Okay, let's get this out of the way right at the top. This is one deplorably racist pulp magazine. THE MYSTERIOUS WU FANG, published by Popular Publications in 1935, lasted only seven issues. Dr. Wu Fang was a stereotypical "Yellow Peril" master villain, in the tradition of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu. The series reflects the racist attitudes held by many Americans towards anyone of Asian descent in the years prior to World War II. But you have to put that into context, and recognize that stuff like this is a product of its' time. It's politically incorrect now, but it wasn't then, at least, not to the majority of readers who plunked down a dime and got swept up into a whirlwind of pulp adventure.
THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB was published in December 1935. It was written by veteran pulp scribe Robert J. Hogan who was also turning out material for such pulps as THE SECRET SIX, G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES , DARE-DEVIL ACES and DIME WESTERN MAGAZINE, among others. A series character pulp novel required an average of 80,000 words per month so you can see that Hogan was one busy man.
SUICIDE TOMB finds Dr. Wu Fang in pursuit of a ancient plague, long buried in a lost tomb in the American southwest. The tomb contains hundreds of purple tinged skeletons, all of which have their skulls smashed and a horde of white bats. Wu Fang hopes to unleash the plague into the modern world, wreaking widespread death and destruction and offering an antidote to the highest bidder.
Wu Fang is opposed by a trio of stalwart heroes. Archaeologist Rod Carson, newspaper reporter Jerry Hazard and federal agent Val Kildare. They in turn are aided by Cappy, a scrappy newsboy, and two exotic beauties Mohra and Tanya. The action is fast and furious, starting in New York City's Chinatown and ending in the Arizona desert. Along the way, Wu Fang unleashes an army of weird menaces to forestall the heroes including hybrid beasts that are part lizard, part rat and a gorilla. Wait, a gorilla? Yes, a gorilla who turns out to be an Aryan thug in a gorilla costume. You can't make this stuff up.
The version of CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB that I read is a nifty replica edition that includes black and white interior illos, two columns of text layout, a bonus short story, SHANGHAI MURDER by Steve Fisher and the original cover art by the great Jerome Rozen. It's all lovingly packaged by John Gunnison and his superlative Adventure House publishing company. This is actually issue number 42 of the ongoing HIGH ADVENTURE series of pulp reprints, with each issue dedicated to a complete reprint of a vintage pulp magazine.
The story is a pell mell affair with plot holes galore but the pace is furious and you can't stop reading. I can't help but think that if Hogan was paid more money and had more time to re-work his manuscripts, he could have given this the polish and shine that a good re-write could have provided. Hogan was up against multiple deadlines and probably turned this one in as a first draft with few if any edits and corrections.
But to wish for something more sophisticated would be to diminish what it is that makes vintage pulp fiction so much fun to read. You don't read one of these books looking for perfection. You read it looking for adventure, action, danger and thrills galore. On that score, THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB delivers the goods in spades.
ABOUT FACE (1947) was the first Johnny Liddell mystery novel by Frank Kane. Liddell was a tough talking private detective who worked for the Acme Detective Agency in New York City. He later left the agency and operated independently. He starred in a series of books that ran through the 1950s. I was completely unaware of this character and author until the other day when I stumbled across this book while web surfing. It looked like something I'd enjoy so I took a chance on it.
I'm glad I did. While ABOUT FACE is far from a masterpiece, it is nevertheless a very enjoyable, well crafted slice of hard boiled detective fiction. Liddell is sent to Hollywood to work for movie producer Julian Goodman. Goodman's biggest box office draw has disappeared and Liddell is tasked with finding the missing matinee idol. Before you know it, the star is found dead in an automobile accident. End of case, right? Wrong. The body count has only started as soon Goodman and several others are murdered. Liddell, along with coroner Doc Morrissey, sympathetic police detective Devlin and spunky girl reporter Toni Belden, investigate a twisted puzzle of a case that ultimately involves grave robbing, gun battles, mobsters and a femme fatale. During the course of the story, Liddell consumes more booze than Nick and Nora Charles combined and is almost always smoking either a cigarette or a cigar. I don't know if Frank Kane ever wrote the last case of Johnny Liddell but it's a safe bet to assume that if a bullet didn't kill him, the smoking and drinking did.
ABOUT FACE is a nice introduction to the Johnny Liddell series and I will definitely be seeking out more of his adventures. Thumbs up.
