Sensation Hunters (1945)

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The price of rebellion!
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vt Club Paradise
US / 62 minutes / bw / Monogram, Associated Artists Dir: Christy Cabanne Pr: Joseph Kaufman Scr: Dennis Cooper Story: John Faxon Cine: Ira Morgan Cast: Robert Lowery, Doris Merrick, Eddie Quillan, Constance Worth, Isabel Jewell, Wanda McKay, Nestor Paiva, Byron Foulger, Vince Barnett, Minerva Urecal, Janet Shaw, Maurice Murphy, Billy Nelson, John Hamilton, The Rubenettes, The Johnson Brothers.

Every now and then Poverty Row studio Monogram got it just right and produced a splendid minor noir, and this was one of those times. Despite the coincidence of title, it bears no relation to the earlier Sensation Hunters (1933) dir Charles Vidor, with Arline Judge, Marion Burns and Preston Foster, a far inferior movie that I plan to cover here next week.

In the opening moments we see a man arrive at a darkened frontage and ring the doorbell. A negligée-clad woman appears at a balcony overhead, and summons him upstairs. Moments later, three shots ring out . . .

The rest of the movie is one long flashback leading us up to this scene. We’re soon pretty sure who the woman was (will be?), but who was the man? And who shot whom? And why?

Factory worker Julie Rogers (Merrick) comes from a dysfunctional family: tyrannical clod Paw (Foulger), meekly subservient Mom (Urecal), drunken no-good brother Fred (Murphy) and Fred’s pregnant wife Katie (Shaw). Luckily she can escape for whole evenings at a time with her genial fellow-factory-worker boyfriend Ray Lawson (Quillan), who has dreams of being a star trumpet player and of whom she is genuinely fond, despite his shortness of stature.

Byron Foulger as Pa, Janet Shaw as Katie and Maurice Murphy as Fred.

A fly in their ointment is that sometimes her neighbor and best friend Helen (McKay) tags along, making it wordlessly clear with glances and smiles that she wouldn’t mind picking up Ray should Julie ever be foolish enough to let him fall.

Which Julie in essence does—although the formalities of dumping him come a little later—the night the trio are in the Black Cat night club and Julie claps eyes on homme fatal Danny Burke (Lowery).

Doris Merrick (left) as Julie and Wanda McKay as Helen, eying up the guys in The Black Cat.

Danny (Robert Lowery), when Julie first sees him.

The following evening, when she storms out of her home to get away from yet another evening of rancor and embarrassment with the folks, it’s to the Black Cat she heads with the explicit aim of hooking up with Danny.

Danny: “Well, a girl like you just doesn’t walk into a place and talk to any guy who comes along.”
Julie: “You’re not just any guy.”

Mission accomplished, Julie heads with him to the Paradise Club, a joint that’s both more sophisticated and more notorious. There she soon finds that chanteuse Mae (Jewell) and club manager Irene (Worth) both have A Past with Danny, and that Irene, even as she recognizes the folly of her own addiction to the man, is addicted to him nonetheless, unable to resist him when he asks for money or favors even though there have been plenty of other girls in his life since her.

Isabel Jewell as Mae.

Constance Worth as Irene.

On the night Ray loses at an illicit gambling joint all the money he’d been saving for his and Julie’s wedding and then, to compound the disaster, the pair of them get caught in a police raid, Paw pays Julie’s $30 fine but throws her out of the house. Ray, having no way to pay the fine, gets 30 days in jail instead.

The scene in the Night Court where these sentences are handed down is admirably nightmarish. The focus is on the face of the judge (Hamilton) who rhythmically, robotically intones a name, then “Thirty days or thirty dollars,” briefly awaits a reply, delivers one or other sentence, then carries on to the next person. Clearly the judge is bored. Clearly it creates not the slightest ripple on his consciousness that the sentences he’s dishing out for trivial offenses have the power to destroy lives—as indeed could have been the case for Ray, who loses his factory job, his sole source of livelihood, in consequence of this bored man’s lack of concern. We’re witnessing the machinery of justice—an uncaring, dehumanized machinery. The rest of the movie can be dismissed as merely a fiction, but here, we sense, is reality. The sequence is chilling.

Homeless, Julie goes to the Paradise Club in search of Danny. He’s skipped town to escape debtors, but Irene takes pity on the girl and gives her accommodation, sharing with Mae, and a job in the dance troupe (The Rubenettes):

Julie: “Gee, I’m so nervous.”
Mae: “So what are you nervous about?”
Julie: “I feel I have two left feet.”
Mae: “Who’s gonna look at your feet?”

Nestor Paiva as Lew Davis.

Danny’s debtors catch up with him, and their emissary, Lew Davis (Paiva), delivers an ultimatum: pay up or else. Danny tries to cadge the dough from Irene, but she doesn’t have enough, so he opts for the “or else” instead, sending Julie to Lew in lieu of cash. (We see Julie soon after her return from this assignation. Merrick, who elsewhere is good but not outstanding, is impressive in this seconds-long sequence.)

Eddie Quillan as Ray.

Released from jail, Ray makes a sudden breakthrough as a trumpeter, being hired at the Continental to front his own band. Soon he and Julie will be able to get married and live happily ever after. Or will they? Will Danny forever be a millstone fastened round her neck? Or, if she succeeds in freeing herself, will Ray be content with Danny’s castoff? And don’t forget Helen . . .

Like the good-hearted chanteuse Mae, who carries on singing every night at the Paradise Club long after her health should dictate otherwise, all the main characters in Sensation Hunters save Ray and Helen seem to be keeping would-be carefree smiles on their faces despite an awareness of the proximity of doom. In the instances of Ray and Helen, the smiles are there but not the awareness . . . which doesn’t mean they’ll be any luckier in the fate meted out to them. Innocent and guilty alike are caught up in a noirish destiny that’s sublimely unaware of concepts like innocence and guilt.

Doris Merrick as Julie.

The main characters are superlatively cast and deliver uniformly fine performances. It’s worth looking out for some of the supporting ones, too. (Not all are credited.) I’ve mentioned Paiva as the mob heavy; he’s always reliable, but I can’t remember seeing him better than he is here. The great Vince Barnett has a small role as Ray’s would-be agent. And Billy Nelson is spot-on as the Paradise’s maitre d’.

Ray’s agent (Vince Barnett, standing) has some good news for the young trumpeter (Eddie Quillan).

Billy Nelson as the Paradise’s maitre d’.

Cabanne directs the movie with great pace and vigor, and Morgan’s cinematography matches the pervasive sense of tragedy without every becoming too obtrusive. That said, it would be impossible, I think, to sit through the first moments of the movie, the scene to which all else leads—the simplicity of the camerawork contrasting with the evocative lighting and the deceptively tranquil buildup to the outbreak of drama—without recognizing that you’re in the hands of a director who’s completely cognizant of the language of noir. Of course, since you’re watching a Monogram production, you expect to be disappointed by what follows.

In this case, I wasn’t.

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7 thoughts on “Sensation Hunters (1945)

  1. Pingback: Sensation Hunters (1933) | Noirish

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