Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
VCI continues its collaboration with Kit Parker films on Forgotten Noir Volume 2, another installment of post-war crime thrillers. Yes, both of these moderately-successful gangster movies features scenes shot at night and threats of violence, but that doesn't technically make them films noir -- they're both straight moralistic tales with good guys versus bad guys, based on the 'undercover agent' concept re-popularized in 1948's The Street With No Name. The shows are entertaining double bill fillers, with good actors and even a star on the way down, George Raft.
1952 / 79 min.
Starring George Raft, Dorothy Hart, Helen Westcott, John Hoyt, Paul Stewart
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction Feild M. Gray
Film Editor Albrecht Joseph
Original Music Heinz Roemheld
Written by Eugene Ling, Martin Rackin
Produced by Bernard Luber
Directed by Seymour Friedman
Loan Shark is pretty much the skids for ex-star and former New York underworld figure George Raft. In the late 30s and early 40s he single-handedly made Humphrey Bogart's career by turning down plum roles in film after film. If it wasn't a story where a good guy pretended to be bad, became a hero and kissed the girl at the end, Raft didn't seem to understand it.
Joe Gargen (Raft) returns from prison and gets a job at the local tire factory with the help of his sister Martha (Helen Westcott). A rotten pack of racketeers led by Vince Philips (John Hoyt) and Lou Donelli (Paul Stewart) are terrorizing the workers by charging outrageous interest on illegal loans. When they can't pay up, beatings ensue. Martha's husband Ed (William Phipps) is murdered for trying to organize the men, whereupon Joe becomes an undercover operative for the tire company. This estranges Joe from his sister and his new girlfriend Ann Nelson (Dorothy Hart), but he pushes on to find out the secret identity of the Mr. Big behind the racket. To do this he initiates a new scam that operates out of a laundry delivery service, offering crooked loans to gullible housewives.
Loan Shark is low-key and utterly predictable, relying on the charm of old favorite George Raft to maintain audience interest. The crooked setup is unbelievable in that any such racket operating in the open needs official cooperation from corrupt policemen; a five year-old would immediately figure out who most of the crooks are. The same crooked foreman Charlie Thompson (Russell Johnson) suckers all the workers into the usurer's net by, but none of them suspect Charlie of being in on the racket. As in many thrillers, "the workers" are characterized as ignorant dummies interested only in a cold beer after hours.
As the ex-con avenging his brother-in-law's death, Joe is a standard tough guy and not much of a noir hero. He enters the employ of the gangsters by beating up a thug, and from then on might as well hang a sign on himself that says, "police informant." John Hoyt and Paul Stewart are fine as the bad guys. Most of the solid citizen characters come off as clueless dolts, immediately breaking off with Joe and never questioning why he's doing such a bad thing.
William Phipps, a standard presence in war films and especially Sci-Fi pictures of the 50s (Five, Invaders from Mars, The War of the Worlds) is the ill-fated spokesman for the workers ... note that Loan Shark has no Union presence. Given a choice part as a frisky waitress is Robert L. Lippert's girl friend (or so claimed Val Guest) Margia Dean. As producer Robert L. Lippert had a relationship with Hammer films, this may explain why she ended up playing unlucky astronaut Victor Carroon's wife in The Quatermass Xperiment.
Loan Shark rates an entry in Silver and Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the Film Style but I have to believe that the compilers of that book, working before the advent of home video, didn't get a chance to review it. Besides the iconic presence of Raft the movie has little noir sensibility. They may have included the title because of an error in their synopsis, which (perhaps following a shooting script) says that Joe scalds Vince Philips to death in a laundry boiler at the end. The movie never gets near a "laundry with evocative shadows"; the concluding showdown takes place in a deserted theater.
1949 / 63 min.
