Monday, June 22, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Chicago Confidential (dir. Sidney Salkow, 1957)

Between 1947 and 1952, New York Mirror newspapermen Jack Lait (1883-1954) and Lee Mortimer (1903-1963) collaborated on four sensational volumes about postwar urban crime and corruption: New York Confidential, Washington Confidential, Chicago Confidential, and U.S.A. Confidential. (After Lait’s death, Mortimer would extend the “Confidential” vibe with his solo effort Women Confidential in 1961, which Kirkus Reviews excoriated as “dreary,” “misogynous,” and “shabby.”) The books’ typical-for-the-genre blend of titillation and faux moral outrage made for strong sales and a recognizable franchise. The infamous gossip magazine Confidential, which today is more famous, actually launched after the four Lait-Mortimer books had appeared (in December 1952). James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential and its movie adaptation play off both associations, the magazine and the books – its title suggests a volume that the East Coast-based Lait and Mortimer never got around to writing.

It is a cinch, by the way, that Lait knew his contemporary and fellow New York journalist Herbert Asbury (1889-1963), who cornered the market on urban historical exposes with his rousing and still very entertaining volumes The Gangs of New York (the source of Martin Scorsese's problematic film), The Barbary Coast, The French Quarter, Gem of the Prairie, and others. The Lait-Mortimer books were in the same line, only “ripped from today’s headlines.”

As collections of various loosely related urban scandals, the “Confidential” books did not lend themselves to direct adaptation, so the two movies (New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential) and one television series (New York Confidential) “suggested by” them basically lifted the titles alone, for recognizability value. I’m sure that Lait and Mortimer didn’t mind the easy cash! Of course, there were many expose-style films with cities in their titles throughout the Fifties, to the extent that they qualify as a crime film sub-genre. The degree of noirishness depends on the particular movie, often amounting to no more than the exploitation of a visual vocabulary that had become pretty standardized by the time.

Still, completists must have them all, and if one is going to watch a batch of relatively routine movies with close attention, it pays to be alert to the minor variations that they present. All movies, even pretty terrible ones, become historically interesting as specimens of their genres as time passes. Film historians will be poring over our lame rom-coms and cookie-cutter action movies fifty years from now. It’s inevitable.

So what does viewing Chicago Confidential, now available on DVD from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, yield? Well, I’ve watched it twice, and both times the 73 minutes went by engagingly enough. Almost (but not quite) across the board, the contributions on display in the movie are, as a Variety review might put it, “solidly pro” or “blandly pro.”

I’m not extensively familiar with director Sidney Salkow’s filmography, but his work here shows the unexciting proficiency that one might expect from a man who directed as many low-budgeted features, series films (Lone Wolf, Bulldog Drummond), and series television episodes as he did. He seems to be the exact opposite of a Joseph H. Lewis, who tilled the same fields with unique results. With Salkow, there are no surprises.

(By the way, has anyone noticed the existence of Salkow’s late Brit-noir The Murder Game [1965]? The only review or comment at the IMDB is Bosley Crowther’s contemporary piece in the New York Times.)

Among the tech credits, Kenneth Peach’s cinematography offers a few decent but not startling night scenes. Emil Newman’s score is in the blaring-brassy style common at the time.

The generally able cast includes:

Dick Foran, who had matured into solid middle-aged parts by this point; he plays union boss Artie Blane, framed for the murder of the union treasurer

Beverly Garland, showing some spunk as Foran’s girlfriend who presses the cause of his innocence

Elisha Cook Jr., at his most pathetic as the drunkard “Candymouth” Duggan, who discovers an important gun

Phyllis Coates, TV’s first Lois Lane, uncredited as the wife of Chicago State’s Attorney Jim Fremont (Brian Keith)

Anthony George, later co-star of Checkmate, as a heavy; he’s visible throughout the film, but barely gets to speak two lines

Douglas Kennedy as the corrupt union V.P.

Gavin Gordon as a Capone era holdover

I’ll offer two special shout-outs. Paul Langton (1913-1980) plays Chicago Police Captain Jake Parker, and is a most agreeable presence. Langton had a long career as a supporting player in film and television, but seldom got a chance to stand out until he took on the role of Leslie Harrington in TV’s Peyton Place. He did, however, play leading parts in three postwar crime films, the recently re-surfaced For You I Die (1947), the very obscure Fighting Back (1948), and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Murder Is My Beat (1955); as well as W. Lee Wilder’s Abominable Snowman movie The Snow Creature (1954). Langton is someone I would like to know more about.

The plot of Chicago Confidential hinges on a possibly faked audiotape brought into evidence at Artie Blane’s murder trial, and whether it is the work of an impressionist. Buddy Lewis (1916-1986) makes his film debut as nightclub artist Kerry Jordan, whom we hear do Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Durante, and Cary Grant (but who ignores Garland’s impassioned shout from the audience: “Do Artie Blane!” – it’s her best scene). Lewis would continue to appear on screen until 1981, and would put his mimicry of Jolson to use again in the 1965 biopic Harlow (the one starring Carol Lynley, not the Carroll Baker version which came out the same year). Information about Lewis on the Internet is tantalizingly sparse. Again, someone I would like to know more about.

(By the way, whatever happened to impressionists? The Rich Littles and Frank Gorshins, they were big in the Sixties and Seventies – there was even briefly an ABC series called The Kopycats in 1972, with those two as well as Charlie Callas, George Kirby, Marilyn Michaels, Fred Travalena, and Joe Baker. No one seems to make a career or become famous doing this anymore. Kevin Spacey, however, does some mean impressions, including a killer Christopher Walken which he shared with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. I hear there’s a guy named Frank Caliendo who’s pretty good, but I’m unfamiliar with his work.)

I mentioned that there was one contribution to the otherwise formulaic surface of Chicago Confidential that is not quite rote, and for me it is where most of the fascination of the film lies. As State’s Attorney Jim Fremont, a righteous crusader with gubernatorial ambitions (Illinois Governor? Don’t do it, Jim!), Brian Keith gives a profoundly weird performance. I can’t recall that I’ve ever seen an actor who looked so embarrassed to be in a starring role before. As one IMDB commenter puts it, Keith “spends most of the time speaking quietly and staring at the floor.” Is this some bizarre manifestation of the Method? But why would an operator trying to grab the brass ring be so slouchy, diffident, mumbly, eyes-averted? This approach doesn’t capture anything about the character as written, and is entirely out of keeping with a long movie tradition of stalwart heroes; yet it must have been deliberate, and the director permitted it, so what gives? I have thought and thought about this, and I have no answer. Yet I have to admit, Keith’s presence at the dead center of Chicago Confidential makes it unique in a way that another 999 out of 1000 noir leading performances would not have. The film lingers in my mind because of it.

Chicago Confidential

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