Friday, December 27, 2019

Follow Me Quietly (1949)

Anatomy of a B movie

What is a B movie? Books have been written about it, duels have been fought over it. No, not really but you know what I mean. Discussions about the subject can get incredibly heated, one thing leads to another and before you know it people start throwing squeaky little toys at each other. And then it all end in blood and tears. As it is still Christmas and we don’t want that, I’ll try to spare you the pain and come up with something akin to a classification. You’re welcome. I know you’ve been waiting for this with bated breath for eons.

The simplest definition is that B movies were cannon fodder to fill the bottom half of a double bill. They used second (or third and fourth) tier talent, had starvation budgets, barebones sets, crackpot plots, five-day shooting schedules and frequently barely cracked an hour in running time. There’s something to be said for brevity. No detours, no side streets, just a step into the gutter where the sidewalk ends. 

Most major studios employed B units and if a hopeful couldn’t make it there, there was always the Gower Gulch where you went to avoid an eviction notice or if the hamburger joint at the corner didn’t need a dishwasher. Perpetually cash-strapped Poverty Row studios provided a refuge for filmmakers who had fallen from grace (Edgar Ulmer) or filmmakers who never got anywhere because they were a dead duck from the get-go (W. Lee Wilder). PR was also the last stop before the glue factory for actors whose star had crashed and burned. The story of Bela Lugosi who had to slum it out of necessity in Ed Wood productions late in his career is one of the most tragic.

But really, it isn’t quite so straightforward and artless as all that. What the “B hive” provided, more often than not unintentionally, was a canvas for pioneering and highly creative directors and cinematographers. It was a training ground for talent on the rise, like the incredibly gifted Anthony Mann who would go on to bigger and better things after his stint at various lower-echelon studios. 

B Units were a sandbox for innovation. Very often low budget, low oversight and little respect gave the filmmakers a certain artistic freedom, because the studios - and the PCA - wouldn't keep very tight control on a production of such relative unimportance. When low-rent quickie assignments were put into the hands of talented filmmakers, the results were quite often stunning, to probably everybody’s surprise. If no one in the head office cared about the finished product, it stood to reason, then you could do what you wanted so long as you came in on time and on budget. In this anything goes environment where less money equaled less oversight, Noir grew unimpeded by the usual restrictions on style, content and moral turpitude. 
It just goes to show that the aesthetics and artistry of a movie do not in the least have to be constrained by a low budget and more importantly low-budget does not have to be an excuse for subpar filmmaking.

B movies may not have any pretensions at high art but that doesn’t mean they deserve the Golden Turkey Award. B is not a quality judgment but a well-defined production level. In his seminal article Notes on Film Noir Paul Schrader puts the disdain that can often be found for B movies down to “economic snobbery…high-budget trash is considered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash.” Spot on. Those little films were never critical darlings which is another notch in their favor in my book.

Maybe many Bs were assembly-line products but their directors could be counted on for efficiency, economy and a bit of polish on a tight allowance. They were able to bring the movie in on schedule and on budget. That alone required extraordinary technical skill. And, if the stars were aligned right, these professionals brought style and energy to a product that was expected to have absolutely none.

The sparseness of the budget forced the producers to use low-key lighting and darkness to hide the lack of sets and a lavish decor, camouflaging the paucity of the production values. Quite often the distinct Noir aesthetics derived directly from simple financial constraints, but a $5 electricity bill was a nice side-effect. 
Grand historical epics depended on big budgets for optimal effect, crime dramas and Noirs depended on the tight disciplining constraints of small ones.

Arthur Lyons states in his book Death on the Cheap that 
“Film noir was made to order for the Bs…because it required less lighting and smaller casts and usually entailed story lines that required limited-scale sets”. 
Noir is by definition a style that epitomizes this phenomenon. B is the spiritual home of Noir. A shadow-filled world for shady characters living in seedy environs just one step away from the gutter. 

