It’s a joke, right? said the studio executive. That’s not the title of the movie. What’s the title?

No joke. That’s the title.

Well, change it.

Can’t. Ben Hecht wrote it, and you know Ben. He’ll walk if we change it. He says that’s the name of the novel and he’s not going to wrong by her. A dame wrote it.

God. Writers. Can’t he come up with someone else he likes?

Nope. And even if he did, Montgomery’s sold on it too. They’re both screwy about it. Go figure.

Okay. Put Montgomery’s name up first. Then . . . here, the character’s name. That’s pretty hard-boiled. Then put the stupid name at the bottom.

What about the posters?

Leave that to the boys in art.

And so:




It’s a peculiar piece of noir. It takes place in a small town, unlike the usual sinkholes of the big bad city; it’s in New Mexico, but it has the languor and lawless menace of a Mexican village.




The hero isn’t particularly likable:



Nevertheless, he gets a sidekick. Lucky Gagin, indeed:



Wow. Dixie Wanda Hendrix. At the time the film was released - 1947 - she was married to Audie Murphy. It lasted four years. She said he had trouble coping with his war experiences, and would occasionally go slightly mad and hold her at gunpoint. After the marriage ended she didn’t get many roles, and died of double pneumonia at 52, back before they had good drugs. As usual, this page is a much more interesting account of her life than her wikipedia entry; it’s taken mostly from the gossip mags of the day. The things you learn: Cagney arranged her first day with Audie.

She was young and innocent in the start, but you know the phrase “she cleaned up real good,” to indicate the natural beauty that emerged after some grooming? Well, she nastied up pretty good, too:



Then there’s this fellow:



Art Smith. He played “studious types,” as wikipedia puts it, but for a short old guy he had a good way with a gat. When he pulled it out, you knew he knew how to use it, because he’d been practicing daily at the range in the office basement. See, he’s an FBI agent. He’s following our hero, in town to settle an old score with a mob boss, played by that guy:



Fred Clark. Did a ton of TV in the sixties, right up to the point where he died of liver disease at the age of 54.

The secret to getting your point across sometimes? Don't blink.



The movie’s slow start winds it into a long strange middle section, where the hero pals around with a fellow we’ve been trained by a hundred movies not to trust: the fat, shiny-faced, grizzled, Mexican guy who expresses great friendship and assistance. You know he’ll stab you in your sleep for a few dollars. Thomas Gomez:



He doesn’t play out as expected, either. He runs a merry-go-round. Is it symbolic? OH MAYBE JUST A BIT. Does it have horses? It does. Is one of them . . . pink? It is.

Like all dark stories set in small Southwestern or Central American towns, the action comes to a climax on the day of a village festival, when there’s noise and fireworks and laughter in the dark of night. Noir requires nothing less. How it ends I’ll leave aside, but if you do watch it, pay attention for the little speeches about how an ex-GI regards the society for which is fought. Post-war disillusionment is a theme in the bleakest noirs, and man, this one could provide poster-quotes for Occupy Wall Street protestors.

The director, by the way, was Montgomery himself, which is why the film feels different from the standard Hollywood product. You keep expecting scenes to end sooner; you keep expecting actors to wrap it up so we can cut to something else. But this is what happens when an actor directs, and he’s generous: everyone gets to act, and act in long stretches. Not overact: there’s none of that. It’s a study of five people, but mostly Montgomery and Gomez, and in the end you’re glad you watched. So we can thank Montgomery for this, as well as his daughter.

You know her: Elizabeth Montgomery. Samantha from "Bewitched."

By the way, here's a peculiar bit of composition from the scene in which Lucky Gagin walks to the carousel and meets the young woman who'll follow him around for the entire picture.




On the left, the barker with his whirling machine, symbolizing the madness of life, perhaps? The maelstrom of human desires, perhaps? On the right, three girls, on the other side of the Boundary of Corruption. Above them: the bell of the church. On the other side of the line, mirroring the bell, the hat of a man, his face unseen, a figure from below, waiting for the girls to cross the line, and ride . . . well, you know.

That's one way of looking at it. If so, will our young maiden walk to the other side, the side of the Fallen World, or find a way to bring our hero to the side of goodness and church bells?