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There's more to Undertow than the first screen credit of young `Roc' Hudson
(in fact his tiny role as a police detective barely registers). It's one of
a handful of noirs that William Castle directed before turning his attention
to, and making his name in, gimmicky schlock.
While none of them is so good as his first When Strangers Marry, with
Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter they're more than passable. As is
Scott Brady looks like Lawrence Tierney's kid brother (which in fact he was). In Reno after a stint at a mountain lodge he wants to buy and run, he bumps into an old pal from mobbed-up Chicago (John Russell). They compare the diamond rings they've bought for their respective fiancees, though that doesn't stop Brady from flirting with a girl (Peggy Dow) he met in a casino and shares a flight home with. Since the police meet him at the plane, any extracurricular romance comes to naught, so Brady dutifully hooks up with his intended (Dorothy Hart). Next thing, he's taken for a ride and framed for the murder of unseen crime boss Big Jim, who happens to be Hart's uncle. Trying to clear himself while on the lam, he enlists Dow's help; he also happens to stumble onto the fact that his fiancee and Russell's are the same woman....
Undertow is pure story, competently enough executed if devoid of anything particular to lodge in the memory. It preserves evidence of why Brady stayed in his brother's imposing shadow, and leads one to wonder why Hart made so few movies (though, of her handful of credits, roughly half are noirs). While not an essential title in the noir cycle by any means, Undertow was one of the hundreds of titles that went into making it a cycle, and far from the weakest of them.
Today ,William Castle is known as the man who bought Ira Levin's
"Rosemary's baby " rights and produced one of the best horror movies of
"Undertow" has a quite derivative screenplay but the director made the best of it and any film noir buff can give it a chance :it thoroughly deserves it.It features at least one unforgettable scene: the chase in the long corridor which gives you goose flesh.Of the two female leads,I prefer Dorothy Hart to the rather bland Peggy Dow.
In the 1968 movie Castle produced ,there was a corridor which played a prominent part too.
William Castle was always a B movie director .His talent -amounting almost
to genius -elevated some of his 50's work to the status of "event movies"
but works like "The Tingler" "Homicidal"and "Macabre"were nothing but
glorified B pictures wrapped in the razzle -dazzle of showmanship.
"Undertow"makes no pretense at being other than what it is-a brisk programmer for the bottom half of double features-and satisfies on this level Scott Brady is Tony Reagon,an ex-con going straight who is framed for the death of a mob boss,Big Jim,and the movie deals with Reagon's fight to clear his name with the help of a sympathetic cop and a schoolteacher with whom he struck up a friendship while en route to Chicago where the bulk of the movie is set.
Good use of the Chicago locations and a brisk pace compensate for moderate acting.Its predictable but narrative pace stops it getting tiresome
This is an odd case of a film having the same title as a film from
twenty years before with absolutely no relation between the two. 1930's
"Undertow" was about a lifeguard who marries a selfish party girl and
then moves her to a lighthouse where things go downhill from there for
both of them. This film has nothing to do with that forgotten but still
surviving early sound film by the same studio and has nothing to do
with an undertow, but I digress.
Tony Reagan used to be in the rackets, but after two stints in the military he is ready to go straight. He wants to buy and run a hunting and fishing lodge in the Rocky mountains and marry his girl, the daughter of an old rival of his back in his racketeering days. The movie starts in Reno where Tony runs into one of his old friends who is running a casino. While there he helps a schoolteacher on vacation (Peggy Dow as Ann McKnight) win 120 dollars rolling dice. You see, Tony still knows some of the tricks of the house. They share a plane ride home, and you can tell Ann thinks this might be headed some place romantic, something Tony does not pick up on. When he mentions his fiancée to her you can see her facial expression sink along with her hopes.