At its best the B Hive meant narrative economy and efficient picture-making. Sure, plots were often abstruse, relying heavily on contrivances and coincidences piled on top of one another. Logic often fell by the wayside and the producers expected the audience to swallow six impossible things before breakfast. B has its own rules and rationality doesn’t necessarily come into it.

Still, occasionally these coincidences are so spectacular that the mind boggles. They can jeopardize a B movie’s credibility and in the hands of an incompetent hack they could drive a movie off the cliff. In the hands of an assured director they were shortcuts that allowed a whole lot of story to be crammed into a few reels. Bs had to have an uncomplicated shorthand. Denied big budgets or luxurious running times they had to kickstart their stories straight into high gear. There’s just so much time for character development and navel-gazing when you only have 60 minutes. Messages are happily left to Western Union.

If the viewer thinks these structural weaknesses threaten plausibility, he’d be right…but shouldn’t watch a B movie. Just as in melodrama, these “weaknesses” are features, not flaws. If it’s done smoothly and with panache and style, you’ll hardly notice and there’s no reason why you should care. For me the no-frills approach works perfectly fine.

In the forties and fifties studios cranked out a seemingly unending series of cheapos to fill out the bottom of double bills. B movies, quite frankly, were the backbone of Hollywood. The town survived on a steady output of these lesser vehicles. While many of these one-hour throwaway products were instantly forgettable, occasionally you make a wonderful flea market find.

Follow Me Quietly was made by RKO, the studio that - much more than any other of the Big Five studios - relied on B pictures to fill its coffers, especially from the 40s on. The studio churned out Western, adventure and crime serials by the bucketload. 

1946 had been an extremely profitable year for RKO but it would soon suffer setbacks. Richard B. Jewell writes in RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born that “executive turnover was in fact the distinguishing feature of [RKO’s] twenty-nine year existence.... RKO’s management was never stable.” 

In 1948 aviation millionaire/tycoon Howard Hughes - who could charitably be described as eccentric - took over RKO, made himself head honcho and troubles began almost immediately. As studio boss his overpowering ego could never resist meddling in production matters, often demanding extensive changes to scripts. He unfortunately kept the directors he employed on a very short leash instead of trusting them to do their jobs right. He routinely held up promising films for months and even years with re-writes, re-shoots and re-edits causing interminable delays and skyrocketing production costs which drastically affected the studio’s bottom line. During his 7-year tenure, he put the studio through the meat grinder and it suffered massive financial losses due to his controlling and volatile management style. The man was a one-man wrecking crew. But despite this predilection for tampering RKO was able to churn out one good Noir after another, at least for a while, many of them becoming (minor) classics, such as On Dangerous Grounds, Out of the Past, Cry Danger and The Narrow Margin. It was RKO’s B unit that held things together and turned a profit. In the long run nothing though could stop the studio’s steady decline. Hughes was responsible for several expensive flops and as a consequence by the mid-50s RKO was in dire financial strains closing shop in 1957.

It was RKO that gave director Richard Fleischer his start. If we were to ask a group of passionate Film Noir fans to come up with a list of their favorite Noir directors, Fleischer likely wouldn’t be on that list. For no discernible reason Fleischer isn’t as revered as other denizens of Dark City, such as Mann, Ray, Dmytryk, Tourneur, Siodmak, Feist, Ulmer, many of them now considered heavyweights who continue to be celebrated and studied. Fleischer though is responsible for such entertaining time wasters as Bodyguard, The Clay Pigeon and Trapped, and genuine B Noir classics as Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin
Jason Ney called him “Noir’s forgotten man” in his Noir City Magazine article Richard Fleischer’s RKO years. Fleischer’s directorial career spanned almost 50 years, and maybe it is that he never seemed to have a distinctive signature or that his later A pictures overshadow his early Noir efforts that are worth a second look and more recognition. Fleischer was a solid Noir director who showed occasional flashes of utter brilliance.