On paper, BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL (1965) has a terrific pedigree. Screenwriter (and native Texan ) Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan had previously collaborated on the American classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). For BABY, Foote adapted his play The Traveling Lady and with stars Steve McQueen and Lee Remick (both box office draws at the time), I'm sure the top brass at Columbia Pictures were hoping that lightning would strike twice with all of these various talents combining into some kind of alchemical magic to make BABY as successful as TKAM .
But TKAM had great source material in the form of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel and while Foote's play may work well on the stage, when it's opened up and brought to the big screen, the result is a rather lackluster drama that never quite gels. As much as I like Steve McQueen (he's one of my all time favorite actors), he's never convincing here in the role of Henry Thomas, a wanna-be rockabilly singer and guitar player in the small town of Columbus, Texas, who has recently been paroled from prison. Henry is a troubled young man with a hair-trigger, violent temper and he's one outburst away from becoming a guest of the state of Texas again. He suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his adoptive mother, Kate Dawson (Georgia Simmons), events which have left him with a multitude of scars. But he's getting by and dreaming of making it big.
All of that changes when his wife, Georgette (Remick) and young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), arrive in town by bus from east Texas. Turns out no one in Columbus knew that Henry was a husband and a father and young Margaret Rose, has never seen her father. The newly reunited family set up a makeshift homestead and try to make a go of things. Georgette gets a job in a drive-in restaurant while Henry continues to play and sing. Things come to a head when Kate dies and leaves nothing to Henry, which causes him to go on a destructive rampage. Henry is arrested and sent back to prison leaving Georgette and Margaret Rose on their own again. They leave town with sympathetic Deputy Sheriff Slim (Don Murray) at the end of the film.
McQueen is good in every scene in which he's not playing the guitar or singing. Those scenes are obviously dubbed and shot and edited to disguise the fact that he's not really playing. Remick (who I always found incredibly sexy), is good but neither actor has a convincing Texas accent. The on-location cinematography by Ernest Laszlo is very good and it's fun to see the real small town Texas of fifty years ago.
BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL is an earnest film that's well made and acted but it just never rises to the level of a memorable, powerhouse drama. Worth seeing once if you're a fan of any of the people involved in the production.
Director Raoul Walsh's ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1951), is a gritty, two-fisted black and white Warner Brothers Western which I watched for the first time last night (thanks to TCM!).
Kirk Douglas stars as federal marshal Len Merrick, who interrupts a hanging party at the beginning of the film. Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), stands accused of stealing cattle and killing the son of powerful rancher Ned Roden (Morris Ankrum). But Merrick will not let Pop be the victim of frontier justice. He and his deputies Lou Gray (Ray Teal) and Billy Shear (John Agar), are determined to take Pop to the nearest town to stand trial.
Along the way, they're joined by Pop's daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) and the dead man's brother Dan (James Anderson). The small band braves the trackless wastes of the desert while being pursued by Roden's posse. Lives are lost and head games are played against Merrick in various attempts to free Pop before reaching Santa Loma. Once there, a trial is held and Pop is found guilty and sentenced to hang. But a last minute discovery changes everything, leading to a final shootout.
ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE mixes robust action with more psychological material to produce an extremely satisfying film. Douglas, all deep dimpled chin and gritted, flashing white teeth, is solid in the lead and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Ray Teal appeared in dozens of films before playing Sheriff Roy Coffee on television's BONANZA. You've got to love any movie that stars future sf genre icons John Agar and Morris Ankrum and there's a brief appearance by Kenneth McDonald, who was a bad guy in various Three Stooges shorts. The screenplay by Walter Doniger and Lewis Meltzer fits into the cycle of more adult, psychological westerns that emerged in the 1950s while the cinematography by Sidney Hickox is sharp, using location landscapes to great advantage.
While not a classic, ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE is nonetheless a durable, well made and very entertaining film that's well worth seeing. Recommended.
For the record, I was thirteen years old in 1969, the subject of Rob Kirkpatrick's 2011 book. The sub-title of Kirkpatrick's book declares that it was "the year everything changed." I would argue that every year is a year in which things change, some recording more seismic changes than others. But I must agree that the year in which man walked on the moon for the first time is definitely a game changer.
The story of the Apollo 11 mission is only part of the colorful tapestry of events that Kirkpatrick recalls here. In chronological order he covers a variety of topics, most of which are printed on the book's cover. Every one of these people, places and things get a mention, some more detailed than others and every chapter contains the seeds for a multitude of other books about the topics covered therein. It's breezy and readable and the " I remember that" and "I don't remember that" moments were equally divided for me.
