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Here we are! Come and blacklist us!
Savant thought he'd seen most of the so-called subversive films noir of the late '40s and early '50s, the ones that seem to shout out the invitation just above. I'm talking about Joseph Losey's The Prowler, Jules Dassin's Night and the City, Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil and Cyril Endfield's Try and Get Me! As the country shuddered before the Soviet threat, fear-mongers lost no time labeling pacifists, liberals and social critics as anti-American. Blacklisting and witch hunts rattled through Hollywood and Washington D.C., and into the new TV industry in New York.
The savagely pessimistic Try and Get Me! goes out of its way to reject the Official Image of the United States in 1950 -- society abandons working men to poverty and the consumer culture makes people feel like failures. Goaded by the yellow press, an ignorant public rushes to form a lynch mob. The interesting Cyril (Cy) Endfield was soon blacklisted and spent the rest of his career in England. He reportedly considered returning and telling all to the HUAC people, but then hooked up with actor-producer Stanley Baker to direct, write and sometimes produce. We first discovered Endfield through his later movies Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn.
A new release from the Warner Archives Collection is The Underworld Story, also directed by Cy Endfield in 1950. Endfield began by making short subjects and graduated to features by working with producer Hal E. Chester (of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms & Curse of the Demon). Chester's earlier Joe Palooka movie series also advanced screenwriter Henry Blankfort, a contributor to Underworld Story. Blankfort would be blacklisted as well.
The Underworld Story plays like the work of angry men. The title isn't very appropriate, as the story doesn't center on gangsters. Its main focus is the misuse of the power of the press, with side excursions into racism, class arrogance and the influence of organized crime. As in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, raw greed leads to gross injustice. Like Wilder's venal Chuck Tatum, the reporter in The Underworld Story thinks of little beyond the next fast buck. "Times are tough all over," says a cynical official. "Pretty soon a man won't be able to sell his own mother. "
News reporter Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) is fired from a big city daily when one of his scoops results in the murder of a witness in a big racketeering case. Reese had warned his superiors that breaking the story was unwise, but they sidestep their complicity by making Mike the fall guy. Reese is blacklisted and even his close friend Chuck Lee (Stephen Dunne), an editor for the chain of papers owned by E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall) won't consider hiring him. The desperate Reese borrows $5,000 from Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva), the crook behind the murder of the witness. He uses the money to buy a part interest in a tiny community paper run by Cathy Harris (Gale Storm, TV's My Little Margie) and goes into action when a local murder is reported. Since the victim is the daughter-in-law of the newspaper tycoon Stanton, Reese tries to sell a scoop to the big news syndicates. Cathy is appalled by these mercenary maneuvers but likes the circulation increase when Reese investigates the murder as would a big-town paper. When evidence points to the victim's black maid, Molly Rankin (Mary Anderson), Reese angles for the $10,000 reward by talking Molly into turning herself in and pleading Not Guilty.
Frustrated, Mike Reese initiates a third scheme to profit from the murder. He has the paper organize a defense fund for Molly, and with Cathy's help the conservative community appears to overcome its prejudice. When the fund grows big enough Reese hires defense attorney Stanley Becker for a 50% kickback. As it turns out, E.J. Stanton is already aware that his own son Clark (Gar Moore) is the murderer. To protect their business interests, father and son have decided to let Molly Rankin take the rap. Stanton wipes out the defense fund by publicizing Mike's tainted past and organizing local businessmen to boycott Cathy's newspaper. Mike responds by making a sincere effort to save Molly with new evidence. That's when Clark Stanton decides to hire Carl Durham's mob to eliminate Mike Reese.
The Underworld Story disturbs because it persuasively paints The American Way as a sham. Cathy Harris stays clear of the muck only because her newspaper reinforces the conservative status quo of her upscale community. A prominent citizen sets the tone of bigotry by declaring Molly Rankin guilty because she's poor and black -- "the kind of people" that become resentful when their demands for a free handout are refused. Considering the cutthroat business he's in, Mike's selfish attitude makes sense. His bosses set him up as a fall guy, fellow reporters at the bar jeer at his misfortune and a "friend" refuses to stick his neck out to help. Although Mike is by no means innocent, the film asserts that anyone who comes in conflict with powerful interests can be deprived of his livelihood and rights. Mike even uses the words Witch Hunt and Blacklist.