He himself took the same attitude towards his B pictures as many of his critics. After the success of The Narrow Margin, Fleischer moved on to As and never looked back. In his memoir he shrugs his early efforts off dismissively with a sentence or two. He really shouldn’t have, and his work demonstrates that he could really deliver the goods.

Follow Me Quietly is a taut economical one-hour police procedural that’s well-paced and nicely photographed. Good old Bosley played the Grinch again, calling the movie 
“... an utterly senseless little thriller is patently nothing more than a convenient one-hour time-killer between performances of the eight-act vaudeville bill.” 
I’m beginning to think Crowther hating a movie should be taken as a ringing endorsement.

Obsessed cop Lt. Harry Grant (William Lundigan) has been hot on the trail of an elusive serial killer known only as The Judge for months without being able to nail him down while the bodies keep piling up. The Judge strangles his victims randomly on rainy nights. He’s motivated by some mixed-up religious sense of purity and sin, punishing “sinners” and meting out justice. Grant’s own lack of success is driving him crazy. The Judge seems to stay just one step ahead of his investigation. Grant is receiving “help” in the shape of Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick), intrepid girl reporter for a muck-racking tabloid rag that brings you all the news that’s not fit to print. She’s a pest - though a charming one - and sticks to him like glue which isn’t alleviating his headache.
This movie holds a claim to originality because Grant has the imaginative and slightly creepy idea to construct a life-size faceless dummy of the killer based on the evidence they got, instead of sending out routine bulletin information. It’s an early version of psychological profiling. Through that the cops get a better idea of his size and shape. They use the dummy in the lineup room for witness recognition and take photos of it to show to witnesses. On a side-note, the French movie title is Assassin sans visage, a much more apt title than the original.

If we think now the logic of this plot device is bewildering and hokey we’d be right. 
“Why would a dummy be any better than a sketch, especially when in many instances they’re just using pictures of it to try to identify the killer?” 
asks Nighthawk quite rightfully in his Noir of the Week review of the film. The entire setup doesn’t bear close inspection. But who’s to complain? Not us B movie lovers.

Fleischer is able to sell this setup as a serious idea and not a hammy plot device and I think he succeeds. If the actors ride roughshod over script absurdities with absolute seriousness and play a goofy script with heartfelt conviction, it usually works.

Or maybe it’s just that my tolerance level for this kind of stuff is very high. I take my doses of B Noir intravenously.

The scenes with the dummy are so effective because they are incredibly creepy even if they should be silly. The dummy is turned into an icon of evil. In the lineup room a sole spotlight illuminates the back of the dummy and we hear a voice asking The Judge questions about his motives. Late at night in his office where he’s working overtime Grant talks to the dummy, who sits with his back to him, pouring out all his frustration with his inability to successfully catch him. Again the scene is not silly, instead it is very eerie and tense. It gets even more unsettling when the dummy - after Grant has left - gets up and leaves! The Judge has sneaked into the police station. It’s never quite clear if this is actually happening in reality or if the audience is supposed to take it metaphorically because Grant is on the verge of cracking as his partner tells him.

To quote Nighthawk again: 
“Fleischer sells the seriousness of this scene, which successfully walks the line between disturbing and unintentionally ridiculous, through creative camerawork and stark lighting on the dummy.”
The reason why the entire movie works is because of the performances of the lead actors who have great chemistry and bring a lot of energy to their performances. Lundigan is a capable and handsome lead in these second-string features and Patrick in a rare lead role shows spunk. Plus we get good supporting performances, especially by Jeff Corey - who could steal the thunder from anybody - as Grant’s sidekick Sgt. Collins.

