--Let me tell you about you, Al. That badge and a few law books have turned you into a nut. You don’t like anybody. You don’t believe anybody. You don’t trust anybody. You think everybody has a pitch.
Double Indemnity is a damn good movie. When people start talking film noir, it usually comes up first. Billy Wilder, James Cain, Barbara Stanwyck, and Freddie Mac, all cavorting in Edith Head costumes for Pete’s sake. Straight down the line to seven Academy Award nominations. Can you beat it?
Nah, you probably can’t--but big budget studio noirs like Double Indemnity or Laura don’t get me going like a first-rate second-rate picture. Dark, violent, gritty, neurotic, fatal, sleazy, cheap--these weren’t typically part of the vernacular over at the Metro lot. Or, for that matter, at the Paramount lot, where Appointment with Danger was spawned--at a time when they were buying their "B" films from folks they wouldn't let on their lot. When Appointment with Danger was finally given a wide DVD release, I decided to finally look at my copy; I didn't want to get left in the cold on the off-chance it comes up in conversation. I’ve owned a dusty bootleg for ages, but never watched it: after reading a plot description I assumed it was a cookie-cutter knock-off of Anthony Mann’s T-Men.
Brother, was I all wet.
“The story begins in the rain of a murky summer night in Gary, Indiana.” Following a brief PSA homage to the postal service, Appointment with Danger gets going--and how: two thugs (Jack Webb and Harry Morgan, that’s right...) are seen lurking in the shadows of a cheap hotel room, neon lights ironically pulsating the words “Hotel Compton: The Friendly Hotel” through the gauze of the window, as the rain outside flails away at the night. One hood is huddled over the body of a murdered postal inspector, coldly recoiling his strangulation rope--a real pro, this one.
Cut forward in time to a sedan splashing though the vacant streets, the murderers now prowling for a quiet place to deep-six their victim. A nun (Phyllis Calvert), at war with a cheap umbrella, happens by just as they begin to dump the body in a dark alley. She sees the faces of both men, but is so grateful for Morgan’s righting of her umbrella that she buys his story of a sodden buddy “getting some air.” Nonetheless, her suspicions rise in the moments that follow, and she relates her story to a passing motorcycle cop before moving on. He glances toward the alley just before a speeding motorist steals his attention and he rushes off in the opposite direction. As the camera once again takes up position in the alley to watch the cop vanish into the night, it pans down to reveal the corpse, unceremoniously abandoned in the gutter.
The action described in the preceding paragraph takes only three minutes of screen time, but it’s one of the sharpest and most exemplary openings of any crime picture out there. Let’s put the rest of the plot summary in a nutshell: Al Goddard (Alan Ladd), another postal inspector, is brought in to investigate and discovers the killing is part of a much larger scheme to “knock over the mails.” Goddard feigns crooked in order to infiltrate the gang, led by Big Earl (Paul Stewart), all while getting to the bottom of the murder and protecting the nun.
If the story of Appointment with Danger seems routine or unspectacular, the atmosphere, characters and dialog aren’t--and that’s what makes it such a damn good time. Here’s a picture that has it all: dark corners; wet streets; gunsels and gun molls; crackerjack dialogue that spits faster than machine gun fire and sharper than a straight razor; and a noir icon at the absolute top of his game--a guy so hard boiled he describes a love affair as “what goes on between a man and a .45 pistol that won’t jam.” Later on he even tries to convince the nun to protect herself by borrowing his ankle piece.
The man is Alan Ladd, who crashed the scene in This Gun for Hire and quickly became Paramount’s golden boy in a series of successful crime pictures: The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia, Calcutta, and Chicago Deadline. His role in Shane made him a Tinseltown legend, but as far as film noir is concerned Ladd is never better than in Appointment with Danger.
Al Goddard is no fresh-faced G-Man. As a matter of fact, he seems less like a cop than a bounty hunter, operating in the hazy area just outside the law. He plays by his own rules and doesn’t answer to anyone so long as he delivers, which apparently he always does. Goddard is so relentless that the movie takes its own denouement for granted--letting us know early on that he’s sure to make good: his boss is lecturing him about his ruthlessness when Al smirks, “Now, do you mind if I go find out who killed Harry Gruber?” The response is frank, “I’m sure you will Al--because you’re a good cop. But that’s about all you are.”
