Victor Mature and Richard Conte are the leads in this well-regarded noir about two guys who grew up together, but ended up on opposite sides of the law. In supporting roles there’s Fred Clark (as Lt. Collins), Shelley Winters (Brenda, who helps Conte’s character), Hope Emerson (a bizarre masseuse, Rose), Barry Kroeger (as sleazy attorney Niles), and Tommy Cook (Marty’s brother, Tony).
Naturally, Lt. Candella (Mature) has to investigate his friend Marty (Conte) for one murder, and try and stop him before he commits another. Part of Martin’s problem is protecting his girlfriend Teena (Debra Paget). Mixed in with all this is a jewel heist. Initially, though, Marty nearly dies, in the prison hospital’s intimate confines.
First thing we have is Teena coming to visit Marty in the hospital. She’s distraught, probably figuring he’s going to die. Candella, Niles, and Collins want to see him too. Niles looks as phony and slimy as a carload of con-men. He tries to prompt Marty to go down this or that path. Marty just says “go fry.” Somewhat unexpectedly, Marty recovers.
Candella and Collins see him. “You murdering rat” Collins can’t help exclaiming. They show some jewelry recovered from the heist; he denies involvement altogether–in the theft, and the subsequent murder. He does admits killing a cop along the way.
Niles is hovering around him now–he gets a little too personal–Marty almost strangles him. Switch to Candella popping in at Marty’s parent’s place. The news is that Marty is being transferred from the hospital to the prison. Not an upgrade. Kind of a wasted trip for he Lieutenant, other than hearing the parent’s hopes and wishes.
At the prison there’s some good-natured bartering among Marty, a trustee, and the jailer. The trustee shows him how he can use a spoon as a key. Anyway, Candella comes by with Mama’s goodies. Candella tries to use Marty’s brother as leverage; then he tells the “hot shot” to “get hip…[and get]… square.” That’s a lot to deal with.
Actually, Candella wants to find Teena, an alleged accomplice. When Candella leaves, Marty ‘squares’ his escape plan with the trustee. Obviously, Marty needs to bust out to get to Teena before the cops do. The spoon-key does the trick, and with cunning timing, he bluffs his way to the outside.
This is a tense sequence; not the type of scene we usually see. (Prison breakouts, yes, but not a guy literally walking out of jail). Somehow, Candella figures it all out, and spots his brother leaving their folks’ place. Needless to say, Tony gets rousted; he’s unlucky enough to go into the deli where the cops have been huddling.
But he’s smart enough to only talk to his brother in Italian. Still, he does have a partial phone number. Meanwhile, Marty makes a surprise visit to Niles. Basically, Niles has blackmailed him; he wants a refund, as the legal angle is up in the air anyway. A tense scene–with Niles trying to hide money from him; viola! No cash, but the jewelry from the heist. Then he and Niles scuffle, Niles ends up dead.
Niles has had to give up the jewelry accomplice’s name: Rose. Then Marty heads back to the old homestead. He argues with his mom; he justifies what he has done by saying that he loves Teena. That doesn’t wash. Ok, he loves her, but what’s that got to do with two murders? Tony has found Rose. And, Candella has found Marty.
As the Lieutenant gives Tony a speech, former girlfriend Brenda looks up Rose’s picture. Once again, Marty seems to be dying. Brenda’s also got a doctor on board, literally, in her car. She dives into a ‘dive’ to score some liquor for Marty. Somehow, he revives. “You’re not going to fold up again are you?”
Once he meets Rose, he probably wishes he had folded up. “I think we can do business” he tells her. “I’m glad you killed him, Martin [meaning Niles].” The deal is: money, a car, and out of the country–for the jewels. Ok? Ok. Except she can pretty much crush him in her hands. She would but he doesn’t have the key to the hiding place on him.
Ok, the detectives are back on the job. Back at Rose’s, Marty passes up a mountain of flapjacks at breakfast. They plan to meet up later and do the swap. Now the cops have dope on Marty’s “dames.” Back at police HQ, Candella finds the doct who fixed up Marty; our antagonist has four bullet wounds!
The cops are discussing Brenda and Teena; then, Shazam! Marty calls Candella to finger Rose. This could work. As expected, Rose turns the table on the bullet riddled-fugitive. Still, if the cops time it right…they do! Rose is arrested, Marty escapes. But she manages to shoot Candella.
He’ll “be alright” says the nurse. Better than that; like his nemesis, Candella escapes from the confinement. He makes it to Teena’s; he finds out from her family the info on his old buddy. Candella goes to see Marty, who’s hiding out in a church.
Sure enough, he’s there with Teena, trying to convince her to leave town with her. She’s very wary. Not to mention that Candella has something to say about it; as in a lecture. She figures the cop’s right. But that makes it a standoff, as both guys are armed.
Finally, Marty gives it up. But it’s a ruse. Marty slugs the already injured Candella, and escapes. But he doesn’t even get down the block before Candella manages to blast him. Marty’s brother walks away slowly; kind of giving a eulogy to Candella. They embrace in a cab. The end.
This is noir at its best. All the icons are used: immigrant families, good buddy/bad buddy, nutty lady/angelic lady, cops, cons, murders, creeps, loyal relatives, etc. Even some funny bits. And wrapped with a curtain of urban darkness: shabby tenements, hospitals, jails, police stations, etc.
Mature and Conte are cast perfectly; though slightly against type. Conte seems like a suave, even debonaire leading man, with a continental sort of machismo. On the other hand, Mature is more commonly seen as a bad guy, kind of shifty and menacing. But, perhaps because of this paradox, their characters seem more authentic.
The supporting cast does a nice job of adding a lot of flavor and contrast to these two steady, serious guys. Rose is an out-and-out oddball; unique, with a sort of absurd malevolence about her. Niles, in a different way, exudes a similar lurking sense of danger. Teena’s role is excellently cast; in fact, she should have more scenes.
Brenda is superfluous; nothing she does wouldn’t fall more likely into Teena’s lap. The trustee is great even in such a minor role; Collins, however, doesn’t have much personality.
This is one noir that carefully balances plot with character. Earlier noirs tended to be plot heavy (Maltese Falcon, Laura), later ones more psychological. Here we have a plot we can navigate without a map, and leads who suffer existential dilemmas without calling on Freud to get them out of bed.
Not to be missed for film noir fans. 9.5/10