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Railroaded! (1947)

SYNOPSIS: During the robbery of a beauty salon, a policeman is killed and one of the armed gunmen is wounded. He later dies in a hospital but not before fingering Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly), an innocent acquaintance who is taken into police custody. With no alibi and evidence against him that was planted at the crime scene, it looks like an open and shut case until Steve's sister, Rosie (Sheila Ryan), begins an investigation of her own. Her quest for justice eventually convinces the investigating detective Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont) of her brother's innocence and he soon finds a break in the case - the beauty salon operator who witnessed the robbery and turns out to be the accomplice and girlfriend of the real killer, Duke Martin (John Ireland). It then becomes a cat and mouse chase as Martin stays one step ahead of his pursuers, leaving a trial of death in his wake.

Railroaded (1947) marks an important step in the career of Anthony Mann when he was still honing his craft but already developing a personal style which would reach its zenith in his psychological Westerns, several of which starred James Stewart (The Naked Spur (1953), The Man from Laramie, 1955). His previous film, Desperate (also 1947), proved his ability to rise above the B-movie format and create a compelling crime drama that cleverly exploited all the elements that made the film noir genre so distinctive - deep shadows, unusual camera angles, doom-laden compositions and cynical, disillusioned characters in an amoral universe. Railroaded was a further refinement of this formula with Mann using his camera to visualize the inner conflicts of his main characters while simultaneously exploring connections between sex and violence and other noir tenets.

When you consider Mann's later work and his endlessly fascinating rogue's gallery of villains (Stephen McNally in Winchester '73 (1950), Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur, Lee J. Cobb in Man of the West (1958), etc.), it comes as no surprise that the gun-obsessed killer, Duke Martin, is the most compelling character in the film. As played by John Ireland, Duke is an unpredictable and dangerous screen presence who brings real menace and a nervous intensity to all his scenes. In comparison, the real hero of the piece, detective Ferguson is dull and plodding but what would you expect from Hugh Beaumont? (He played Beaver Cleaver's know-it-all father on the TV series Leave It to Beaver.) Even the underworld fringe characters are more colorful here such as Duke's venomous alcoholic mistress (Jane Randolph) and the effete nightclub owner of The Bombay Club who sprouts Oscar Wilde quotes like "women should be struck regularly like gongs!" and "you are not permitted to kill a woman who has injured you but nothing forbids you to reflect that she is growing older every minute."

The stylized cinematography by Guy Roe adds another layer of ominous foreboding to the proceedings and the opening robbery unfolds as a brilliantly designed storyboard. As the two masked gunmen enter the rear entrance of the beauty salon, one of the shopgirls retreats into the darkened work area where she is stalked by one of the robbers. We see the assailant's double-barreled gun move into the frame, growing larger, as he approaches the terrified girl (and the viewer) until her panic-stricken face, in extreme close-up, breaks into a piercing scream. We then see the silhouette of a passing policeman on the shop window. He draws his gun but is shot and crashes through the glass, creating further chaos in the darkness. It's visual storytelling that packs a punch with no dialogue and a minimum of exposition. Pure cinema.

Railroaded was the last film Mann would make for the poverty-row outfit, PRC, before it merged with J. Arthur Rank and became Eagle-Lion. His first film for that distributor would be T-Men (1947), which is generally considered Mann's first real commercial and critical success, and paved the way for bigger budgeted noirs with top stars such as Border Incident (1949) starring Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy and Side Street (1950) with Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, the doomed couple from Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1948).

Treated as no more than a highly effective B-movie by reviewers of its day, Railroaded is now recognized as one of the best low-budget noirs ever produced. As Jeanine Basinger wrote in her book, Anthony Mann, "Railroaded is an exercise in demonstrating what can be done with nothing. It is masterfully directed, and...held together by its overall lighting pattern, which is consistent and atmospheric even in scenes which do not call for visual pyrotechnics...In fact, Railroaded is something of a stylistic tour-de-force, with a beginning and ending that lifts it above the ordinary."

by Jeff Stafford

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