Stephen McNally played two of the greatest heavies in the classic film noir era. Interestingly, the two roles werenít in film noir. He was thoroughly menacing as the town brute who raped Jane Wymanís deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda and also pushed Charles Bickford off a sea cliff for good measure. He was equally despicable as James Stewartís black-hat foil in Winchester í73. Both are all-time great films, and McNallyís performances are a significant reason why.
McNally, a natural of nastiness, never really got into a film noir movie that measured up to his talents. He had a fairly prolific resume in the genre: Bewitched, City Across The River, The Lady Gambles, Criss Cross, Woman in Hiding, No Way Out, Iron Man, Split Second, Violent Saturday and Johnny Rocco. His most malodorous moments in noir are probably in the underrated Woman in Hiding, where he tries to murder wife Ida Lupino in order to take over her fatherís lumber mill business.
Make Haste To Live was another promising McNally role relegated to the deep noir margins, similar to Woman in Hiding, only with a bit more nuanced performance. A somewhat obscure Republic cheapie, itís an OK film that could have been a whole lot better with a sturdier script because the story line and the setting has the goods. So does beady-eyed McNally.
Newspaper owner and single mom Crystal Benson, played with a professional cool by another noir mainstay who probably didnít get her due, Dorothy McGuire, starts hearing noises in the dark in her gargantuan and creepy house in rural Candlewood, New Mexico. In this case, her past is literally haunting her.
In a flashback we learn that 19 years earlier, as a naÔve and sheltered school girl, Crystal attends her first dance and is instantly charmed by Steve Blackford (McNally), who seems like a decent enough chap until Crystalís mother warns her that he is, in fact, a notorious mobster. But Crystal is so taken by Blackfordís phony charm that she marries him and briefly lives the high life with him in, of all places, Riverside, Calif.
But once they settle in, she learns her mother was right. Blackford is not only a criminal involved in gangland slayings and other dubious endeavors, heís a master of spousal abuse. He whacks Crystal around enough times that she decides to bolt town with the aid of a friend (Carolyn Jones), change her name and start a new life far away from Steve. Then she gets a break. She finds out that Steve is being tried for an explosion murder and that the police believe the victim to be her, and he is convicted and sent to prison for 20 years. She could provide his alibi, but elects to let him go to the slammer and do his time. She, meanwhile, runs off to a desolate New Mexico town to raise her daughter (fathered by Blackford) and try to live a normal life.
Back in the present, we soon find out that those noises in the night Crystal is hearing is what she feared -- it's Blackford, who has found her after being released from prison. She isnít sure of his motivations. Does he want to kill her? Does he want money? Or does he just want to terrorize her for letting him rot in the can? Perhaps the best aspect of the movie is that is left open-ended for awhile. When Steve discovers that daughter Randy (Mary Murphy) is his daughter, he plays along to pretend to be Crystalís brother but starts charming the young one, being the perfect uncle and inviting her to spend the summer with him in Chicago.
This wonít stand for Crystal, who nonetheless doesnít have the courage to tell her archeologist boyfriend about Blackfordís true identity and his notorious past. She does ask him to help her charter a small plane so she and her daughter can escape Steveís clutches once again. But Blackford follows her to the desert runway. At long last, she decides she has no choice but to try to do him in.
Offering the promise of hidden money, she lures Steve to an Indian cliff dwelling and attempts to set him up for a fall into a bottomless pit, but he catches on quickly and pursues her through the cliffs, where there is a rather ridiculous climactic result.
Again, Make Haste to Live could have been a lot better with a little juicier script, a little more action and a more believable ending. The cast tried its best, and Carolyn Jones and Edgar Buchanan are strong in character parts. Itís still a solid time-waster, but mostly for the performance of McNally, who is even more effective turning on the charm because you know his true unscrupulous and loathsome character lurks beneath the nice-guy faÁade.
Itís a shame McNally didnít get more heavy parts because he had the look and the acting chops to play bad guys with some real dimension to them. A lawyer before he got into acting, McNally also did stage work, and in a footnote I found quite fascinating, he actually played the Lew Ayres kindly doctor part in the stage version of Johnny Belinda.
After the film roles dried up in the early 1960s, McNally had a long career playing cops and bad guys on TV, and for one season, actually starred in pretty decent noir-tinged crime drama, Target: The Corruptors. Alas, with McNallyís luck, it was on opposite The Twilight Zone, where his noir legacy unfairly resides forever.