Film Noir Review: “Undertow”

“Undertow” (1949)

Starring Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett and Roc Hudson. Directed by William Castle. From Universal-International.

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A typically fantastic poster, indicative of the era and the genre.

Tony Reagan (Brady) is a former gangster and ex-con who is vacationing in Reno. He runs into an old Chicago crony, Danny Morgan (Russell), who is still connected with the underworld. The two buddies share a drink and they find that they are both engaged to be married. On the flight home to old Chi, Tony sits next to pretty school teacher Ann McKnight (Dow). Tony and Ann had previously exchanged pleasantries at a Reno craps table. When Reagan arrives home, he is immediately rousted by the police in the form of old nemesis Det. Charles Reckling (Bennett). Tony is informed that he is suspected of causing potential trouble with his old boss, mob kingpin, Big Jim, his fiancee’s uncle. Tony goes to talk it over with Big Jim and is slugged, shot in the arm and left in his car. Upon waking, he hears a radio report of Big Jim’s murder and learns that he is the number one suspect. Tony looks up Ann and she, believing him innocent, harbours him. Tony tries to exonerate himself which leads him to his fiancée, Sally (Hart) and his old pal, Danny. Can Tony clear his name? Or will he be caught in the undertow?

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Ann believes Tony but he doesn’t want her to get hurt. They make a good looking couple.

In a way, “Undertow” is perfect. Is it a fantastic film on a level with “Citizen Kane”? No, that’s not what I mean. It’s perfect in that it is a prime example of “film noir”. Without getting into a long dissertation on this post-war genre, I’ll just quickly run it down for the uninitiated. Film noir can be considered a documentary look at the seamier side of life in America in the years immediately following World War 2. The men coming home from the war were faced with suddenly trying to go back to their former lives. This proved difficult for many considering the horrors they had lived through on the battlefield. Many men struggled to assimilate and this gave rise to a somewhat desperate condition. Unable to play the game, many men turned to the streets; if not to crime, exactly, then to a shadowy world that was in part born out of their inability to function after the terrors of war. “Happy endings” – or happiness, itself – were no longer a foregone conclusion. Reality in this time now included desperation, poor choices and living on the fringes of society in an ambiguous land.

Hollywood began to reflect this change in society with the production of these gritty crime dramas – the term “film noir” was coined in France many years later. A handful of actors began to make their name in this new style of film. Some were stars already like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum but a lot of the actors employed in these films were lesser lights and a lot of them began to forge new identities and new careers in film noir. Scott Brady was among them. Brady started life as Gerald Tierney in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a police officer. Notably, Brady’s brother was actor Lawrence Tierney, who himself made a name in hard-boiled films noir such as “Born to Kill” and “The Hoodlum”. Tierney was a raging alcoholic who found himself regularly in trouble with the law, often for assaults on civilians and lawmen alike. He made a memorable turn years later in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”.

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Tony, realizing it’s a frame-up, has to take it on the lam.

Brady served in the US Navy during World War 2 and after his discharge he followed his brother and headed for Hollywood. Once there, he was immediately cast in films noir such as “He Walked By Night” – his first film, co-starring Richard Basehart and Jack Webb, who took his experiences on this film and created “Dragnet” – “Canon City” and “The Counterfeiters”, co-starring Lon Chaney, Jr., Hugh Beaumont and Joi Lansing. “Undertow” was his fifth film. He was a good-looking, fine and earnest actor who would never exactly make the big time. He would go on to star in his own show on television, the western “Shotgun Slade” which ran for two seasons starting in 1959. He died a year after appearing in his final film, 1984’s “Gremlins”.

John Russell was a handsome, strapping actor whose 6 foot, 3 inch frame almost made him ineligible to serve in the United States Marine Corps. He was eventually made a second lieutenant and served on Guadalcanal before contracting malaria. Unfortunately, Russell never even achieved the level of success in films that Scott Brady did. He appeared in many westerns, including “Rio Bravo”, before following Brady to television. Russell starred in the series “Lawman” beginning in 1958, a show on which he was joined by noir actress Peggie Castle. “Lawman” ran for four seasons – 2 more than Brady’s series. Russell is perhaps most notable for his appearances in Clint Eastwood westerns “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and – memorably – 1985’s “Pale Rider”, a film in which he cut a striking, villainous figure. He died in 1991, aged 70.

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Big- shouldered John Russell in Reno for “Undertow” and in Alberta for Clint’s “Pale Rider”.

