Movie: Undertow (1949)

I’m still surprised William Castle, famous for his gimmicky horror films, started out making noirs.  Pretty good ones, too, from what I have seen so far.  The first one I saw was 1949’s Johnny Stool Pigeon and now I have seen that same year’s Undertow.  Both films are similar in that each is solid, but neither brings anything especially innovative to the genre.

The lead is Scott Brady, an actor I don’t think I have seen in anything before.  He bears a strange resemblance to Ray Liotta, so I think I would have remembered that.  He is a recent parolee with a dream of operating a lodge in the Sierras. 

The film begins in Reno at a casino operated by John Russell, a friend of Brady’s.  Brady sees Peggy Dow at the craps table and decides to help this obvious novice.  This Chicago schoolteacher is grateful to leave the table with her winnings.  I really like this exchange where she asks Brady about gambling: “Is it difficult to learn?” “No, just expensive”.

She also just happens to be on the flight he takes back to Chicago.  He says he’s going back to go the south side.  I assumed he was going there to see bad, bad Leroy Brown.  He’s intercepted by cops as soon as he gets off the plane.  They want to have a word with him, as they think he’s there to rub out Big Jim.  Is that the Jim from the song “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim?”  Hey, I didn’t notice this here before: a sign saying “No Jim Croce references beyond this point”.

All Brady intends to do is get married to the old flame he left there seven years earlier.  Instead, he gets knocked out, only to wake up blindfolded and manhandled by a couple of thugs who decide to “Get him in the car.  Make it look like an accident”.  When Brady regains consciousness in that car, he overhears a police radio announcing an All-Point Bulletin for him as suspect for the murder of Big Jim Brown, the crime the police already thought he was going to commit.

You can imagine how the rest of the movie unfolds.  Brady looks to clear his name, and seeks out Dow to help him.  Of course, it would help if they could find the real killer.  Fortunately, Brady also has a childhood friend (Bruce Bennett) now on the police force, and he also may be able to help.

And the dead gang boss is the uncle of Brady’s fiancée.  D’ya think she might have something to do with the murder?

The performances here are very good all around, but there is one standout.  That is Dan Ferniel as an employee of Big Jim who had always been treated well by the man, and who blames himself for failing to prevent his death.  It is a minor role but more complex and interesting than most of the others. 

Undertow is better-than-average noir, but only just.  Aside from the curiosity factory of this being a non-horror Castle film, it is distinguished by being shot largely on the streets of Chicago.  Also of note are solid performances, with one standout being Ferniel in a small, but critical, role.

Dir: William Castle

Starring Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow

Watched as part of Kino Lorber’s blu-ray box set Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XII