When it comes to John Wayne, who do you see? The Duke, of course. Tall, powerful, quietly commanding. Ten gallon hat, red hankerchief. All-American icon of Western cinema, idol to Republicans and grannies alike.
John Wayne did several non-Westerns throughout his long career, however. Some (like The Quiet Man) were bona fide classics, while many others have become quirky footnotes in his vast filmography. If one were to find any commonality in the likes of Jet Pilot (1957), The Conqueror (1956), His Private Secretary (1933), Brannigan (1975), Reunion in France (1942), etc. - it would be that Wayne was not so much the all-American icon set in our collective psyches but a mere working actor, like anyone else under the studio era. A Man Betrayed, an enjoyable if schizo 1941 mystery-crime-comedy mashup recently given a nice home video reissue by the folks at Olive Films, counts as another of the Duke's odd outings that didn't take him into the sagebrush.
A workmanlike picture made during the actor's stay with b-movie studio Republic Pictures, A Man Betrayed casts Wayne in a decidedly current yarn involving a mystery-shrouded death, corrupt politicians, a beautiful rich girl, and one fabulous nightclub. The film opens on a stormy night in a mid-sized city, as a drunken young man is seen stumbling out of that fab hotspot, the Club Inferno (a joint whose business card reads "40 Beautiful Girls, 39 Costumes"). As he staggers across the street, a nearby lamp gets struck by lightning and the man collapses, dead. The crowd assembled around the corpse find a bullet hole in his chest, however, and the police quickly determine that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
John Wayne's character, aw-shucks country lawyer Lynn Hollister, comes into this city wanting to know more about the shady circumstances of his childhood friend's death. His initial trip to Club Inferno reveals that the hell-themed hotspot is being covertly run by a local politician who fears that the club's unsavory reputation will rub off on his public image. Hollister then visits the corrupt yet likable "Boss" Tom Cameron (Edward Ellis) in the mansion he shares with his adult daughter, Sabra (Frances Dee). Hollister, not getting much of anything from the elder Cameron, sees an in with the lovely and self-assured Sabra, however. Despite being a bit awkward in her presence, he takes the opportunity to share a night on the town when her blind date fails to show. The place he chooses? The Club Inferno.
As Hollister's investigation deepens, he uncovers a web of corruption involving an underground gambling racket and an election-rigging scheme - all leading to the local mob and Tom Cameron. He also finds himself falling for the alluring Sabra, which is where this otherwise routine programmer excels the most. Efficiently directed by John H. Auer, A Man Betrayed mostly aspires to be the same sort of snappy, urban crime comedy that Warner Bros. was doing more effectively at the time (see Larcency Inc.). In that respect it comes up short, but the smart interplay between a surprisingly adept Wayne and the underrated Frances Dee (best known for I Walked with a Zombie and the 1933 Little Women) makes it worth checking out. The Lynn character plays on Wayne's usual persona, the self-assured if unsophisticated man who is gawky around women. In exchanges like the one below, the pair come across like a b-movie Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck:
Lynn: You would be lovely if you had brown hair.
Sabra: I have brown hair.
Lynn: Yeah. [They kiss.]
Another excellent part of A Man Betrayed comes in the production, which is quite glossy for a studio of Republic's lowly stature. Lovely Frances Dee (who bears a resemblance to Charlie's Angels-era Kate Jackson) is outfitted in a variety of swanky outfits, while the cinematography and production design has a low-key sheen. The cave-like Club Hades set, in which patrons enter on a slide, a hot-jazz band plays, and the employees dress in devil costumes, counts as another memorable aspect in an otherwise indistinguished project.
As goofily entertaining as A Man Betrayed can be, the film is simply too scattershot to wholly recommend. Wayne and Dee are well-served, sure, but the film also contains good character actors like Wallace Ford and frequent Wayne co-star Ward Bond in roles that fail to utilize their talents. The production often feels like several films smushed together, with a dim hope that it will all come together somehow. Often these bizarre shifts in tone play out to whiplash-inducing effect, such as the second-half segment in which an overlong, broadly played slapstick fighting scene culminates with a hail of bullets injuring an innocent bystander (the murder victim's mother, it turns out). Hurting an old lady as a convenient plot-advancing device? The Duke would not approve.
Note: image does not reflect the contents of the A Man Betrayed blu ray.
The Blu Ray:
Olive Films' Blu Ray edition of A Man Betrayed preserves the film's 1.37:1 image in a crisp, clear, excellently mastered disc. The film itself hasn't been digitally restored for this edition, showing a fair amount of dust and other artifacts (especially during the opening credits). The black and white photography is nicely preserved, however, with a well-balanced image that highlights detail without looking hard-edged and overly sharpened.
The sole audio option here is the film's original English language mono soundtrack, with no other language or subtitle choices offered. The sound is fairly typical of vintage '40s films, with a decent range that tends to sound raggedy on the louder end of the sonic spectrum. Dialogue and music is clear throughout, however, with no outstanding flaws to speak of.
John Wayne momentarily set aside the saddles and spurs for 1941's A Man Betrayed, a sprightly romantic comedy in which his character investigates the supposed suicide of his childhood friend. Wayne is surprisingly good (matched by a smart leading lady in actress Frances Dee) in an intrigue-filled story that starts off engaging and winds up an unfocused, silly mishmash. This handsome looking yet strange Republic production is an oddity in the Wayne filmography, one that only completists of the icon's work would have any reason to own. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.