Unholy Partners, 1941. 7/10

Edward G. Robinson and crime–don’t those two go hand-in-hand. Edward Arnold is Merrill Lambert, the ‘unholy’ one here, as his gangster character bankrolls Bruce Corey’s (Robinson’s) newspaper venture. Gail Fenton (Marsha Hunt) plays a love interest as does newspaperwoman ‘Croney’ (Larraine Day). Gail is pursued by Corey’s right-hand man Tommy Jarvis (William T. Orr); there’s Mike Reynolds (Don Beddoe), an editor, Mr. Peck (Walter Kingsford), George Pelotti (Don Costello), an underworld ‘associate’ of Lambert’s, and Charles Dingle as Gail’s father.

The Corey/Lambert business alliance is hardly unholy; Corey is at least as unscrupulous as his gangster partner. His paper is not only trashy, it literally manufactures and/or embellishes stories to boost circulation. A subpplot involves George’s involvement in a murder case, leading to a conflict between Corey and Lambert. Retaliation comes in the way of slandering Tommy; Gail’s has got his attention, Lambert wants to ‘keep’ her.

The five-card-draw scene is great. Corey sees through Lambert’s attempt to cheat him–the stakes being control of the paper. It’s interesting to see the two of them take each other’s measure; neither can intimidate the other, though they both try to. Tom goes prowling around Lambert’s office, looking to dig up some dirt.

He goes to Gail’s place with the insurance policy her dad had to take out with Lambert to cover a huge gambling debt. Mr. Fenton agrees to cooperate to expose Lambert’s insurance scam practice. Tom finally gets in with Gail; but, obviously, now he’s in piping-hot water with Lambert. Meanwhile, Corey, in his exceedingly dry way, proposes to Croney.

Now that he’s kidnapped Tom, Lambert wants the paper from Corey. But Corey has a bullet Lambert riddled his office with. Not much of a stand-off–until–Corey literally turns the table on Lambert, forcing Tom’s release. Another good scene. Lambert’s dead, and the only flunky of his that knows what happened is pretty well in Corey’s camp.

Now Corey calls off the wedding; he figures he’ll be up for murder anyway. He gets Croney to write up a confession for her to give to the police, along with incriminating evidence on Lambert. The other part of his plan is escape. Conveniently, a French flyer (ala Charles Lindbergh), is taking off for a transatlantic flight; he boards at the last minute.

There’s a teletype in the newspaper office that Corey died when the plane crashed in a storm. Tom comes in to console Croney. I half expected Corey’s death to be a fake story to get him off the hook, and was waiting for him to burst back into the office (incognito) to greet Tom and Croney. As it stands, the ending has the sort of melodramatic touch that nibbles around the edges of Unholy Partners.

What makes the plot work is the Carey/Lambert relationship. They’re both tough guys, Corey bending the rules to get noticed; Lambert breaking rules as well as people, but having a lingering respect for Corey. So when Corey goes on in an altruistic vein about the paper and its purpose, it simply rings false. More like a Jimmy Stewart earnestness that doesn’t follow from the premise or central plot.

1941 is usually considered the starting point of the film noir genre (with both The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra to that year’s credit), but, with the exception of some of the noirish backroom scenes with Lambert, this is more in the ’30s mystery/crime drama mold. That’s fine, but the tone’s a little uneven to quite fit in there either.

The performances are pretty good, especially Robinson’s and Arnold’s. I couldn’t really figure out what Mike’s role was about; he’s supposed to be funny and quirky, but he’s just kind of there. Another aspect that’s puzzling is the period setting. Why is it 1919? And, it really isn’t, as the dress and hairstyles are more 1941; most of the street scenes have mid- ’20s to early ’30s cars. That would make sense if the story plays out over a period of years, but there’s no reason to suppose that more than a few years elapse. The Depression, for example, isn’t mentioned. But, unless the Frenchman is in a time-warp, how can there be a transatlantic flight before 1927?

Unholy Partners is worth watching for Robinson alone; plus most of his scenes with Arnold. Laraine Day plays a complex character very well–she’s sharp, witty, and sexy. Overall, the tone sort of dilutes the impact of the story, but there’s enough here to entertain.

Farmermouse liked the swanky club, so he’ll give this seven marked cards. 7/10.

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