The Underworld Story, 1950. 7.5/10

Dan Duryea stars in this small-town flavored noir. In a role somewhat similar to Kirk Douglas’s from 1951’s Ace In The Hole, he’s a new reporter in town, eager to get in on a big story. A murder story, in this case.

Mike Reese (Duryea) teams up with Cathy (Gale Storm) and ‘Parkey’ (George Parker, played by Harry Shannon) to run the local paper. Mike’s got to stay square with the big-city mob boss Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva). Having named one of Carl’s guys as an informer on a mob hit, Mike’s instantly unemployable in the city, and still under Durham’s thumb.

Reese’s chance for jump-starting his career comes when big-shot E.J. Stanton’s (Herbert Marshall’s) daughter-in-law Diane is killed. The housemaid Molly (Mary Anderson) is suspected, but Stanton’s neer-do-well son Clark (Gar Moore) seems to have a better motive.

We begin in the all-consuming urban jungle. A limo pulls up to an official building: three guys emerge; one is dropped by a gunman from the big Buick, one’s just nicked (that’s D.A. Munsey, played by Michael O’Shea). Myers, the main victim, was set to testify against Durham.

Munsey wants to get Mike for obstructing justice. Mike’s toast, in this city. What I don’t get is why he goes to the small town that Stanton basically owns. “You know what’s under ivy? Little crawly things.” Right up Mike’s alley. Anyway, his best–and only–play is to hit up Durham; sure the big guy will stake him $5000 to buy the little old quaint town paper.

If Durham doesn’t play ball, Mike, if he lives long enough, could surely finger the guy for the hit on Myers. Blackmail seems to be the exquisite motif in this movie–it’s everywhere, under that ivy, I suppose. Why are mobsters always involved in trucking? And their guys are forever playing cards too. Mike wishes he had been dealt a better hand: “I’m black-listed, and I’m broke.” Interestingly, they have a bit of mutual admiration for each other’s negotiating skills.

Upon arrival in ye olde Lakeville, Cathy’s not exactly thrilled with Mike (he’s a little forward: “we’ll make a great team, baby!”), but she needs his money. He lays on a story about he and her dad were buddies, so he wrangles a better deal. Before she can back out of the deal, they hear of Diane’s murder.

Diane was her best friend; oh, but to Mike she’s merely, and exclusively, a “story.” He’s almost funny with Cathy, but about two shades too bossy and imposing. He’s so nervy that he even gets the cops to pose at the crime scene. The following quiz of the servants reveals little at present.

Clark blurts out to dad that he killed his wife–she was going to leave him–even dad preferred her to him. In fact, he accuses pops of seducing her, right under his nose. Hmm, maybe Clark should’ve killed him instead. Clark rightly figures that dad will do anything to save face for the family.

That’s not hard to do, as the cops give due deference to E.J. and Clark. Meanwhile, Molly has disappeared; she was last seen with Diane–and also the Diane’s jewelry is missing. Clark actually took it to cover gambling debts. In an case, Molly is fingered for the murder.

To add a layer on the cake, dad offers a $25k reward for the info leading to apprehension of the suspect. “Molly Rankin suspected of murder!” Mike’s juiced up. No way Cathy will agree that Molly could’ve done it. “Did you ever rob graves” she tells him. “No future in it.” Ohh, that’s good. But Parker throws him a bone, calling him “boss.”

Who’s this knocking, knocking on our office door? Molly! She admits that no one will buy her story (as she’s a servant, and a black woman). She mentions pawning the jewelry at Diane’s behest, and picking some flowers before taking the bus to visit her aunt. Mike thinks she should give herself up. Partly because he knows Munsey, she and Cathy believe that he can “fix everything.”

He calls the D.A. This way, he gets the reward money. Man, does Duryea have that perfectly-tuned condescending line “I’m the guy who can make you a big mannnhn.” (He’s used that tone just as smarmily in other movies). But, he’s not done. Conducting what amounts to a press conference, he holds forth like a professor.

Very cleverly, though, the script hangs him out to dry. First, he’s a bit rattled, as Molly realizes that he’s only interested in the reward. His grandstanding messed that up. Then, Munsey tells him off, “pretty soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.” The nail in the guilt coffin is some sensible (and some insensitive) people chatting outside. It’s now a case of Molly’s “persecution.”

