Steve has kindly permitted us to reprint the contents of the NOTW site, which is simply wonderful, giving us a feeling of things coming full-circle--and with the added benefit of Steve's incredible dedication to the NOTW project that wound up going far beyond our own efforts here.
I decided to overlap this series with the continuation of our cataloguing of Mark Fertig's WHERE DANGER LIVES blog to provide a multitude of voices sharing their knowledge about noir in more than 500 essays that Steve cajoled and curated from a staggering multiplicity of sources. In future editions, we'll have an "Executive Producer" credit for Steve and the writer's credit at the conclusion of each post; here, however, with our first reprint, it's a nice coincidence that the essay is written by a long-time denizen of the Board who is still more than welcome to return--Dennis Taylor, who had two handles here at various times: "DT Out West" and his more evocative first nom-du-board, "Raven" (a tribute to the iconic role played by Alan Ladd in THIS GUN FOR HIRE). As always, Raven's look at ABANDONED (yes, we are going to present these in alphabetical order!) is a solid, thorough and colorful piece of work.
Thanks again to Steve for his most gracious permission to bring this treasure trove of material here. Hope you enjoy it!
WHILE Abandoned boasts a boat load of colorful characters--Shoeshine Sammy, Morrie the Bookie, Doc, Winey, Punchy, and Scoop--all seemingly plucked from the beloved New York streets of Damon Runyon, this film ain’t no Guys and Dolls. It’s more like Babes for Dough, a rough and dark social commentary/police procedural on the heinous crime of selling unwanted newborns (not to mention the assorted murders and double dealings that accompany the path to ill-gained riches.
Abandoned (1949, Universal) rolls its opening credits to the melodic strains of a prior Uni noir, 1946’s The Killers. While there’s no Charles McGraw or William Conrad emerging from the shadows we do get Dennis O’Keefe, as Mark Sitko (a world-weary newshound), and Raymond Burr as Kerric (a crook in gumshoes clothing--both a couple of not too shabby noir stalwarts for viewers to feast upon for the next 78 minutes.
It bears noting: while Burr doesn’t get star billing, he’s literally the biggest thing in the picture! This in no small part thanks to the costumer. His wearing of a striped, double-breasted suit literally fills the screen to the point a twin bill could be shown across the broad expanse of his ample rear end with space left over for a Chilly Willy cartoon.
The female leads, perhaps less known for their work in film noir than elsewhere, are more than adequate: Gail Storm (Paula Considine), playing the woman in distress, and Marjorie Rambeau (Mrs. Donner), who proves to be the “brains” behind the whole scam (and who also succeeds in stealing every scene she’s in).
Given star billing with O’Keefe and Storm is Jeff Chandler, who’s little more than window dressing: he provide the voice over narration and plays Police Chief MacRae--complete with a head of dark hair! Giving ample support are Will Kuluva as the sadistic, crime boss “Little Guy" Decola, who gets his jollies playing with matches; noir's ubiquitous muscleman, Mike Mazurki, is also on hand as Little Guy’s big gorilla “Hoppe” who gets his jollies bustin’ heads.
Direction is by Joseph M. Newman, a veteran pro who directed several noirs: 711 Ocean Drive, Dangerous Crossing, I’ll Get You for This, and Flight to Hong Kong among others during a 30+ year career. The versatile Newman might be best known for directing one of the all time greats in the annals of 50’s sci-fi, 1955’s This Island Earth.
Writing credits are shared between relative unknown Irwin Gielgud (11 credits, just 2 for the big screen) and two-time Oscar nominee William Bowers, noir's most celebrated script doctor. Bowers' touch is unmistakable and his "additional dialogue" is what puts the sizzle on the steak. Burr's character Kerric is often in the midst of Bowers' snappy repartee. Mordant humor abounds, as when Kerric complains about the risks of being caught for murder in Californaia to the manipulative Mrs Donner: “I’d be just as happy if we committed our murders in a state that doesn’t have capital punishment.”
Burr probably appreciated his chance to deliver lines that weren't guttural threats, and it could be that Bowers' lines helped to hone his later comic timing on Perry Mason. There's nothing like a caviling criminal: “I was just thinking how nice life used to be when I stuck to blackmail and petty larceny.” Even the mobsters get in on the act: Little Guy comes close to breaking the fourth wall with the following jibe: “There’s a rumor going around town I’m getting soft. Whenever that happens I always cut a couple of throats just to prove a point.”