The wealthy class figures big in the film's indictment of "the system". The Stanton newspaper chain concentrates too much power, allowing one man to determine public opinion. When the police accuse Molly Rankin, Stanton sells her out to avoid a family scandal. His influence is sufficient to crush Reese and Cathy's grass-roots legal defense effort. The rotten Clark gloats that nobody "will take the word of a nigger" over that of a Stanton. The matter-of-fact acceptance of racism as a fundamental issue in everyday life is the film's most shocking aspect. As applied to this film, the slurs "anti-American" and "subversive" might as well be substitutes for "true" and "accurate".
Dan Duryea specialized in slimy villains and compromised heroes. His Mike Reese is a noir original, a man so conditioned by the rat race that he sees the misfortunes of others as potential streams of revenue. Molly Rankin's guilt or innocence generates a profitable newspaper war. Molly's own attorney urges her to plead guilty, if she wants to live -- a catch-22 that is more or less the dilemma forced upon blacklisted liberals. Since he won't be earning any more money, the lawyer's only motivation is to finish her case as soon as he can. Gale Storm's sweet young publisher seems to be the only one not playing an angle. Cathy's printer Parky (Harry Shannon) looks on quietly, fully aware that Mike is selling her a bill of goods. The cynical district attorney (Michael O'Shea) assumes that Molly is guilty simply because the disgraced Mike is championing her cause.
Making a big impression is Howard Da Silva as the cheerfully dangerous gangster. Carl Durham gives Reese his business seed money because he's always looking for new "friends" he can compromise. Carl couldn't be happier when Clark Stanton foolishly comes to him for help ... and puts himself and his important father under Durham's thumb. A year later, actor Da Silva was also blacklisted too. It would be eleven years before he was hired again for a movie.
The Underworld Story posed a couple of unusual casting problems. Anglo actor Mary Anderson is familiar from Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. We wonder why the producers wouldn't (or couldn't?) hire a black actress to play Molly Rankin. It's also possible that the producers had difficulty finding an actor willing to play the despicable Clark Stanton. Stage actor Gar Moore had appeared in Rossellini's neorealist classic Paisan and stayed on in Italy to play Americans in several more foreign productions. Moore may have taken the thankless role out of respect for the script's message about racial bigotry.
Also visible in small parts are Alan Hale Jr. as a thug and Jay Adler as a D.A.'s assistant. Ned Glass is a newspaper editor and Edward Van Sloan a minister at a funeral. The Underworld Story benefits from Cy Endfield's characteristic sharp direction, which communicates clearly the film's complex chain of events. Original Story author Craig Rice is actually a woman writer of mysteries profiled in the 1946 issue of TIME Magazine. Just for context, take a look at this "informational blurb" in the same issue, called "Radicals: Sure Cure".
As was Endfield's Try and Get Me!, the independently produced The Underworld Story was released by United Artists, a distribution company that had less exposure to pressure about the kinds of films it was turning out. 1 What is the appeal of these radical films, with such negative things to say about America? It has to do with the way they stubbornly swam against the overwhelming tide of ignorance, scapegoating and conformist hate-mongering that was mounting in the country at the time. The filmmakers felt these forces and were compelled to express their disapproval, even when they knew they might be blacklisted or sent to prison. Right or wrong, that's ethical courage in a nearly pure form.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Underworld Story is a flawless transfer of this unique exposé with an excellent picture and clear audio. The dramatic, heavy lighting schemes of cinematographer Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter) make the film's visuals prime noir material. The Underworld Story is an overlooked gem that joins Lost Boundaries on the Warner Archive Collection's shelf for social criticism. I predict it won't remain obscure very much longer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Underworld Story rates:
1. Try and Get Me! won't be coming from the Warner Archive, unfortunately. Its owner is Republic / Viacom, which has yet to release a number of hotly desired titles on DVD, among them Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar and Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road.
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T'was Ever Thus.