“Like a weather vane” Cathy complains of Mike’s sudden awakening that if Molly’s innocent, it’s a great human interest story. And a windfall; Mike makes a deal with her attorney to split the defense’s fund (raised by the paper, of course). Since there’s no guarantee that Molly will walk, it’s a win-win. Becker (Roland Winter’s) comments, with intended irony “you shoulda been a lawyer.”

Nonetheless, the Stantons try to send Mike packing with a city job offer. A post-Diane funeral meeting at the Stanton’s leads to a cunning plan “I think we should insist that this Reese should be driven, literally, out of town” says the Major (Melville Cooper). The squeeze is on, the town closes ranks around the Stantons “Lakeview deserts Molly” shrieks the headlines.

Here’s the deal: Molly can get the charge down to manslaughter. Meeting at the jail with Mike and her attormey, they tell her she has to plead guilty. “You lost your head and killed her [Diane].” Well, naturally, she won’t go for it. Meanwhile, the crackback is on: the newspaper office is trashed; Mike is at a loss, but has a new lead in the case.

A witness can give Molly an alibi. Mike’s found a conscience and a heart. We’ve got to remember, he’s got the paper, and therefore his livelihood and pride at stake too. Anyway, Clark is chilling at home when Mike comes calling. He puts on a helpful role, making an appointment for Mike with his dad.

Now he’s off to blackmail Durham–the only guy who can out-talk Mike proves he’s a tougher cookie than the young whippersnapper. So, Durham counters by in effect threatening to take over the Stanton business. Mike goes to plead his case with old man Stanton. No deal. Poor Mike “I’m not asking for you to trust me. I’m asking for you to be fair!”

Uh–oh, Some goons accost Mike, he’s ‘going for a ride’ with Durham. “What’s the score, Durham? Who am I crossin’?!” I don’t quite get it either. “Having you to put the finger on…is a kind of insurance.” Back at the Stanton’s, dad’s having a little talk with sonny. “Don’t worry about Durham, I’ll work something out.”

But guess who’s calling? Mike. I don’t see why Durham is in the murder cover-up. But, nonetheless, he gives Mike a “direct hit” on the blackmail target. Now Mike’s selling Munsey the dope on Derham. Cathy and Mike don’t have long to sweat it; soon the goon square is breaking in. That is, head goon Schaefer.

It comes down to Molly leaving flowers on the (alibi) bus. Munsey won’t listen to Cathy at first, but then he calls Captain Jenkins. Durham, meanwhile, is closeted with Stanton. Man, this guy has a sarcastic laugh broad to put on a billboard.

But Munsey has Stanton staked out. “The guy’s dumb, he won’t talk!” That’s Mike, having been worked over, and over. Now, the hoods are blackjacking (not just blackmailing, like normal guys do). The cops are closing in on the scene. Incredibly, Stanton shoots his son–after all, Clark had agreed to off Mike.

But it’s over now. Munsey asks Mike what would’ve happened had Stanton paid off. I think Mike woulda taken the dough. Well, Mike gets Cathy, and Molly goes free–the end.

Unlike the simple disaster-exploitation premise of Ace In The Hole, this movie has a full load of plot. It seems a noir trait for the protagonist to have a past that looms over him; in this case though, Duryea’s character has no role in the murder (Diane’s) per se. He simply uses it for his own ends. Douglas’s reporter in Ace is not only more cynical, he himself is morally culpable of what is in effect murder. Both protagonists show ethical shortcomings, to say the least. And, however inauthentically, both undergo a sea change.

Had the movie begun in Lakewood this might’ve been a bit tighter, less confusing, and not quite as long. Da Silva really amps up all of his scenes, but the big-city connection seems unnecessary to the main plot. Maybe give him the elder Stanton’s role, and just have Mike’s past rendered in a flashback or two.

As it is, Da Silva, by the time he reappears, is a distant memory, almost from a different movie. He, along with Duryea, sets the drama on fire. The other performances are fine enough, although Clark is a question mark. Diane isn’t really available, except as an abstraction.

Duryea has got to be my favorite noir hero. His character’s always hard to figure out; that enigmatic quality is interesting in itself, and helps us buy into his chameleon-like personality. He’s slick, but vulnerable.

This is entertaining for these two memorable star performances alone. With some tweaking, it might’ve been an outstanding film noir. 7.5/10

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