, and which mysteriously disappeared by the time Chick arrived on the scene, could feasibly be in Militis’s apartment. The night comes when Militis opens his wall safe and gives Jerry a bracelet that he swears he bought just with someone like her in mind . . .

Convicted 1938 - Verbal fencing between Jerry and Burnsie

There’s plenty of verbal fencing between Jerry (Rita Hayworth) and Detective “Burnsie” Burns (Charles Quigley).

The theme of Convicted was one that seems to have absorbed the writer Cornell Woolrich. The story upon which this movie was based, “Face Work,” was a reworking of the plot of an earlier story, “Murder in Wax” (1935), in which, more interestingly, it’s not the accused’s sister who pursues justice but the wife whom he was just about to leave for the murdered mistress; Woolrich then worked up the two stories to make his novel Black Angel (1943). His 1942 novel Phantom Lady, published as by William Irish, has a similar theme; it became the classic film noir PHANTOM LADY (1944).

I’m really not sure why Convicted wasn’t included in the Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir; I see it was on my preliminary entry list, but somewhere along the line I must have decided to drop it. This filler was one of the earliest Woolrich adaptations to reach the screen (not the first, as is sometimes claimed) and among the earliest Hayworth outings in which she was credited under this name; earlier she’d mostly been credited as Rita Cansino.

Convicted aspires to be nothing more than an adequate program filler, and it succeeds excellently in that ambition. There’s a good—even excellent—performance from Hayworth, who even at this early stage in her career displays great screen presence, and a surprisingly good one from Edwards, who also wrote the screenplay; Quigley doesn’t do a huge amount more than look dashingly handsome and charismatic. Cusack is very good in her small role as the shrewish-mouthed maid. In the movie’s early stages there’s a decided tinniness to the sound engineering and, while this improves in due course, direction and cinematography remain mediocre. There’s a moment’s anachronistic modern amusement as, late on—after a tipoff from supposed nightclub drunk but in fact police plant Kane (McKay)—an APB goes out for Militis’s car; is the voice really that of a police announcer or could it be . . . Stephen Hawking? My money’s on the latter.

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9 thoughts on “Convicted (1938)

  1. I was all ready to broach the issue of Hayworth as a possible reason why this one is essential, but you did answer that in short order. I am also very taken with the work of Woolrich, and also recall his “Black Alibi”, which was the basis for the Val Lewton “The Leopard Man.” A first class noir writer, which alone would make this a must, even with that mediocre programmer framing. Great review!

    • Again thanks for the kind words!

      The movie’s by no means a masterpiece unjustly overlooked for an Oscar, but it’s entertaining and definitely worth a watch if it comes your way.

  2. The presence of Rita Hayworth alone is enough to pique my interest in this one. I’ll keep an eye out in the hope that it might appear in the TV schedules one day. Lovely write-up, as ever.

  3. Never even HEARD of this one – and darn it, I’m a fan of Woolrich and la Hayworth (well, who isn’t …). You don’t appear to mention a commercial release, which leads to be believe that there ‘aint one? It does appear to be online though, so I’m heading straight there – thanks chum 🙂

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