“Marty, why did you have to shoot? Why did you kill?”
This is the refrain Martin Rome (Richard Conte) hears over and over again, from the smashing opening scene as he lies wounded and dying with the girl he loves weeping over him, to the dramatic confrontation with his heartbroken mother late in the film, when she turns him out of her house after he breaks prison to escape the punishment he is justly due.
Like many noir films, this is the tale of a doomed man, who makes his way through his world with Death always at his elbow, waiting to collect the body when it finally drops. Here, we have a man who in one of the very first sequences has a priest performing last rites over him as he lies in a hospital bed barely holding onto life. The theme is ever-present through the length of the film with many characters even stating as much, as when Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature) directly states that he’s “already dead,” in a confrontation with Rome’s mother who is protecting him from arrest.
The central symbolic contrast in the tale is between this cop and this criminal. Candella plays the light (candle?) to Rome’s darkness, and as the names may be manipulated to imply (together they can be made to form “Rome ‘n’ Candle”), the mixing of the two is explosive. Rome understands this world and its attractions, having grown up in the same neighborhood. In this way the story is similar to a number of gangster films from the 30’s and 40’s - a tale of two street kids who take different paths to wind up on opposite sides of the law. “You chose your way, I chose mine.” Rome casually replies to Candella’s earnest efforts to convince him he is on a path to destruction. There is some ambiguity in this black-and-white depiction, and the audience certainly feels sympathy with the character, even if it of the “no, don’t do it, Marty” kind, but ultimately his guilt is laid bare in all its selfish darkness by the story’s tragic end.
Rome has killed a police officer in a shoot-out (self-defense, he claims), but, being nearly killed himself, starts the film in police custody, in a hospital. Despite already being captured, he find himself a wanted man. Lieutenant Candella and his wisecracking partner Lieutenant Collins (Fred Clark) think he’s shielding an accomplice, and pursue the lead when a nurse reports seeing a girl in the hospital room with him the night he is brought in.
W.A. Niles (Berry Kroeger) is a cool, slimy lawyer who comes to Rome with some deceptive attempts to pin a recent jewel theft on him. His logic seems plain and logical, if unsavory and unethical- since Rome is already sentenced to death for the cop shooting, why not take the fall for the suspected jewel thief, Whitey Ligate (a character we only hear of but never see on screen). But Niles’ motive run deeper than that, as it is revealed that he had more direct connections to the “DeGrazzi Heist.”
An intersecting subplot that results in Rome’s escape from the prison hospital involves “Orvy” (Walter Baldwin), a simple but clever trustee and his subversive plan to get revenge on Ledbetter (Roland Winters) the warden who mistreats him and others. He has a perfectly laid out plan for breaking out, but doesn’t have the boldness to pull it off himself, so he gives Rome the chance to use the plan himself and get Ledbetter fired for allowing it to happen. The execution of this plan is a dramatically tense sequence that slowly escalates suspense through various complications that are involved in the escape.
His first step after escaping is to meet with Niles, and pay him back for trying to pin a crime on him he didn’t do. The confrontation ends badly, with Niles and his secretary both killed in a shockingly sudden flurry of violence and disaster is compounded when Rome find the jewels in Nile’s possession and decides to pocket them and track down the other party involved in the theft.
He goes to his mother’s house then to hide, but Mama Roma (Mimi Aguglia) won’t have any of it. This isn’t the boy she raised. “Why must you kill?” she implores, but he shows no remorse, and in a moving scene, she summons up the strength to rejects her own son and send him away to find somewhere else to hide.
He finds an old girlfriend to help in part of his search. Shelley Winters has a terrific early featured role as Brenda, the good-times girl who finds herself in for more than she bargained. After helping get the address of the person he’s after, she finds he is in need of immediate medical assistance, which adds an extra layer of urgency to the desperate race against time. Police are already tracking him down, so they must find some unlicensed doctor willing to do the patch-up job for ready money. The scene of the back seat surgery manages to blend humor & tension, when Brenda must go into a bar for brandy, and comes out with a tag-a-long drunk (Howard Sullivan) who won’t take no for an answer.
