The general story here isn’t new: treasury agent goes undercover at great risk to life and limb to crack up a counterfeit ring. Along the way he meets a pretty girl; in the end it turns out she ain’t so nice. We’ve seen it all before. However, derivative stuff aside, Southside 1-1000 has something to offer both as a film and as a commentary on its time--and it boasts one of the most underrated femme fatales of all time.
The movie opens with a bland montage of stock footage accompanied by voiceover narration, which resurfaces from time to time throughout. Unlike many noir enthusiasts, I appreciate narration. And while I understand the complaints that it cheapens the product--a storytelling gimmick intended to shave running times--my response is "so what"? Voiceovers are ingrained in our collective understanding of film noir; frankly, I get excited somewhere deep-down whenever I hear one.
The narrator recounts many of the perils befalling the United States throughout the twentieth century, from the Great War to Korea, as grainy combat footage flickers across the screen. But the set-up here is money, and the narrator quickly connects the dots: Uncle Sam needs cash to keep the tanks rolling and the planes flying in the fight against the Reds. He reminds us that paper money has no value on its own, that it merely represents a sacred promise by the government. Therefore, the sanctity of U.S. paper money must be vigilantly protected. Counterfeit rings diminish that promise and pose a serious threat not only to national security, but the American way of life itself.
Now this is a strange set of values, but perhaps the "support your local police" angle was over quota--breaking new ground in stentorian self-righteousness might've been what the folks were really after when they kicked in their portion of the production budget to the Kings. Granting that, it's still surreal to hear the narrator close with “the strength of a nation depends on the value of its currency.” Consider that the film was made in the years of the rising Cold War, with its multitude of threats both perceived and imaginary, and ponder a narrative that asks the American public to fight communism not with their intellects or their sense of patriotism, but with their willingness to spend.
The first half of the picture is a routine docu-style depiction of treasury department methodology. We watch as counterfeit bills are minted and put into circulation on the street. The secret service glom on to the new bills and identify the counterfeiter through his engraving style. They run all-night stake-outs on shady characters. Eventually the good guys nab a courier red-handed, but the bad guys toss him out of a high window before the T-men can give him the third degree. (and not a drawing of a window like on the bizarre poster either!)
With little else to go on the bosses in DC send agent John Riggs (Don DeFore) to the L.A. hotel where the skydiving stiff kept a room. It turns out the crook had his laundry delivered there — and in the sort of logical leap that only happens in B-movies — the feds deduce (correctly) that the hotel must be the epicenter of all counterfeit activity! Agent Riggs takes up residence, passing himself off as a numbers man out of Cleveland. He’s noticed by the hoodlums and joins the gang. By day Riggs schemes to get evidence on the counterfeiters, while at night he romances Nora Craig the hotel’s sexy manager (Andrea King).
Nora is easily the most important character in the film, and her relevance extends far beyond the scope of the film itself.
Southside 1-1000 is a great example of why feminist writers are drawn to film noir. Here we have a woman, circa 1950, with an extraordinary amount of power: not only does she hold the important position of manager of the hotel--she’s the boss of an entire criminal mob. The men at her command are hardened felons--they're not the sort to take orders from a dame--yet they jump like bellhops when she says so.
Just before we get the dirt on who Nora Craig really is, she has a night out with Riggs, and gives him the straight dope: she wants things, nice things, expensive things, and she’s not the kind of woman who needs a man to pay for them. Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson manipulated one man to get out from under another, but was trapped in a masculine world. Mildred Pierce’s business success alienated those around her and was ultimately responsible for her daughter’s psychosis. Nora Craig has something on both of them--she quite possibly comes closer than any other noir woman to “having it all.”
In the end it takes no less than the United States government to destroy her, and even then she dies more a victim of cruel fate than Uncle Sam. Nora has achieved a lofty position in two distinct worlds, that of the legitimate businesswoman and of the underworld kingpin.
Nora Craig is no black widow--she has no need to be. She is arguably the film’s most powerful character, and consequently has no need to utilize her sexual power in the same way that the typical femme fatale does. Her tryst with the undercover Riggs is on her terms; she asks nothing of him and makes no attempt to manipulate or take advantage of him. Their affair simply allows us to learn her secret desires, which are necessary for us to understand her motivation to be a criminal. The fact that both characters are engaged in deception doesn’t compromise her honesty. They play the same cat and mouse game that feds and gangsters have always played with one another in the movies--only on more romantic terms.
The film has a crackerjack ending that makes the whole thing worthwhile. Beginning with a fire in the crook’s hideout and wrapping on a bridge trestle spanning the rail yard, everything is done with verve and style. All of the details from the costumes to the lighting to the camera positions vividly depict a running gun battle that is rich with visual symbolism. It’s a tasty dessert at the end of a routine Wednesday night dinner.