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The early books on film noir identified perhaps fewer than two hundred titles as following the classic contours of the style, as then defined. Then books surfaced that included mystery thrillers that merely resembled or suggested the noir style, which included many no-budget program pictures knocked out on studio assembly lines. Finally, a huge encyclopedia came out a couple of years ago that seemingly included every B&W thriller before 1960 that didn't star Danny Kaye. If ever a film style (not a genre, the purist in me must preach) has been diluted into near-meaninglessness, film noir is the one.
That makes it a pleasure to run into the tiny Monogram show Incident (1948), which is a clever little thriller with some noir flavor. The charming little turnip was directed by William Beaudine, a producer's handyman who cranked out almost 400 films over sixty years. Beaudine seemingly did his best to avoid anything remotely resembling a style. Yet "One Shot" Beaudine did right by this show, which comes across better than many program thrillers squeezed out by the bigger studios in the penny-pinching late 1940s. And surprise of surprises, it even gives us a personality discovery, an actress by the generic name of Jane Frazee. She's charming, she's talented, and her career went almost directly from musical walk-ons to a running part in a dead-end series of short subjects. But she definitely had something. More on Jane below.
Are you a screenwriter looking for a solid storyline? Incident has what you need, a crime tale adaptable to any location or situation. Stock salesman Joe Downey (Warren Douglas) is severely beaten while walking home from a dinner with friends. The attacker refused to believe that Joe wasn't "Slats" Slattery, a target for the mob. When he gets out of the hospital, Joe goes back to the neighborhood not realizing that the thug, Knuckles Morgan (Meyer Grace) has been given orders to finish the job. Joe sees Knuckles and calls the cops, but apologizes to Lt. Madigan (Eddie Dunn) when the crook gives him the slip. Meanwhile, Joe has also met beautiful Marion Roberts (Jane Frazee), and they begin dating. He doesn't know that Marion and a suspicious druggist might be 'in' with the local crooks headed by the gangster Nails (Anthony Caruso), who soon also realizes that Joe and Slats are not the same person. When Joe does catch up with Knuckles, he finds him dead. It takes Lt. Madigan a while to decide that Joe is innocent of the killing. Joe refuses protective custody in a jail cell. Fired from his job when his picture hits the newspapers, he determines to get to the bottom of things on his own. What he doesn't realize is that Nails is still curious about him... and that Marion is closer to the case than he thinks.
Filmed on Monogram's same T-shaped street set seen in all the East Side Kids movies, Incident has subtle qualities that elude most program pictures with rushed shooting schedules. Fred Niblo Jr and Samuel Roeca's dialogue is uncommonly natural, allowing the actors to behave more like people than usual. Everyone seems to be trying a bit harder for quality, at a studio where filming was often so rushed that a good take is anything where actors hit their marks and get the words out in the right order. Joe is first seen with his 'normal' friends Joan and Bill (Joyce Compton and Harry Lauter). Joan is perhaps too exaggerated as a loudmouth ninny. He's soon dealing with crooks and other shady people that aren't stereotypes, at least not initially. The druggist is definitely hiding something. Gang leader Nails is a practical guy and not a cardboard baddie. Knuckles looks too old to be a strong-arm man -- until he starts throwing punches. Finally, the smart guy everybody's after, Slats Slattery, is a cool customer dodging both the cops and the hoods. He's played by Robert Osterloh, a great but relatively obscure actor in scores of top noirs -- my quick count is sixteen. Between Osterloh and Anthony Caruso (fourteen noirs, by my count, Incident at least has two familiar faces.
Warren Douglas is an okay leading man, but definitely not big star material. The spotlight here is on Jane Frazee. Noirs are loaded with beautiful women but Frazee delivers the kind of star presence one would expect in an 'A' picture. From her first shot she projects intelligence and personality. Her Marion is the most interesting character, in that we don't know if she's a good girl or a femme fatale. Most inexpensive thrillers of this ilk show all their cards early on, leaving some gimmick or a particular performance to hold our interest. Frazee's Marion eventually becomes the center of the story, with a take-charge attitude that contrasts with Joe's relative cluelessness. Joe may be the innocent victim of fate, a pawn in the 'incident' of the title, but the classy Marion is the stronger noir protagonist. She thrives in the noir underworld, showing that she can take care of herself. When Slats' slutty girlfriend gets in the way, Marion just hauls off and decks her... but discreetly, of course.
How better to place Incident on the spectrum of budget noir? Boris Ingster's Southside 1-1000 stumbles along with less-than interesting story elements, but some good location action and a lively finish perk it up. Jack Bernhard's Decoy has its share of woeful acting and direction but delights with its story absurdities, exaggerated characters and over-the-top sadism. In contrast to those, Incident makes a quiet attempt to manage some naturalistic acting and credible characters. We're watching the same boxy, windowless Monogram sets, but many of the scenes actually come to life.
Although not a mainstream noir or even a really distinguished thriller, Incident builds considerable suspense before wrapping things up with some fairly generic confrontation scenes. Bigger-budgeted shows with higher production values customarily end in an exciting chase, preferably on some dynamic 'night and the city' location. But we still like the way this little drama plays out -- it could have been a contender.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Incident is a pristine copy of this all but forgotten title. The intact Monogram logo looks fairly exotic. Because television distributors routinely replaced original studio logos with their own, I don't think I saw an Eagle-Lion or PRC logo until the 1990s.
Online stills for Incident being difficult to track down, I've opted for glamour shots of Jane Frazee. Even they don't convey the amused light in her eye when Marion appears in the first scene, pretending to be something she's not. The WAC reminds us that Jane was paired with Roy Rogers in a number of films, presumably when that frisky Dale Evans hopped the corral fence or something. The only other thing I remember Frazee from is playing opposite George O'Hanlon in a fistful of "So You Want to..." Joe McDoakes short subjects. She's a pleasant discovery here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. See also Laura's insightful coverage of this disc at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. She sees some interest in the show as well.
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T'was Ever Thus.