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Sometimes it's a good idea to see how 'the other half' lived in Hollywood, just to appreciate what production was like away from the big studios. Before the Warner Archive Collection began dipping into its Monogram/Allied Artists holdings, it was not easy to see a good copy of a Monogram film outside of occasional American Cinematheque screenings (thank you, Chris D). The 35mm print we were shown of Monogram's Decoy was a revelation: a confused script, tatty sets, despite odd pacing and uninspired direction, the film is wildly creative and contains a couple of instances of outrageous violence. Its director-producer Jack Bernhard had just come back from flying duty over Europe, hoping to make his actress-wife Jean Gillie into a major star.
By Monogram standards Decoy did well enough to allow Bernhard to make a follow-up picture, 1947's Violence, by much of the same creative team: co-producer Bernard Brandt, writer Stanley Rubin, actor Sheldon Leonard and composer Edward Kay. Violence is a suspense thriller that makes a social comment on radical politics in the post-war environment. New movies were exploring themes of anti-Semitism, race hatred and the plight of returning veterans in general; Rubin's script focused on malevolent new political groups that sought to profit by stirring up hatred among disaffected veterans. In the boom years after the victory, many vets found themselves the object of discrimination, particularly when it came to housing. 1
The crime-oriented thriller uses the standard undercover investigator format, adding a couple of pulp fiction twists. Down on Adams Blvd. in Los Angeles is the headquarters of United Defenders (UD), a phony veteran's rights organization. It is run by a pair of criminals. Ex-murderer True Dawson (Emory Parnell) delivers fiery high pressure hate speeches, urging the vets to band together in united action, presumably UD-directed violence. Dawson's crooked partner Fred Stalk (Sheldon Leonard), directs their weak-minded henchman Joker (Peter Whitney of The Big Heat) to murder Joe Donohue (Jimmy Clark), a UD employee who "got too curious". Dawson and Stalk are eager to expand UD beyond crummy $5 donations from disaffected soldiers, and instead pull down big payoffs from companies that need thugs to break up legitimate veteran's demonstrations.
Fred is trying to make time with UD secretary Ann Mason (Nancy Coleman), who is in reality Ann Dwire, a reporter almost finished collecting an exposé on Dawson and the UD for VIEW magazine in Chicago. Ann goes to the Windy City to turn in her last article, but a taxi accident on the way robs her of her memory. At her bedside appears Steve Fuller (Michael O'Shea of The Threat), an undercover Federal Investigator who pretends to be Ann's fiancé so he can infiltrate United Defenders. The pair returns to Los Angeles. Despite her memory loss Ann resumes her job based on everybody else's assurances that she is indeed Ann Mason. Steve searches for incriminating evidence in Fred's room, while Fred simmers with jealousy. Donohue's wife Sally (Cay Forrester) shows up and is given the brush-off by Fred and Dawson, but Ann decides to help her. As she's still in a fog, Ann remembers nothing of her secret mission as a reporter for VIEW. When Steve tells her that his job is to put an end to United Defenders, she informs on him. Dawson and Stalk quickly figure out everything and decide to murder them both.
A sociologist would give Violence high marks for relevance, as its subject is a fascist political organization seeking to exploit disadvantaged, angry veterans. True Dawson is, to coin a phrase, a snake in pig's clothing: "We have an organization that's 100% American." Dawson's provocative speeches condemn unions and management alike, and he and Fred run their nasty operation like bad guys in a Dick Tracy serial. Writers Rubin and Louis Lantz also initiate a Mabuse-like precedent by inventing an unidentified "Mister X" who will pay big money for the UD goons to break up strikes,. Evil, shadowy puppet masters would later show up in socially-themed noirs like The Big Heat, On the Waterfront and The Phenix City Story. Sixty years later, political action groups spouting intolerance and barely disguised racism have succeeded in commanding power far in excess of their numbers. They are now part of the mainstream political fabric.
