Friday, August 24, 2012

Undertow (1949)

UNDERTOW  C+                  
USA  (71 mi)  1949  d:  William Castle 

A rarely seen film from schlockmeister William Castle, a B-movie director who spent his career making forgettable features, whose real claim to fame was his Barnum & Bailey flair for self-promotion, often appearing in the trailers revving up the fear factor in his films, psyching up the audience to expect to be scared, where his most audacious stunt was wiring selected seats in the theater with electrical buzzers and administering a mild shock during heightened moments of THE TINGLER (1959).  In addition to being an uncredited screenwriter, a second unit director, and an associate producer for Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), perhaps his biggest claim to fame, however, and certainly his most lucrative, was buying the book rights to Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary's Baby (1968), which became a monster hit.  But in 1949, little did the director, or anyone else connected with the film, know that 60 years in the future audiences would be sitting quietly and actually paying attention to this film, which was always intended as a second reeler.  Opening in Reno, Scott Brady (Lawrence Tierney’s younger brother) as Tony Reagan has just completed his second stint in the Army and is in a celebratory mood, having recently invested his entire Army savings on a Lake Tahoe resort sitting on a pristine location, owned by the father of a fellow soldier who died in the war, but always spoke highly about this property being the most beautiful place on earth.  Having seen it and meeting with the father, Tony has to agree, thinking this would be the perfect place to make a new start in his life.  Having come from a troubled past where he had extensive trouble with the law, Tony was looking to go straight.   But he’s hit with two major coincidences before he can set foot out of town, one is meeting Danny Morgan (John Russell), an old con artist working for the casino’s, and the other is accidentally running into a beautiful woman, Peggy Dow as Ann McKnight, where they coincidentally meet again on an overnight flight to Chicago.  By her look, she has more than a passing interest in him, but he rather clumsily announces his plans to meet his future bride in Chicago and bring her back out to live in Lake Tahoe, which takes the sizzle out of their obvious chemistry. 

In Chicago, he’s met by the cops and warned to get out of town, as they’ve received news he’s planning to get revenge on Big Jim, a local mob boss, as they had plenty of run-ins together 7 years ago.  Using plenty of Chicago location shots, they arrive at Midway Airport before he takes a taxi to the Palmer House, where there’s plenty of street shots down Wabash Avenue as Tony has to shake the cop that’s following him, which he does at the Wabash/Adams el stop which looks exactly the same today as it did 60 years ago.  Tony’s in Chicago looking for his girl, Sally (Dorothy Hart), whose uncle is Big Jim, who disapproves of their impending marriage, but Tony thinks he can change his mind, especially if they’re going to be family.  But before he gets a chance, Tony is blindsided and coldcocked, where he awakes later with a gunshot wound on his hand placed in a car containing a gun that can be traced to Big Jim’s murder.  The radio announces his description as a killer on the loose, where he’s immediately on the run, trying to outrun chasing cops, leading to a shootout scene at a factory warehouse where he climbs up a gigantic storage tank, similar to James Cagney in White Heat (1949), a film released 3 months earlier that same year.  You’d think it might be the same set, but this is a Universal picture, while Cagney’s is Warner Brothers.  With police canvassing all his known friends, he has no options left and nowhere else to go except to call upon Ann, the friend he met in Reno who was coming to Chicago to be a schoolteacher.  Having heard the radio description, where he’s considered armed and dangerous, Ann is a bit suspicious, but once he announces he didn’t do it, that he’s been framed, she immediately breaks into a trusting smile and fixes him breakfast - - only in the movies.

Knowing there is no way out except to clear his name, Tony calls upon an old friend from the neighborhood now working for the police, Bruce Bennett as Detective Reckling, something of a straight shooter, in real life a silver medalist in the shot put for the 1928 Olympics under his actual name Herman Brix, holding both the indoor and outdoor world records at the time.  Due to his athleticism, he was being considered for the Tarzan role by MGM pictures, but he broke his shoulder making another film, opening the door for Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller.  Nonetheless, Bennett lived to be a hundred and did complete one Tarzan picture, completing all his own stunts, including a fall to rocky cliffs below in THE NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN, Pt’s I and II (1935), also TARZAN AND THE GREEN GODDESS (1938), which was largely put together from previously shot footage.  Though Reckling is unable to prove Tony’s innocence, where there is a brief first time film appearance by a young Roc Hudson as a fellow detective, he does begin to believe the alleged murderer has been framed.  The film packs a punch, cramming a huge amount of story detail into the highly condensed 71 minutes, where Buckingham Fountain is used as a favorite meeting place, showing the Chicago skyline, including what was the Conrad Hilton Hotel.  Certainly a crowd pleaser moment for anyone from Chicago has to be when Ann pulls up to the fountain in her slick convertible car and parks directly in front of the fountain on Columbus Drive in what is a notorious tow zone.  Another is a secret meet with Sally outside the Adler Planetarium down a few stairs while Ann stands guard at street level, where the two women may as well be at opposite ends of his life, morally speaking, one above and one below.  There’s a stellar hallway sequence down a long corridor near the end, an unforgettable scene that is exquisitely filmed, also the interesting presence of unsung black actor Daniel Ferniel, perhaps the most unusual role in the film, a small part with major consequences, where he represents the surviving moral voice of the murdered victim, Big Jim, who interestingly is never seen onscreen.

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