Saturday, November 21, 2015

Undertow (1949)

** out of 5

"Big Jim used to call me his watchdog.  They got him when I wasn't here, but I'll get that guy someday.  I'll get him."

William Castle directs this decent B-noir that stars Scott Brady, the younger, slightly less cold-edged brother of noir great Lawrence Tierney.  Brady plays a former gambler and soldier who's planning to go straight with a legitimate business of his own, but who get caught up in an underworld plot he can't seem to escape.  John Russell plays his casino-running old friend, and Dorothy Hart is the fiancee of Brady's character.  When Brady comes into Chicago to pay his friend a visit a murder is committed, and he is made to look like the perpetrator.
The victim is "Big Jim," father of Dorthy Hart's character, and a major figure in local circles.  Brady flees for his life, aided by a girl he met on the plane to Chicago from Reno, played by Peggy Dow.  He searches for others who can help clear him, including a cop who he grew up with, played by Bruce Bennett.
The drama that follows is entertaining, though slight. The filmmaking for the most part lacks the intensity and emotional connection that the best noirs acheive.  It does offer some moments of memorable situation, but the characters rarely rise above being simple 1-dimensional "types."
There is a dark moment when Brady realized that those closest to him are responsible for his betrayal, but the filmmakers fail to take advantage of the full dramatic possibilities of the situations they have set up in the plot.
One other memorable aspect of the story is "Gene," a big black man (Daniel Ferniel) who worked for Big Jim in his garage.  He is an interesting blend of dogged loyalty, innocence, and dangerous violence. He poses a deadly threat for whoever is responsible for Big Jim's death, but his reasons are completely relateable, and ultimately his character is a sympathetic one.  He is like a lumbering angel of death, vowing to kill the one responsible for Jim's murder, which, in the final moments of blended pathos and suspense, he does with great feeling and drama.

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