The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: John Monks Jr.
Story: Hugh King and Don McGuire
Director: Gerald Mayer
Cast: Marshall Thompson, Virginia Field, Andrea King
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Music: Andre Previn
Release: November 3, 1950
“Dial 1119” is a wild spark of a movie, one that doesn’t waste a second of its 75-minute running time. Oftentimes when I’m watching these films, I start to think about the budgets and notice the cheapness of the production. And, make no mistake, this entire film was probably made on pre-existing sets on the MGM backlot, and every actor must have been a contract player… but not the kind of contract player who made it to a poster. In five years, the story would have been tweaked and could easily turn into an early episode of “Thriller,” “Climax” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” But you don’t think about any of that until long after the final fade to black… while you are watching the movie, all you are thinking about is the tension.
The story is relatively simple: a homicidal patient named Gunther (Marshall Thompson) escapes from a mental institution, gets his hands on a gun and starts hunting down his old therapist, Dr. Faron (Sam Levene). He gets waylaid into a local bar and soon has murdered the bartender and is keeping the other five patrons hostage. He demands to the police that they deliver to him Dr. Faron in 25 minutes or else he’ll kill his hostages.
Those hostages are a nice hodgepodge of the various types we often see in this type of film. My favorite is the drunk, underpaid, overworked reporter Harrison (James Bell). But there’s also the lush named Freddy (Virginia Field) who enjoys flirting with whatever human with a pulse is closest to her. There’s the valet named Skip (Keefe Brasselle) who is at work even though his wife is in labor. Finally, you’ve got the young 20-something Helen (Andrea King) trying to get out from under the thumb of her domineering mother by going on a date with a much older, obviously married creepster named Earl (Leon Ames). Each one is drawn with more care and, for the most part, more sympathy than one would expect in the screenplay by John Monks Jr. (“The House on 92nd Street”).
Monks’ work becomes more impressive the more desperate the characters become. There’s a real danger in the second half – so much is made of getting Dr. Faron to the bar that we expect a big meal out of their reunion… but then Gunther kills him after only two or three minutes. Still, Faron gets out one humdinger of a twist… Gunther has been talking about how his time as a soldier in the war caused PTSD that spiraled into his actions now. But turns out Gunther made that entire story up. He was never a soldier. He’s just a disturbed young man looking for an opportunity to get his rage out on others. Later, Gunther lines up all the remaining hostages at the bar and they all take a good, long look in the mirror… questioning themselves and the life choices they’ve made that brought them to this moment. And when Gunther is finally shot in the finale, his reaction line is absolutely perfect… so perfect I would never dream of spoiling it here.
As good as the screenplay may be, movies like this hinge on having a capable, dangerous, compelling villain. That’s the trifecta. And Thompson ticks all those boxes. He wisely underplays his wickedness, instead going blank. What is he thinking? Is he actually listening to you or has already decided to murder you? It’s a great performance, especially in the later sections where Gunther is cornered and ready to strike out like a snake.
Thompson, like all the cast, is filled with very good actors you don’t immediately recognize and then, five minutes later, go “Oh, that guy!” Field is excellent in a vanity-free performance and sparks with just about every actor in the ensemble. King seems a little old for her character (she’s 28 going on 40) but does solid work nonetheless.
This is director Gerald Mayer’s first feature… he was the son of Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM at the time, but luckily the kid has a lot of raw talent. The amount that he does with his few resources is great, and he works well with his actors. Even better, he has a great handle on atmosphere and tension as the film progresses. Mayer only did a few other features, none of which I’ve heard of – though one has the awesome name “Holiday for Sinners” – before moving into television. It’s not hard to see why, given his ability to do a lot with a little, but I still wish he had done several more noir films.
“Dial 1119” is easily overlooked since none of the cast sparked later in their career, the director never did much else and the writer isn’t well-remembered either. And yet there it waits, ready to surprise you with its excellence. It deserves your time and the energy it takes to track it down – this is one of my favorite discoveries so far on the Odyssey.