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Say the name Walter Mirisch and one's thoughts jump to a proud producing credit on some of the best pictures of the 1960s -- when Mirisch wasn't making his own Oscar-winners (In the Heat of the Night) he was enabling producer-directors like Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards to fashion one unforgettable comedy after another.
But one must start somewhere. Walter Mirisch spent a decade producing "programmers" and B-pictures, mostly for Monogram and its upscale 'house label' Allied Artists. The Warners Archive Collection has released some of Monogram's more prestigious efforts but Mirisch's very first production wasn't among them. 1947's Fall Guy (no "The") is a mini-budgeted B-pic hoping to compete with the trendy mystery thrillers that were then in vogue. Only years later would they be branded as Films Noir. Although Fall Guy isn't exactly a front-rank example of the filmic style, this "Loser Noir" did make the cut for the first Encyclopedia of Film Noir in the late 1970s. The film's leading player "Clifford" Penn is a source of interest - he's really Leo Penn, the father of the famous star Sean Penn. The show can also boast a decent literary pedigree -- the author of the original story is the celebrated mystery novelist Cornell Woolrich. That fact is touted right on the posters, proving that Woolrich's name was a selling point, at least at this level of filmmaking... how often did the Monogram studio adapt published material?
The story follows a variation on a favorite Woolrich theme, amnesia. In this case the unemployed, unhappy young Tom Cochrane (Clifford Penn) wakes up in a detox ward. Inspector Shannon (Douglas Fowley) would like a confession, and quick: Tom was found unconscious on the street, stoked to the gills with drugs, and soaked in blood with a bloody knife on the sidewalk beside him. Tom doesn't remember a thing, and rather than be put to the third degree he slips out of the ward and hooks up with his brother-in-law, ex- cop Mac McLaine (Robert Armstrong). Tom's girlfriend Lois Walter (Teala Loring) also helps him try to remember what happened on that fateful Wednesday night. What he does remember is terrifying -- he thinks he may have killed a young blonde, and stuffed her body in a closet. By hanging around a bar called Benny's Club, Tom remembers that the guy who took him to the party was an elevator operator named Joe (Elisha Cook, Jr.). The slippery Joe naturally denies any knowledge of Tom: "What kinda Rum-Dum are you, anyway?" Our frustrated fugitive also tries to track down the mysterious singer Marie (Virginia Dale), who Mac thinks may have been part of the frame-up. But nobody will cooperate, Inspector Shannon is closing in and Lois's guardian "Uncle" Jim (Charles Amt) may take what he knows about Tom to the police.
Fall Guy is a humble but respectable production. Even for Monogram, filmmaking in 1947 was not cheap. The cameras were heavy and the crews large; the only way to cut costs was to minimize the number of shooting days. That explains why everything in the script by Jerry Warner (The Cat Creeps) is simplified. The New York location is a mixture of Monogram's indifferent sets -- we keep expecting Tom to bump into a Bowery Boy -- and a multitude of stock shots, some of which date back twenty years. One view of a Times Square movie marquee shows that the feature The Phantom Broadcast is playing... it was released in 1933. A montage of champagne glasses, nightclub signs and happy revelers seems lifted intact from the stock library as well; it doesn't seem quite right to illustrate Tom's rather desperate search for the mystery woman. Somebody slips Tom some cocaine, but we don't see exactly how this happens. Fall Guy can't afford fancy images to communicate the drug experience so a voiceover does the heavy lifting. Poor Tom tries to describe what he felt, inadvertently revealing how little the filmmakers knew about real drug-induced sensations. Tom can't quite put it into words: "I felt a crazy glow"; "I couldn't get my bearings." "Everyone had rings around their heads".
Mirisch does stretch his budget to include a song, "Tootin' My Own Horn", sung by Virginia Dale at the party where Tom becomes the fall guy. There are also a couple of okay fights and a rooftop struggle that generates a bit of excitement. But the characters tend to talk about doing things rather than do things. An "asking questions" montage wants us to think that Mac and Tom spend the day roaming around New York. All we really see are close-ups of feet walking on a sidewalk.
When director Reginald Le Borg graduated from short subjects, he never quite got free of Joe Palooka movies, Universal "Inner Sanctum" programmers and a few notable horror pix from the 1950s. He helps keep producer Mirisch's schedule by minimizing setups and camera moves. One suspenseful angle shows Marie, the singer who may be the film's femme fatale, watching in a mirror as a dastardly killer approaches her with strangulation on his mind. But it seems that nobody found a good solution for scenes involving a dead body in a closet. Tom finds the corpse standing up, and it almost falls on him like an ironing board. He stuffs it back in, locks the door and walks out hoping nobody will be the wiser. A day later, the closet is opened again and the body falls out in the exact same way, just like a skit in a Benny Hill show.
Leo Penn shows a lot of potential as a sympathetic lead actor. Reportedly blacklisted from film work because he endorsed trade unions, he found employment on TV until CBS barred him as well. Penn eventually became a prolific TV director. Well into middle age, Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in King Kong) was still a busy mid-range actor. The year before he had taken a key part in a slightly larger-scale noir production, Monogram's Decoy. Fresh from big studio pictures, Elisha Cook Jr. and Douglas Fowley (Singin' in the Rain) round out the familiar faces in the cast. Young Teala Loring labored in a couple-dozen programmers in the 'forties without breaking through; Fall Guy doesn't really give her much to do. As the singing mystery woman Marie, Virginia Dale at least gets to have some fun, making faces at her boyfriend and turning out to be more of a victim than a victimizer. Her biggest part was in the 1942 version of Holiday Inn. Marie's boyfriend Mike is perennial thug Jack Overman, here allowed to play a nice guy. A New York- set movie in the 1940s wasn't complete without the pipsqueak actor Lou Lubin, who plays a nervous bartender. He's the unforgettable detective Irving August in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim.
A standout is Iris Adrian as a mouthy partygoer described as a "loud giggly woman". Adrian played exactly that type for forty years, ending up a regular in Disney comedies. Her main scene simply has her slowing up Tom and Mac by losing an important key in a jar of cold cream. Adrian enlivens every scene she's in.
Walter Mirisch produced a second Monogram noir with the prizewinning title I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes, which I hope The WAC finds a way to release as well. He then went on to film nine or ten Bomba The Jungle Boy movies, a series that made use of young actor Johnny Sheffield after his Tarzan series ended. Those movies aren't to be scoffed at -- getting a foothold in Hollywood wasn't easy in the cutthroat postwar environment, and Mirisch made himself irreplaceable at Allied Artists. He executive-produced a number of classics without credit, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Friendly Persuasion. Walter and his brothers eventually formed a very forward-thinking independent producing company that released through United Artists. Fall Guy isn't at all bad for an initial producing venture.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Fall Guy is a good transfer of a film element in excellent condition. The usual flecks of dirt are here and there but otherwise the film is in impeccable shape. Walter Mirisch attended an early morning screening of the film at TCMFest in 2012, and told us that he had lost track of the picture and hadn't seen it since it was new. He said he was happy that nobody booed, which we all took as polite modesty. He wrote his autobiography a couple of years ago, entitled I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History ... I'm not sure that he remembered much about Fall Guy to report in his book.
The package artwork is an accurate approximation of Monogram's original paste-up eyesore ad campaign. Yikes -- one would think that even a little studio would cough up $100 for some interesting artwork!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fall Guy rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.