“Undertow” was Peggy Dow’s first film. Later, she appeared in “Harvey” and “Bright Victory” but left the business to get married after only two years in Hollywood. In 1951, aged 23, she married an oilman from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Walter Helmerich III – theirs is a story I suggest you look up. Helmerich & Payne is an oil drilling company that was co-founded by Walter’s father and is currently the second largest onshore driller in the world. Walter was made president in 1960 (he got this news when his father, founder Walter II, came into his office and said “you’re president. Good luck”) and served as such until handing the reins over to one of his five sons with Peggy, Hans, in 1989. With her marriage, Peggy became Liz Taylor in “Giant” – a beautiful wife of an oilman, she became a prominent lady in Tulsa society and a philanthropist of the first order. The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award has been given out since 1985 to authors who have made major contributions to the field of literature. Past winners include: John Le Carré, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow, John Grisham and Canadian Margaret Atwood. She developed a women’s health center that provides services including labour and delivery, childbirth education and neonatal intensive care. Perhaps most satisfyingly for us, Peggy V. Helmerich is still with us at 90 years of age.

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Peggy Dow. Quite a lady.

Bruce Bennett won the silver medal in shot put at the 1928 Olympic Games. In 1931, producers chose him to portray Tarzan in the vine-swinger’s first feature film but Bennett broke his shoulder making a football movie. Johnny Weissmuller – also an Olympian – got the call instead. Bennett would go on to a prolific albeit low-key career appearing in films such as “The More the Merrier”, “Mildred Pierce”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Love Me Tender”. He was still active late in life, skydiving at the age of 96. He made it to 100 and died in Santa Monica.

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Olympic medalist Bruce Bennett as Det. Reckling. Suspicious at first, he soon finds himself in Tony’s corner.

Pretty Dorothy Hart portrays Tony’s fiancée, Sally. Hart made only a handful of films including the noir classic “The Naked City” (1948) and “Tarzan’s Savage Fury” (1952) in which she became the tenth actress to portray Jane. She retired after only 12 films and seven years to work for the United Nations.

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Dorothy Hart as Sally. Soon to leave Hollywood for some real work at the UN.

“Undertow” marks the second film and first credited appearance of Rock (“Roc” here) Hudson. Rock had appeared the previous year in “Fighter Squadron” with Edmond O’Brien and Robert Stack. Delivering his one line in that film took 38 takes. Rock soon began to be groomed by Universal and would go on to make “Bright Victory” in 1951 with Peggy Dow before being used as a leading man starting with “Scarlet Angel” (1952) opposite Yvonne de Carlo and “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”, a comedy that featured a brief appearance by James Dean. Rock Hudson, of course, would go on to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

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“Roc” Hudson (with Bennett) in his one scene in “Undertow”.

The director of “Undertow” was William Castle. Castle was given his start in the entertainment business at 15 when he befriended Bela Lugosi and Bela got him a job with the touring company of the play “Dracula”. Castle’s interesting career is a story unto itself; I suggest that, while you’re looking up Peggy Dow, you also look him up. Castle began directing in the early ’40’s. He did uncredited script work on 1945’s “Dillinger”, starring Scott Brady’s brother, Lawrence Tierney. He also worked as an associate producer and uncredited script doctor on Orson Welles’ noir classic “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947). “Undertow” was his first notable film as director and he went on to direct low-budget action and western films. In 1958, he mortgaged his home to make “Macabre” which began his career in horror. Castle was also a master of publicity and promotion, coming up with endless gimmicks to promote his films. With “Macabre”, he took to the trades to offer life insurance policies to those brave enough to see the film. For the following year’s “House on Haunted Hill”, Castle worked in cahoots with theatre owners to rig up a pulley system in theatres to have a skeleton swing out over the audience. “The Tingler” (1959) was shown in theatres where Castle had secured buzzers to the underside of certain seats. At pivotal moments in the film, the buzzers would emit a screaming wail.

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William Castle. Aside from his horror gimmicks, he exhibited a deft director’s touch with this film noir.

Castle mortgaged his home again in the mid-Sixties to buy the rights to the unpublished novel, “Rosemary’s Baby”. His dream was to produce and direct an A-movie himself. In the end, Roman Polanski helmed the film with Castle producing and Castle enjoyed the success of a quality picture. Health issues made it impossible for him to capitalize on this success, however. He later had small acting roles in “Shampoo” (1975) and “The Day of Locust” (1975) and passed away in 1977.

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There are some great location shots in “Undertow”. In some, you can see the crowd watching the action.

Right from the opening credits, you can see that “Undertow” has partially been shot on location in Chicago and Reno. This characteristic of film noir is particularly pleasing as it adds to the realism and it allows us to see moving images of some great American cities as they looked post-war. So you see, there is a lot to recommend “Undertow”. It may not be “The Maltese Falcon” but, sometimes, that is exactly what you want from a film noir – simplicity. 70-80 minutes of regular guys and regular gals trying to make it through the shadows. Greatness is non-essential.