The political smarts of Violence don't translate to its surface logic. Ann Mason/Dwire walks around rubbing her temple to indicate her amnesia. After pretending to be a fervent believer in Dawson's fascist dogma, she now somehow believes it for real, which doesn't come off very clearly -- if Ann is really in some sort of amnesia-brainwashed state, she shouldn't care about Sally Donohue's problem. At one point Fred Stalk accuses her of having a really selective case of amnesia, and we immediately agree! Fred seems to have mental health issues of his own. After discovering that she's on the payroll of VIEW, Fred attacks Ann and knocks her down. When Sally intervenes, the 'ruthless' Fred just runs away, leaving both women free to run to the police! And that's ignoring the way VIEW magazine blithely sends Ann letters that could be intercepted by UD. Fred figures out that Ann is the mole through a simple telephone call -- the secretary at VIEW gives out compromising information about Ann to a complete stranger. We have to assume that this screenplay didn't get a great deal of scrutiny before the shoot.
Our favorite 'convenient' storyline event occurs when the hulking Fred knocks Ann out cold. Not much later, she's quite pleased with the result: "Fred did me a favor -- when he struck me, I got my memory back!" Violence has a timely message about veteran's rights, but it is also one of those goofy movies with silly notions of how amnesia works.
Jack Bernhard's direction is basic, but some things come off very well. The henchman Joker continually asks Ann to solve little finger puzzles for him, and shyly confesses to not being very smart. As it turns out, Joker only plays dumb so that people like Ann will never guess that he beats people to death for United Defenders, and disposes of the bodies to boot. The film uses stock shots for some exteriors, and only two episodes involve more than a handful of actors on small sets. A sizeable crowd of veterans shows up for a UD meeting, and after being properly riled up, clash with sincere veteran demonstrators in a vacant lot. For Monogram, these scenes represent a major expenditure.
Arresting brunette Nancy Coleman had Broadway experience before coming to Warner Bros., where she made a strong impact in edgy roles in Kings Row, Edge of Darkness and Devotion. But by 1946 Coleman was working for Edgar G. Ulmer at the most humble studio in town, Producer's Releasing Corporation. Her acting in Violence is only okay, as she's saddled with the inconsistent character and indifferent lighting that doesn't flatter her expressive features (those eyes!) as did the artists at Warners. Vaudevillian Michael O'Shea was never a big name but is on view in several interesting films noir; he was happily married to Virginia Mayo for 25 years. Familiar face Sheldon Leonard made his mark as swarthy gangland types in many pictures. Just a few years later he would become a major success as a producer of television shows. The same goes for actor Richard Irving, who plays the honest veteran's rights activist. After making no great waves in small roles (notably as a victim of brutal cop Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground) Irving became both a director and producer of TV fare, and enjoyed a long career. The powerful role of True Dawson is animated by the unheralded Emory Parnell, one of those character actors whose face is instantly recognizable yet has remained relatively anonymous. Parnell played lovable cops and pompous officials in close to 400 pictures. If Violence works, it's because Parnell's oratory as the vicious Dawson is so effective.
In a small but notable bit as Ann's apartment doorman and elevator operator is Frank Reicher, immediately recognizable as the captain of the tramp steamer Venture, in a famous film that Savant readers should already be able to guess.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Violence is a Remastered Edition and looks just fine. Cameraman Henry Sharp does nothing particularly special with the lighting, but the image has almost no signs of wear. There are unfortunately many Monogram pictures that didn't stay with the company, and haven't survived in editions anywhere near as clean.
The WAC's presentation has no extras, but the box illustration makes good use of limited original poster art. The package text lists writer Louis Lantz as "Lois Lantz".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The veteran housing issue is no joke: before I was born, the Air Force moved my young parents around the country every couple of years. They sometimes encountered difficulty finding good places to live. Locals discriminated against military families because they didn't have big money to spend and weren't rooted in the community.
Were there really cynical, manipulative political organizations in the immediate post-war years, doing what United Defenders is shown doing? The only group that comes to mind is The American Legion, which in the name of patriotism spread blacklist terror throughout many American industries. But the goal was political clout, not money. While doing an audio commentary for Decoy I talked to writer-producer Stanley Rubin. He couldn't come up with any good reason why so many of his fellow writers (he would later hire some of them) would be blacklisted, and not him, after pictures like Violence. Frankly, Rubin is such a nice guy, so instantly likeable, that even a HUAC committee might give him a pass.
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T'was Ever Thus.