It’s an interesting moment in the film, and a prescient one in the maturation of noir: we continue to see a shift in the cinematic depiction of the law enforcement officer, from the community-centered and morally infallible family man, supported in his work by the efficient bureaucracy he serves, to the lone wolf: single, obsessed, unable to adjust, encumbered--and embittered--by that same bureaucracy. It’s a compliment to Ladd to suggest that his work in this film is worthy of comparison to that of Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, though maybe it’s the other way around: the Ryan film went into production well after Appointment’s theatrical run.
We’ve gotten used to the idea of a determined, maverick cop through the decades, but if there was ever an era of conformity and team spirit in this country it was in the years during and just after the war. However, Goddard doesn’t seem to need the uniformed officers, APBs, or array of gadgets available to him. He holds all that garbage in contempt, instead making do with his wits, his fists, and that can’t-jam police special. When he decides to pass himself off as a bent cop and go undercover he does it on the fly, smoothly convincing the thugs he’s capable of theft, bribery, even murder. The lines between film hero and villain have blurred.
Only once does Goddard rely on colleagues to help him out of a jam, despite a dozen close calls. And who can blame him? His job is a thankless one. The same men who place in harm’s way chastise him for not fitting in with polite society, telling him, “You’ve been chasing hoodlums for so long, you don’t know how to treat ordinary people.” Yet Goddard is no cardboard caricature either, he’s generally polite and occasionally even kind. The clever counterpoint of a nun as his character foil, situating the two leads at opposite ends of the “nice” spectrum, is ample proof. The fact that Ladd and Calvert have such easygoing chemistry makes their relationship that much more enjoyable.
Let’s get back to the rest of the cast, beginning with the fellows from Dragnet. Jack Webb and Harry Morgan were paired in two films before beginning their long television association--and both find them in similar roles: Webb as a crook and Morgan as a dimwit. What’s more, in neither picture do they get along. In Dark City they appear as habitués of a New York bookie joint, ex-pug Morgan sweeps up while Webb takes part in crooked card games. Morgan’s role here is fairly small, but splashy--and dig that creepy mug shot! Three pops for armed robbery and five years in Lewisburg for dodging the draft. Morgan’s presecne is unfortunately brief, but his exit is legendary--so spectacularly brutal that I deserve a free drink for not spoiling it.
Another standout performance belongs to Jan Sterling, who makes the most of a small part as Dodie, Big Earl’s girlfriend. There’s something uniquely trashy about Sterling...and I mean that as high praise. She’s the kind of actress born to portray gun molls: attractive to be sure, but her charisma comes from a combination of slightly frayed sex appeal and the sense one gets that she’d never stick with a guy unless her heart was in it. Yet there’s also a brain lurking behind the pretty face. If there’s anyone other than Goddard in the picture that knows the score, it’s Dodie.
Like other women in film noir she finds herself a victim of unlucky love, but Dodie is too smart to allow her fate to be bound to that of her man. Knowing her horse isn’t a winner, she hedges her bets with Goddard and gets out. This is no stand-by-your-man fifties hausfrau; this is a woman who thinks on her feet and looks out for number one. But unlike the femme fatale, she takes responsibility for her actions. When Goddard’s caught in his most vulnerable position it’s Dodie who bails him out, and while it’s apparent she’s acting in her own self-interest, and likes Goddard in spite of herself, she doesn’t hesitate with one of the film's most delicious lines after he offers his thanks: “Don’t bother, Earl was good to me. I hope he kills you.”
Appointment with Danger is a fast moving, entertaining, punch-in-the-gut movie. In spite of its obscurity, it's a crime film of the first order, all while working in a queasy, anarchic sub-region that its more polished siblings never truly inhabit. It’s a textbook example of noir's visual style, transforming the industrial wasteland of northern Indiana into a nightscape as rich as any found on the hallowed streets of New York or LA. It sounds even better, with classic dialog delivered by a game cast, with a muscial score to match. One memorable scene follows the next, making it worthy of multiple viewings.
And finally Alan Ladd’s Inspector Goddard is one hell of a cop--the mean, taciturn uncle of Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle--a brazen tough guy who does things his way and manages to get results. Go watch the movie: I won’t even mention the handball match...