Thursday, May 25, 2023

Noir Watch: Dial 1119 (1950)

Watched:  05/24/2023
Format:  TCM
Viewing:  First
Director:  Gerald Mayer

I went into this film with low expectations and finished it absolutely knocked over by the script, direction and actors - not to mention the camera work, attention to costume, etc...  It's a dynamite package of a movie, and one I'd recommend for folks thinking of character detail done economically.

The movie takes place in near real-time as an escaped psychiatric patient steals a gun on a charter bus and then winds up taking a bar and its patrons hostage while things escalate outside.  It's part of the noir subgenre of hostage-dramas that probably started before The Petrified Forest, but found footing there and worked it's way into a thousand scenarios (check our Key Largo if you haven't prior).  

The cast is mostly folks who were not mainstream stars in 1950, though some became household names.  In it's way, it's an ensemble picture, and feels influenced by theater of the first half of the 20th century, not least of which is the Pulitzer prize winning Time of Your Life.  Only interrupted by a psychotic gunman.

But the pieces are there.  We catch snippets of who each character is just enough so we wonder how they'll react to a gunman sure to kill them.  The young man waiting on word that his wife delivered their baby.  The lush in search of a man for the night.  The reporter who just quit.  The cranky bartender who doesn't think much of humanity.  The aging virgin and the man who is throwing sweet nothings at her, surely with motives both in the bedroom and out, but nothing to do with her.  Then there's the psychologist who wants to save the world and the cop looking to minimize the disaster.  And, of course, the menace of television (this being 1950).  

William Conrad plays the bartender, Signal Watch favorite Sam Levene the psychologist, Leon Ames the Letch, and Barbara Billingsley's distinct voice and face will knock you out of your seat when she shows up in a bit part as an office admin for a newspaper editor.  

Also expect character actor Argentina Brunetti and Dick Simmons as a roving TV reporter.  

In true Hollywood fashion, the two leading women are both too attractive for what I think they're supposed to be, but both sell their roles like crazy.  Andrea King as the late-20's virgin trying to pass for 23 nails her part, and Virginia Field's lush is the movie's primary secret weapon.  Matched closely by the powder-keg-waiting-to-blow Marshall Thompson as the gunman.  


Bumping off Conrad as the turn to the second act was wild stuff and removed any sense of certainty to the film.  But Virginia Field's lush stole the show for me, maybe as crazy and erratic as the gunman in her own way, and more violently ready to live.  Her moment taking down the gunman was unexpected and perfect.  And, of course, Thompson's shocked and childish reaction to being gunned down - just the perfect character note to wrap his arc.  

This movie would have made a great stage play, but then you'd miss out on the street scenes, the chaos below, the @#$%-up at the paper that almost gets them killed...  So, yeah, this works for me as a movie.  It would probably now be a mid-season TV cliffhanger somewhere, but I like that it's so self-contained and has only the info we need to care about the hostages and turns the knife for the returning GI's and what they went through at abroad and at home - and some should never have been given a gun.

Anyway, a great, tight film that I'll certainly re-watch.

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