Noirvember Review: ‘The Tattooed Stranger’
Every November fans of cinema celebrate one of the most influential genres of moviedom, the film noir. This cinematic movement from the 1940’s through the 1950’s, presented audiences with edgy pulp crime flicks with a dark and moody stylization. Film noir gives moviegoers no shortage; troubled antiheroes, seductive femme fatales, tenacious detectives, ruthless villains, urban wastelands, and violent crimes. This month I will be looking at some of the best noir movies for what has been dubbed Noirvember.
Many of the great film noirs in movie history came courtesy of RKO and producer Sid Rogell who ran the studio’s B-pictures. Giving his filmmakers tiny budgets and plenty of freedom led to a host of pulp masterpieces noiristas and movie lovers in general hold in high regard like; Murder My Sweet and On Dangerous Ground. While his movies were, as previously mentioned, B-pictures in 1950 he took a risk even he was unsure would pay off with the film the Tattooed Stranger. While this was by no means his first, or even third, rodeo when it came to moody crime flicks, this was one he had to trust the unlikeliest of production crews to get the job done.
On a peaceful morning in Central Park, a woman is found in her car having been shot to death. Law enforcement descend on the scene and begin dusting for fingerprints, pouring plaster into footprints and examining every detail of the crime scene. The thing which catches the attention of veteran investigator, Lieutenant Corrigan is a tattoo of an anchor on the victim. He is reluctantly partnered with the young scientifically minded Detective Tobin whose methods clash with Corrigan’s grizzled old ways. The mismatched duo have two leads they can work on. Corrigan pursues the origin of the unique tattoo which ties their victim to a serviceman stationed in the city. The younger Tobin seizes on some grass caught in the car which seems out of place and turns to Dr. Mary Mahan in the crime lab to find it’s origin hoping it can lead to the killer. While the two gel about as well as oil and water, the combination of forensic research and old-fashioned detective work yields promising results. When they finally confront their killer things naturally do not come easily. A fast-paced violent shootout amidst a garden of tombstones at a stone carver office proves to be a thrilling finale to this twisting and complex mystery.
Beginning in the late 1940’s RKO began funding a series of documentary shorts about the people of New York and the work they do to contribute to American society. One short in particular focused on the real life work of those who worked in police crime labs giving people a brand new perspective on law enforcement not really seen before. This proved to be a particularly popular bit and Sid Rogell wondered if he could capitalize on it. When the son of a fellow RKO executive wrote a screenplay called the Tattooed Stranger, there was the feeling he had something. Rather than turn to an established filmmaker, the crew behind the short films which inspired the movie to begin with, offered to make the movie in New York on a fraction of the budget. The result is a film which fully takes advantage of the Big Apple. So many times in film noir we see the alleyways, docks, and slums of the West Coast filling in for the City that Never Sleeps, but Tattooed Stranger is New York through and through. Cinematographer, William O. Steiner may not have known how to shoot theatrical features but he knew exactly how to take audiences from sunny Central Park to the roughest neighborhoods of the Bronx leaving nothing to the imagination. Despite the at-times shoddy production values, the audience is truly immersed in the world of the film because their is an authenticity which is incredibly difficult to be truly duplicated.
Filmed on the other side of the country from Hollywood on a minuscule budget meant the Tattooed Stranger did not have the luxury of box office drawing actors. Instead they had to rely of New York’s talent pool of theater performers most who had little to no experience in movies. This is abundantly clear with the uneven performances across the board by the ensemble who seem uncomfortable in front of a camera. In particular Frank Tweddell as NYPD Captain Lundquist seems to be channeling Tor Johnson from Plan 9 From Outer Space as he bemoans the end of the days of police shaking down beer halls as “college boys” have taken over investigating. But Walter Kinsella who plays the lead Lieutenant Corrigan is perfect as an old school no-nonsense cop, who enjoys poking fun at his educated partner dubbing him “Louis Pasteur”. Sadly this would be the only movie Kinsella would ever do in his career as the rest of his career took place on the small screen. The method of casting utilized did allow for some average New Yorkers to end up in the movie and they immensely add to the believability of the flick. I remember on the DVD commentary to the Crow, one of the film’s producers discussing how New York actors tend to have a realness to them and the Tattooed Stranger is a perfect testament to that.
While the Tattooed Stranger may not have had the slickest production values there is a raw gritty realness to it. Filmed in an almost guerilla style in the streets of New York truly transports the audience into the world of the dark and seedy world of the film. True the inexperience of the film crew was working against it and the script shoehorns in a romantic subplot between Detective Tobin and the scientist Mary drags down the plot. But it gave moviegoers a detailed and realistic look at modern police investigations, where just as much work is done in a laboratory as in a police station. In many ways Tattooed Stranger was ahead of it’s time in taking this approach. We see our intrepid detectives get stumped chasing down leads until someone behind the scenes with a microscope is able to find something which gives the case a new momentum. This Noirvember, the Tattooed Stranger is definitely a unique flick worth checking out for those who want a different kind of mystery thriller.