Abandoned opens with the obligatory voiceover warning the viewer that this could be your city. But, of course, the shot of City Hall that rises before us as these words are intoned gives away the fact that we are in Los Angeles. City Hall deserves an acting credit of its own, actually: as it figures in a number of exterior and interior shots. It's accompanied by numerous on-location scenes, along with venerable MacArthur Park (though nothing seems to be melting in the dark there, at least in this movie).
It seems “your city” has among its inhabitants a villainous group, led by Mrs Donner, prying upon young unwed mothers. Passing out bibles and a line of hooey about good care and good homes for their unwanted babies is nothing more than a cover for the sale of the babies to well-healed customers seeking to forgo the normal channels of adoption. Rambeau is wonderfully two-faced, putting up a respectable, matronly front for the girls that entrust themselves to her and to her customers; but behind closed doors, she can sling it with the rest of the miscreants--delivering lines as stinging as any delivered by the male characters. Kerric is the target of her sharp tongue as the weasel tries to cobble together funds so he can skip out of town: “You might sell your mother. It’s the only thing you haven’t tried”
Our heroine--the young, beautiful, and bewildered Paula--has come to “your city” to find her missing sister Mary. Paula’s in receipt of a letter on hospital stationery from her sister telling her she’s had a baby, but the letter is ultra-skimpy otherwise. Knowing only that Mary is somewhere in the city, Paula makes her way to the Missing Persons Department in an attempt to locate her. As fate would have it, she's overheard there by newspaper man Sitko who takes one look at Paul and immediately takes a fancy to her.
While he's sympathetic (and attentive to Paula's charms), Sitko doesn't give much credence to the missing persons angle. But after suggesting to Paula that they at least try to rule out more tragic circumstances by visting the morgue, Mark becomes aware they’re being shadowed by Kerric (how could he not be aware, Kerric’s shadow probably weights 10 pounds!) and becomes convinced that there’s more going on than he'd originally thought.
Grabbing Paula and forcing her down a flight of stairs leading to an underpass, they take cover behind a corner and await the arrival of Kerric, who' not pleased at being confronted. (As noted: he's a weasel!) Sitko and Kerric engage in a heated debate that includes these zingers:
KERRIC: ”I couldn’t sleep so I just decided to take my gun out for a walk.”
SITKO: “You going legitimate is like a vulture going vegetarian.”
A quick appropriation of Kerric’s papers reveals a photo of Paula and the disclosure he’s been hired by her father to track her in hopes that she’d lead him to Mary. (Later on, we might question the coincidence that the very private dick Pop hires just happens to be in cahoots with the dame running the baby brokerage firm his daughter was duped by--but noir thrives on these ironies.) What follows is a jolt when the three of them make their way to the morgue. Once there, sure enough whose photo do we see? None other than Mary’s, with the notation that her demise was by suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning (she'd been found behind the wheel of a car out in the boonies at a country club construction site).
However, it's all a bit odd, since Mary didn’t know how to drive. Paula is convinced her sister would never do such a thing. At this point her determination convinces Mark to forego his merely chasing her skirt and instead start chasing a story. Trying to convince the police there’s something shady going on is a bit trickier, but once Chief MacRae is on board he unleashes all the high-tech gadgets at the force's disposal (including the capper: the hidden microphone in the shrubbery--priceless!).
The police and their allies in the private sector eventually succeed in unearthing the whole babies-for-sale racket, but not along the way the viewer is taken on a heck of a thrill ride complete with double crosses, car crashes, beatings, shootings--even falling off ledges. It all packed into a bang-up tale, replete with repartee, and darkly filmed to boot, with what the trade papers of the day used to call a "socko" ending.
Abandoned's final gift to the viewer is in its graphic depiction of what evil can befall one when a “little guy” plays with matches. Poor Kerric: he should have taken Sitko's advice when he told him “That just about closes the case. You can report to your client now and have him take you off the gravy train.” But the big lug didn’t heed the advice and literally gets burned for it. His loss is the viewer’s gain.