Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

1950 Crime Spree

If you watch any of the “CSI” TV shows, you know how science kicks criminal butt every time. There’s hardly any way to kill somebody without leaving traces of evidence behind, no matter how hard you scrub the blood away. DNA is everywhere, and there’s an army of virtually infallible criminologists eager to use the latest machinery to solve crimes and put the perpetrators behind bars for a good long time.

Heckfire, this isn’t new shit at all. I watched this 1950 movie on Turner Classic just the other day called “The Tattooed Stranger,” and it was like a 1950 prototype for “CSI:New York.” Just as we’re so used to seeing on our TV screens, the city is a backdrop wherein a regular citizen and his dog find a body, and immediately the forensic team is poring all over the crime scene.

The details were different, as DNA hadn’t quite been mapped – or even discovererd – yet. There was a lot of stress put on fingerprints and footprints, and even a thrilling scene wherein one of our heroes figured out how tall the killer had to be from the position of the moveable car seat, presumably still a relatively new invention at the time.

It was also interesting to see the veteran cops not quite convinced that the college boys knew what they were doing. “Things are different now, Corrigan,” explains Capt. Gavin. “It’s not like when we were chasing bootleggers down Bleecker Street.” But, don’t worry, 90% of investigation is still done with the feet and with the head.

I don’t know that this 64-minute flick would be of much interest if not for the documentary aspects of it. It’s filmed all over New York, with spectacular shots of the 1950 skyline, Central Park, the Bowery, and Brooklyn, as well as close-ups of 1950 police and tattoo equipment. The plot is about as believable – and for its time, sordid – as your average TV crime show today. The woman found dead has a tattoo on her arm, which leads the cops to find she’s been married repeatedly in order to collect insurance, and one of her husbands wasn’t dead. The sordid part came because she mostly married marines during World War II who weren’t likely to return to her.

The actors were not exactly a-list. John Miles played Frank Tobin with only two possible facial expressions – grim determination (used mostly during gun battles) or the goofball grin of somebody who gets a private joke whenever anybody else opens their mouth. Walter Kinsella’s Corrigan was a character who seemed a little more suspicious and weary of the world, but not much was done with him aside from allowing him palpable disgust at the sight of a heavily tattooed man. Patricia White played the beautiful botanist Dr. Mary Mahan, whose help was indispensable to cracking the case.

I wonder if the various “CSI” shows will ever mean this much to future generations. I doubt it, because these shows spend less time explaining and more time showing off the brilliance of the characters. Corrigan and Tobin weren’t always right, though they got their man in the end. And despite the “CSI” use of various city locales to differentiate between themselves, they don’t devote half as much loving footage to real places in the world. Even a b-movie like “The Tattooed Stranger” felt like it was about people, wooden, barely caricatured people, but people nonetheless, set out in places that actually existed.

Even more impressive was my viewing the other day of another 1950 movie, “The Asphalt Jungle,” which did what rarely happens in modern TV or movies, and that is told the story entirely from the point of view of the criminals. This one was directed by John Huston, and it starred Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore, and Sam Jaffe. It took the Hollywood regulations of its day – that none of the criminals could escape unpunished – and tried to turn it into a multi-character modern tragedy. It might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids – I mean, a limited amount of time to devote to each person’s fate.

Jaffe played Doc Erwin Riedenschneider, a German émigré with master thief credentials. He plotted some of the biggest capers of the 40s, though he had been in jail for several years before the start of this picture. But, time spent in the clink was time to plan his biggest job ever. All he needed was a driver, a safe cracker, a hooligan, and a backer to pay everybody.

Whitmore was the driver, Anthony Crusoe was the safe cracker, Hayden the hooligan, and Louis Calhern the backer. Marilyn Monroe played a small but wonderful role as Calhern’s mistress. Every one of these characters had depth, and it felt like the real intersection of different lives. None of them were portrayed as ruthlessly evil, as anything other than humans who weren’t quite capable of living in the path of the straight and narrow. They had their reasons, some decent, some terrible. They had dreams of leaving the life they were living, and this caper was to be their ticket out.

Of course, you know the best laid plans – and this plan was laid pretty well – can go to pieces pretty quickly. Halfway through this movie, things start to unravel, and the criminals almost start to catch themselves. The policeman most often shown here is actually on the take from Marc Lawrence’s brilliant character Cobby Cobb, the man who ties all the criminals together. Even the law is not shown to be perfect in this film, though eventually a speech is given that explains that most policemen are good, even if one in a hundred might not be.

You can’t exactly root for any of these people, but you can be touched by each of their dooms. I was particularly blown away by Calhern, who has just told Monroe they can go away together when he is arrested. The look of broken-hearted sorrow on his face is priceless when he realizes a) he’s been nabbed; b) his dreams are all gone; and c) the woman he was willing to take with him was as dim as she was beautiful. And, oh, when Jaffe is caught because he took too long watching some kids dance to swing music on a café jukebox, you just about want to weep.

Crime dramas on TV always show criminals as being devious plotters with virtually no goodness in them. They have their motives, of course, but these rarely have anything to do with humanity. We don’t see them do anything but lie after the crime has been committed, which makes it easy for us to believe the law is always right. In 1950, we were given the option of seeing things from both points of view, and at the time, I don’t see how I would have had much patience with “The Tattooed Stranger.” But, in retrospect, pairing it with “The Asphalt Jungle” makes for a perfect double feature. There are men and there is science; there are lawkeepers and lawbreakers. Times have changed, to be sure, but crime always makes for good stories.


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