Guilty Bystander is a low budget parade through the pathetic underworld of 1950 Gotham, and includes a cast of colorful grotesques who are all surprisingly effective in spite of the filmís many handicaps. The filmís greatest attribute is an oppressively sleazy worldview that is only rivaled by another 1950 New York City film noir: The Tattooed Stranger. The premise is relatively simple: alcoholic ex-cop gets a shot at redemption after his infant son is kidnapped in the course of a botched smuggling scam.
Zachary Scott plays the schmuck, and he gives the performance everything heís got. The trajectory of his career as an actor is somewhat unusual. Scott dove right into the deep end in 1944 with The Mask of Dimitrios, and followed it up with starring roles in prestige films such as Mildred Pierce, The Southerner, and Flamingo Road, before spending most of the later fifties until his death in 1965 working in television.
He was suave and good looking in a greasy, unwholesome kind of way. The fan magazines of the day made him out to be some sort of a tinsel town bad boy, which was an image his studio bosses were more than happy to cultivate. These characteristics made him a good fit for the lead in Guilty Bystander--itís so easy to understand how such a man, once a ranking police detective with a picture-perfect home life, could fall victim to the pressures of conformity and consequently curl up in a bottle--and yet, when life gives him a second chance, audiences will pull for him. Scott understood pathos.
The plot of the film is incredibly (and unnecessarily) convoluted. Having viewed it twice, itís still unclear why Scottís son was even kidnapped, though in all likelihood such a crime was the only thing the filmmakers could imbue with enough oomph to get Scottís character to raise his head out of the gutter. The little fellow is never actually shown until the movieís final shot, which only serves to provide an out-of-place ďallís well that ends wellĒ wrap-up, and a convenient visual backdrop for the end titles.
The snatch takes place when Scottís ex, played by Faye Emerson, is inexplicably drawn out of her house on an errand for her deadbeat brother and conveniently leaves the child unattended. Itís in this notion that the movie fails to generate much sympathy for Emersonís put-upon hausfrau, though audiences of the day were likely meant to do so. Sheís punished for placing her hoodlum brother ahead of her innocent child, yet the movie somehow still wants us to feel sorry for her.
No matter how or why it happened itís the kidnapping that brings the distraught mother to Scottís ramshackle flophouse room where he earns his meager keep as the house detective. Emersonís begging, combined with Scottís private yearning to reclaim his life, gets his motor started. He uses his hard-earned contacts in the underworld to launch his investigation, primarily via the owner of the flophouse, played by a frighteningly bedraggled Mary Boland. The majority of Guilty Bystanderís remaining running time is concerned with Scott following a semi-linear path from one crook to the next. Along the way he gets beat up, shot, lied to, arrested, drugged, rolled--and, in keeping with his ongoing existential tightrope walk, he gets stinking drunk. Just as he finally smacks rock bottom the needed answers rise to the surface--thanks to a nifty plot device involving a pack of cigarettes and a stirring speech from Emerson begging her ex-husband not to give into despair.
The film is great noir, even if it isnít great otherwise. The shots are put together on the cheap--often composed with just a single key light illuminating the actors. The technique is surprisingly successful, and evokes a feeling that is at once reminiscent of Caravaggio, while also serving to make the frame more claustrophobic, with the unknown pressing in from all sides. The character types may be unimaginative, but the portrayals are refreshing and original--as if director Joe Lerner wanted to compensate for the meager budget with a troupe of performers dead set on good work. The standout in the bunch is Romanian character actor J. Edward Bromberg, who plays hypochondriac waterfront boss Varkas. Heís one of the steppingstones on Scottís path to his son, and their meeting in his dockside office is one of the better scenes in the film. Bromberg is a heavy-lidded and pot-bellied troll with dozens of pill bottles arrayed across his blotter. His affected performance builds up to a good moment when he gives Scott a violent smack in the mouth, obliterating the facade of a man who constantly bemoans his own weak heart.
In the end the film does little to rise above its low-budget foundation, but in this case the meager budget is somehow fitting. Guilty Bystander offers viewers a well-imagined and uncompromising world of lowlifes and losers, with a main character that not only moves among them, but belongs. The final moment of sunlit reunion notwithstanding, the film is almost entirely devoid of hope--which is rare, even in film noir.