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Dino 100: Part 3

Dean Martin hit ‘legend’ status early. By the late 1960’s, his records weren’t charting anymore and he wasn’t starring in hit movies. But it didn’t matter. He performed on stage in Las Vegas and elsewhere to sold out crowds. Dino played it “drunk” and sang all the old songs and the people loved it. He gathered his celebrity friends together to put on one of his legendary “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” and the people laughed. Funniest of all was watching Dean, laughing harder than anyone. And not just at Don Rickles ripping people to shreds, either. You could believe that he was laughing mostly because he truly had it made. He could sustain a career and reap the rewards with very little effort. He just had to be himself.

The thing about Dean Martin is that he didn’t care. Now, as soon as you say that, it sounds negative. But I don’t mean to say that he had a poor attitude toward things or he was indifferent to his family and friends. When I say he didn’t care I mean that, for the most part, he wasn’t consumed with striving to attain a level of greatness in his singing or his acting. He could sing. He could sing well. He liked to sing. So, he sang. Period. And the record buying public loved it. His talent was based on ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘craft’. He had ‘a way with a song’. While making movies, he was laid back and jovial on set. When the cameras rolled, he acted naturally and his charisma shone through. But that’s not to say he wasn’t good – very good – at what he did. Watch him in his films with Jerry Lewis and you’ll see that Jerry is bang on when he talks of Dean’s comedic timing and his handling of a funny line. Not to mention the looks and expressions he could pull off in place of a spoken punch line. It all came so naturally to him. That is what is at the root of his greatness – it was all so seemingly effortless. He was so completely confident and sure of himself that he was able to simply be himself his entire career. This is what people today remember most about Dean Martin. His attitude, his coolness. He was also successful when he went looking for a stretch and played it serious in films like “The Young Lions” with method actors Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift or “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne. While making records, he could delight you with joyous recordings like “That’s Amore” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” but he could also make you close your eyes while his voice washed over you with the smoother sounds of “Once in a While” or “My One and Only Love”. With a change of sound upon moving to Reprise in the ’60’s, he could still delight listeners with a jaunty run-through of “I’m Gonna Change Everything” or make them shake their heads and sigh with the heartbreak of “Nobody’s Baby Again”.

In the interest of taking care of business, it should be noted that the last years of Dean Martin’s life were not happy ones. One of Dean’s sons was Dean Paul Martin, who was known as “Dino”. Young Dino was a noted tennis player and a minor actor. He starred in a TV series in 1985-86 called “Misfits of Science” that also starred Courtney Cox. Dino was also a pilot. He joined the California Air National Guard and rose to the rank of captain. He died in 1987 when his jet crashed into the San Bernardino Mountains, the same mountains that had claimed the life of Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly. Losing his son devastated Dean and he was truly never the same. In 1988, Frank Sinatra organized a series of reunion shows featuring himself, Dean and Sammy Davis, Jr. Frank reportedly said that the main purpose of the reunion shows was to give Dino something to do, to get him out and about, to maybe forget his troubles. But Dean’s heart was never in it. He lasted only five performances before bowing out. In the fall of 1993, Dean was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Christmas Day, 1995 of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema. He was 78.

But enough of that. We’re here to celebrate Dino’s LIFE. His legacy is remarkably full and varied. He made many great comedy films in the golden age of Hollywood with one of the greatest and most celebrated comedians that ever lived. He recorded timeless music in his early days, sprinkling lovely Italian melodies amongst gems that are the very definition of mid-century crooning. His alliances with other legends added a luster to his personality as regular joes looked at him as the ultimate ‘pally’: the perfect guy to hang out with. In a tux at Romanoff’s or a sport shirt in the clubhouse after a round of golf. He epitomized the swank Las Vegas lifestyle and aura that appealed to royalty and working stiffs the world over. With his many westerns he won over many fans of that hardy, masculine genre. Adding to this was the appeal of his style of country crooning throughout the 1960’s – just one more way he endeared himself to the majority of the adult record buying public. It seems today he is remembered for one major thing. His most lasting legacy seems to be COOL. When hip, happening people of today look back for inspiration when it comes to handling the lady, handling the cocktail, handling the situation no matter what it is – and handling it dressed to the nines – they all seem to land on Dean Martin. He may have had equals but was there ever anybody cooler than Dino? I don’t think so. As Dean’s character in “Ocean’s 11”, Sam Harmon, said: “Everywhere I go people stare at me in dumb admiration”. Yes. We do.

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