The Films of Anthony Mann (Part 2): Railroaded, Raw Deal, Border Incident, Side Street

One of three films noir Anthony Mann released in 1947 alone (T-Men and Desperate being the other two), Railroaded is a solid, visually exciting genre effort, though at bottom it’s a fairly conventional police procedural, with just enough noir emphasis on criminal tendencies (personified by cool killer John Ireland) to satisfy the connoisseur.

Book-ended by its strongest scenes, a beauty salon holdup that ends in a cop-killing and a gunfight in a darkened nightclub, the film’s central section splits time between the law and the criminal element: Straight-arrow cop Mickey Ferguson (future TV dad Hugh “Leave It to Beaver” Beaumont) at first wants to pin the robbery on fall guy Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly), then does his best to exonerate him with a helping hand from Steve’s sister Rosie (romance between the two, of course, ensues). Petty criminal Duke Martin (Ireland) frames Steve for his crime, ruthlessly eliminating any potential witnesses, including his boss, the improbably named Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon), and moll girlfriend/salon proprietor Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph).

Raw Deal (1948), on the other hand, is essential noir. Firing on all thematic and visual cylinders, Mann and DP John Alton craft a compelling, taut and uncompromising story: Escaped con Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) goes on the lam with two women, fair-haired Pat (Claire Trevor) and raven-tressed Ann (Marsha Hunt). Neither woman, however, plays an out-and-out femme fatale, rather Mann and his screenwriters cleverly tweak firmly entrenched genre stereotypes, allowing the conflicted loyalties and knotty motivations of both women to play out. Furthermore, Trevor’s character provides occasional voiceover narration in a sort of swoonily poetic style, accompanied by the eerie waver of a theremin.

When social worker Ann visits Joe in the state pen, the wire mesh between them represents an absolute barrier, as though they were on opposite sides of closed border. The mesh motif recurs later, most notably in the taxidermist shop confrontation between Joe and Fantail (John Ireland), where heavy fish-netting obscures what little action emerges from the murky pools of shadow.

Joe breaks out of the pokey to confront Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), a sociopathic crime boss, on whose behalf he’s doing time, promised a $50,000 payoff for taking the rap. Coyle is, as his name suggests, a little too tightly wound. Partial to pyromania, he throws a flambé in a party-goer’s face (intimations of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat), whose POV the camera assumes for a moment, so that the flaming mess fills the screen, then later threatens Ann with torture by fire, waving a lit cigarette lighter under her nose.

Mann and Alton take a page from the Hitchcock playbook–situating objects, like a telephone that’s about to deliver bad news, in a shot’s extreme foreground. There’s also a superbly realized moment where Pat, privy to the knowledge that Coyle is holding Ann hostage, feels torn between the chance to go off with Steve, living the life she’s always dreamed about, and telling him the news she knows will send him smack into harm’s way. The camera shoots her conflicted countenance in juxtaposition with the black clock ticking off the minutes till their departure on a bare white wall behind her. A moment later, her indecisive reflection is trapped within its circular frame.

Border Incident (1949) strikes the perfect balance between its procedural elements and gloomy noir trappings–epitomized by cameraman John Alton’s assured blend of documentary-derived location shooting and stylized noir compositions. It also features, in utero, all the earmarks of Mann’s cycle of revelatory “psychological Westerns”–sprawling vistas, conflict centered around rocky outcroppings–beginning with the next year’s triple threat, Devil’s Doorway, The Furies and Winchester ’73.

Not to mention, Border Incident is populated by a veritable Who’s Who of noir and Western character actors–Howard Da Silva (They Live by Night), Charles McGraw (The Killers, The Narrow Margin), Arnold Moss (Fouché in Mann’s The Black Book), Arthur Hunnicutt (The Lusty Men), Alfonso (“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”) Bedoya; hell, it even boasts Lubitsch regular Sig Ruman as a crooked Kraut barkeep.

Every scene is a terse, taut playlet–ratcheting up the tension through precise camera placement and movement, as for instance the scene where Clay (Arthur Hunnicutt) almost catches Bearnes (George Murphy) and Rodriquez (Ricardo Montalban) in conference three times running. Rodriguez and the camera scurry around the three-story water tower, shimmying down a tree to escape detection. Mann takes his time with the scene, never forcing the effect or telegraphing the outcome.

The still-timely story delineates an international network of corruption and exploitation, trafficking braceros or manual laborers across the California-Mexico border. (Interestingly, south of the border, it’s Sig Ruman’s expat German who’s in charge of recruiting the desperate, underpaid workers, indicating the responsibility for the situation rests squarely on Anglo shoulders.)

Though the film ends with the triumph of law and order, there’s a heavy price to be paid–in a literally harrowing scene, lawman Bearnes loses his battle against a threshing machine, while Rodriguez looks helplessly on. The film’s climax takes place in a swamp full of quicksand–the consuming vortex does double duty as a metaphor for the migrants’ sorry fate.

Viewers would be excused if–after the first five minutes or so–they were to confuse Side Street (1950) with another slack imitation of Jules Dassin‘s trendsetting docudrama procedural, The Naked City (1948). But there’s more to this tense little gem than a cursory first glance might reveal.

Side Street teams Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell for the second and last time, two years after filming Nicholas Ray’s debut noir, They Live by Night, which finally saw the light of day the same year as Side Street‘s release.

Briefly put, the story involves part-time mailman Joe Norson (Granger) burgling a crooked lawyer’s office so that he and his pregnant wife (O’Donnell) can afford a few creature comforts for their child. Naturally, his plan backfires when the bundle of money he leaves with a bartender buddy goes missing, drawing him ever deeper into a whirlpool of sex scandals, blackmail and murder.

The climactic car chase through lower Manhattan is impressively executed, switching nimbly between rear projection and on-the-town authenticity–the towering office buildings seem to close in above the fleeing Joe Norson, only the occasional sliver of blue sky, fleetingly glimpsed, offers the prospect of escape.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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One Response to The Films of Anthony Mann (Part 2): Railroaded, Raw Deal, Border Incident, Side Street

  1. Pingback: The Films of Anthony Mann (Part 1): Desperate, The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror), Devil’s Doorway, The Tall Target | That Obscure Object of Desire: Cinema

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