Friday, April 1, 2011

Holden and O'Brien in THE TURNING POINT (1952)

William Dieterle's 1952 noir is a case of a screenplay trying to do too much at once. About fifteen minutes into it, I thought it had the makings of a great film noir, but by the halfway point -- or should I say "turning point" -- the movie had moved on to other things. And at that point it still had a shot, but before long it was heading in yet another direction. With the cast it had, it should have been much stronger. But let me explain it a bit more. In an American city that looks a lot like San Francisco, law professor John Conroy (Edmond O'Brien) is appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the rackets allegedly led by Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley). Conroy's girlfriend Amanda Waycross (Alexis Smith) joins him on the job, which reunites him with his old pal Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), now a high-powered newspaper reporter. Adding to the old home week feel, Conroy hires his father (Tom Tully), a veteran cop, to be his special investigator, despite the older man's clear reluctance. Dad's reluctance is explained to us soon enough; unbeknownst to his son, the old cop's been on the take from Eichelberger for years, and he only accepts John's offer so he can spy for the racketeer.

William Holden pauses to watch Tom Tully take a walk in The Turning Point

Right there, I thought, you had potent noir material, but there was already something odd about the film's approach. The father-son story would be plot enough for a noir if the son were the central character, but Turning Point isn't really about John Conroy. Sure, O'Brien gets plenty of screen time, including a great scene in which he interrogates a cagily indignant Begley in a televised hearing, but mostly we see him and everyone else in the film through Jerry McKibbon's eyes. That could still work, since we can still empathize with someone reunited with an old friend who finds out something terrible (Dad's betrayal) the friend doesn't know. But in short order Jerry himself becomes a betrayal, starting an affair with Amanda behind Conroy's back. It turns out, however, that Conroy isn't quite as clueless as he seems. In a nicely written scene, just as Jerry and Amanda try to convince him not to quit the investigation, John makes it clear in one sentence, without histrionics, that he's on to them both. There's something almost Arthurian about this triangle, since all three people are plainly good guys, but there's also something forced about it, since I didn't really feel much chemistry between Holden and Smith.

A demoralized Edmond O'Brien sulks despite the entreaties of his so-called friends.

This being 1952, someone's got to take the fall, but not before more plot complications kick in. Along the way, Conroy's dad has been whacked for threatening to turn, and the man who shot him in a pretend-robbery was in turn shot down on the spot. McKibbon encounters this last man's widow, who can name the second shooter and potentially bring down Eichelberger's empire. Jerry saves her from some goons in a diner but loses track of her. As the widow frightfully makes her way to Conroy's office, McKibbon gets a tip that takes him to a boxing arena, where he's been set up to be taken out, he being the only good guy who can identify the widow. Someone squeals to Conroy, but it's Amanda who rushes to the arena to rescue Jerry, forcing the question of which of the lovers will pay for their indiscretion....

What really hurts the film is that neither Holden nor O'Brien seems fully committed to it. Holden's character is almost voyeuristically omniscient and doesn't seem weighed down by conventional responsibilities. He can come and go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, as if his job was wandering plot device rather than deadline-bound reporter. Holden just seems to float through the picture; even after Sunset Blvd., he doesn't yet command the screen as he would from Stalag 17 forward. Edmond O'Brien, arguably a definitive noir type, doesn't get to play that type here. He has to be a bland authority figure instead, and he invests the part with all the blandness in his power. Alexis Smith's part is simply underwritten; her character is in the picture just so there can be a triangle. The only actor fully on his game here is Ed Begley, who's masterful as Eichelberger. He's convincingly businesslike in his ruthlessness and defensive about his vocation. When you think of all the bluster Lee J. Cobb would have brought to this role you really appreciate what Begley does with it. Tom Tully is also very good as Conroy's compromised father, but we don't really get enough of a character around whom the whole film could have been built.

For the most part, Turning Point isn't noir in the strictest visual sense. It makes effective use of locations like many noirs, but it's low on expressionistic shadows and other obvious noir devices. Director Dieterle does come up with several strong set pieces, including the shootout that kills Conroy's father, the hearing showdown between Conroy and Eichelberger, and especially the climactic sequence at the arena. Dieterle milks this for maximum suspense as a gunman lurks on the catwalk above the action, waiting for his chance to shoot McKibbon, then pursues him urgently as the crowd flows out of the arena following an abrupt knockout. Overall, the film isn't really as bad as my disappointed review may suggest, but given everyone involved, it should have been much better.

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