In the period of 1947-48 Universal-International took their cameras to the streets of New York City to make The Naked City, a semi-documentary policier about the hunt for the murderer of a young woman. In 1949, with what looks like a fistful of dollars (in reality, around $125k) RKO took a cast of unknowns, and using New York City exteriors and interiors produced the bargain basement The Tattooed Stranger. Like it’s predecessor, Tattooed’s real star is the city of New York, warts and all. In its pairing of a callow young homicide detective along with a wily pro, The Tattooed Stranger takes us into a NYC of precinct stations, hospital basements, vacant lots, tenements, a Bowery tattoo parlor and a dingy greasy spoon (liver and onions, 60 cents). Many of those locations were soon to be swept away by city planner Robert Moses and his mid century transformation of the cityscape that eliminated many of the older neighborhoods.
A young woman has been found dead in a parked car in Central Park. Her face blasted away by a shotgun. The only key to her identity is a globe and anchor military tattoo on her arm. A rookie detective (John Miles) is put on the case teamed up with a cynical and philosophical veteran (Walter Kinsella) who has seen it all. Working with clues provided by their crime lab, they venture throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn searching for the killer; all the while their prey is following them. Along the way they encounter shifty locals, who just “don’t want any trouble” in having to talk to cops. Seldom seen actors or semi professionals are used, like a harried and suspicious diner owner, or the slovenly tattoo artist in an ink-stained shirt gives a lived in grittiness to the proceedings. After a crisp 64 minutes of running time, Miles traps the murderer on the grounds of a company that makes cemetery monuments.
The film is entirely shot in daylight, but there is one scene where the use of noir chiaroscuro is as bold as can be found. When the detectives are at the hospital checking in on the murdered victim’s autopsy they are led on a chase into the bowels of the hospital. Among the darkened hallways, amid the pipes and machinery, they are chasing a deranged alcoholic who has been hired by the killer to mutilate the corpse so her identity can’t be traced by her tattooed arm. The alky, flickering in and out of the shadows, holding a knife, creates a sense of menace, fear and psychological imbalance that is missing from the rest of the film.
For the beetle-browed John Miles, this was to be his last role at the tender age of 27.Among the other unknown lead actors, there is young actress, Patricia White, who portrays a sharp, fresh-faced and spunky botanist who is assisting the police with their clues. Later, as Patricia Barry, she had a very successful TV career, often in a much sexier persona than she exhibits here. Also, lurking in the background as a police lab technician, with only a few lines, is a young New York City actor by the name of Jack Lord, with his own distinguished career in TV ahead of him.
Audiences walking into a movie palace in 1950 for a double bill probably gave short shrift to the opening feature. Usually running between 60 to 75 minutes these B films were fillers, made for the late arriving crowd who didn’t mind missing the first 10-15 minutes, while they went to the snack bar and/or primped in front of the mirror in the restroom. As they jostled past others already seated, one’s mind was on the main feature of the night. People came to see Bogart, Davis, Grant and Heyburn, but in the meantime they had to wade through the last 45 minutes of films like The Tattooed Stranger.
It wasn’t until decades later, where in the leisure of one’s own home, people could watch these B films and wonder how some of these nuggets could have been bypassed, totally unnoticed, upon their first release.