Weirdo little noir programmer, featuring endless "it's so boring it's fascinating...nope, it's boring" dialogue, a cast of familiar "B" faces, and one or two inexplicably good scenes, god knows how. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Backlash, the 1947 hardboiled melodrama from Fox's "B" unit, directed by Eugene Forde, scripted by Irving Elman, and starring Jean Rogers, Richard Travis, Larry Blake, John Eldredge, Leonard Strong, Robert Shayne, Louise Currie, Sara Berner, Richard Benedict, and Douglas Fowley. Noir completists will want to see Backlash regardless of its worth, but casual crime meller enthusiasts should steer clear. Iffy original materials here for the fullscreen black and white transfer...with newer chromakeyed opening titles?
You have to give them credit: they crammed a fairly large amount of plotting into a just over an hour. Coming up fast on a police roadblock, smooth shyster John Morland (John Eldredge) stops and chews the fat with Detective Lieutenant Jerry McMullen (Larry Blake). It seems McMullen is looking for Red Bailey (Douglas Fowley), who just pulled a bank job...and ain't it funny how Morland, the clown who got Bailey off on a previous murder rap, is in the same area? Further down the road, who else but Bailey stops Morland, and bums a ride. A few days later, Detective Sergeant Tom Carey (Richard Benedict) arrives at McMullen's house and informs his off-duty superior that a burnt-out body was found in Moreland's car up on Mulholland Drive. Naturally they assume it's Moreland, although McMullen is sure it wasn't an accident. Delivering the bad news to the widow, Catherine Morland (Jean Rogers), the coppers are surprised to see her arrive home looking mighty cozy with Richard Conroy (Richard Travis), who just happens to be the District Attorney. When an autopsy confirms that Morland was shot, McMullen and Carey begin their investigation, meeting a cast of shady characters including Moreland's silky, suspicious law partner, James O'Neil (Robert Shayne), his girlfriend Marian Gordon (Louise Currie), and the Moreland's maid, dizzy Dorothy (Sara Berner).
Not a noir jewel waiting to be uncovered, not a meat-and-potatoes entry that can be enjoyed for its impersonal-yet-solid professionalism, and not crappy or inept enough to be enjoyed as a "so bad it's good" number, Backlash is an exceedingly pedestrian, perfunctory low-grade "B" programmer that produces only brief, momentary flashes of interest. Produced on the cheap by Sol M. Wurtzel's money-making "B" unit at Fox, and scripted by Irving Elman (The Jewels of Brandenburg, The Crimson Key, lots of early episodic TV, like Climax! and Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Backlash telegraphs its penurious foundation by remaining resolutely locked into simple two-shot dialogue scenes where one character asks another character what's going on, and the other character answers...endlessly. The mystery, such as it is, wouldn't stymie a distracted toddler, while the few potentially interesting elements in the storyline remain resolutely undeveloped; when characters start recounting past events, giving us flashbacks based on second hand information, the possibilities are there for some intriguing narrative games played on the audience...in another movie, apparently.
Some of the dialogue here is amusingly hard-boiled, particularly when the marvelous Douglas Fowley lets them slide out of the side of his sneer ("Witnesses can be squared...if you got the scratch,"). However, those are the exceptions; most of what passes for lines here are of the most distressingly ordinary and quite frankly, deadly dull origin (the only fun I had was trying to figure out how many different ways the various actors said the word "Moreland." I counted 6 different pronunciations, and then when someone botched "Mulholland," I hit the floor dying). Having watched this at the proper noir witching hour--3:00am, with no one in the place--I'll admit that at one point, the repetition of the head-on visual schematic, coupled with the droning, samey-samey dialogue, did lull me into this weird place where I became convinced I was watching something that was...more than it was. A quick rewind in the morning, though, dispelled that dropsy-induced notion but quick. There's no question, though, that one of Backlash's scenes is worthy of a second look. When John Eldredge lams it to the stockyards, he meets up with a bum, played by Leonard Strong (The Claw!). Shot in spooky, sweaty, high-key lighting by Detour's Benjamin Kline, this momentarily arresting scene looks like it could have been lifted from an Edgar G. Ulmer opus, such is its weirdly compelling vibe. As Strong spouts Shakespeare, pro "B" helmer Eugene Forde and cutter William F. Claxton go in tighter and tighter on an increasingly terrified Strong, as he realizes he's in the wrong place, at the wrong time (can't think of a better metaphor for noir). Director Forde, who could deliver a strong exploitation package when needed (Dressed to Kill, Berlin Correspondent, and some fun Charlie Chans), pulls this scene out of nowhere, jarring you after the somnambulant pap that proceeded it. Pity the rest of the movie goes right back into sleep mode.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.