When they arrive in Chicago, Tony is met at the airport by the police. They take him to headquarters and say that the word is on the street that he is there to murder "big Jim", his fiancée's father, and tell him to leave town. Tony says to book him or leave him be. They leave him be, but soon he'll wish they had put him in jail because he would have been safer. That night he is knocked unconscious and when he comes to he is sitting in a parking lot in the car he rented earlier with a gunshot wound to his right hand and a gun sitting in the seat next to him. Then he learns on the radio that "Big Jim" has been killed that very night and that he is suspect number one. He tries all of his old friends looking for a hideout - the police have them all covered.
Then it hits him - the cops don't know about Ann, the girl he met in Reno. He dials her up and she helps him, even though she knows that he is a hunted murder suspect. So together this street smart fellow and naïve schoolteacher have to figure out who has framed him before the police can catch him. The suspense never lets up and there is some great photography and camera work involved here. I'll let you watch and find out what happens. Highly recommended.
When will a film noir devotee examine William Castle's directing in
detail and elevate his standing in film noir history and, sans noir,
directing history in general? His role as producer is nothing to sneeze
Compared to today's average quality of story-telling, which is what a movie is all about, Castle's work stands very tall.
This praise is elicited by watching "Undertow" (1949) again last night. This used to be on VHS and now is on a tcm vault copy looking excellent. It's a treasure. It's so easy for casual reviewers to dismiss a movie like this as a minor noir or not a classic or not a major film or simply a b-film or plot-driven or some other attitude like these. But this "smaller" film and others like it are gems, and they stand out well after 65 years and stand out against today's average products. Not every gem has to be a major film.
Castle introduces many touches that make this film so good, and at least some of these do pop up in the reviews of others who are more reluctant to come right out and say that Castle was a fine director. People cannot seem to forgive him for his promotional gimmicks.
The on location photography (Reno and Chicago) is copious and mixed skillfully with some process shots. The script is a tight 72 minutes and presents a satisfying story of making Brady the fall guy. The Chicago setting brings in a big black guy as a critical character, and that's done very well. Chicago has a large black population and the role that this man (Daniel Ferniel) has is realistic. He's very loyal to his white mob boss who has been murdered. He's not needlessly or psychopathically violent. He shows really gentle emotions at one point, but he's still determined to punish his boss's murderer. He feels deeply about it. This is no typical Hollywood black servant type, even if his job is a menial one. This story element is extremely successful.
The film is well-photographed and meaningfully relates to Brady's being trapped. He's in the open and free starting in Reno, but after meeting John Russell, they enter a casino managed by Russell and it seems to function as a potential trap as compared with his dream of settling at a lodge in the Sierras. In Chicago, his freedom doesn't ever get off the ground. He's met at the airplane by several detectives, including an old friend Bruce Bennett. Later, Brady is being tailed by police and makes an escape via the stairways on the Chicago elevated train. He walks along Wabash Avenue while being tailed, in the open but not free of those spying on him. When he is framed, he's blindfolded and led down a long corridor. Later police pursue him at night through a confined factory or mill of some sort with machinery and a conveyor belt going. He runs down a narrowly railed passage. When he meets the woman he wants to marry (Dorothy Hart) near the Aquarium in the distance, they talk furtively in a below ground passage.
There is cohesion in this film, an integral approach to the story. The way in which the story is told by Castle in film complements the story's content and vice versa.
"Undertow" is a simplistic example of a good 'B' picture, your basic
Film Noir 101 movie. There are no surprises, lots of coincidences and
plot contrivances, and the endgame is telegraphed about midway through.
Screenwriters could have written this one in their sleep, which may
account for the flawed, unsatisfying nature of Undertow.
The cast is attractive; several familiar 'B' actors put this picture over with performances that infuse it with much-needed energy. I thought Scott Brady, John Russell, Bruce Bennett and Peggy Dow were just fine, production values were good, but the movie lacks suspense and tension. Every time a crucial scene would come up you just knew the outcome.
Nevertheless, 'Undertow" succeeds in its own unsophisticated way, and for 40's theater audiences it would have been a good time killer while waiting for the main feature to come on.
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