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The surprising Ted Tetzlaff directs Conte, Totter in offbeat prison-farm noir
Those persistent rumors about Ida Lupino's being bald as a bean may have been fueled in part by Under The Gun, in which Audrey Totter appears to be wearing Lupino's old hair. Totter's a diva in a `Miama' nightclub in whom mobster Richard Conte takes both a professional and personal interest. En route by car back to New York, Conte takes care of some unfinished business by murdering a man but is arrested and stands trial. Despite herself, Totter finds she cannot commit perjury (`You just weren't worth the lies,' she later tells Conte). So he pulls a 20-year sentence at a prison farm in the deep South, where the concept of parole is unknown.
And the most interesting and accomplished part of Under The Gun - most of the movie, in fact - takes place at the prison farm. Conte thinks he can escape by bribing a hated `trusty' (Royal Dano), an inmate who earns special privileges by standing watch with a shotgun when the men go on work details. But Conte's buddy in the next bunk (Sam Jaffe) explains the finer points of the penal code in Dixie: If a trusty kills a prisoner trying to escape, he earns early release.
Conte, however, is as Machiavellian as he is ruthless. He coaxes a simple-minded inmate to make a break for it; Dano kills the gullible fool and secures release. Trigger-happy Conte becomes the next trusty, itching for his bid for freedom. Impatient, he makes Jaffe a grisly offer: If he tries to escape under Conte's gun, Conte will make a payoff to Jaffe's wife and children....
Ted Tetzlaff, the director, handles the ironies and ambiguities in the plot adroitly. A former cinematographer, he worked in and around the noir cycle, sometimes routinely (as in A Dangerous Profession and Gambling House), but in a couple of tries quite amazingly: Riffraff and The Window. Under The Gun lies somewhere in the middle, hobbled by a lame ending. But at least Totter, as the target for Conte's revenge, shows up again for the close. Even as a brunette, she's always worth watching.
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