Finally, patched up and on his own after ditching Brenda, Rome tracks down the third party in the jewelry robbery he was blamed for - a to-this-point mysterious figure named Rose Given. Hope Emerson is the absolute embodiment of this, the most unique and entertaining and intimidating figure in the film. Given is a former singer who now runs a massage parlor, but was also in on the jewel theft with Niles & Whitey...maybe even orchestrated it. She’s a tough old broad, big and imposing of frame, and crafty and dangerous if intellect, a sort of cagey Kate Smith with bad table manners and a deadly and powerful pair of hands that quickly manage to get around Rome’s neck. The interplay between these two is some of the most riveting in the film. She is the most terrifying threat to Rome’s plans and life in the picture, but is not without nuance. When not solely focused on her desire to get back the jewels from Rome, she has moments in which she opines on her miserable life, expressing her cynical views on her regular massage clients, and their eternal quest for fleeting beauty.
Forging a wary agreement, they arrange to collect the jewels from their hiding place in a locker at the train station, and Rome double-crosses her, calling in the cops to pick her up, an event that brings about another shooting as she wings Candella during the arrest.
Like Rome, Candella is too tough to let a bullet wound keep him cooped up in a hospital. Still following his leads, he tracks down the mystery girl from the hospital room, deducing somehow that the nurse on duty had taken her and hidden her for Rome. Candella finds Rome and his girl in a church.
This dream girl is Tina (Debra Paget), the girl for whom Rome tells himself he has done all this for. Early on, when questioned about her, he denies she was real- “it must have been a dream I was having,” he says. Those words are truer than he knows. The angelic, perfect, saintly object of his affection is little more than a figment of his imagination that he has built up for himself and used to justify all his wrongdoing. Though Paget’s character is certainly a wonderful person, Tony Rome’s fantasy of her is inevitably disappointed. When she sees all the awful things he’s done for her sake, she is rightly horrified and crushed. This is not the man she knew. That Rome is dead. This is a wrenching, devastating end to all his hopes for happiness.
Candella’s words to Rome confirm what Tina has seen in him, and perhaps opens Rome’s eyes to his own dreadful deeds. Candella points to all the lives Rome has ruined- the dead cop and his family, the secretary at Niles’ office, Brenda for aiding and abetting him, the doctor who would be sentenced for illegal practice, and Rome’s own family who will lose him to prison or the electric chair. His mother, his father, his young brother Tony who had idolized and looked up to him and was headed down the same road. The focus of the narrative turns a spotlight on the destructive impact Rome’s crimes have on those around him, the collateral damage. He has so concern for the needs of others, but uses and manipulates everyone for his own ends. “You didn’t forget about those people,” Candella says, “You never even thought of them.”
Of course it all must end with some fatal gun-play, brutal in its impact and chilling in its finality. younger brother Tony arrives in time to witness his brother’s death, then stumbles away sadly until he sees Candella lying hurt on the sidewalk, and confesses to Candella that a conversation they had earlier had affected him, that he had just been coming to tell his brother he couldn’t follow in his doomed footsteps. The film ends with him crying into Candella’s shoulder, a simple and moving image of the lasting and deep destruction brought by the choices of one man who wouldn’t go straight, but trudged on, intent upon throwing himself deeper and deeper into trouble, drawn on by the power of his own fatal decisions.
The music by Alfred Newman is pitch-perfect, and though some bits are recycled from other scores, all of it is apropos to the story. In particular, his theme for Street Scene (1931) shows up here as it does in numerous other films from around this time, including I Wake Up Screaming, The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Gentleman’s Agreement, and even How to Marry a Millionaire.
Directed by Robert Siodmak, with script by Richard Murphy (Panic in the Streets, Boomerang) from the novel The Chair for Martin Rome, by Henry E. Helseth, this film is filled to the brim with brilliantly limned characters, both major and minor, each with well fleshed-out motivations and complex, nuanced desires, all intricately woven into a perfectly arranged web of darkness and grim tragedy to form a memorable morality tale.
**** out of 5