The beginning of 1969 found me halfway through the seventh grade and the end of the year put me at the midpoint of eighth grade. While I didn't read the newspaper every day or watch the nightly news every evening, I couldn't help but be aware of much of what Kirkpatrick covers. Besides the Apollo 11 moon landing, I vividly recall Super Bowl III in which the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts, the Manson murders, Woodstock (wasn't there of course but I saw the film and had the double LP soundtrack album), and much of the other music of that year as well as the important films he discusses. Again, I didn't see or hear all of this material first hand (some of the films were off limits due to their "R" and, in some cases, "X", ratings) but I had a pretty good general knowledge about these things. Two aspects of pop culture that Kirkpatrick doesn't cover are television in general and comic books. I know, I know, he couldn't cover everything and this is a work of popular history for a general audience. But one of the things I remember most about 1969 did involve comic books.
That was the year the cover price went from 12 cents to 15 cents. When comics cost 12 cents (with the occasional exception of those wonderful 80 page giants for 25 cents, a bargain that I always went for because, hey, those babies were the comic book equivalents of an all day sucker with one of those behemoths taking the better part of a day to read and savor), I could get 8 comics for a dollar. When they went to 15 cents, I could only buy 6 comics for one dollar. This was my first lesson in inflation and economics. I had to get the most of the few dollars I had to spend on comics every month which meant I had to make some critical choices about what I bought. I had to stick with characters and/or artists and writers that I really liked until I had enough cash flow from summer jobs to expand my buying horizons. Come to think of it, that's pretty much the way I buy comics now, just characters, writers and artists I like and not the entire output of every comic book company in business today.
1969 is a good time capsule of an important year in American history. If you were around back then, there are memories aplenty to be found here. If you weren't around back then, read it and get a glimpse of what all of the shouting was about.
Sporting a dynamic painting by the late Glen Orbik and a cover font that looks like it was ripped from the cover of a 1960s issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS, Samuel Fuller's BRAINQUAKE (Hard Case Crime, 2014), is a swift-kick-in-the-teeth, fist-to-the-gut, full-tilt-boogie assault of adrenaline fueled pulp fiction. Oh, yeah, you read it right. It's written by that Samuel Fuller.
Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) was an idiosyncratic film writer and director that left his unique, personal stamp on the post war American cinema, especially during the 1950s. Fuller's films pulled no punches in their depictions of crime, war, the American west and modern madness. Fuller, a WWII combat veteran, saw enough horrors in war to last a lifetime. His war experiences, combined with his pre-war employment as a newspaper reporter, gave Fuller a front row seat to the evil that men do. When Fuller began writing screenplays and then, eventually directing low budget genre films, Fuller drew on his own experiences for material, which gave his films an unmistakable jolt of reality and truth.
His filmography includes such classics as PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), THE NAKED KISS (1964), SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). Fuller, always and ever his own man, fell out of favor during the 1960s but his body of work, filled with virtuoso visuals and uncompromising storytelling, inspired a generation of filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. To watch a Fuller film is to be totally immersed in his overpowering world view of darkness, insanity and redemption. While not every film with his name on it is a classic, every film he made is well worth your time to seek out and watch. You won't be disappointed.
In addition to screenplays, Fuller wrote novels including BURN, BABY, BURN (1936), TEST TUBE BABY (1936) and THE DARK PAGE (1944). He wrote BRAINQUAKE in the early 1990s, but it was only published in France and Japan at the time. Hard Case Crime (bless 'em), brought this long lost last novel to mass market publication in 2014 and while it's not quite a masterpiece, it is nonetheless an important and vital work by a one-of-a-kind American artist of the 20th century.
BRAINQUAKE is the story of one Paul Pope, a bagman for a major New York City crime organization. Pope's job, along with dozens of other anonymous men, is to deliver bags of money throughout the city. Some of the money is to be used in payoffs and bribes, some is to be laundered. The bagmen live by a strict code of honor, a code which is punishable by death if broken. Guess what Paul does?
But he has good reason because Paul, you see, was a mute as a young man and while he can speak, he rarely does so. He lives a solitary life with few friends and only books and poetry to keep him company. He drives a cab as a front for his job as a bagman and he does his job well. He also suffers from "brainquakes", severe migraine like episodes in which Paul hears the music of a flute and sees the world in a shade of vivid pink. He also sees things that aren't there during these mental seizures. But Paul still manages to get by until he meets a lovely young mother in Central Park.
