Sun 14 Nov 2010
ROADHOUSE NIGHTS. Paramount, 1930. Helen Morgan, Charles Ruggles, Fred Kohler, Jimmy Durante, Fuller Mellish Jr., Leo Donnelly, Tammany Young, Joe King, Lou Clayton, Eddie Jackson. Story by Ben Hecht; screenplay by Garrett Fort based on the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. Director: Hobart Henley. Shown at Cinevent 42, Columbus OH, May 2010.
The casting of the vaudeville team of Durante, Clayton and Moore in this version of Hammett’s classic crime novel will surely make the heart of any film noir fan sink.
(The introduction of a bumpkin sheriff into the Crime Club film The Black Doll, reviewed here, was surely already one example too many of how to ruin a crime novel on screen.)
And the casting of Charles Ruggles, known principally for his skillful handling of comic roles, as an investigative reporter (substituting for Hammett’s Continental Op) is not a choice to arouse much interest in the classic crime film aficionado. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this film was the one I felt the most responsibility to see and the one whose screening I most dreaded.
It starts off well as Hogan (Fuller Mellish Jr.), a reporter on an investigative assignment for his Chicago paper, lights a match to check the address of a house on a dark street.
He knocks, is admitted, and is almost immediately shot by a dark figure. A fellow reporter, Willie Bindbugel (Ruggles), is sent by his editor to check the disappearance of Hagan, who was working on a story on bootlegging in a small town on Lake Michigan.
(In Hammett’s novel, it’s a newspaper publisher who’s murdered just as the Continental Op arrives in the crime-infested city of Personville, known by some of its local inhabitants as Poisonville.)
Much of the action of the film takes place in a roadhouse operated by local crime boss Sam Horner (Fred Kohler), and it’s here that Willie encounters singer Lola Fagan (Morgan), whom he knew years ago and who is now the girl friend of Horner.
The Durante trio is also performing in the roadhouse (and regretting it), but it’s the relationship of Willie and Lola that fuels the real drama of the film, as she struggles to find a way out of the explosive situation created by Willie’s arrival.
As Willie catches on to the viper’s nest he’s fallen into, the events move rapidly toward a climactic scene in which Willie, apparently drunk, calls his editor and as he appears to insult him on line taps out a coded message that alerts the editor to the big shipment of bootleg liquor that’s to be picked up that night.
It’s not a stretch to see the roadhouse standing in for Poisonville, with Willie as a somewhat unlikely but still effective substitution for the Op. But it’s not the traces of Hammett’s novel that keep the film afloat but the adroit performances by Ruggles, Morgan and Kohler make it work.
And, if you’re wondering how the film was received on its release, I can report that excerpts from the New York Times and Variety reviews are, if not glowing, certainly positive.