Friday, November 25, 2016

Flaxy Martin (1949)

“She’s a great kid- you can always trust her to double cross you.”

This film is something of a surprise in the filmography of director Richard Bare, who somehow managed to slip this one in between his work in short films- specifically the George O’Hanlon starring “Joe McDoakes” series. You know, the ones with the man behind the 8-ball.  He had also worked with star Virginia Mayo a year earlier on a little flick called Smart Girls Don’t Talk, but shorts were where he earned his bread.  This film is similarly anomalous in the filmographies of both screenwriter David Lang, who wrote a handful of low-budget genre films before, and mostly westerns and tv work after, and cinematographer by Carl Guthrie, who spent most of his career on B pictures, westerns, tv, and shorts, including a couple of McDoakes pictures. The score is the work of Bill Lava, who at the time was also working on b pictures and shorts like the McDoakes series. Later, of course, he’d be vilified by cartoon fans for his odd late-series looney tunes mood music.  Somehow, this bunch of artists perennially “behind the 8-ball” (literally) seem to have managed to pull off a minor masterpiece right under the studio’s nose.  

The story opens with breaking glass and a dark figure jumping out of a window, then scrambling across a dimly lit city street. Frantic phone calls to the police and the rapid response are shown in quick montage.

“I’ll never forget that face!” the witness repeatedly says to the police as she shudders in terror while describing her recollection of the murder that has just been committed.  The brute attached to the face she describes is Caesar (Jack Overman), a familiar figure in the underground world of this city. Unlike the more well-known cinematic criminal, “Little Caesar,” He is an imposing giant-a thoughtless animal- with plenty of rage and muscle to do the dirty work for local crime boss Hap Ritchie (Douglas Kennedy), but not enough sense to keep from getting caught.

And caught he is, so Hap calls in his lawyer to get Caesar out on bail. The lawyer he calls is Walter Colby (Zachary Scott), who is none-to-happy to be awakened in the middle of the night for something like this.  Colby protests that this was not what he signed up for.

Walter Colby is an honest-enough, hardworking lawyer who resents having to constantly do this kind of shady legal work for unsavory employers.  But he has a fatal weakness, and if you guessed it’s a girl, you’re right.

Flaxy Martin (Virginia Mayo) may be a cheap nightclub singer, but for Colby, she is his whole world.  As he says himself to her at one point, “When it comes right down to it, I guess I’d do almost anything for you.”  Little does he suspect that her loyalties are stronger to his boss than to him.  She’s the one Hap calls when Colby gets ornery or difficult, and she then works her charms on Colby to manipulate him into following orders he otherwise would find ethically questionably.

This time though, Colby goes to far in protesting his objections, and Hap is convinced that his lawyer is no longer someone he can count on.  It’s time to get rid of him, and he uses Flaxy to make that happen.

Early, Flaxy had hired a girl, Peggy Ferrara (Helen Westcott), to act as a witness to provide Caesar an alibi during the night of the murder.  When Peggy tries to make a little extra on the side by blackmailing Hap, she earns the next spot on Caesar’s hit list.  Hap has Flaxy make Colby think that she herself is chief suspect for Ferrara’s murder, and naturally, Colby tries ever means he can to get her freed from suspicion.

Colby falls right into Hap’s traps by doing this, but he really has himself to blame for what follows.  His love for Flaxy is so loyal and blind, he willingly claims the murder as his own doing, knowing that without any other evidence to support his claim, he will never be convicted.  But in court, a surprise witness supplied  by Hap to the prosecution confirms Colby’s guilty plea, and he is sent up to prison.

This is a unique case of a “Wrong Man” noir in which the man is actually arrested on his own admission of guilt.  It is only after he is convicted that he catches on to what has been done to him, with a little help in the way of a friendly tip given to him by a cab driver he once helped as a lawyer. With his eyes suddenly opened to the double-cross that has been played on him by Flaxy and Hap, Walt grabs his first chance to escape, while on a train en route to the prison.

He is picked up along the road by Nora Carson (Dorothy Malone), an innocent “good girl” type, who kindly brings him to the safety of her own country home, with nary a question as to who he is, or where he’s come from.  The next morning he wakes in this home to find he is suddenly freed from the dark shadows of the city and transported to a place of idyllic bliss among birds and blooms.

Though she learns who he is, Nora continues to welcome him in her home and offers him whatever help he needs.  This taste of real goodness is just what Colby needs to spark that sense of decency in himself, too.  It doesn’t immediately eliminate his desire for revenge, but he at least begins to work his way toward the light, beginning with the resolution he makes to return to the city and face the troubles he has brought on himself, beginning with finding the ones who helped him over that cliff, and bring them to justice.

The resolution is nearly too late. The rosy, Flaxy-free interlude is brought to an abrupt end when a nosy busybody from next door calls the local sheriff to investigate this mysterious stranger in town, and he quickly arrives with cuffs in hand.  This would be bad enough for Colby, but there is a wild-card in the deck to make things even more interesting for him.

That wild card comes in the form of noir favorite Elisha Cook, here playing Roper, a zoot-suited gunsel with inferiority complex, who has to this point only been briefly seen a few times at the apartments of his employer Hap Ritchie.  He is a classically squirrelly and injured Cook creation, who is constantly being goaded and provoked, especially by Colby who frequently gets digs in about his size and intelligence.

When word got out of Colby’s escape, Cook has the smarts to realize there is something more at work than mere survival instinct.  He suspects Colby knows, and hunts him down personally to find out. Roper shows up just in time, pokes his snub nose in through the back door just as the sheriff is questioning Colby at Nora’s front door.  With a manic intensity, he shoves the aging officer into a closet, and cuffing Nora and Walt together with sheriff’s cuffs, drives them away into the woods to kill and bury them.

Walt must do some fast thinking, faster talking, and well-times scrapping to stay alive and escape with Roper’s car.  He knows he is driving right back into trouble but is now doubly determined to save his neck and get the ones responsible for stretching it out for him.

The first name on his list is Caesar, but when he catches up to him, the thug is already dead, shot by Roper, who rings the phone in Caesar’s apartment to taunt Colby from just outside where he is waiting to shoot Colby when he comes out.  A dramatic chase ensues, climaxing in a tense roof-top face-off to the death.

But Colby’s trouble are STILL not over.  He finds Flaxy, who tries to convince him she only double crossed him for his own good.  He isn’t buying it, but he puts on a good show to let her believe otherwise.  They plot together to lure Hap to her apartment and get the getaway money they need from him.  When Hap arrives, Flaxy takes the money and holds both men off at gunpoint, determined to take it all for herself.

Her greed is her undoing, and Colby takes delight in telling her so.  “You double crossed yourself this time, didn’t you, sweetheart? Just like I thought you would.”  The two men team up to back her into a corner, until she must shoot one or the other.  She nails Hap, but Colby wrestles the gun from her and slips out, leaving her for the police to take away.

The only conflict remaining to be resolved at this point is Colby’s battle with his own conscience. Will he take the money and run?  Or will he turn himself in and end up poor but free?  Nora’s loving pleas provide the answer to that conflict, and they live more-or-less happily ever after.

The plot has a few weak spots and some overly-tangled threads that occasionally get snarled up, but there is no shortage of excitement, interesting characters, and murky noir atmosphere to make Flaxy Martin a film well worth viewing.

*** out of 5

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