Posted by Richard Harland Smith on June 13, 2014
Up until a week ago I had no idea that Monogram cowboy actor “Wild Bill” Elliott (1904-1965) had capped his estimable career (some 70 pictures in 15 or 16 years) with a series of signature detective films, produced cheaply and quickly for Allied Artists to burn off his contract before retirement. Truth be told, I knew very little about Bill Elliott at all, apart from the fact that he had played Red Ryder (you know, the guy whose rifle the kid wants the BB gun version of in A CHRISTMAS STORY) in a slew of westerns co-starring little Bobby Blake as his faithful Indian companion. I’d seen some stills from his various films but I never took the time to watch the movies themselves. Yet when I found out that Elliott — the son of a Missouri cattleman who was one of the more unlikely graduates of the Pasadena Playhouse actor mill — had headlined a half dozen DRAGNET-inspired police procedurals set in Los Angeles I just had to jump on that. It was to my good fortune that the Warner Archives only just released the complete collection of what they call “the Bill Elliott Detective Mysteries” (something of a misnomer, as a third of these are not mysteries at all) and when I found out that this thing was not only a thing but an obtainable, watchable-now thing, then I took it to the streets, rattled some cages, kicked down some doors, worked my snitches… and found out all there was to know. At only 60 minutes per, these low budget crime films are easy viewing and there’s enough continuity between the titles to suggest a pretty good TV show that didn’t go the distance. Le’ts break it down case by case and see if this isn’t up your alley…
DIAL RED O (1955). The introductory film is the best of the bunch, the story of a traumatized war hero who jumps his psychiatric custodianship to seek out the no good wife who divorced him in absentia. When she is found dead, her neck snapped by repeated judo blows (such as one would learn, and could perfect, in combat in World War II and Korea), the vet (Keith Larsen) becomes the prime suspect, “another psycho loose.” Clearly taking its cue from Jack Webb’s DRAGNET (a radio favorite that made the jump to TV in 1951), DIAL RED O (LA’s emergency hotline) plays it cool, etching the City of Angels not as an eldritch hotbed of illicit activity but as a community of professionals and private citizens in whose lives terrible things do happen. Only in his early 50s but reading older and stiffer, Elliott makes for an avuncular if overly reserved sheriff’s office lieutenant, as reticent as Joe Friday but not nearly as prone to bloviation. He’s a meat and potatoes guy with not much use for the esoteric. When questioning a witness (Jack Kruschen), who happens to be a pulp writer, he is asked “Every read science fiction?” and deadpans “No” with a quiet simplicity that tells you everything you need to know about Lt. Andy Flynn.
Shot in about a week, these films are lean and economical and make, whenever possible, as much use of local color as they can get away with. DIAL RED O gets a lot of mileage out of LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood and sets one scene near the Los Feliz Golf Course (still there, and seen in Doug Liman’s SWINGERS ), at a diner where…
… Sam Peckinpah is flipping the burgers and dispensing change for the payphone. (Peckinpah was an in-house dialogue director for Allied Artists and pops up in several of their films from this time, in an assortment of character parts.) In addition to being fleet of foot and offering great vintage views of the greater Los Angeles area, DIAL RED O also has a disarming social conscience, begging tolerance for those men attempting (and often failing) to reintegrate into society after military service. While the press (among them PSYCHO‘s Mort Mills) and his colleagues stamp Larsen’s damaged war hero as head case fit only for a padded cell or a pine box, Elliott’s taciturn but caring older cop takes up the man’s case in more ways than one, sussing out the real killer (we know well before he does) and then attempting to stop the beleaguered protagonist from taking justice into his own hands. “Killing the killer is still murder,” Flynn cautions, sounding a note of caution that would be all too out of fashion by the time of DIRTY HARRY (1971) and the glorification of vigilantism, whose repercussions are still woefully in evidence today. DIAL RED O was written and directed by Daniel B. Ullman, who was better known in Hollywood as a writer, with such scripts as THE CAST AGAINST BROOKLYN (1958) and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) to his credit.