Paul does what he shouldn't do, fall in love with Michelle, a mob widow with an infant son. When she shoots and kills a low level mobster, she and the baby are forced to go on the run. Paul helps them flee using a bag full of millions of dollars to grease the skids for their escape.
The two travel to France but they are trailed by another low level mobster, a determined New York City homicide detective and a professional killer named "Father Flanagan", a psycho who dresses like a priest and kills his victims by crucifixion (that's right, a hammer and three very large nails). Everything comes to a fevered third act in Paris, culminating in a furious gun battle aboard a house barge on the Seine.
The characters in BRAINQUAKE are numerous, colorful and well drawn but Paul is the real focus of attention here and Fuller does a good job of depicting a decent but deeply broken man struggling to find some modicum of peace and happiness in an insane world of crime, corruption and betrayal. The plot moves at a good clip but relies on some outlandish coincidences a couple of times in order to advance the narrative. Nonetheless, BRAINQUAKE is a first rate page turner by a world class storyteller.
Don Rickles was one of my all time favorite comedians.
Few comics made me laugh as hard and as consistently over the yeas as he did. Rickles wasn't the first insult comic and he's certainly not the last but one thing's for sure.
He was the best.
Rickles started his career with hopes of becoming a serious, dramatic actor. He was very good co-starring with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in Robert Wise's submarine drama RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) and he held his own alongside Ray Milland in Roger Corman's truly outre film, X THE MAN WITH THE X RAY EYES (1963). But as he began to develop his stand up act, the parts grew more comedic. Rickles was in several "Beach" movies beginning with MUSCLE BEACH PARTY (1964). He also made a memorable appearance on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW in the fifth season episode, "The Luck of Newton Monroe", in which he played a hapless bumbler (who got on Barney's last nerve), before discovering that he was not inept but was really "ept".
By the time Rickles went to Eastern Europe to co-star in KELLY'S HEROES (1970), he was a certified comic star. He was brilliant as "Crap Game", part of the fantastic foursome that included Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalas in this comic WWII caper film. Years later, he was terrific as a casino manager in Martin Scorsese's CASINO (1995) and for a new, younger generation, he will always be known as the voice of Mister Potato Head in the TOY STORY films.
And for a truly bizarre footnote in his career, Don Rickles was the subject of a two-issue storyline in, of all places, a comic book. And not just any comic book. Rickles appeared in DC Comics' SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN #139 (7/71) and #141 (9/71), in a dual role as both himself and his "good" twin, Goody Rickles. The issues were written and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby, my all time favorite comic book creator and they rank among the strangest comic books ever produced. As the cover banner proclaimed, "Don't ask! Just buy it!"
But Rickles was at his best in front of an audience, whether it was in a lounge in Las Vegas, in the guest seat on THE TONIGHT SHOW or on one of the countless DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS. Rickles needed a live audience to play off of, to feast on, to use as raw source material that could be mined for instant comedy gold. He was relentless in his attacks on Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon on THE TONIGHT SHOW and his appearances on that show over the years rank as some of the funniest things I've ever seen on television. I watched some clips on YouTube yesterday and they still made me laugh uproariously. And if you've ever heard me laugh, you know what that sounds like.
An appearance by Rickles on THE TONIGHT SHOW was a special event, a one time thing that had to be seen live because there was no way to capture it and enjoy it over and over again. In the 1970s, when Rickles was at his zenith, video tape recorders (to say nothing of DVR technology) didn't exist, which meant staying up late to watch the whole show (work or school the next morning be damned), because one of my comedy heroes was on, tearing the joint apart. I had to tune in, I had to see it and I did. As did millions of other Americans.
For years I figured that I would be content with seeing Rickles on television and movie screens only. Seeing him live was not a possibility that I ever considered. Imagine my surprise when, years ago, before we were married, Judy surprised me for my birthday with tickets to see Don Rickles at the Stardust hotel in Las Vegas.
