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 the 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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