Once is Never Enough for This Bunch of Interchangeable Toughs
DIRECTED BY JOE KANE/1958
STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 14, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Republic Pictures wasn’t the smallest of the minor studios making movies in the late 1950s, but you’d never know it from looking at The Man Who Died Twice.
Low budget filmmaking veteran director Joe Kane efficiently operates on a string of stark sets filled out with expressive lighting, which highlights an array of expressive mugs, none of them particularly famous. It’s a down and dirty world of sinister fedora-ed silhouettes and imposing guys in hats and ties, a bunch of chisel-faced no-nonsense investigators, suspects and detectives. They run together, quite honestly, but are compelling all the same.
There’s a harshness, an aspiring corse honestly, that the film’s era won’t quite allow it to engage. That said, it gets away with enough to make its points, such as when one of two killers holed up in a high rise hotel room locks a wandering cat from the hallway on the narrow ledge outside their window, he adamantly refuses to let his concerned partner rescue the poor thing. It’s an effective moment of cold brutality that makes all sensitive viewers feel helpless, the poor kitty. Yet, the air (myth?) of gentlemanly honor and religious devotion remains: a spying cop lowers his binoculars when the gal in the room being staked out begins to undress, and everyone makes a point of eating fish on Friday. As for the cat torturing baddie and his buddy, their humanizing “royale with cheese” moment comes, but not until after we know what they’re capable of.
The Man Who Died Twice is written by Richard C. Sarafian, who would go on to direct that most transcendental of 1970s car crash movies, Vanishing Point. The clenched teeth of this movie is a dry run for the clamped sphincter of Vanishing Point. One could also suppose that the quick and skiddy car chase that occurs a good way into in this late Noir is something of a precursor. But really, it’s just another car chase.
Heroin is the macguffin, just at the time when the drug was finding its regular place in screen stories. The same year as this forgotten film, heroin also emerged to played a significant part in Orson Welles Touch of Evil. In Man Who Died Twice, it’s only after a couple of plainclothes toughs upend a room in search of an elusive stash that it is of course discovered in the drug’s favorite hiding place, a doll. “Come up with any narcotics, I’ll buy ya a new hat.”, the Captain told them earlier.
Caught in the midst of all the spying, murder, and drug running is Republic Pictures mainstay Vera Rawlston, who was notably the wife of the studio head. For probably obvious reasons, she starred in quite a few of Republic’s pictures. Though English wasn’t her first language, it helps that she’s quite good, a magnetic-enough personality to sustain the b-movie length of seventy mere minutes. Even with the film that short, Joe Kane finds time for her to sing a song in a nightclub.
As film historian Toby Roan points out in his commentary track (the disc’s only bonus feature besides a few trailers), this was basically the end of the road for Republic. Fitting, perhaps, that the title evokes death. Even more fitting, then, that Republic did indeed die twice. Many years after the studio’s initial run from 1935 to 1959, there was a resurgence of the name and logo from 1985 to 1996. After a few minor theatrical releases and larger push into television, the eagle-turned-phoenix had burned out once again.
Convoluted in that dismissible and even encouraged Film Noir sense, The Man Who Died Twice commits the sin of treating the title character as a shadowy afterthought. Supposedly, this particular chisel-faced no-nonsense mug perished during the quick bodycount of the film’s opening minutes. When he returns very late in the game, it’s mostly a reminder that this movie is called The Man Who Died Twice.
Presented in Republic’s “Naturama” process (apparently a black and white picture in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), The Man Who Died Twice is also a reminder all the while that this was the 1950s. As time marches on, this particular Mad Men-esque era of cops and crooks seems increasingly, irrevocably bygone. Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new blu-ray of the unearthed film, looking and sounding as snappy as can be, is a classy presentation of a movie that never had, nor wanted any real class to begin with. Honor, though, is another matter. And hats, whatever side anyone’s on, are even more of a serious matter.