From the beginning the relationship between Grant and Ann is more flirty than professional. The lady is quite tenacious and single-minded in her quest to get what she wants: the inside scoop on a story that would be the making of her as a journalist. She demonstrates her determination by breaking into Harry's apartment at night to wait for him on his sofa, wearing a snazzy evening dress. Well hello…

In the end it is her knowledge of pulp magazines that gives Grant the clue to latch on to the mysterious killer who turns out to be a rather mousy Joe Schmo and not a brilliant criminal madman. I’ve seen a few reviews stating that this somehow ruins the movie. I really don’t know why. If I know my serial killers - and granted my knowledge on the subject may be a bit spotty - my guess is that this is much closer to the truth. Fleischer would later direct the utterly chilling 10 Rillington Place, based on the real life case of John Reginald Christie, a nondescript and unassuming man who nevertheless did away with at least eight people. The face of evil is commonplace and ordinary, easily able to blend into a crowd and hide in plain sight.

As opposed to the current strain of serial killer movies of the last three or four decades which portray the killers as brilliant, charming but tortured prodigies who almost invite the audience to identify with them, Follow Me Quietly does not delve into the workings of the criminal mind. Just as in He Walked By Night (which according to Eddie Muller on Noir Alley inspired Quietly), we never find out what makes The Judge tick. His motives, as his face, are always in the dark and he remains a cypher. We are in a B quickie and the only explanation we get is from Sgt. Collins: 
“I used to know a guy who cut the tails off of cats. He didn’t like cats. The Judge cuts the air out of people. I guess he don’t like people.” 
There’s no rational to his killings and the movie doesn’t even try to explain his psyche. Why does The Judge hate “sinners”? Why does he hate rain? Why does he kill? Damned if I know, and I’m sure damned if the producers knew.

Is the movie Noir? The jury is still out on this one. I’d say not really. It’s a police procedural with Noirish elements. It certainly has style to spare and visually fits the bill. We get atmospheric deep, dark shadows, canted angle shots and that almost (pseudo)Freudian attachment to water found in a lot in Noirs. It creates an aura of menace and mystery.

The Judge only strikes on rainy nights, Grant works through the night with a torrential downpour outside, in the final scene The Judge freaks out at the sight of water dripping like rain from holes shot in a pipe by a police machine gun.
The opening scene shows us Ann’s gams as she paces nervously back and forth on a rain-soaked street in front of a grubby dive while waiting for her mark Grant. In a see-through rain coat (slinky!) reminiscent of Joan Bennett’s in Scarlet Street nevertheless. She flicks her cigarette away in a less than classy gesture and enters the dive. The audience could be forgiven for mistaking her for a dubious dame, but we’d be proven wrong.

The Judge personifies one aspect of Noir, the randomness of fate and death. The people he kills are clearly not evil - despite his declarations to the contrary - and he chooses his victims arbitrarily. He doesn’t discriminate by sex, social station, race or political affiliation. Pure dumb luck decides who lives or dies.

The most damning evidence against Quietly as a full-blown Noir though is that alienation, loneliness, darkness and desperate choices Noir characters have to make are completely absent. The movie is very lighthearted despite the subject matter and both main characters are wholesome. Grant’s and Ann’s relationship is sexy and I love their banter but it is without any dark undercurrents.

I’ve seen a few reviews remarking on the cop/serial killer mirror image subtext. No doubt this notion is in the script which several times identifies Grant and The Judge as two of a kind in their obsessiveness. Grant even once states: “I'm too restless, the rain makes me nervous.” To which his partner replies: “You're getting more like The Judge every day." 

But it is not something that clean-cut Lundigan is capable of selling completely, as Eddie Muller points out in his Noir Alley intro. Grant may be desperate to catch the killer but he’s no defective detective. He’s neither neurotic nor is he close to losing his marbles over an obsession with a stiff like Lt. McPherson. The Noir (anti)hero usually has more traumas than an ER, but Grant is too well-adjusted for that. The inner turmoil and soul-destroying agony eating up the cop is not there. Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews or even Lawrence Tierney would have supplied Grant with an extra layer of twitchy hauntedness. 

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we call these movies as long as they entertain. One thing is certain, so often these cheap little films are better than they have any right to be. There’s poetry to be found on the trash heap.