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The title Appointment with Danger may sound a bit generic for a crime thriller, but it is surely preferable to an earlier shooting title, "United States Mail". Although commonly identified as a film noir, Paramount's 1951 release is really a straight cops 'n' robbers tale similar to G-Men, lauding not the FBI, but those who safeguard our daily mail service. Yes, the Post Office's own force of Postal Inspectors do much more than just make sure that the clerks use enough ink on their inkpads. Richard Breen and Warren Duff's original screenplay provides a slick vehicle for tough guy star Alan Ladd. Although plenty of dark wet streets and thugs in trench coats are on view, Appointment with Danger has more in common with later Secret Agent spy tales: more slowly paced, but with more credible characters and some great hardboiled dialogue.
Roving Postal Inspector Al Goddard (Alan Ladd) is assigned to the murder of one his department's own. Al ingeniously traces the killers to another Indiana city, and uncovers a million-dollar mail truck robbery scheme. The killers Joe Regas and George Soderquist (Jack Webb & Harry Morgan) were seen dumping the body by a nun, Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert) and make an attempt on her life. The Sister's refusal to leave the city earns Al's admiration, as it contradicts his personal belief that everybody "has a pitch", that is, a selfish reason for their actions. Al eventually has no choice but to infiltrate the gang and join in on their caper. Posing as an Inspector gone bad, he must think fast to stay ahead of gang leader Earl Boettiger (Paul Stewart), and avoid the suspicions of Earl's provocative girlfriend, Dodie (sultry Jan Sterling of Ace in the Hole).
It's a safe bet that J. Edgar Hoover had nothing to do with the production of Appointment with Danger. Hoover didn't permit his FBI agents to be depicted as crooked, nor would he be likely to accept a storyline with a federal employee who aids in the hijacking of a mail truck. J. Edgar might also find fault with Alan Ladd's hardboiled, misanthropic hero. Al Goddard angers his boss with his cynical remarks. Upon first meeting Sister Augustine, Al quotes Martin Luther, just for the sake of getting a reaction. But a professional understanding soon develops between Goddard and his key witness.
Scripts about lawmen going undercover are a dime a dozen, but Appointment with Danger surprises with its sharp dialogue and interesting characters. Al Goddard leads off with a classic line: "Sure I know what love is -- it's what goes on between a man and a .45 that won't jam." Al is constantly on the move. When the corpse in the alley leads to a dead end, he asks a few questions in a nearby rail yard. Realizing he's on the right track, Goddard ditches his taxi and hops a passing freight to the next town, right then and there. James Bond would have used a sports car or a jet, but Goddard is a real man of the streets. Four hours later our agent has found Sister Augustine and has her downtown making a positive identification.
Al's penetration into the gang is nicely written and played out. The crooks move in a shadowy world of pool halls and creaky hotels, and Al's deception is almost discovered more than once. Jack Webb's sinister Joe Regas breathes down Al's neck at all times -- Al takes the opportunity to knock him out cold during a handball game. The movie does without a conventional love interest -- no Veronica Lake shows up to sing and rest her blonde head on Ladd's shoulder -- but Al's interesting friendship with Sister Augustine more than compensates. Phyllis Calvert's spirited and devout nun should have won an award for avoiding "cute" Going My Way whimsy. When Sister Augustine accompanies the Inspectors to a pool hall, the movie doesn't milk the scene for undue laughs.
Following another noir trend, much of Appointment with Danger is filmed on real city streets, including the swift mail robbery sequence. But the outstanding contribution is a sharp and observant script. The thieves sweat out the caper as individuals looking out for Number 1. Dodie plays records and relieves her boredom by trying to seduce Al. Paul Stewart's big boss keeps weighing the gang's choices, even when the heist goes bad. Director Lewis Allen (The Uninvited, Desert Fury) must be credited for some of this sophistication. Al Goddard faces a last-minute crisis when gun moll Dodie discovers his true identity. To our surprise Dodie proves that she's no dummy - like everyone else, all she wants is to insure her own survival. It's an unusually smart scene.
The writers were surely hoping to achieve the word-of-mouth buzz enjoyed by Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death, with its controversial scene in which Richard Widmark pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Appointment with Danger tries to top that brutality by having the dominant hit man Regas (Jack Webb) beat his submissive partner Soderquist (Harry Morgan) to death with Soderquist's own baby's bronzed booties. The sustained sadism is made all the more vicious through Webb's understated performance. Webb retained this deadpan persona for his later heroic roles, as in his self-directed feature Pete Kelly's Blues. Even more interesting in retrospect is that actors Webb and Morgan later played L.A.P.D. detectives in the second iteration of Webb's long-running TV police drama Dragnet. Viewers can be forgiven for smiling -- after seeing this callous murder scene, the relationship of Officers Joe Friday and Bill Gannon will never again seem the same.
Paramount finished shooting Appointment with Danger almost a year and a half before its 1951 premiere, but the delay seems to have been a routine scheduling decision unrelated to any issues with the film's content.
New DVD label Olive Films does well enough with their DVD presentation of Appointment with Danger, licensed from Paramount Pictures. The transfer on this show is quite good if perhaps a tiny bit light. We once again are given a chance to admire the expert work of Paramount's process projection master Farciot Edouart -- many of the process dialogue scenes are very neatly worked out. There is no visible negative damage and Victor Young's expressive score is nicely represented on the good audio track. The disc has no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Appointment with Danger rates:
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