Saturday, September 6, 2014

Appointment with Danger (1951)

Appointment with Danger is a movie about a tough two-fisted postal inspector. By 1951 movie-makers were worried that audiences might be growing tired of tough two-fisted FBI agents and Treasury Men so they figured that a tough two-fisted postal inspector would make a nice change.

The film was directed by Lewis Allen for Paramount. Alan Ladd had long been the studio’s resident tough guy actor having played a string of fairly notable film noir roles for them in the 40s. And of course he would go on to star as the reluctant gunslinger in Shane, unquestionably one of the ten greatest westerns ever made. So by 1951 Ladd had plenty of experience playing movie tough guys. He knew how to wear a trench coat. He was only a little guy but then so many of the great movie tough guys were short. I guess being short gives you the right attitude to deliver hardboiled dialogue. And this movie has one of the classic lines of hardboiled dialogue. One of the other Post Office special agents tells him he doesn’t know what a love affair is. Ladd replies, “Sure I do. It's what goes on between a man and a .45 that won't jam.”

Ladd is Post Office Inspector Al Goddard. He’s investigating the murder of another Post Office Inspector, a guy named Gruber. He doesn’t know why Gruber was killed or what he was working on. The only lead is a nun, Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert), who may be able to identify one of the killers. If she can tell Goddard who killed Gruber that might give him a lead on why he was killed.

This rather sketchy trail is enough to point investigators towards a major mail robbery involving a shipment of a million dollars in cash. Against instructions Goddard decides to try to infiltrate the gang. He believes this is the only way even if it is risky. It might also be the only one to prevent their one and only witness from being murdered and Goddard has come to admire Sister Augustine’s quiet courage and good humour. 

On the whole this is a standard undercover cop trying to foil a heist movie but it’s well executed and has a few interesting features.

The cast is a major plus. I’ve always liked Ladd’s minimalist approach to acting and it works particularly well here. Goddard is a hardbitten guy with a low opinion of the human race but under Sister Augustine’s influence he slowly begins to lighten up, and to admit that maybe people may have their good points after all. As his partner tells him, if he works real hard at it he might even qualify to join the human race. The gradual change in Goddard’s outlook is not entirely due to his new-found habit of socialising with nuns - he also gets a surprise in the behaviour of another key character who does something unexpectedly decent, although that character’s motivations are not entirely altruistic.

The gang leader Earl Boettiger is played by Paul Stewart who excelled in these kinds of roles. On this occasion he gets to play a hoodlum who is a little more complex than usual. The two principal hoods are played by Jack Webb and Harry Morgan who would later team up in the long-running and iconic TV series Dragnet. Webb is particularly entertaining as the psycho Joe Regas.

Jan Sterling plays the movie’s femme fatale Dodie, a femme fatale with an interesting twist.

Veteran cinematographer John F. Seitz provides some fine atmospheric scenes that are the movie’s main claims to consideration as a film noir, or at least a crime thriller done in a film noir style. Director Lewis Allen keeps things taut and tense especially towards the end where two plot strands intersect quite effectively. The climax is not particularly spectacular but it’s satisfying enough.

There are a couple of moments where the screenplay by Richard L. Breen and Warren Duff avoids the obvious and has criminals acting like real people rather than movie characters, figuring the angles the way real criminals would figure them.

Olive Films have come up with an impressive transfer although as usual with this company there are no extras.

Appointment with Danger is not a film noir classic but it is a solid well-crafted crime thriller with some fine performances. Highly recommended.

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