**** out of 5
"Danny, you can't live without getting involved."
"I can try, can't I?"
Despite two previous film appearances, Charlton Heston here receives his "Introducing" credits for his starring role in this film, and he is delivers an impressive performance as Danny Haley, the jaded owner of an illegal gambling establishment.
With William Dieterle directing, Victor Milner as the cinematographer, and music by Franz Waxman, he has solid support behind the camera for this breakout lead role (his previous appearance had been as Antony in Julius Caesar, which came out only a month earlier the same year). The rest of the onscreen performers are all solid noir stars in their own right, and ably fill out the cast.
Lizbeth Scott, who plays a singer in a nearby club, wants to be Heston's girl, but he always becomes distant and cold whenever she tries gets too close.
The film opens with a raid on Heston's establishment, leaving him and his cohorts with whatever cash they have on hand, and desperate to find a way to rebuild what they've lost. The three main men who stick with Heston are played by Ed Begley, Jack Webb and Harry Morgan. Dun da dun dun!
Jack Webb is "Augie," (not to be confused with Augie Doggie) who is a practical joker with a mean streak, but sharp (and crooked) at cards.Ed Begley is the other card expert in the group, but gets a bit dyspeptic when troubles run high. as they quickly do in this film. Harry Morgan rounds out the trio as "Soldier," a good-natured ex-pug (but don't ever call him punchy to his face) who is a bit slow and innocent and good hearted unless provoked.
They quickly find a likely source of funds in Don Defore an ex-G.I. who's come to town with a $5,000 cashier's check that is supposed to be for the little league team back home. When they con him out of the money in a card game, he goes back to his hotel room where he commits suicide out of shame.
Dean Jagger, a likable but persistent police investigator who had previously hounded Heston and his men as head of the vice squad soon reappears as a representative of the homicide squad, and informs the cons that someone is out to get them.
That someone is played mostly off-screen or as a shadow or a menacing hand by Mike Mazurki, who depicts the brother of Defore's character - psychopathic man who seems their con game as a murder, and hunts them down one at a time to exact his revenge. His unseen but everpresent menace is highly effective as a means of building sense of dread, much like the hidden shark in Jaws.
Viveca Lindfors is Defore's widow, who holds the key to finding Mazurki before he can strike, but who, out of fear and distrust is reluctant to share what she knows. Heston must use false pretenses to get close to her, but in so doing, increases the risks for everyone.
Their growing closeness is a danger that they can't escape, but it also is a key to unlocking his willingness to become human again. Note the change that comes in the planetarium scene:
Linfors: "Sometimes I guess the stars are the only things that never change; that's probably only because we can't reach them."
Heston: "Sometimes I think maybe we can."
Incidentally, this scene made me wonder how many other films used Planetariums as a setting- I thought immediately of Rebel Without a Cause and K-Pax, and after a brief search found this nice list online: http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?movies
Dieterle masterfully ties together all these story threads into a rich tapestry that is full of mood and shadow, but also finds the light in the darkness of noir. The climax of the manhunt is explosive and tense, and the resolution of the romantic triangle is satisfactory and convincing, a masterful noir all around.