You Can’t Escape Forever, 1942. 7/10

A funsy sort of crime thriller. Featuring George Brent, Brenda Marshall, Gene Lockhart, Roscoe Karns, Edward Cianelli, and Paul Harvey. Steve/Mitch (Brent) is good guy reporter, with tagalong girlfriend Laurie (Marshall) out to get gangster Boss Greer (Cianelli).

This wartime mash-up is known for cool period dialogue and settings (electric chairs, graveyards, and nightclubs). Not to mention one of the classiest henchman names ever: No-Neck (Jack Carr). Can’t wait to get a look at B-picture alley.

Great thunderstorm to begin with. Will death row guy Varney (Joe Downing) get the “juice” since the power’s flickering? Back at the newsroom, things are buzzing. Steve pops in “something screwy is going on up there…that guy was supposed to burn an hour ago.” He’s got zingers for every single person there. Who’s the next guy to ‘pop’ in?

Pop (John Dilson), of course. I’m surprised that anyone has a real name here. Anyway, Greer’s name comes up; Pop’s been working on Greer’s black market activity. Steve has a hunch that Varney will get a stay; sure enough, there’s the old ‘call from the governor’ to the prison warden. Varney’s actually been pardoned; Greer’s fingerprints are all over this deal.

Laurie, who’s there to cover the execution, has already feinted. In fact, when she comes to, she thinks the execution took place; so, she calls into the paper with the ‘scoop.’ She covers up by lying to Steve that she “saw” it happen. That’s not the end of it.

They finally get confirmation of the pardon. As many others have noted, her character is made out to be completely immature and ditzy. Still, it’s funny when she sees Varney, and, convinced he’s supposed to be dead, feints again. Anyway, the new story is Crowder’s (Erville Alderson’s) murder.

Next stop–Greer’s nightclub. Steve and Mac (Karns) come calling on Greer; they’re all very familiar with each other, like guys on rival baseball teams. Varney’s there too. The bad guys act dumb at the news of Crowder’s demise; apparently, he was a hood that was trying to square himself by fingering Greer.

The headlines (thanks to Steve) impugn Greer, who comes with his attorney to complain to the papers’ chief, Major Turner (Harvey). Unfortunately, Crowder’s autopsy points to an accidental death after all. So, it’s Laurie and Steve who get chewed out. Gates (Charles Halton) is in charge of the newsroom now, detailing Steve to the Lonely Hearts column.

Laurie convinces him to make the best of it; we know that this will tie into the plot somehow…Major summons him. Ok it’s this simple–Gates can’t match Mitch’s skill. So, Mitch’s not reinstated? No, he’s too popular as “Prudence.” Now we get what I thought we’d get: Carl’s girlfriend comes to talk to “Prudence”; i.e., Laurie.

Mitch, posing as Laurie’s secretary, gets the skinny. Carl was killed at the same place that Crowder’s wife hung out at. Both guys died mysteriously after meeting “dames” at an actual club for lonely hearts. So, the happy couple drop-in. It’s basically a wedding chapel. Robelink (Lockhart) runs the place.

His underling talks to him about getting “the money”; sounds like a shakedown operation. Sure enough, there’s a money bag of “invoices.” Meanwhile Mitch chats up the judge, who starts talking about dearly departed Crowder (apparently the judge isn’t in on the racket). He doesn’t even know who Mitch is, describing him in the third person.

Mitch sweet talks him into giving him a black book of clients. Mitch, suspecting Robelink’s up to something, dumps his drink and takes the glass for the guy’s prints. He wants to split, but can’t find Laurie–she’s sneaking around backstage. Robelink is onto them. There’s a spontaneous fight on the dance floor. Laurie’s only move is to hustle out. She, Mac, and Steve sit down on the sidewalk.

Back at City Hall, Mitch runs into Greer. Mitch tries to get some help with the prints, but, no dice. Same with the little black book. Last stop: coroner’s office. Still, nothing fishy. Mac got him an appointment with the fortune teller, which is in the same digs as the Lonely Hearts wedding chapel.

Soon we see Mitch and Mac gazing into a crystal ball with the psychic. Meanwhile Laurie chats up Robelink with a bit of underhandedness of her own; she offers to write an upbeat article on his business, to prevent Mitch from writing something nasty. White blackmail?

