US / 74 minutes / bw / Zenith, UA Dir: Edward L. Cahn Pr: Robert E. Kent Scr: Stephen Kandel Cine: Maury Gertsman Cast: Joan Evans, Ronald Foster, Merry Anders, Harp McGuire, Robert Christopher, Berry Kroeger, Bill Couch, Norm Alden, James Callahan, J. Edward McKinley, William Fawcett, Guy Wilkerson, Harvey Parry.
A more than competent little crime outing that would certainly have been included in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir had it not flown below my radar; although its ending somewhat unexpectedly abjures the principles of noirish nihilism—I wouldn’t say it’s outright happy but it’s certainly hopeful—the rest of the movie, cinematography excepted, is full of noirish tropes. This is a film noir in all but recognition as such. I console myself with the fact that it’s managed to fly under all the other relevant radars, not just mine.
Ah, well, I can make amends now.
Nick Harbin (Foster) has done five years for a payroll heist that went horribly wrong: he was captured, his accomplice Jerry (Parry) was shot dead at the scene and his other accomplice, Sam Russo (Alden), was killed by the cops later when making an ill advised run for it.
The day of Nick’s release comes, and Warden John B. Haggerty (McKinley) warns him that, since he’s never divulged the location of the loot, he’ll be a walking target as soon as he goes out the prison gate. Nick stubbornly says he’ll take his chances.
He’s met outside the big house by hot ex-girlfriend Susan Mallory (Anders), who assures him she’s just panting to take up where they left off five years ago; by reporter Al Kramer (Callahan) of the Los Angeles Record; and by Detective Max Brodney (McGuire), who makes no bones about the fact that he thinks Nick’s an unmitigated louse and is going to stay on his tail until the stolen $260,000 is found.
It doesn’t take long for us to guess that Susan’s rekindled passion for Nick is not even skin-deep but purely monetary: she’s a somewhat maladroit would-be femme fatale through whose artifice even Nick promptly sees, despite being tempted to sample the merchandise anyway—or at least to remind himself of it. When his old buddy Dave Prince (Christopher) appears on the scene, it requires no Holmesian leap to deduce who it is Susan’s been canoodling with these past few years and with whom she’s now conspiring. Moreover, as we soon learn, this scummy pair is conspiring with notorious gang boss Arnie Hoffman (Kroeger), who’s promised to help them bilk Nick of the ill gotten gains for a mere 90% of the proceeds.
In many ways Nick doesn’t care. While in prison he’s gotten himself some education, learned to control the rage that used so often to betray him, and discovered some principles. He wants to split the money with Gail Russo (Evans), the widow of his dead accomplice Sam: even though Gail was Nick’s girl before she married Sam and is still the only woman for him, he loved Sam too and wants to make posthumous amends.
Tracking down where Gail now is looks to be tricky until Nick comes across Gail’s old and disreputable friend Packy (Fawcett). Hoodlum Hoffman and cop Brodney have their own resources, with the result that not just Nick but these two rivals, with their sidekicks, converge on an obscure diner in Gold City, Arizona . . .
The Walking Target isn’t the longest of movies, but it seems even shorter than its running time, rattling along with great pace and constantly turning up minor surprises. The cast, too, is exemplary, even if most of the players are moderately obscure; Kroeger’s probably the best known of them, and he was hardly a headliner. There are some great performances in minor roles, too: Norm Alden, seen in extended flashback, is splendid as the less-than-nimble-witted Sam; William Fawcett gives a glittering depiction of the near-derelict Packy; and I’d have happily seen more of character actor Guy Wilkerson in his role here as Gail’s diner employee Lank.
The relatively upbeat ending, wherein everything is far from solved for our sympathetic protagonists but at least it looks as if there’s hope on the horizon (although the two movies are hugely different, as indeed are their endings, the patchwork hopefulness reminded me of the conclusion to Peter Weir’s WITNESS ), might spur a purist to object to my classifying The Walking Target as a film noir. Yet there are plenty of movies recognized as canonical films noirs that share similar characteristics—The BIG CLOCK (1948) and PHANTOM LADY (1944), to name just the first two that spring to mind, or even The BIG SLEEP (1946)—so this hardly counts as a disqualification.
There’s the occasional screenplay oddity. The one that furrowed my brow the most came when Nick uttered the Yodaesque aphorism “Happiness won’t buy money.” I can only assume Foster screwed up the line and Cahn liked it enough that he left it the way it was.