Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Tattooed Stranger (1950)

The Tattooed Stranger is a 1950 RKO crime B-picture and it’s a pretty low-budget affair. It’s a police procedural and it fits it into the filmed-on-location with a semi-documentary feel sub-genre made popular by The Naked City a couple of tears earlier.

A woman’s body is found slumped in a car in a park in New York. She was killed by a shotgun blast. The police don’t know the woman’s identity, they don’t know where she was killed (although they do know she wasn’t killed where they found her), they don’t know why she was killed. Even the time of death is annoyingly imprecise. But life wasn’t meant to be easy for Homicide cops and Lieutenant Corrigan (Walter Kinsella) has been a policeman long enough to know that complaining won’t solve the case. All you have to do is be absolutely meticulous about getting every shred of physical evidence that the crime scene has to offer, then you need to start waring out shoe leather and start using your brain and your experience. He knows the drill.

He is not too happy about being partnered with Detective Frank Tobin (John Miles). Tobin is one of those college boys who used to be in the Scientific Squad and they’re OK with test tubes but are they any good at real police work? But Corrigan knows there’s no point complaining about this either, and maybe the kid will turn out not to be totally useless after all.

Now you might expect that these two mismatched cops are going to clash but this movie avoids that obvious cliché. Corrigan grumbles but he’s actually easy-going, Tobin is a friendly kind of guy and seems to know his job and they’re both professionals. They’re not prima donnas. Pretty soon they’re getting along just fine.

When a guy with a knife gets into the morgue and tries slicing up the Jane Doe’s body it becomes obvious that someone is really anxious to make it hard to identify her.

The evidence collected at the crime scene holds a couple of surprises, one involving the murder method which wasn’t as straightforward as it initially appeared, and one involving seeds that had no business being there. The seeds lead Detective Tobin to the Natural History Museum where he gets some help from a very pretty young lady botanist, Mary Mahan (Patricia Barry). She’s so cute and friendly he really doesn’t care if she provides useful information or not, he’s just happy if she smiles at him. And she does eventually provide some pretty useful help. She also adds some glamour and a hint of romance to what is otherwise a very hard-edged and quite sleazy little film.

There is of course, as the title suggests, one big clue - the murder victim had a tattoo. It’s surprising just how much a tattoo can tell a cop if he knows the right questions to ask and the right people to ask.

While Corrigan and Tobin follow up leads the killer is busily covering his tracks, and doing so with ruthless efficiency.

Director Edward Montagne only made a couple of features before moving into television work. He doesn’t do anything dazzling here but he doesn’t make any obvious mistakes. Screenwriter Philip H. Reisman Jr’s career followed exactly the same trajectory. His script for The Tattooed Stranger is neatly constructed. This film captures the feel of realistic routine police work very convincingly. These cops don’t rely on brilliant flashes of insight - they know their jobs and they know that the secret is to just keep plugging away.

The acting is a bit stilted in places although Patricia Barry is quite good. The slightly stilted acting can even be seen as a plus, giving the movie more of the documentary feel that it was clearly aiming for. Look out for Jack Lord in a very small part.

The Warner Archive DVD is barebones but image quality is very good. Being a 1950 movie it was of course shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio so the fullframe transfer is correct.

This is a pure police procedural with no real claims to being film noir.

A very good story, good pacing, the occasional clever piece of dialogue, some effectively claustrophobic atmosphere (William O. Steiner’s cinematography is extremely good), competent directing and a well-executed climax would be enough to earn this one a recommended rating. It’s the superb location shooting, with its glimpses of life in the raw in some of the seediest parts of New York, that are more than enough to propel it into the highly recommended category. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s a neglected classic of its type and I liked it more than The Naked City.

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