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The Tattooed Stranger

The Tattooed Stranger(1950)

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teaser The Tattooed Stranger (1950)

An old man strolling in the park is alarmed when his dog spots the bullet-riddencorpse of a young woman inside an abandoned car. When the police arrive, the officerin charge, Detective Tobin (John Miles), has only one clue: a Marine Corps tattooon the anonymous woman's wrist. Research and old-fashioned investigation uncovera link to a granite worker sporting the same tattoo; Tobin and his partner, LieutenantCorrigan (Walter Kinsella), close in on their prey with violent results.

Inspired by the success of Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948),The Tattooed Stranger (1950) is a gritty, slice-of-life crime thrillerfrom RKO that sprang from the studio's documentary short subjects on police work.Director Edward J. Montagne and producer Jay Bonafield used their own short, CrimeLab, as the basis for this fictionalized exploration of police forensicsand interrogation.

A theatrical production and exhibition dynamo, the oft-bought-and-sold RKO RadioPictures established itself as one of the chief studios for film noir,that fatalistic, shadowy cross-pollination of mystery, crime drama and horror thatbecame one of the twentieth century's most influential filmic styles (or genres,depending on one's critical stance). Along with Universal, RKO churned out some of the most important noir films including such cornerstones as Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), Val Lewton's astonishingstring of noir horror hybrids like The Seventh Victim(1943), and Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin (1952). Thenoir definitions only partially apply to The TattooedStranger, which has no existentially anguished private eyes or seductivefemmes fatales; only Tobin's pessimistic job outcome and the grimy, sinister urban setting betray the film's RKO origins. As indebted as it isto past works, this film also looks ahead to a number of watersheds. The fictionalized'true crime' approach was about to explode later that decade on television courtesyof Naked City (the show, not the film), while the 'mockumentary'approach would only achieve full public acceptance decades later. For further proof,one need look no further than the proliferation of shows like Law and Orderand CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (not to mention their variousoffshoots) to note that this film would not have been out of place if made today.

By the time The Tattooed Stranger was released, RKO had undergonemassive changes due to a high-profile regime change. Aviation legend and eccentricmillionaire Howard Hughes was already notorious in Hollywood for his lavish WWI spectacle, Hell's Angels (1930), and the scandalous, widely censored JaneRussell Western, The Outlaw (1943). Hughes assumed control ofRKO in July of 1948, followed by a flurry of employment cuts and personnel changes.Despite his increasingly eccentric behavior including a legendary germ phobia, Hughesmanaged to get a few lofty projects off the ground, albeit shakily; the John Waynefighter saga Jet Pilot (1957) began rolling in 1949, and the occasionalprestige title like Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952) managedto squeak out amidst Hughes' pet projects designed for Jane Russell. A lower profilerelease, The Tattooed Stranger was a typical programmer for theperiod and, thanks to an absence of heavyweight names behind or in front of the cameras, was completed quickly and modestly.

By 1952, RKO was embroiled in a McCarthy-era Red scare involving Hughes' well-publicized legal battles with blacklisted writer Paul Jarrico, leading to a public statementand policy change from Hughes: 'We are going to screen everyone in a creative orexecutive capacity. It is my determination to make RKO one studio where the workof Communist sympathizers will not be used'. (Betty Lasky's RKO: The BiggestLittle Major of Them All). After changing hands back and forth betweenHughes and a corporation with ties to organized crime, RKO was finally sold off to TV in 1955.

The collapse of RKO curtailed any further New York crime sagas for Montagne and Bonafield; the former went on to several TV assignments and a string of popular Don Knotts comedies including the perennial The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966).However, the most colorful fate was reserved for the private man whose money fundedthe film itself; Hughes became increasingly reclusive after his tenure with RKO,becoming an elusive mystery even greater than that of The Tattooed Stranger.

Producer: Jay Bonafield, Douglas Travers
Director: Edward Montagne
Screenplay: Philip H. Reisman, Jr.
Cinematography: William O. Steiner
Film Editing: David Cooper
Art Direction: Sam Corso, William Saulter
Music: Alan Shulman
Cast: John Miles (Det. Frank Tobin), Patricia Barry (Dr. Mary Mahan), Walter Kinsella(Lt. Corrigan), Frank Tweddell (Capt. Lundquist), Rod McLennan (Capt. Gavin), HenryLasko (Joe Canko).

by Nathaniel Thompson

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