The Tattooed Stranger
Inspired by the success of Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948), The Tattooed Stranger (1950) is a gritty, slice-of-life crime thriller from 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, Crime Lab, as the basis for this fictionalized exploration of police forensics and interrogation.
A theatrical production and exhibition dynamo, the oft-bought-and-sold RKO Radio Pictures established itself as one of the chief studios for film noir, that fatalistic, shadowy cross-pollination of mystery, crime drama and horror that became 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 astonishing string of noir horror hybrids like The Seventh Victim (1943), and Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin (1952). The noir definitions only partially apply to The Tattooed Stranger, which has no existentially anguished private eyes or seductive femmes fatales; only Tobin's pessimistic job outcome and the grimy, sinister urban setting betray the film's RKO origins. As indebted as it is to 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 courtesy of 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 Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (not to mention their various offshoots) 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 undergone massive changes due to a high-profile regime change. Aviation legend and eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes was already notorious in Hollywood for his lavish WWI spectacle, Hell's Angels (1930), and the scandalous, widely censored Jane Russell Western, The Outlaw (1943). Hughes assumed control of RKO in July of 1948, followed by a flurry of employment cuts and personnel changes. Despite his increasingly eccentric behavior including a legendary germ phobia, Hughes managed to get a few lofty projects off the ground, albeit shakily; the John Wayne fighter saga Jet Pilot (1957) began rolling in 1949, and the occasional prestige title like Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952) managed to squeak out amidst Hughes' pet projects designed for Jane Russell. A lower profile release, The Tattooed Stranger was a typical programmer for the period 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 statement and policy change from Hughes: 'We are going to screen everyone in a creative or executive capacity. It is my determination to make RKO one studio where the work of Communist sympathizers will not be used'. (Betty Lasky's RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All). After changing hands back and forth between Hughes 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 funded the 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), Henry Lasko (Joe Canko).
by Nathaniel Thompson