NB: plot spoilers for the original story and the film.
I tend to think of Monogram for its lunatic Bela Lugosi horror quickies and godawful Dead End Kids comedies, but they made a lot of lower-case film noir; presumably that’s why Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless to the company. Though assigned to in-house director William Nigh (who turned out a ton of stuff like The Ape, Black Dragons and The Strange Case of Dr Rx), I have the impression that this was a bit of a prestige project in B picture terms – it runs 70 minutes, about 5/10 longer than the usual, and not only went to the trouble of buying a Cornell Woolrich story (at a time when his books and stories were being done at the majors) but hiring Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming) to do the script.
The cast is lacking in even the kind of ‘stars’ the studio could afford, but that somehow works for the story – which is very interestingly adapted. The original ending wouldn’t fly for the movies – there, the boob hero convicted on circumstantial evidence isn’t definitively exonerated when further investigation turns up another suspect but with equally dodgy evidence against him – and so Fisher conflates a bit of his own I Wake Up Screaming, about a cop/murderer obsessed with a woman and bending justice to get to her, with the end of Woolrich’s Phantom Lady, as the detective type who has been helping the heroine dig up the goods to free her husband turns out to be the killer.
It opens on Death Row with Thomas Quinn (Don Castle), aka ‘Number 9’, not wanting to talk to the other doomed men in the adjacent cells. Nigh, no one’s idea of a great director, does something interesting with the set-ups so that each condemned man is always seen from the same angle, and there’s a weird bit as one con plays a Chopin record over and over in the least cheering attempt at cheering anyone up ever put on film. Quinn won’t talk to the others, but his inner monologue narrates how he came to be here. In a typical bit of Woolrichian dead end squalour, Quinn is an out-of-work hoofer who resents that his wife/dance partner Ann (Elyse Knox – heroine of The Mummy’s Tomb and, incidentally, mother of NCIS grey fox Mark Harmon) is the family breadwinner in a euphemised dime-a-dance parlour.
To add to his misery, their rotten apartment backs onto a derelict garden where cats are always yawling – he throws his shoes out the window at them, then realises they weren’t his old pair but the only good dance shoes he has (with taps) and tries in vain to find them. The next day, the shoes are outside his door – but a miser who lives opposite has been strangled, and a print of Quinn’s shoe is handily in the backyard. The feeb finds a wallet with two thousand dollars in the kind of old-fashioned bills the miser hoarded and – in a canny change from the story, where the wife argues against keeping the cash – Ann cajoles him into not handing it in to the cops, but looking at the lost and found columns of the papers to see if anyone’s looking for the money.
At the trial, the fact that Quinn has bought all the papers for a week seems to suggest he’s been following the murder investigation, though actually he’s so hung up on his own woes that he’s barely noticed the house across the way is a crime scene and there are cops all over the show. Quinn is tried and convicted, but Ann won’t let it rest. Inspector Judd (Regis Toomey) – a cop who is also her sort-of-stalker/sugar daddy dance customer she calls ‘Santa Claus’ – volunteers to keep working the closed case, which ropes in another shady suspect (Robert Lowell) before the truth comes out.
For a Monogram, it has folksy/artsy touches – a bit with a Jewish shopkeeper (Esther Michelson) who is sort of philosophical, an impressionistic trial sequence that evokes Stranger on the Third Floor – but that might be because even on Poverty Row a plot like this that depends on outrageous coincidence and contrivance has to be framed with German Expressionist stuff about fate, inevitable doom and cosmic joke.
Castle and Knox are limited actors but just right as the dance team (who never get to dance onscreen): he’s weak and whiny, and his resentment of his more successful wife is squirm-inducing; and she’s hard-bitten and determined, not always an angelic influence, and consciously manipulative of her hopeless cop admirer. Toomey is good too as the slightly pathetic weasel villain – Fisher seemed to like stories with killer cops, since he worked on the script of The Lady in the Lake too. The crowded, busy plot takes place in the run-up to the holidays – Fisher also added this angle to Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake – making this an ideal Christmas noir.