According to those in the know, we’re told there’s somewhere in the range of 700 films contained in that genre we love called Film Noir. While the vast majority of these films are readily available for viewing, there are still a few “lost” films (“Fugitive Lady” and “Shed No Tears” being a couple) that are considered by many to constitute The Holy Grail of Noirs. Recently a couple of these lost treasures have surfaced, one being “Big Town” which is now seeing the light of day. So while Noirheads worldwide celebrate let me say whoever unearthed this gem should be pushed into the hole from which it came and the dirt thrown back over them.
Released by Pine-Thomas in May of 1947, “Big Town” (A.K.A. “Guilty Assignment”) continues the heartfelt story of the hard charging, classical piano playing, crusading editor of The Illustrated Press, Steve Wilson. “Big Town” is one more attempt, albeit miserably done this time around, of newspaper noir.
Our protagonist is played by the dynamic Phillip Reed, who packs about the same amount of emotion into his portrayal of Wilson as Moe Howard would playing Hamlet. On second thought, that’s probably a slap in the face of Mr. Howard’s thespian talents.
Granted, Reed and the rest of the cast are given some of the worst dialogue this side of anything Eddie Wood ever put out so just being able to deliver their lines with a straight face should account for something. What’s really surprising is the writer slinging this hash is Daniel Mainwaring (A.K.A Geoffrey Homes) who penned many good films both prior too and after Big Town. Among them: “The Big Steal,” “Roadblock,” “The Hitch Hiker” and the sci-fi/noir classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” So what the heck, even Tom Edison had more than his share of misses so we’ll give Mainwaring a pass here but below is a small sampling of the slop served up:
“So they sent for the news doctor huh? Transfusions of stead horse headlines. All the news that’s fit to print and a lot of it that isn’t.”
“That’s no bandit. That’s Buffalo Bill!”
“Is the sound I hear the pricking of a conscience?”
“What’s come over you two? I thought you were newspaper men. Suddenly you’re mulling sentimentalists.”
With the star power to barely to illuminate a 15 watt bulb, and dialogue with more corn than Iowa, and nary a femme fatal, crooked cop, or hunk of wet pavement in sight, how this mess ever ended up on the pages of not one, but two noteworthy books on film noir (Keaney’s “Film Noir Guide and Duncan’s “Film Noir: Films of Trust and Betrayal) is beyond me.
Stars of course aren’t a necessary ingredient of noir and the cast here is B grade at best. In addition to Reed there are at least some very recognizable faces: Hillary Brooke, Robert Lowery, Veda Ann Borg, and even Will Wright’s grizzled mug is on screen for a moment.
While the debate continues over style versus theme in the stately halls of noirdom, “Big Town” is missing on both counts. What we see is a mixture of stock footage; screens played out on cardboard sets and with the lack of any shooting angles other than straight ahead and save for one shot, nothing close to the dark, claustrophobic look we’ve come to expect in noir.
The story is rather pedestrian: the aforementioned editor is brought in to drive up circulation of a paper that doesn’t run advertising or even a comic section within its pages. Fortunately at the time of Reed’s hiring several events take place that bring immediate relief to the papers dilemma. First, a Senator’s secretary is found dead in the Senator’s apartment. This bit of good luck is followed up with a “pistol packing mama” who’s sticking up joints and is ultimately appended with the assistance of the Illustrated’s two star reporters (Brooke and Lowery). If this weren’t enough on the very day Wilson and Lorelei Kilbourne (Brookes) are taking in the sights at the Big Town Amusement Park, they witness a rider thrown from the roller coaster. Talk about being at the right place at the right time!
All of the above stories within the story account for perhaps half of the films 60 minute (it seems so much longer) running time. The most outrages of the stories being the Amusement park scene with the “body” flying out of the car at its highest point on the tracks and over the railing. If one takes a moment to ponder other bodies we’ve seen flying around in films, it’s strikingly similar to the scene in “The Phenix City Story” when the child is thrown for the passing car. What’s really of interest is Daniel Mainwaring also penned the screenplay for that film too.
The last portion of the film revolves around the “Vampire Murders” of young women in the suburbs of “Big Town” and Wilson’s insistence of the guilt of a young man recently released from the mental hospital. When his crack investigating duo don’t see eye to eye with him, they bolt to the opposition paper and leave it up to Wilson to piece the evidence together and send the man back to jail.
In the single noirish bit of the film, the real murderer is soon thereafter apprehended but not before the innocent man has hung himself in his cell. Sadly this single solemn moment is not enough to uplift “Big Town” to even the lowest of rungs noir.
Regardless of its status as film noir, “Big Town” apparently enjoyed some degree of success as this is but one of four films released by Pine-Thomas that made use of the continuing storyline of Steve Wilson and Lorelei Kilbourne and their ongoing fight for truth, justice and the American way.
I know, you’re saying that’s lifted right from the pages Superman, who also just happens to be a reporter for “a great metropolitan newspaper.” Coincidence, I think not for as Lorelei tells Steve at the films conclusion:
“That’s your city down there. You took a dying newspaper and built it up. You’re big and powerful.”
Hmmm, so “big and powerful,” not at all unlike the Man of Steel, so I’m thinking “Big Town” would have much likely scored better with me had Steve Wilson worn tights and a cape rather than played the piano.
One last note, the director of “Big Town” is one William C. Thomas who just happens to the “Thomas” of Pine-Thomas Productions. His other directorial work, all of it for Pine-Thomas, includes the other three “Big Town” films along with “Midnight Manhunt,” “They Made Me a Killer,” and “Special Agent.” I can only surmise “Dollar Bill” and his partner were just too darn cheap to pay someone else to direct these masterpieces.