SUDDEN DANGER (1955) is an inferior follow-up to DIAL RED O, principally because it takes place mostly on soundstages, forsaking the location photography (and even the stock footage) that made the first film feel punchy and documentary-like. Another deficit is the lack of attention to the sociological component that is crucial to any good whodunit: not only should you be encouraged to guess who the killer is, you must also have a short list of suspects whom you fear the killer might be and hope will not be. Here, it’s all pretty academic, with a lineup of suspects about whom we come to care very little. Sweetening the pill in this tale of a blind man (Tom Drake) suspected of murdering his affluent mother for the money to undergo an eye-saving surgery is the participation of Beverly Garland, as the suspect’s fiancee. Garland was early into her career here, post small roles in D.O.A. (1950) and THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955) and on the cusp of her work with Roger Corman and a short-lived stab at TV stardom as policewoman Casey Jones in DECOY (1957-1958). Garland is solid throughout SUDDEN DANGER, seductive and sharp, and she brings much-needed energy to scenes with Drake (a cold actor who never quite made his mark) and star Elliott. Because the producers learned after the release of DIAL RED O that there was an Andy Flynn on the payroll of the LAPD or Sheriff’s Department, Elliott’s character underwent a name change to Andy Doyle. To soften up the crusty lone wolf a bit, he was given a younger partner in the person of Sgt. Mike Duncan (John Close, an actor who played cops in just about everything he did, including THE BIG HEAT, THEM!, and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) and an admirer in Lucien Littlefield (THE CAT AND THE CANARY), a bespectacled bookkeeper who slavishly follows Flynn because he is a fan of TV cop shows. SUDDEN DANGER ends on a light note, with Elliott telling Littlefield they should go grab a beer — interestingly, one of Littlefield’s next acting jobs was on the DRAGNET episode “The Big Beer.” Directing this installment of the Andy Doyle/Flynn mysteries was Hubert Cornfield, who later helmed the twisty thriller THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY (1968).
CALLING HOMICIDE (1956) seems to have learned some hard lessons from the second film in the series, and begins with a bang — literally — as bunco detective Ted Allen (William Meigs) is blown up in his car in the parking lot of the Hollywood office of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. As it happens, Allen was a protege of Andy Flynn, who takes a personal interest in the younger cop’s last case. Joining Flynn in the hunt for the killer is his faithful partner Mike Duncan. The confusing thing is that Mike is now played by blocky, bull-like Don Haggerty (coming off of the back-to-back CBS-TV series THE FILES OF JEFFREY JONES and THE CASES OF EDDIE DRAKE), while John Close is relegated to the minor role of a nameless desk sergeant. It’s a disconcerting change-up but one for the better, as the somewhat over-formal Elliott and the more personable, emotional Haggerty have an instant rapport. The case here progresses with a Black Dahlia-style mutilation murder and body dump and the range of suspects includes Lyle Talbot (as a washed up actor… which he was — he appeared in Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE that same year), THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN‘s Myron Healey, Jeanne Cooper (later a long-time player on the daytime drama THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS), and Stanley Adams (STAR TREK‘s tribble merchant, Cyrano Jones), while Herb Vigran and Mary Treen pop up in well-received cameos, and a young James Best (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) plays a geeky member of Lt. Flynn’s detective strike force. As with DIAL RED O, this installment bears a hint of social conscience, in a mystery that ties the Hollywood dream factory to the dark side of Tinsel Town, in the form of adoption and blackmail rackets and the dirty dealings of seemingly respectable folk. CALLING HOMICIDE was helmed by former Columbia contract director Edward Bernds, who also wrote the script.