It was a trip and a night that I'll never forget. We had great seats and when Rickles made his appearance, he circled the room throwing jabs at various audience members. He walked right behind our booth and I prayed that he'd lob something choice at me. What could have been better than to have been insulted by the master? He didn't insult me but I laughed my ass off so hard and loud for the next 90 minutes that I think I genuinely scared the people sharing the booth with us. The show was great. Rickles did the usual insults, some song and dance and patter about his life and career. He terrorized every member of the onstage band but he left us knowing that this was all an act, a put on, a means to make us laugh. He revealed, as if we didn't already know, that he was really a nice guy who pretended to be a bully and that he genuinely loved people. Making fun of them was just a way to not only get laughs but to expose our own fears and prejudices. Don Rickles was an equal opportunity insult artist. He spared no one, no man, no woman, gay, straight, fat, thin, black, brown or Asian, was safe from his barbed tongue.
Sadly enough, almost everything from that trip to Vegas is gone now. Rickles is dead, as is the Stardust along with the Sahara hotel where we stayed. Nonetheless, I had seen my hero, Don Rickles, in his native environment: in a Las Vegas lounge where he performed who knows how many times over the course of his career.
Years later, Don Rickles came to Austin for a show at the Paramount Theatre. I wanted to see him again along with an appearance about a month later by Woody Allen and his Dixieland Jazz Band. I told Judy that all I wanted for Christmas that year were tickets to Rickles and Woody (another one of my heroes). She was sweet enough to come through with tickets to both. We had good seats for Rickles and, to no surprise, he did roughly the same act in Austin that we had seen in Vegas. Didn't matter. It was still Don Rickles live and bringing down the house.
He's gone now. I was lucky enough to see him perform live twice. His movies and television appearances will always be with us to enjoy. I can think of nothing better than watching a clip of Don Rickles demolish Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, among other targets. People say his act wouldn't fly today, that he couldn't get away with saying all of those mean and terrible things about people, that times have changed, that he was politically incorrect, etc, etc. I'm sure there were a few people out there who were offended by what Rickles said and did but the rest of us got the joke and loved every minute of it.
Rest in peace good man. You did your job and did it exceptionally well.
You made me laugh.
I can ask no more.
Raise your hand high and keep it up if, like me, you first encountered the concept of a sensory deprivation tank on the 1968 pilot episode of HAWAII FIVE-O. You remember, Asian super villain Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh, who also played a sinister foreign agent in John Frankenheimer's 1962 masterpiece THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), captured McGarrett (Jack Lord) and placed him in one of those tanks in order to torture him. McGarrett, floating in a completely dark tank full of water, had his eyes covered and his ears stuffed so that he could see and hear nothing. The isolation, the sense of being completely cut off from the world, was designed to slowly drive him mad. What a fiendish plan from Wo Fat, the modern day version of Fu Manchu.
The next time I ran across a sensory deprivation tank in pop culture was in Ken Russell's visionary science fiction/horror film ALTERED STATES (1980). Scientist William Hurt spends large amounts of time in a tank and when he combines the isolation with some really powerful psychotropic drugs, he regresses to a savage, primitive state, a feral cave man like creature. Part 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, part MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, ALTERED STATES featured spectacular make-up and visual effects and Russell's over-the-top style to create a fine, thought provoking film.
But imagine my surprise when I ran across a film on TCM the other night that predates both FIVE-O and STATES in its' use of a sensory deprivation tank as a plot device. THE MIND BENDERS (1963), is a British film that doesn't quite know what it wants to be when it grows up. It starts out like a spy thriller, with a scientist who had spent time in a tank, being brainwashed by foreign agents (Russians?), into committing some act of espionage before committing suicide. This leads government agent Major Hall (John Clements, winner of the Lyndon B. Johnson look-alike contest) to investigate the goings on at Oxford University where Doctor Henry Longman (Dirk Bogarde, looking like the love child of Desi Arnaz and John Forsythe), is still fiddling around with the tank. Okay, so it's not going to be a spy movie, it's going to be more of a science fiction film.
Except it's not. The film takes yet another turn into the realm of domestic drama. Hall and Doctor Tate (Michael Bryant), implant suggestions into Longman's mind following an extended period in the tank. Longman becomes a misogynistic misanthrope towards his wife, Oonagh (Mary Ure), which raises the question, is Longman reacting to the suggestions planted in his psyche or did the time in the tank bring his real nature to the surface?
THE MIND BENDERS is a sober, straightforward film, directed by Basil Dearden from a novel by James Kennaway. The cast is good and they are all earnest in their handling of the material. Trouble is, no one seems to know what this film is supposed to be. There's enough grist for the plot mill to make several different films here. The producers try to cover all of their bases, providing a movie that will appeal to both genre fans and more mainstream audiences but which ultimately disappoints both.
"You pick up a lot reading paperback novels."
