Saturday, January 17, 2015

BELOW THE DEADLINE (1946)

Blessed with direction by the legendary William "One-Take" Beaudine; actors whose neighbors probably never even heard of; and a title that makes no sense whatsoever, Below the Deadline is more interesting than it has any right to be.

On the surface, it's just another B-criminal picture about one gambling king, Joe Hilton, mooching in on the territory of another, Oney Kessel. What gives Below the Deadline an interesting twist, though, is that Joe is a World War II vet who happily inherited the underworld job after the murder of his brother Jeffrey.

In a time when post-war movies portrayed vets as world-class heroes who, at worst, had a little trouble adjusting to civilian life, Below the Deadline must have been unique. From the moment we meet Joe, we know he's trouble. Having lost his soul somewhere on the Philippines' battlefields, he's returned with a redwood-sized chip on his shoulder and an itch for violence. One of those vets who hates civilians, Joe has no empathy for anybody's death outside a war zone.


"So your hat's still on, eh? Well,
take that!"
Joe's first move in taking over Jeffrey's business is beating the hell out of one his yeggs, Nichols, just to show him who's boss. The fight scene is strangely absorbing, being sloppy, violent and surprisingly lengthy. And it's always fun to watch a fight where neither guy's fedora is knocked off until almost the very last moment -- hats must have been tighter in those days. Joe's Jewish bookkeeper Pinky looks on approvingly, telling the others, "That's m' boy!", a catchphrase repeated throughout the movie. (Character actor John Harmon plays Pinky with an a naturalness that turns up in old B-movies from time to time. He's so good, so real that it's almost discombobulating -- how the hell did he get in this picture?)


Apparently her high school
graduation picture.
Still, even the hardboiled Joe needs a jane, and it's Lynn Turner, one of his croupiers. Discovering that she's underage, Joe fires her before getting serious with the wooing. Lynn is supposed to be 19, but doesn't look like any girl my daughter goes to college with. (The actress, Ramsay Ames, was in reality 26.) Lynn somehow sees some good in Joe, but failing to straighten him out, breaks it off. C'mon, lady, let the guy be himself -- a semi-psychopathic criminal with a violent streak!

Nor can Joe be reformed by his former CO, Sam Austin, who tries convincing him into going in on a private air transportation business. But something good finally takes hold, when Joe donates some serious scratch to an anti-gambling
Lynn is impressed at Joe's ability to
 get shot in the stomach and still not bleed.
mayoral candidate named Vail, a vet who lost his leg in Okinawa. Joe's rival Oney takes this personally, leading to a climatic shootout at Sam's office. (Guys, can't you take this outside? I'm trying to run an airline here!) Oney goes to the slammer, while Joe leaves the craps tables behind, taking a job with Sam and reuniting with Lynn. How he managed to avoid prison time for his illegal activities is left unexplained.
William Beaudine, in a rare
moment not yelling, "Cut! Print!"
Below the Deadline features all the hallmarks of a Monogram movie. Actors casting multiple shadows on the walls; grimy sets; a 65-minute running time; men's suit with mile-wide lapels, and women's hairdos that no stylist outside a movie studio would be able to replicate now. Special mention must be made to the aforementioned William Beaudine, who directed close to 1,000 movies and TV shows, from 1915 to 1968. (Now you know how he earned the nickname "One-Take".)

I'm no fan of remakes, but Below the Deadline is just waiting for an update: An Iraq war vet comes home to take over his brother's drug ring and wipe out his rival once and for all. His on-the-level girlfriend wants him to go straight. His army buddy tries to get him to join him in a software business. Climactic shootout in the giant offices of the software company. Comedy relief from the Jewish bookkeeper. 

There, Hollywood, I've given it to you. Just change the title. 

                                                       *********************

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