Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Argyle Secrets (1948)

Famous columnist Allen Pierce (George Anderson) is preparing to publish the contents of a stylishly bound collection of secret documents known as "The Argyle Secrets". Alas, before he is able to write more than the overture to what he thinks to be a pretty big journalistic coup, Pierce is struck down by illness and hospitalized. After a few days of the press besieging Pierce's hospital room, the columnist feels fit enough to talk.

First and foremost, Pierce wants to disclose the secrets of the Argyle Secrets to hard-nosed reporter Harry Mitchell (William Gargan) as a way to insure himself against attempts on his life, but while Pierce is still describing the book's cover to Mitchell, he dies without giving up too many helpful hints.

Mitchell's first thought when confronted with a dead man is obviously not to call a doctor to make sure he's really beyond help, but to hinder his colleagues from other newspapers from getting the scoop about Pierce's death before him. This sort of charming thing is quite typical for Mitchell, so it doesn't come as much of a surprise that long-suffering police detective Lt. Samson (Ralphy Byrd) is preparing to ask quite a few hard questions of him and does have little trouble imagining the dickish reporter a killer.

Our hero Mitchell isn't into that whole "answering police questions" thing, though, and goes on the lam to find the Argyle Secrets for himself. First step in his heroic quest is Pierce's secretary, who is easily knocked out by a punch to the face (Mitchell is something of a specialist in violence against women, we will learn) when she doesn't want to let the sociopathic reporter search her boss's belongings.

From here on out, Mitchell's search for the book brings him into contact with a bunch of other noir freaks with dubious accents: a big "Southerner" wearing a panama hat (Jack Reitzen), a certain Winter (John Banner) and his gangster buddies, and the mandatory femme fatale Marla (Marjorie Lord) who are all looking for the book, too.

Future black-list victim Cy Enfield's The Argyle Secrets (based on a radioplay that passed down some off-screen narration telling us exactly what we see to the film) seems pretty typical for a movie from one arm of the lowest budget part of what we now call film noir. Highly derivative of other films (in this case quite clearly The Maltese Falcon and its hunt of various shady characters for a McGuffin), graced with actors of mild talent (and no ear for accents) at best, and without the budget and time to realize more than three or four truly stylish scenes, the film has to keep itself interesting by just being the decisive bit loopier than its (slightly) more costly peers.

To achieve that, Enfield (who also wrote the script and the radioplay it's based on) begins by presenting his audience with a hero (and it's pretty clear he truly is supposed to be the hero and not just the protagonist; Fritz Lang, Enfield wasn't) who is just a bit more of a prick than your typical noir private eye or reporter - at least if you ignore films explicitly made to criticize the press. Mitchell isn't just a liar, he's a habitual liar; he's not only a guy who punches out women who haven't done a thing to him, he's also a guy whose encounters with the femme fatale can end with the most charming combination of strangulation and kissing. Honestly, it's only a question of time until the guy the audience is supposed to root for will start hacking up prostitutes.

Because one freak alone isn't enough for a good film (and because it's tradition to have more than one in your movie), Mitchell meets more people of his kind, all very peculiar types, rather overacted, and graced with fake accents too horrible to comprehend.

This being a noir - if a very cheap one - not everything what happens between these people makes much sense, and much of the film's plot could have been avoided if someone had just taken his time to wait for the postman. Said plot is mostly a case of throwing the freaks together, letting them interact violently and then going over to the next scene of loopy acting and slightly weird ideas. The characterisation swerves between noir standards slavishly reproduced because everyone does it, and moments of true strangeness like the already mentioned friendly strangling, leaving me with the impression of a film that very much likes to play with the elements it has been given, coherence be damned.To no one's surprise, this approach to plot and character turns out to be pretty much to my tastes; at least, there's seldom a boring second (for once, even the humour is a bit too strange to annoy me).

Last but not least, I have to mention the handful of scenes where time and budget allowed Enfield to do some rather interesting directing: there's a cheap but surreal dream/torture sequence that makes perfect use of floating upper bodies on a black background and a nicely done, and truly tense finale (well, finale dramatically speaking; there are still some pretty boring minutes of talky explanations to follow after it) in a darkened room with Mitchell using his brains and an iron grate to protect himself from sure death.

It's pretty difficult to disagree with a movie so obviously out to please me.


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