Saturday, March 14, 2020

A voice in the night

From an aesthetic point of view, early television was inferior not only to cinema but also to radio. Image quality issues and low production values give much old television programming a tacky and tawdry feel. In a real sense, radio’s restriction to one sensory modality was a form of freedom. Almost from the outset, radio was a powerful and flexible medium with a remarkable capacity for direct and intimate communication. It engaged the emotions – and the visual imagination.

Because of its presence in the home and capacity for live programming, television posed a threat to radio that cinema had not, gradually replacing it in most of its traditional roles and formats. Cinema and radio, on the other hand, had peacefully coexisted for decades. In fact, the respective golden ages of cinema and radio could be seen to have coincided, or at least overlapped.

Though I have a broad interest in the music and popular culture of the 1940s and 1950s, it is generally serious film dramas which most interest me, especially in so far as they reveal the preoccupations, moods, manners, politics and underlying values of the time.

I want to say a few words here about an unpretentious little movie of the 1950s which was centered around one of the abiding preoccupations of American cinema: organized crime. It stars and is narrated by an actor who made his name in radio in the 1940s. Frank Lovejoy was often (but not always) cast as a reassuring character, an American everyman, encapsulating in his distinctive voice and (later) his screen presence a kind of middle ground of decent normality in a world in which such qualities were seen to be at risk.

On radio, he was the first narrator of the long-running crime drama series (based on stories from the files of the agency), This Is Your FBI. (FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called it “the finest dramatic program on the air.”) But Lovejoy was probably best known for playing a Chicago crime reporter in another radio series, Nightbeat.

Social and cultural historian (and Jack the Ripper expert) Paul Begg writes:

Broadcast on NBC, Nightbeat … starred Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone, a tough and streetwise reporter who worked the nightbeat for the Chicago Star, looking for human interest stories. He met an assortment of people, most of them with a problem, many of them scared, and sometimes he was able to help them, sometimes he wasn’t. It is generally regarded as a “quality” show, and it stands up extremely well. Frank Lovejoy (1914–1962) isn’t remembered today, but he was a powerful and believable actor with a strong delivery, and his portrayal of Randy Stone as tough guy with humanity was perfect.

Finger Man is a low budget but well-crafted crime drama in typical film noir style in which Lovejoy plays another “tough guy with humanity.” The film was directed by Harold Schuster. The script is credited to Warren Douglas, “based on a story by Morris Lipsius and John Lardner.” Lardner was a distinguished sports writer and war correspondent, a son of Ring Lardner and brother of Ring Lardner Jr., blacklisted screenwriter and one of the Hollywood Ten. The writing is taut and generally convincing, though very stylized.

A point of interest is that Lipsius, who had co-authored a dictionary of underworld slang, was a former criminal who had been recruited five years before by the Treasury Department’s undercover wing. The plot of Finger Man and many details of the script clearly owe much to Lipsius’s personal experience. Also, John Lardner had known Lipsius at least since 1951, as an article about him by Lardner appeared in the New Yorker in November of that year.

The main character/narrator of the film (played by Lovejoy) introduces the story by saying that these things happened to him, but he can’t give certain details as “there are still people around, people who never forget and I’d like to keep on living… My name? Let’s just say it’s Casey Martin.” Routine stuff, sure. And then there is Casey’s sister who is now a junkie and her cute little daughter. It’s Hollywood, but with an edge.

Martin is picked up on Christmas eve for hijacking a truck, but is promised a clean slate if he puts the finger on a major underworld figure, Dutch Becker. The eventual sting operation involves illicit alcohol.

In real life, Lipsius had facilitated the conviction of a powerful underworld figure, Irving Wexler, aka “Waxey” Gordon, via a plot regarding heroin deals. Undercover Treasury agents had, in December 1950 (was it Christmas eve, as in the film?), recruited Lipsius, an ex-convict, to befriend Wexler and set him up for what would be his final arrest on August 2nd, 1951. Wexler was convicted and died in prison. Wexler was also heavily involved in gambling and prostitution, like the fictional Dutch Becker.

The world of Finger Man (and many other noir dramas) was a Manichean world in which the forces of crime and depravity were in a constant battle with the forces of justice and decency and there was no certainty what the ultimate outcome would be.

This is how the Lovejoy character, as narrator, assesses his situation early in the film: “Well, there it was laid right in my lap. I come out clean or I come out dead. The Treasury Department and the police were on my side. Against me was a big-time hoodlum by the name of Dutch Becker – and the entire underworld from coast to coast. There wasn’t a gambler alive who’d make book with those odds.”

In trying to convince him to cooperate the Treasury Department secret service chief had appealed both to his sense of decency and to patriotism:

“You know the mobs, how they operate. One strong, ruthless man can tie a syndicate together. He pushes the buttons and pulls the strings and all over the nation his vicious rackets are set in motion. He’s a dictator. We’re after one of those dictators… Put the finger on him and you’re a free man… [Y]ou know Dutch Becker as well as I do. He has no conscience. He has no soul. It makes no difference to him if he destroys an individual or a family or a nation. And enough men like Becker could destroy a nation… We know that Becker is operating in at least nine states… He gets his cut out of everything rotten that’s sold. We want him.”

“Let me show you something,” the agent continues, shuffling through a batch of photographs. “Here’s a girl 17, dead before she even started to live. Sixteen. Twenty. There’s a girl 19. They found her in a trunk. She wanted to go home to her family but the boys couldn’t see it her way. The hospitals, jails, asylums and morgues are full of human beings who were destroyed by men like Dutch Becker.”

The narrator gives a few more details about him: “He was one of the biggest gamblers in the country. He was the king pin of an illegal alcohol ring. He employed beautiful girls as escorts, hostesses, shills and b-girls in his clubs and gambling houses. If they crossed him they were not very pretty to look at when he paid them. And he always did.”

The villain is effectively played by Forrest Tucker as a smooth psychopath. And Peggy Castle is believably vulnerable as Lovejoy’s love interest and a woman trying to escape from her past life as one of Becker’s girls. But what ties it all together – holding the line not for idealism but at least for some small measure of hope and decency – is Lovejoy’s voice and presence.

[First published earlier this year at The Electric Agora.]

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