CHAIN OF EVIDENCE (1956). Want to know if you should watch this one? Two words: Timothy Carey. Really, what more inducement do you need? Mind you, Carey has a minor role here, playing a thug who beats affable parolee Jimmy Lydon (erstwhile star of Paramount’s Henry Aldrich films) so badly that Lydon develops amnesia and goes off to work as an auto mechanic in Saugus. Yeah, Saugus … These detective movies have an almost fetishistic devotion to geography, as if the writers were working with open copies of The Thomas Guide. Whereas a lot of Hollywood crime movies of this vintage were shot in LA but rarely got site specific, these films name-drop streets, intersections, and such outlying municipalities as Saugus (long since incorporated into Santa Clarita), Ventura, and Imperial Valley, which adds to the verisimilitude. CHAIN OF EVIDENCE (these titles are fairly interchangeable and have little relevance to the actual plots) is an odd mash-up of Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT (1949) and Tay Garnett’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), as the amnesiac is hired as a handyman by a rich guy (THE WILD ONE‘s Hugh Sanders) and winds up the fall guy in a murder plot hatched by the millionaire’s avaricious wife (Tina Carver, later the heroine of FROM HELL IT CAME) and her lover (Ross Elliott). Directed by Paul Landres (who went from this to the Allied Artists shockers THE VAMPIRE and THE RETURN OF DRACULA), CHAIN OF EVIDENCE is just peppy enough and well cast (Dabbs Greer turns up as a sympathetic doctor) to keep the middling plot moving to another sitcom-like finish. Poor John Close is knocked down the cast roster even further this time out, playing a state trooper with about twenty seconds of screen time. Timothy Carey gets three scenes and stamps through each one of them like his feet are on fire.
Directed by Jean Yarbrough (THE DEVIL BAT) from a script by Albert Band (I BURY THE LIVING), the final film in the series, FOOTSTEPS IN THE NIGHT (1957), is an intriguing diversion, employing both a second act flashback to jazz up the procedural and to put into perspective all that we have seen to that point. As with DIAL RED O, the film seems to beg a level of understanding for a new breed of American male having a rough time making a go of life in post-war America. Douglas Dick (THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE) takes the lead as Henry Johnson, an electronics whiz ankled by a gambling addiction and taking a breather from fiancee Eleanore Tanin by decamping to a West Hollywood motel… where he is accused of murdering neighbor Robert Shayne faster than you can say Aces and Eights. Like any good film noir protagonist, Dick takes it on the lam rather than do the sensible thing, which brings him to the attention of Andy Flynn and Mike Duncan. As the detective duo puts the pieces together they draw a sketch of the wanted man as “almost brilliant” but “a little mixed up” and “sore at the whole world” — the sort of labels that were then being affixed to Beat generation writers and angry novelists such as Norman Mailer. Douglas Dick’s gambling addiction is couched in such oddly elliptical ways throughout FOOTSTEPS IN THE NIGHT (“Basically, it’s a story of frustration…”) that one is tempted to read it as a metaphor for homosexuality and the West Hollywood setting does not, in retrospect, help in that regard. (Interestingly, Dick’s onscreen fiancee, Eleanor Tanin also played the lady love of a similarly tortured man in Fred Sears’ THE WEREWOLF , which also has some compellingly queer aspects.) It all pushes itself towards a satisfying, if over-pat, conclusion, as the real killer (a pre-giallo black-gloved strangler) is cornered by the cops in a parking lot that, as fate would have it, overlooks the Allied Artists offices, where one sheets for GUNPOINT (1956) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) adorn an outer wall.
Nerd gripes aside, I really enjoyed my time with The Bill Elliott Detective Mysteries and I think, if you’ve read this far, you’ll like them, too. It’s too bad Andy and Mike couldn’t have had a few more crimes to solve but it’s also good that the series didn’t wear out its welcome, Charlie Chan-style. FOOTSTEPS IN THE NIGHT was Bill Elliott’s last film. He retired to Las Vegas, where he did a bit of ranching and where he died just after Thanksgiving 1965, of lung cancer. (Not surprisingly – everyone smokes excessively in these movies.) His partner in crime-solving, Don Haggerty, enjoyed an extensive, continued career (with parts in Don Siegel’s HELL IS FOR HEROES, THE KILLERS and DIRTY HARRY and lots of TV), before his death in Florida in 1988. I only just finished watching these movies, yet I miss these guys already.
To buy The Bill Elliott Detective Mysteries directly from The Warner Archive, click here.
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