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A few months back, reviewing The Tattooed Stranger, I discovered that Howard Hughes had experimented with giving a short subject unit the job of shooting a feature, as a way of saving money. The two films in this new Warner Bros. Film Noir Double Feature disc were produced by Saul Elkins, a writer and director of documentary short subjects, who got moved up to feature work at Warners. Both of these short features from 1949 are murder mysteries. Neither are particularly noir in theme or outlook, but who's complaining?
Homicide has the better script and much better direction. Ex- dialogue coach Felix Jacoves sets up a number of nice character scenes; it's too bad that his efforts didn't win him a bigger directing career.
Ex-sailor Nick Foster (Richard Benedict) is found dead in a Los Angeles rooming house. He's presumed a suicide by all except detective Lt. Mike Landers (Robert Douglas). Landers traces a book of matches and a sugar tablet to a desert resort and discovers that the sailor had recently testified at an inquest into the death of a local farmer. Aided by the resort's bartender and cigarette salesgirl (Robert Alda & Helen Westcott), Mike stumbles onto the truth, and directly into the path of a pair of killers.
Homicide would be an ordinary programmer were it not for the care taken to individualize the characters. Hard-luck Nick makes a friendly connection with a farmer's wife, only to walk onto a murder scene just a few minutes later. Put on the spot, he foolishly protects the killers, thinking they'll honor their promise. Lt. Landers would be a standard gumshoe were it not for the depth of his interactions with other characters. He flirts amiably with landlady Esther Howard, winning a friend for life; it's refreshing to see a walk-on expert like Howard given a full scene to play. It takes Landers no time at all to get the pretty salesgirl Jo Ann on his side. Every time he returns to the resort their romance takes a step forward. Director Jacoves gives actress Helen Westcott the kind of special attention afforded to Lauren Bacall.
Although Homicide is a small studio film, we never get the impression of cheapness, of a PRC picture with slightly better production values. Except for a fistfight there's not much in the way of action. The murders are committed to protect a wire service scam, and the clues followed by our detective hero are strictly Nancy Drew material. But the characters are allowed to flex enough to make us commit to the story.
With his English accent, hero Robert Douglas makes an unlikely L.A. detective, so some dialogue was inserted making fun of his "Canadian" heritage. Douglas was best known playing dastardly villains in costume pictures with Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster -- The Adventures of Don Juan, The Flame and the Arrow, Ivanhoe. Douglas is particularly reprehensible as the nasty architecture critic in the absurd The Fountainhead. His career took a better turn when he became a prolific TV director. The same story more or less applies to Richard Benedict, who as an actor is best known as the unfortunate trapped artifact hunter in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.. The fetching Helen Westcott played a tiny fairy in the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream. She's best known as the wife who left Gregory Peck in the classic The Gunfighter. Homicide proved to be the low end of the slide for the capable Robert Alda, who began his film career starring in George Gershwin and just three years later was relegated to lowercase pictures, and onward to (gasp) television.
Homicide gives its hero plenty of smart remarks and humorous asides. Made the same year, The House Across the Street takes its crime story much less seriously, and has more in common with a weak screwball comedy than a film noir. Its director is Richard L. Bare, the maker of what seem to be dozens of "So You Want to Be..." comedy short subjects, like "So You Want to Be Popular", or "Hold a Wife", or "Throw a Party". In fact, The House Across the Street could be entitled, "So You Want to be a Crime-Fighting Newspaper Editor."
Newspaperman Dave Joslin (Wayne Morris) berates the cops with negative headlines after a witness against mobster Matt Keever (Bruce Bennett) is killed in his own house by an assassin masquerading as a Mail Man. When Keever demands that the headlines cease, Joslin's boss (Alan Hale) shifts him to the Miss Lonelyhearts beat, where Joslin had previously marooned his unhappy girlfriend / employee Kit Williams (gorgeous Janis Paige, image below). But a Lonelyhearts letter writer (Lila Leeds)
Writers Roy Chanslor (Johnny Guitar, Cat Ballou) and Russell Hughes fill House with snappy banter, which would come off better if star Wayne Morris was better with dialogue. Morris was probably the friendliest guy on the Warner lot, but he comes off as a galoot who doesn't seem smart enough to be the managing editor of a newspaper. It needs to be said that the actor was far, far from galoot material. In real life Morris was a highly decorated combat flying veteran. Ironically, film fans mostly know him as the despicable coward in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Wayne Morris fell victim to a heart attack at age 45.
The plot of The House Across the Street ambles along, sticking its characters in small rooms and onto the sidewalks of the Warners' back lot street sets. Most of the written humor doesn't click, so the movie functions best when the actors get to show off. As we said, we like Wayne Morris, but the clever dialogue doesn't roll off his tongue. On the other hand, we can't get enough of Janis Paige, who brings the show to life whenever she's on screen. Paige is a great singer and comedienne and obviously a good sport as well. After quitting Hollywood for Broadway, she became a star in Pajama Game, only to see her old co-star Doris Day nab the lead for the movie version. But the two would seem to have remained good friends, as Paige returned in notable parts in several Doris Day pictures. Here Paige seems smarter than the material but a good sport just the same.
Also making appearances are three additional actresses of note. The film's "redheaded shill" Barbara Bates would make her name a year later, playing Phoebe at the end of All About Eve. Uncredited Phyllis Coates plays a restaurant photographer. She met her destiny as the first Lois Lane on television. Much sadder is the case of Lila Leeds, who makes a nice impression as the ditzy letter-writer to the Lonely Hearts column. Leeds' unbilled performance wasn't noticed, but she made unwanted news elsehere. In an event reinvented for the cop saga L.A. Confidential, Leeds was the starlet involved with Robert Mitchum in the highly publicized 1948 Marijuana bust. Mitchum made Hollywood history by turning a career-killer into a career booster, increasing his popularity. Ms. Leeds spent her 60 days in the County Jail and her film career came to an abrupt end.
A helpful kid on the street turns out to be Billy Gray, later of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Even though he's several years younger, Gray is a natural actor with a polished line delivery.
Finally, I have to say that The House Across the Street contains two rather blatant visual bloopers. The first occurs in the very first shot, when the camera trucks and pans across a neighborhood street. The problem is that we see right down the street, smack off the studio set and onto the side of a Warners sound stage, with its doors open. This happens a lot in films shot on studio lots, where sound stages and even a water tower with a studio logo sometimes appear where they aren't wanted. The other blooper is much funnier. Nasty crook James Mitchell (later the only sour character in The Band Wagon) pistol-whips poor Wayne Morris with his .38 revolver. Just a few seconds before this, in the same take, Mitchell sticks the gun into Morris's stomach, to scare him. Get this -- the gun barrel visibly folds, pointing straight down. It's a rubber gun, of course, so the actor can smack Morris with it a minute later. At first I thought it was an optical illusion, but no. Mitchell jacks Morris with a limp rod. Maybe it's all for the better that the movie isn't true film noir. If it were this shot would prompt Eddie Muller and Alan Rode to revoke its Noir License.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Warner Bros. Film Noir Double Feature Homicide & The House Across the Street makes for an entertaining double bill. The first is an accomplished mini-movie and the second compensates for its jokey attitude with an interesting cast topped by the impressive Janis Paige. Both features are in excellent shape in both sound and picture. A trailer for Homicide is the single extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Homicide & The House Across the Street rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.