Accused of Murder


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.

51 thoughts on “Accused of Murder

  1. I’m with you about liking the people, by that I mean most of the cast, especially David Brian and Virginia Grey, a pair I look for in other projects. As for Vera Ralston, I root for her, always. Joe Kane in the forties made better films mainly because he had higher budgets and longer shooting schedules. Too bad. A good man

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    • Yes, Brian and Grey are reliable performers and often give a boost to whatever they appear in.
      The lack of budget is apparent here, although Kane does try to polish it as much as possible. That script doesn’t offer anyone a lot to work with either.

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  2. Just watched it after reading your review. I had never heard of it. Nothing special as you said, but I like David Brian , though he was rather subdued in this part. Not keen on Vera Ralston but nice to see Virginia Gray. A good twist at the end.
    You Tube can be a boon for titles not available elsewhere.

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    • It’s nice when good quality prints of fairly rare stuff pop up, isn’t it!
      Good to see another fan of Virginia Grey, it’s just a pity she wasn’t in the movie more. What she does when she is on screen is all most welcome though.

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  3. This film was part of the Paramount restoration of 20 plus Republic films from a few years back. The series that was backed by Martin Scorsese.
    This should be on blu ray, but doubtful it will happen, so thankfully the couple of versions on YouTube are very good quality.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Colin
    Like you say, an average film.on the whole.. A bit more Warren Stevens and Virginia Grey would have gave it the needed hardness to give it a bigger noir feel. In my humble opinion anyway.. Not a waste of time, but one sure dose expect more from writer, W R Burnett,

    Gord

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  5. Noir being a state of mind and fairly fluid as a definition, naturally film noir can be in colour, but a big part of the appeal of film noir for me is that stark b&w loveliness when beautifully shot- the tone of the b&w visuals perfectly matching the dark tone of the subject matter. I can’t imagine watching Double Indemnity in colour, for instance.

    So while I’m not averse to them in colour, it does feel ‘off’ when I watch a film defined/described as film noir when its shot in colour (worst of all though is colourised versions- Amazon Prime have The Woman in the Window which I haven’t yet seen but its a horrible colourised version. What are people thinking doing that to films?)

    Thanks for the recommendation though, I’ll certainly look out for this.

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    • It’s definitely worth a watch and has some pleasing features but, in all honesty, I don’t feel I would want to be spending money on it.

      As for the color aspect, I can accept a movie shot in that way being labeled noir (and of course it really is only a label anyway) although I quite understand that others do not. However, I do think there needs to be a dark, preferably ambiguous, theme running through it all for that label to make much sense. This movie doesn’t really have that. For me, it’s a solid crime/mystery/thriller, and there’s no reason beyond a marketing angle to regard it as anything else.

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          • The justification for it of course is that so many people simply will not watch a b&w movie so colourisation will bring classic movies to a wider audience. I think it’s a wrong-headed notion. Anyone who won’t watch a movie in b&w is simply never going to become a classic movie fan.

            The steadily declining audience for classic movies is a very real problem but I don’t think colourisation is a viable solution. You might as well try to attract a wider audience by adding car chases and explosions to Citizen Kane. Or try to attract a wider audience to silent movies by dubbing in dialogue.

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              • Yes, very much so. When I try to persuade my housemate to watch older movies she always complains that they’re boring. She’s used to that modern wham-bang editing style.

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  6. All
    No laughter please! Tomorrow I am going to watch a Duke film that I have haver seen. IN HARM’S WAY 1965. It was just never on the tube when I had the time to see it. Hell of a cast it looks like with Preminger directing. So what is the general opinion of the film by you lot?

    Later this week THE BESFORD INCIDENT – 64,, GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING -56 and THE GOOD DIE YOUNG -54 are showing here on TCM Never seen the middle one., Could do with an opinion or two on that one as well.
    Gord

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    • Hi Gord,
      I think “Great Day In The Morning” is definitely worth your time though no favourite of mine. On the other hand “IN HARM’S WAY” is a very fine war film and Duke is at his best. You should definitely take the time. I for one would like to get your thoughts after you see it.

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  7. Now watched it online (opening and end credits cropped though) and it looks really great. But I think you nailed it – it’s a pretty lightweight adaptation of Burnett’s Vanity Row and doesn’t really rise to Film Noir. I think you have been a bit nicer to Brian than I would – he really doesn’t make much of an impression (hell, he doesn’t get even get a close-up until about 25 minutes in). I did enjoy it (especially Van Cleef and Stevens). Thanks!

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  8. It’s true that there is no comparison between Lee Van Cleef and David Brian. Brian was the thespian equivalent of chronic indigestion. A man who’s acting style was redolent of an imminent coronary. A kind of slightly superior version of Lorne Greene. Van Cleef, on the other hand matured into a titanic and iconic screen presence. His Colonel Mortimer character (” when the chimes stop … go for your gun”) in Few Dollars More and his Angel Eyes in The Good, Bad and the Ugly are indelible cinematic creations. As instantly recognisable as the Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman’s Seventh Seal or Gene Kelly splashing under a streetlamp in Singing in the Rain. Death Rides A Horse. Big Gundown or Barquero weren’t exactly ‘lousy’ pictures either. Probably better to cast a veil over later pictures such as God’s Gun, Blood Money or Land Raiders but by then his work was already done and his legend firmly established.

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    • That’s a tough line to take on David Brian, but your description did make me smile.

      I think your assessment of Lee Van Cleef, the shape of his career and his impact on the movies, is accurate though.

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  9. As Colin recommended the movie, I watched it on Youtube. I agree, it’s just about OK.

    I don’t dislike Vera Ralston as so many people seem to do, but she wasn’t really good here. I saw The Flame not too long ago and have to say not only did I really like the movie, Ralston was very good in it. Maybe she just needed the right material.

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    • I’m willing to give her another go as well. She was, in my opinion, okay in Fair Wind to Java and I have a couple of movies she made for George Sherman – The Lady and the Monster and Storm Over Lisbon – to view at some point.

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  10. Gordon-
    The version of GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING shown on UK TV is horrible-washed out and 4×3. Hopefully TCM will have sourced a better copy-the recent restored Warner Archive version is wonderful-the film is OK but a far cay from top grade Tourneur. THE GOOD DIE YOUNG is top notch Brit Noir with a knockout cast don’t miss.

    Colin- I’ve never seen STORM OVER LISBON but THE LADY & THE MONSTER despite the grade Z title is pretty good-it’s another variation on Donovan’s Brain-the film goes on too long but Richard Arlen is very good. Stuart Heisler’s THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL is also first rate despite the title and needs a Blu-ray upgrade.

    Talking Pictures TV still showing very badly sourced Westerns in their “Saddle Up” series they have just shown EDGE OF ETERNITY in 1.85 instead of 2.35, which trashes Siegel’ and Burnett Guffey’s lovely widescreen compositions. I guess EDGE OF ETERNITY could pass as a Neo Western but at that ratio what’s the point. TPTV should stick at what they do best, old British B Flicks.

    BTW in the most enjoyable David Brian vs Lee Van Cleef discussions Nathan Juran’s LAND RAIDERS starred Telly Savalas and Arlene Dahl.

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  11. Colin, Jerry
    I finally took in Preminger’s IN HARMS WAY on the weekend. A much better film than I had been expecting. A bit jumbled in spots, but still very entertaining taken as a whole. Great cast as well!

    Gordon

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