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Movies: Troubled Times

Faithful to its responsibilities and unintimidated by the constables of church or state, the picture industry continues to battle on the social barricades. In this summer of coups d’etat, assassination, war and the threat of war, Hollywood has discovered that crime never pays and that history has inflicted a vile libel on the memory of the American Indian.

The alarming message sent us by J. Edgar Hoover in the preface to “The Street with No Name” is that America is threatened by gangsterism of unprecedented ferocity. On the dark and evil street that stretches from ocean to ocean, the underworld struts and sneers and slaps its girl friends, while the country is lulled into a sense of false security by headlines announcing the bombing of Jerusalem or the siege of Berlin.

“The Street with No Name,” it says, was made with the cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On internal evidence, you might suppose it had been filmed at the point of a G-man’s gun. As a cops-and-robbers extravagance, it would be a good, if stubbornly routine, job.

Its special distinction is that it pauses every few minutes for an illustrated lecture on the internal operations of the FBI. We learn how agents are trained; we are assured that they represent the finest in American manhood. We watched with benumbed fascination the smooth progress of clues through the infallible digestion of modern criminology. The fingerprint section alone seems as big as Central Park and my thumbs itch with the uneasy knowledge that they also have not been overlooked. Hoover himself never appears, but his words spill like Holy Writ from the teletype.

The mobsters in this instance are an exceedingly sharp bunch of boys. They move like cats and plan their forays against society with the farsighted efficiency of SHAEF. I don’t know how effective “The Street” will be in discouraging crime. I came out of the theatre myself arrogant in the knowledge that my heater was safely strapped beneath my double-breasted pin-stripe jacket. If I’d been a few years younger, I think I’d have gone rat-a-tat-tat at a passing patrol car.

For those currently planning to break out of jail, “Canon City” should be a healthy deterrent. It is a faithful documentary report of a real jail break that took place in that Western penitentiary town last December; and it proves that such ventures are not worth the gamble. It also proves that the best melodrama comes out of the fevered imagination of hired writers.

As a layman, I hesitate to criticize the plan of operation adopted by the Canon City inmates, but it seems impractical to me to attempt an escape in the dead of winter without adequate clothing and with no provision for transportation. No doubt that’s the way it happened, but the consequent suspense was not unendurable.

In “Raw Deal,” to complete the crime report, the hero gets out of jail fine because he’s had the sense to have his girl friend meet him in a good, reliable car. The two of them would have made it OK, but a well-intentioned young lady reformer joins the act, and the fugitive gets himself killed rescuing her from a pyromaniac gang leader. It’s not only crime that doesn't pay.

The Redskin, whose character was warmly defended in “Fort Apache,” is again done belated justice in “Fury at Furnace Creek.” This is about the villainy of some silver speculators who provoke the tribesmen into committing a massacre so that they will be kicked off the reservation and the land declared open to exploitation. It also concerns Victor Mature’s efforts to redeem the good name of his father, an army general believed to have had guilty knowledge of the plot. By and large, “Furnace Creek” is a good Western with plenty of hard riding and trick gunplay, and with a love affair of William S. Hart propriety.

The French are still shipping us films designed to prove that they resisted the Germans. The latest, “A Friend Will Come Tonight,” takes place in an insane asylum and, quite literally, it is impossible to separate the lunatics from the Maquis. Michel Simon, who stars in it but who has curiously little to do with it, is being exploited these days in a manner calculated to reduce his drawing power to the vanishing point.

Since the effect of self-pity is to diminish the compassion of others, it is possible to sit through the genuinely heartbreaking story of “The Illegals” comparatively unmoved. This is a documentary account of the underground journey (which the narrative persists in calling an exodus) that thousands of Jews have made from Eastern Europe to the coast of Palestine, there to be shunted off into the stockades of Cyprus.

Of course, it really is an exodus and, of course, the parallel with the bitter history of the Old Testament is inescapable. But the picture does not help its cause by insisting upon its heroic tragedy nor by setting its commentary to the lugubrious cadences of the Hebrew scribes.

As a piece of film making, “The Illegals” suffers from the monotony and repetition of literal truth. Every step of the road must be memorable to those who followed it; to the rest of us, one border, one camp, one convoy of trucks looks much like another. As pamphleteering, the picture fails even more because it seems to be watching for our tears.

An old film at present playing a return run on Broadway is billed on the marquee as an “encore premiere.” A little more of this sort of thing and we’ll be back learning the grunt language from the apes.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.