If you read up on the picture, that subject seems to be the jazz. Paytonís Lane gets mixed up with some shady underworld types trying to work a blackmail scheme, and next thing she knows the cops are eyeballing her for a murder. By the time all is said and done and we learn sheís innocent, Detective Ray Patrick (Paul Langton) has already pissed his career down the drain in order to keep her out of Tehachapi.
From one point of view itís easy to say Murder is My Beat misses as a film noir because Eden Lane turns out to be a good girl ó thatís an easy, uncomplicated position to take (and believe me, plenty have taken it). Iím not so sure though. One of the significant characteristics of noir is a milieu that is all at once complicated, uncertain, chaotic, and morally ambiguous. With this in mind is it not then enough to consider it a film noir simply because Detective Patrick gives up everything for a girl he thinks might be guilty? Whether Eden Lane is pure evil or merely pure turns out to be irrelevant--her power isnít moral, itís entirely sexual. Patrick doesnít trip over his own feet to help her because sheís innocent: he just wants to score. That in the final equation she turns out to be innocent is, for him, nothing more than dumb luck--and considering the fate of film noir protagonists who made similar choices, Patrick gets off lucky.
Make no mistake: Murder is My Beat is a second-rate picture. Were it not for the presence of an interesting, much-talked-about director and an infamous leading lady, the film would simply vanish into the haze.
Paul Langtonís presence doesnít help. If ever there were a guy less suited to take the lead in a feature film, itís him. Despite Langton's long career as a character actor on a million different forgotten television dramas, Murder is My Beat represents one of his only starring roles, and he doesnít make good. A tedious actor with a dead face and zero charisma, Langton comes off like a sack of potatoes in a JC Penney suit--frankly, the best thing about him is his haircut.
Harold Wellmanís cinematography is equally unimaginative (although he could at least blame the filmís miserable, virtually non-existent budget). In Wellmanís defense, many of the second unit shots are pretty good, in particular the naturally lit exteriors. There are some strong shots of period LA, including the ubiquitous City Hall building. Thereís little to say on behalf of the interiors, though: they're all shot with a single harsh light source against washed out, over-exposed backgrounds.
Much has been made of Edgar G. Ulmerís career--and rightfully so. While Murder is My Beat canít be held up alongside Detour, Ruthless or even The Strange Woman, it does offer some explanation of what made him a precious commodity on Poverty Row.
Take, for instance, the train scene--the one in which Detective Patrick finally gives himself over to keeping Lane out of jail. The entire scene is played out on a single set, with the would-be lovers sitting opposite each other as a rear-projection landscape dances by through the window. The two spend the scene in conversation, but Ulmer uses a clever trick to keep things on the cheap: instead of showing the actors talking, he just as often shows them listening. He most likely shot the scene with two cameras--one for each actor, filming the speaker and the listener at the same time. In the finished movie the scene plays out in an unexpected way: we often see the listener while only hearing the speaker--we see Patrickís passive face as he's hearing Laneís spoken dialogue.
The technique allowed Ulmer to correct himself in the cutting room and saved quite a lot of time and money. If he didnít like something about the actorís expression or delivery, heíd just cut to the other person listening. When necessary. he could even change the script and record different dialogue after shooting the scene.
Much has also been written about how exploitative and cruel the Hollywood studio system was in its heyday, particularly concerning starlets. Actresses such as Barbara Payton, Gail Russell, and Frances Farmer are whipped out and dusted off as sad illustrations of beautiful and talented young women devoured by an insatiable machine. While it is true that show business is unkind to those who canít cope with criticism and rejection (among other things), itís also fair to say that self-destructive people tend to self-destruct regardless of their circumstances: it just makes for better gossip when it happens in Malibu.
Yet Barbara Payton's story is certainly a sad one (if not quite on par with Russellís). Russell was a depressive who suffered from stage fright and abused substances in order to get up for her roles. Her star peaked all too soon.Payton turned to alcohol, drugs, and even prostitution once her Hollywood star had fallen. Murder is My Beat was Paytonís final grasp at the screen. She never had much of a career, and was known primarily for an short-lived, ill-conceived marriage with A-lister Franchot Tone that ended after an infamous, violent ambush by her love, Tom Neal. Only three years after that sordid event, her M.O. in Murder is My Beat is nothing more than a shallow riff on Marilyn Monroe. With put-on breathiness in her voice and a puffy face, sheís a shadow of the girl who starred opposite Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye just five years earlier. Itís clear that sheís working hard, but what is more telling to audiences paying attention is that Ulmer regularly prefers to go in tighter on the wooden Langton.
Murder is My Beat is more notable for the academic questions it poses and for the personalities involved than for anything that happens on-screen. It has its moments-- a grisly murder victim who goes face-first into a fireplace and a picture-snatcher in a dress more outrageously sexual than anything youíve ever seen in an Eisenhower-era motion picture--but those lurid highlights arrive too early and too close together, and the rest of the picture just oozes to a limp, ironic conclusion--the puffy bad girl isn't really bad, but she's just not worth the effort.