Years ago I put up a short post on films noir shot in color. I included at the end a list of movies I had found online that were supposed to fit the bill. While I had seen most of those titles at that time, there were, however, a few which had eluded me. Having recently caught up with Joseph Kane’s Accused of Murder (1956), I can now say I’ve viewed all of them. I can also state that, despite my own broad and inclusive approach to such categorization, this movie falls outside of the parameters of film noir. To me, it’s a straightforward crime or mystery picture.
There are gangsters and night clubs, cops and killers, but there’s not a lot of ambiguity on display. The opening scene sees Ilona Vance (Vera Ralston) making her debut singing in a club and watched by the man who (apparently without her knowledge) has secured the job for her. He is Frank Hobart (Sidney Blackmer), and he has just made the fatal mistake of double-crossing a mobster and compounded that error by threatening the enforcer (Warren Stevens) sent to put the squeeze on him. After Hobart tries to pressure Ilona into spending the evening with him, and she declines, his body, replete with a .38 slug, is discovered round the corner from a cheap clip joint. A bad break for Hobart of course, but it’s not good news for Ilona either as she was the last person seen in his company. There is a witness, a tired and jaded hostess (Virginia Grey), who could place the scar-faced enforcer at the scene of the crime but she has her eyes on the main chance. The investigation falls to the cautious Lieutenant Hargis (David Brian) and his impulsive subordinate Sergeant Lackey (Lee Van Cleef), whose contrasting methods and views of the suspect provide the meat in the ensuing drama.
Joe Kane was a prolific filmmaker, a Republic “house director” who took charge of all kinds of movies, but is probably better known, or more highly regarded, for his westerns. In spite of the large number of films he made in the course of his long career, I have only seen a handful. Shot in Naturama, a ‘Scope format used by Republic, Accused of Murder is a very colorful affair. Some of the early scenes have a noirish look, taking place at night and featuring the kind of lighting and angles commonly associated with that style or genre. For the most part though, it has a bright and sunny appearance, and the ultra-widescreen process is only intermittently used to its best advantage.
I get the impression that the movie was aiming for the glossy and polished look of a Ross Hunter production (admittedly, the presence of Virginia Grey, who appeared in more than a few of Hunter’s films, might be influencing me here) but it doesn’t quite achieve that. I’m not sure whether it’s the exclusive use of studio sets or the art direction, but there is more of a television vibe than anything else. Kane’s sense of pace is fine, however, and the story never outstays its welcome. This is just as well as the plot is a thin one and wouldn’t have stood up to unnecessary padding or stretching. As I said earlier, there is no real ambiguity, and even if there is an attempt to add a twist towards the end, it still plays out without any surprises. The script was by W R Burnett, adapting his own novel, and bearing in mind some of the other films from this source (High Sierra, Dark Command, The Asphalt Jungle, to name a few), one might be forgiven for hoping for something with a bit more punch.
So, here we have another Republic movie where Vera Ralston was handed the lead. Last year, I looked at The Flame, where I felt she did reasonably well without ever being the least bit memorable. Her work in Accused of Murder is, however, weaker. Firstly, the writing does her no favors by having what feels like countless people telling us time and again how sweet and good she is; this drains all doubt from the viewer’s mind about a role where one ought to be wondering which of the two cops on the case has a handle on her true character. Ralston does what she can with the part but she wasn’t the most expressive actress at the best of times and there is little real sense of anguish or turmoil conveyed. I think David Brian tended to be more enjoyable in villainous or less sympathetic parts, he had that kind of face, but he could and did play sympathetic types equally well. He grounds the movie as the thoughtful cop attracted to the chief suspect yet unable to entirely shake off his reservations.
Speaking of actors with a face best suited to an unsympathetic part, Lee Van Cleef surely ranks high among them. Accused of Murder afforded him the opportunity to snarl and smirk to his heart’s content, and his ultimate conversion consequently feels slightly disappointing. Warren Stevens has a ball threatening and terrorizing all who get in his way, and he is genuinely intimidating. Virginia Grey had that weary look down pat, a faded glamor that was well used in those aforementioned Ross Hunter pictures. Her would-be chiseler comes in for some rough treatment from Stevens and this adds a real edge to the movie. Smaller supporting roles are filled by Barry Kelley, Frank Puglia and a whiny, sweat-stained and unscrupulous Elisha Cook Jr.
To the best of my knowledge, Accused of Murder has not had any official release on physical media anywhere. Nevertheless, it is easy to track down online versions of the movie for viewing, and in remarkably good condition to boot. I don’t feel it is a film noir, although I should also say I find myself increasingly of the opinion that labels are of little importance. As a film, it is so-so; it holds the attention, looks attractive and features a few solid performances, yet it never rises far above mediocre. Even if I wasn’t bowled over by it, I’m certainly pleased to have seen the movie and I suspect others may get more out of it.