Cut back to the crystal ball gazers. ‘Madame’ Lucille (Edith Barrett) comes clean; she’s Crowder’s widow, after all. From her statement, it’s pretty clear that her husband had been poisoned before he’d conked out in the pool. Anyway, Lucille is playing both hands–she blows Laurie’s cover, as well as giving up the jist of her meeting the guys to Robelink. Oh man, Laurie’s ‘going for a ride’ with No-Neck. No necking planned, at least.

Back at Greer’s club, Mac and Mitch order drinks; and, with strained hypocrisy, they have a nice chat with Greer’s attorney. Smiling around outside, Mitch eavesdrops on Greer, who dressing down Robelink for being a leaky faucet. Greer tells them he’ll deal with Mitch himself.

Greer and Robelink have words; Greer’s are better. We now hear of Crowder’s “manuscript.” What, he was a novelist? After all the hoods leave Robeson, Mitch swoops in. He tries to turn Robelink. That manuscript is the pivot. Greer walks in on Mitch–Robelink is knocked-out again.

Another fake-buddies talk. By now Mitch knows where the manuscript is, but beguiles his antagonist with a tale of the attorney’s double-cross, blackmail, etc. The point is to use the attorney as a red herring. Another fight scene, as Mitch literally turns the tables in the dining area. Where’s Laurie? Not necking–still with No-Neck.

Amazingly, Mitch gives orders as though he’s with Greer, by shooing away the No-Neck limo. He tells the driver to take Laurie to the cemetery. I don’t get why No-Neck doesn’t make Mitch; guess he hadn’t actually ever seen him. The guard at the cemetary is oblivious, entirely focused on a radio show.

Now we see that the point of all this is to find Crowder’s body in the mausoleum. They hear creepy organ music; Mac says “if you find Crowder, ask him to move over.” There’s someone playing the organ…who? “Every night I play for the dead. They like it” says the caretaker. Pretty good sight-gags, as Mac is scared stiff.

Finally, the good guys find the right stiff–acttually it’s the manuscript they’re after. Absconding with that treasure, they narrowly avoid Greer with his non-No-Necks. A foot race through the graveyard. Escaping in a chicken truck, it’s now a car chase. They throw off the tail.

Mitch and Laurie scramble to the paper. Obviously he’s in de facto control again. We discover the manuscript concerns the black market info on Greer. Meanwhile, Greer’s practically lynched in the street for ramming an Army truck during the chase. He’s toast, as M.P.s arrest him. That’s the denouement. The end comes back at the paper where Mitch gets his old job back, and Gates in the new Prudence.

This was entertaining stuff; at least one critic described this as an extended matinee serial from that era. Non-stop action, plenty of two-dimensional characters (good v. bad), a mangled plot, zippy, and hip-for-its-time dialogue. That’s actually mostly good stuff.

But, the plot shouldn’t shift as quickly as the characters talk. The infamous “manuscript” just emerged near the end of the movie–maybe I missed earlier references–and it determines the entire plot. Also, why were the lonely hearts husbands killed anyway? For their estate, I suppose, and Greer split it with his ‘clients.’ But he already gets a fee up-front; the rest is left for us to figure out.

The comic stuff, especially as a function of the witty dialogue, worked pretty well. But the entire graveyard scene (admittedly with good bits here and there) was mostly just camp. Other stuff was fairly gritty; the scenes with Cianelli were noirish. The best blend of drama and comedy were the newsroom scenes.

At that locale, the supporting cast made great foils (of many types) for Mitch and Laurie. Speaking of Marshall’s character, it’s a bit disappointing. Not bad, just not so good. Certainly, the ‘ditzy dame’ of the era was a creation of the predominant paternalism and condescension towards women.

Good script writers, biased or not, were not dumb. There’s no better way to use a stereotype than to tweak it into its ironic opposite. There’s some of that here; Laurie shows as much grit as Mitch in many scenes, and is probably more clever (how she reads the widow who assumes that she’s still “Prudence,” and receiving Robelink, for example).

But there should be more of that. I’m recalling a scene (but not the movie) in which Rosalind Russell shoots the bad guy to save her lover/partner. What makes it work is that she just closes her eyes and shoots in the general direction. It’s both ditzy and gutsy, and sort of anti-macho. In a drama, I’d expect more than ‘beginner’s luck,’ but both the Russell and Marshall movies are comic crime/mysteries.

This is worth checking out, despite some notable flaws. 7/10.

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