Here's some things I've picked up from reading paperback novels.
You can judge a book by its' cover, especially when the cover art is by the legendary Robert McGinnis, an artist who always delivers superlative work. You ask me, there's something seriously wrong with anyone who could look at this cover and not want to read this book.
Check the publisher logo. Hard Case Crime is always a sign of quality. As I've written elsewhere on this blog, HCC is my favorite contemporary publisher.
Ditto the byline. I have yet to read a bad book by Max Allan Collins (and I've read a bunch of 'em) and his novels about professional hit man Quarry are some of his best.
The book is set in April 1972 for that vintage '70s crime novel vibe. Plus, I was in high school in 1972 so I get all of the references for once.
The action takes place in Biloxi, Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast strip of hotels, casinos and titty bars controlled by the southern fried crime cartel known as the Dixie Mafia.
A high body count. By the end of the book, twelve people are dead, nine killed by Quarry.
A teenage stripper/hooker that goes by the stage name of "Lolita". Her real name is Luann. Insert your own "Luann Platter" joke here.
QUARRY'S CHOICE is a pedal-to-the medal crime novel that puts Quarry into a deadly predicament which he handles with his usual aplomb. There are plenty of zingy one-liners, a strong sense of place and time and a surfeit of explicit sex and brutal violence. A small light bulb to the eye of a Junior Sample look-alike killer is only one of the gruesome acts of mayhem and carnage that Quarry inflicts on people.
Quarry is not a nice guy but he's paid to kill people who need killing and he does so with a great deal of efficiency. The villains he goes up against are so vile, you can't help but cheer and pull for a guy with untold amounts of blood on his hands.
This is not a book for kids but it is one helluva fun ride for adults who prefer their crime fiction down and dirty. QUARRY'S CHOICE delivers the goods. In spades. Highly recommended.
Looking like a dark, demented Dagwood Bumstead, actor Dan Duryea was second only to Fred MacMurray when it came to playing total shit heels in various films noir of the '40s and '50s. Case in point, THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950), in which he plays a conniving newspaper reporter who is only out for himself, willing to sell a sensationalistic murder story to the highest bidder to further his own career and reputation. As callous and callow Mike Reese, Duryea gives a performance that prefigures and anticipates a similar turn by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's brilliant ACE IN THE HOLE (1951).
At the start of the film, a story written by Reese results in the death of a mobster and the wounding of district attorney Ralph Munsey (Michael O'Shea). Reese loses his job and no other newspaper in the city will have him. He finally finds a chance with the small-town Lakewood Sentinel, run by Catherine Harris (Gale Storm) and George "Parky" Parker (Harry Shannon). Using $5,000 from gangster Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva), Reese buys into the newspaper just as a major murder case breaks.
The daughter-in-law of newspaper tycoon E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall) is found murdered and an investigation is launched. Turns out her weasel of a husband, Clark (Gar Moore), is the killer, a fact that he immediately confesses to his father. But there's no way the scion of a newspaper empire is going to be executed for the crime, so the two conspire to frame Molly Rankin (Mary Anderson), the woman's maid, for the killing.
Reese, smelling a hot story, starts selling exclusive story rights to various newspapers and wire services. He even arranges to surrender the innocent Molly to D.A. Munsey in order to collect the reward money. She's arrested but no reward is forthcoming, leading Reese to try another approach to generate headlines and sell stories. He hits upon a defense committee for the young black woman and begins to play on the sympathies of the community. Money is pouring in and soon, the story of innocent young Molly becomes a cause celebre across the country.
But regardless of her innocence, she's going to be found guilty and sentenced to die unless something drastic happens. Reese eventually realizes his actions are going to send an innocent woman to her death and he begins to try and get the D.A. to listen to the truth. Meanwhile, the Stantons, father and guilty son, have gone to mobster Durham for help in getting rid of Reese once and for all. Everything comes to a brutal climax in the third act with Reese ultimately doing the right thing and finding a measure of redemption for his selfish behavior.
THE UNDERWORLD STORY is a nicely mounted little B-movie courtesy of screenwriter Henry Blankfort and director Cy Endfield. The lush black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez, adds tremendous amounts of mood and atmosphere. Duryea owns the picture from start to finish, with Reese going through a character arc from heel to hero while Da Silva makes an excellent bad guy. While not a major noir, THE UNDERWORLD STORY is a good, tight, well constructed film that fans of the genre will enjoy. Recommended.