The no-budget B noir Guilty Bystander (1950) establishes its oppressively bleak tone as soon as the opening credits finish rolling. In the first scene, Georgia (played by Faye Emerson) shows up at a fleabag motel to see her ex-husband Max Thursday (Zachary Scott), an alcoholic ex-cop turned house detective. She needs to tell him that someone has kidnapped their two-year-old son. But before she can deliver the news, she has to kick her way through the empty beer bottles on the floor of his small, dingy room and rouse him from his attempt to sleep off a hangover. Max lets her know he’s not really in the mood to talk -- that is, until he gets the bad news. Georgia only has one clue for him -- a note from a neighbor in the boarding house where she lives, telling her that he took their son for a walk. He never came back.
This inciting incident kicks off a plot as convoluted as they come. Thursday stumbles around the seedy, sleazy parts of New York City, trying to put together the pieces and solve the puzzle of who kidnapped his son. Along the way, he bumps into some memorable characters, most notably Varkas (J. Edward Bromberg), an aging mobster who can’t speak above a whisper or do anything excitable because of a cardiac condition that requires him to constantly monitor his heart rate. Bromberg’s convincing performance makes Varkas menacing rather than weak; he plays him as a man struggling against an undercurrent of rage that constantly threatens to sweep both him and those around him out to sea.
As Thursday staggers and lurches his way through New York’s underworld, he also constantly battles his desire for a drink (or three). He knows he shouldn’t touch the stuff, and everyone around him knows it, too. But this doesn’t stop him from indulging from time to time. He loses a fight with his addiction immediately after he finds out about his missing son, getting blackout drunk while trying to interrogate his initial suspect and ending up in the slammer overnight, only to wake up to a lecture from his former police boss. It also doesn't help his case that the motel’s aging manager Smitty (Mary Boland) is all too willing to keep his throat from going dry. In his intermittently sober state, it’s a wonder that he can keep all of the connections and clues straight -- the viewer of the film's increasingly confusing plot has a hard enough time understanding what’s taking place without (presumably) being drunk.
Guilty Bystander was the second of two B noirs Joseph Lerner directed for the independent outfit Laurel Films (the first was the 1949 film C-Man). Both Lerner and Laurel had short careers on the dirt-cheap fringes of the film industry -- Lerner directed only six films in his entire career, and Laurel Films only produced a total of four films. The film’s main star, Zachary Scott, started off with a bang in the classic noir Mildred Pierce (1945) but spent most of the rest of his career in B films such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948), Ulmer's Poverty Row companion piece to Citizen Kane (1941).
So while Guilty Bystander clearly had a meager budget and no star power on either side of the camera, it doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t largely succeed in transcending its humble associations. The film embraces the squalor of its settings and its characters, and the frequently excellent cinematography turns seediness into a dark beauty. The performances are occasionally over-the-top (especially from Scott) and the film gets a bit talky at times, but this can be forgiven, as it is clear that everyone associated with the film was giving it everything they had. In keeping with the film's down-and-dirty aesthetic, it seems to have survived only in ratty, beat-up 16 mm prints. Watching a pristine copy of it just wouldn't seem right, anyway. If you like your noir cheap and dirty, Guilty Bystander is right down your alley.