Starring Robert Lowery, Anne Gwynne, Marcia Mae Jones, Douglas Fowley, Edward Brophy
Cinematography Carl Berger
Art Direction Martin Obzina
Film Editor Edward Mann
Original Music Raoul Kraushaar
Written by Arthur Caesar, Maurice Tombragel
Produced by Robert L. Lippert, William Stephens
Directed by William Berke
Arson, Inc. is the better of the two pictures despite coming from the same tired mold of 'undercover operator fools gangsters.' Arthur Caesar and Maurice Tombragel's script has some pleasant surprises and the actors do creditable work under difficult conditions, especially bad guys Douglas Fowley and Edward Brophy,
Top firefighter Joe Martin (Robert Lowery) goes undercover to break an arson racket. Caught at a gambling joint, he resigns from the department, but not before meeting Jane Jennings (Anne Gwynne), a teacher doing babysitting work. Pro firebugs Fred Fender (Douglas Fowley) and Pete (Edward Brophy) hire Joe to provide insider fireman knowledge to aid their racket. "Clients" clear their inventories from warehouses that then suffer devastating fires; the crooks then split the insurance money and the revenue from the hidden merchandise. Jane doesn't understand what's going on. Fred gets suspicious and sends his secretary Bella (Marcia Mae Jones) to determine if the rat in his operation is Joe or Pete.
Arson, Inc. is structured just as cheaply as any Lippert production. An actor (William Forrest) posing as a fire chief starts the film with a lengthy lecture illustrated with stock footage from the early 1930s. Later scenes save money by cutting in equally old, mismatched shots as well -- like one picture of a fire truck that shows a woman wearing a skirt down to her ankles.
Robert Lowery is a good-looking and inoffensive hero. His meeting-cute scene with Anne Gwynne ends with him watching her correct homework at a dining room table. She hands him a pile of history papers to work on! It's a rare scene in a thriller that actually relates to real life. For comic relief, Jane has a grandmother, also a babysitter, who hangs around the periphery acting strange. She's supposed to augment her income by babysitting as well, but it's never explained why she hangs out on dark street corners!
The arson plot is far-fetched but immensely enjoyable because of familiar actors Douglas Fowley and Edward Brophy. Fowley (the silent movie director who tears his hair out in Singin' in the Rain) goes wonderfully over the top barking out bad-guy orders as the crooked arson boss. Brophy (the knife thrower in Mad Love) is a riot as a pushy, emotional firebug Pete. He can act tough but goes goofy over secretary Bella. Pete proudly teaches Joe the A B C's of arson, like starting multiple fires to make the investigators think that a serial firebug is on the loose.
An amusing turn of events happens when Joe is invited to a lively party thrown by Fred. We expect some kind of criminal's rendezvous, but it turns out to be a bunch of people singing Little Brown Jug around a piano! Fred ogles Anne Gwynne's Jane like he's a wolf about to pounce, and nobody seems to notice!
The plotting is fairly cut and dried but we like the personalities, a plus that comes in handy when the supposedly formidable bad guys self-destruct at the conclusion. Naturally, all the bad guys come to a violent, final end, as everyone knows crime never pays. We're expected to believe that Fowley can drive his old clunker car down a mountain road at 120 mph. Director William Berke keeps things cooking and our young lovers interested in each other, no matter how silly the story gets. Our hero's big action at the end is to pull a fire alarm switch! At 63 swift minutes, Arson, Inc. hasn't time to become boring.
Forgotten Noir Volume 2 is a satisfactory pair of old-fashioned crime thrillers that aren't particularly noir. The transfers are clean and appropriately flat. Both titles come with original trailers (not to mention the posters for Lippert's HIghway 13 and I Shot Jesse James that show up in the background of shots.) Arson, Inc. has the first half of a text essay on Robert L. Lippert written by his son; Loan Shark has a dull commentary by Richard M. Roberts that mostly lists a lot of information from the IMDB. Roberts tells us that we're watching a man exiting a building, that a shot is a good one, etc. Roberts does say that the back lot rented to film the night scenes is Charlie Chaplin's studio up on La Brea Avenue, one of the few pieces of new information on the entire track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Loan Shark rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary, trailer
Arson, Inc. rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Essay on Robert L. Lippert, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 21, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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