Nov 3, 2014

Noirvember: DIAL 1119 (1950)

The local, urban, hole-in-the-wall dive bar, a prime location for Film Noir that ranks up there with the greasy spoon, all-night diner, back-room gambling operation, lounge and nightclub. It is also the setting for Dial 1119, a low-budget, intense and thought provoking 1950 Noir B-picture from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The dive bar in this case is the 'Oasis Bar' (an Oasis it is not) a former speakeasy run by a cynical, world-weary man with a permanent scowl who the patrons affectionately call 'Chuckles' (William Conrad). It is about to be invaded by a young, fresh-faced, mentally unbalanced, homicidal killer (Marshall Thompson). Leave it to Noir to have descriptors and outward appearances be the complete opposite to what is really going on internally.

Marshall Thompson playing a mentally unbalanced killer
This 'Oasis' is populated by a group of people who wear their personal demons on their sleeves. There's an older, lecherous, philandering husband (with two kids we find out - played by Leon Ames) seducing a young, impressionable and nervous woman (Virginia Field) taken in by his 'charms'. There is an ulcer-ridden newspaperman (James Bell) who has walked away from his profession and mourns the 'wasted' life with no gain he has spent within it. An elegantly dressed barfly (Andrea King) uses her feminine wiles to get free drinks and there is young Skip (Keefe Brasselle), the only person who seems to have any sort of hopeful future as he awaits a call from the hospital telling him his wife has just given birth to their first child. You get the sense that this bar is more of a home than home is for these people - especially Andrea King - a place of refuge where they can drink away their miserable lives watched over by Chuckles the bartender who is an unwilling father figure, fully aware of all their true natures.

An urban 'Oasis' in the concrete jungle
This little 'Oasis' is disrupted by unstable killer Gunther Wyckoff who has just escaped a mental hospital and has come to Terminal City (can't get anymore on the nose than that name) in search of his doctor, a police psychiatrist (Sam Levene). He's already stolen a gun, murdered a bus driver and now waits in the bar for the doctor to return home to the apartment building across the street. As mentioned above, you would have no idea that this kid was capable of mass murder except for the fact there is something a little off about him as he stares blankly off into space with no trace of emotion or awareness of his surroundings.

Marshall Thompson playing a killer with deep, mental turmoil that is about to erupt
Chuckles has just installed a new TV set which for modern audiences, is a fixture in every bar in existence. But in 1950, this would be extremely rare and possibly the first time an on-screen bar would have such a convenience. Mirroring the opinion of the Movie Industry at the time, Chuckles makes snide comments about the content being broadcast which isn't a coincidence. TV will take many more pointed jabs before the running time of this feature runs out. However if it wasn't for that TV set, Chuckles wouldn't have known that he had a homicidal killer nursing a highball just a few feet away from him. The opening titles had let the audience know - and especially a modern audience, even though they wouldn't have had a clue at the time they were doing so - that dialing 1119 is the equivalent to dialing 911. Chuckles eyes the gun under the bar and plays everything cool EXCEPT then he changes his personality. He suddenly is cheerful and even offers Thompson's barfly a free drink. Fatal mistake there Chuckles, you've just fully let Gunther know (even though his picture was broadcast) that you're on to him and about dial that number in the title.

'Chuckles' new TV set plays a key role in this picture
This kicks off a pair of engaging conflicts - one inside the bar and one outside. The situation inside the bar is clear. Gunther has been outed as a killer and now holds the residents hostage until his demand that the police supply him with his Doctor by nine o'clock is met. Outside there is a whole other battle raging. As TV cameras are set up by bloodthirsty newsmen looking for a scoop, the Police Chief (Hal Baylor) argues with the Doctor about how if Gunther had been sent to the electric chair and not kept alive for 'rehabilitation' thanks to an insanity plea successfully supported by the Doctor, they wouldn't be in this mess. He refuses to let the Doctor go into the bar and later on even talks about minimal casualties among the hostages even though letting the Doctor go to Gunther may save them all. He's angry at the Doctor and with the system that would let this maniac live and is even willing to sacrifice hostages to make a point. The film enhances this with distinctive Film Noir lighting and shadows that are more prevalent the outside situation than the interior one. Calls made from the pharmacy across the street from the bar are made in almost complete darkness with shadows covering the police official's eyes. This - the picture is saying - is where the real psychological conflict is raging while everyone inside the bar seem very much aware of their issues. The killer Gunther knows he's messed up and that is why he asks for the Doctor, even if he isn't full aware of the reasons (at first his reasons seem clear-cut, but then there is a twist that further complicates his motivations and makes us - and his hostages - realize just how much of a volcano about to erupt this kid truly is).

The 'Oasis' Hostages held at bay
Not to say that the internal conflict is weak by any means as each of the characters experience their own personal turmoil aggravated by the situation. The Newspaper man realizes he's sitting on the story of the century but can't do anything about it, and when he tries, fails thanks to an off-handed proclamation made to a co-worker when he 'walked off the job'. The philanderer tries to use reason which is lost on the deranged killer and his younger paramour has a breakdown feeling that because of her 'sin' in giving into temptation, she is responsible for the entire mess. The young man Skip is so focused on waiting for that hospital call that he is completely useless and seems to not be aware of what is happening around him.

Andrea King as barfly Helen comes across as the strongest of all the characters
I want to focus specifically on the barfly Helen played by Andrea King. I think of all the people within this picture, she is the most comfortable in her own skin. She knows who she is, what she wants, and where her strengths lay. She is a stunning blonde wearing an overtly sexy dress that stands out in the dingy Oasis decor. She's also featured prominently on all the advertising material because the studio knows that sex sells, and when the camera is on the group, she stands out the most (I realize I am saying that from a male perspective). One look at her and you would think her a floozy, but I don't think she is. She uses her sex to entice men to buy her drinks yes, but she seems too confident a woman to just go home with any man that supplies her with one, evidenced by an encounter she has later in the picture. At one point while they are being held at gunpoint, she begs the killer for a drink (the only moment where she sounds weak and like a full-on alcoholic) then later tries to use her sexual prowess to end the situation by seducing Gunther into leaving with her with the promise of untold pleasures if he does. She's the strongest out of the bunch and it is not surprise when she carries out an act that is key to the resolution. When it is all over, she goes right back to her seat at the bar as if nothing had happened.

Hal Baylor and Sam Levene on opposite sides of a complicated issue
Meanwhile outside as the Police Chief and the Doctor argue the implications of psychological evaluation versus capital punishment, the TV crews turn the whole mess into a circus. They interview bystanders who make inane comments ("I don't get why they just don't rush the guy, there are 5 of them and 1 of him" - easy to say when you don't have a gun pointed at you) and the announcers are so upbeat you wouldn't know that anyone's life is at stake. In addition to this being the first on-screen bar with a television (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm mistaken on this) but it also could be the first instance of a criminal watching the TV broadcast of the police action outside.

Doctor and Patient reunite
Clocking in at a lean 75 minute running time, there is a lot packed into this picture. A key sequence involving an air conditioning vent is a highlight, and is enhanced with the deep shadows and lighting contrasts that give the picture a distinct visual approach that clearly distinguishes it as a Film Noir. The picture is packed with a full roster of bitter, alienated characters, and explores themes ending on a pessimistic note.

It is available as part of the Film Noir Collection Volume 5, available from Warner Home Video.