Singapore (1947) / Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) / The Raging Tide (1951)
BOX SET STREET DATE: APRIL 26, 2022 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Kino Lorber has just released their 6th trio of lesser-known ‘film noirs’ from Universal’s back-catalog, all with brand-new 2K transfers that really bring these old films back to life. Like with previous sets, some of these movies slot into the Noir genre less comfortably than others. This time around we get one from a director who’s done great work in the genre in the past, a director who would go on to make his fame with seat buzzers and flying skeletons, and a director whose work, while hardly distinguished, was at least incredibly prolific. Fred MacMurray shows up in one movie, and Shelley Winters features in two. There’s jewel smuggling, dude ranches, and lots and lots of fishing ahead.
DIRECTED BY JOHN BRAHM / 1947
American Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray), an adventurer and smuggler, has returned to Singapore after the end of World War II. The authorities, personified by Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn), believe he has come to reclaim a stash of pearls Gordon had to leave behind when he fled the invading Japanese. Gangsters on the island, Mr. Mauribus (Thomas Gomez) and his minion Sascha (George Lloyd), also believe this and want a piece of the action. Though Gordon denies it, he did, in fact, come for the pearls. Trouble brews when he discovers that his lost love, Ann (Ava Gardener), whom he believed to be killed in a bombing raid, is still alive. She claims not to know him, however, and has no memory of ever having been in love with him. What’s a smuggler to do?
Singapore isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s not a particularly good one either. It is directed by John Brahm, who made the far superior Hangover Square in 1945 and The Locket in 1946. Comparisons to Casablanca might be facile, but it’s easy enough to picture Bogart, Bergman, Rains, Greenstreet, and Lorre in the lead roles without changing a line of dialogue. It’s also easy to imagine how much better Singapore would be as a result. MacMurray is affable and charming, as he so often is, but his Gordon is more like a dad on a holiday than a conniving rogue. Gordon and Ann’s love affair lacks any real spark, and there’s very little investment as to whether or not these two crazy kids will find themselves together again. For a movie with romantic aspirations, that’s deadly.
Lastly, as a work of Noir, Singapore falls flat. The complex moral and psychological quagmires Noir protagonists find themselves in (such as in the aforementioned Hangover Square) are totally lacking. Sure, Gordon might be a smuggler, but as far as criminal activities go it’s pretty tame. He’s only hurting the British colonial government, and screw those guys. He’s set up against a pair of thieves, kidnappers, extortionists, and probably worse. Next to that, what’s a little pearl smuggling between friends?
Johnny Stool Pigeon
Directed by William Castle / 1949
Treasury agent George Morton (Howard Duff) has a problem. There’s about to be a huge spike in drugs coming into the country, and Morton’s only lead just got himself killed. Morton needs to go undercover to find the bosses of the operation, and to do that, he has to get help from Johnny Evans, an old childhood-friend-turned-criminal that Morton sent up the river. Evans has no love for coppers, and Morton least of all, but he agrees to help. Can Morton trust Evans not to blow his cover?
Despite its exploitative title, Johnny Stool Pigeon is, for the most part, a fairly routine cops-and-robbers melodrama. It’s the sort of plot one would find on any TV cop show. A couple of things help elevate it above the crowd. It was directed by William Castle — yes, the guy behind The Tingler and Emergo-Vision and countless other gimmicks. His direction isn’t particularly inspired here, but it is an interesting piece of trivia. Johnny Stool Pigeon also has an early appearance by Tony Curtis (billed as Anthony Curtis). 1949 was Curtis’ debut year in the motion pictures (he popped up in bit parts in 6 films that year). Here, he plays a mute hired gun who gets a look at Morton early on in the picture and pops up later to cause trouble for the T-Man.
But the best thing the movie has going for it is Shelley Winters’s performance as Terry, a mobster’s moll who develops a crush on Morton. Terry is adept at projecting a tough-as-nails exterior as she moves among men she knows holds her life in her hands, but she lets that veneer slip while with Morton, revealing the brittle vulnerability and desperation beneath. It’s never done in a showy “I’m ACTING!” sort of way. It’s a marvelous piece of naturalism in a role that probably didn’t require a performer of her skill.
The Raging Tide
Directed by George Sherman / 1951
Shelley Winters gets top billing in The Raging Tide. She had appeared in A Place in the Sun earlier in 1951 to great critical acclaim (and get the first of her many Oscar nominations). Her part here, however, doesn’t live up to her talents. It’s the sort of generic mobster’s girlfriend role that doesn’t call for much effort, and certainly the sort of role Winters was looking to get a break from. It’s safe to say that the character of Connie Thatcher is the weakest element of The Raging Tide. Which speaks very highly of everything else in the movie, since Winters isn’t bad in the part, it’s just that the part is a little undercooked. That stands out in a movie which otherwise presents a rich tapestry of characters and a plot that features as much high seas adventure as it does cops and robbers.
Richard Conte plays Bruno Felkin, a gangster in San Francisco who rubs out a rival in the film’s opening shot. He high-tails it to his girlfriend’s apartment in hopes of establishing an alibi, but would you know it? She’s not in. Desperate, and with all roads out of the city blocked off, he hides in the back of a fisherman’s boat. Claiming he’s a down-on-his-luck salesman who was sleeping off a bender, he asks the boat’s captain, Hamil Linder (Charles Beckford) if he can remain on board and help during the fishing expedition. Linder agrees and Felkin soon comes to admire the man and the hard, but honest, work he performs. Linder’s son, Carl (Alex Nicol) thinks hard work is for suckers. Still hunted by the cops, Felkin recruits Carl to keep an eye on his business back in the city while Felkin’s out on the boat. Felkin also wants Carl to pass messages along to Connie. Felkin’s already none too happy with Carl for the way the young man treats his father, and when Carl takes an instant liking to Felkin’s girl and soon starts wooing her for himself, you know there’s gonna be trouble.
Surrounding all of this churning melodrama are a cast of characters who’d not be out of place in a Thimble Theater cartoon. Linder is best friends with Barney (Tito Vuolo), a devout Catholic who keeps a shrine to the Virgin Mary on his boat. Chubby Johnson plays “General” Ball, leader of a gang of vagrants that includes the likes of ‘Spade-Face’ and ‘Mr. Fancy.’ Then there’s Corky Mullins (John McIntire). Perpetually drunk, perpetually out of money, all Corky wants to do is get his boat fixed so he can make a big haul and get back on his feet (and avoid the marrying clutches of Johnnie Mae Swanson who wants to reform him). These characters drift in and out of the main story, or exist just to the side of it, adding a dash of humor and life whenever they appear.
The Raging Tide‘s focus on fishing and family might not seem like a good fit for a crime thriller, but Felkin’s admiration for Linder creates a conflict in him. He’s a bad man, and he knows it, but the simplicity, sweat, and honesty of the life Linder leads appeals to him. Is it possible for him to leave his old life behind and start again? Furthermore, when Felkin brings Carl into his organization to serve as debt collector and leg breaker, that’s a complete betrayal of Linder’s ideals. Felkin starts Carl down a path of corruption that would break Linder’s heart if the old man ever found out. It’s this push-pull between people knowing what they should do and what they feel they need to do to survive that lies at the heart of every good film noir. People who are mostly good, honest, and law-abiding are sent down paths that often lead to murder and betrayal, and the decisions that led them there always seem like the right thing to do at the time.