Try and Get Me!
This noir hits with the force of a blast furnace — Cy Endfield’s wrenching tale of social neglect and injustice will tie your stomach in knots. Sound like fun? An unemployed man turns to crime and reaps a whirlwind of disproportionate retribution. It’s surely the most powerful of all filmic accusations thrown at the American status quo.
Try and Get Me!
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 92 min. / Street Date April 19, 2016 / The Sound of Fury / available through the Olive Films website / 29.95
Starring Frank Lovejoy, Kathleen Ryan, Richard Carlson, Lloyd Bridges, Katherine Locke, Adele Jergens, Art Smith, Renzo Cesana, Irene Vernon, Cliff Clark, Donald Smelick, Joe E. Ross.
Cinematography Guy Roe
Production Design Perry Ferguson
Film Editor George Amy
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Jo Pagano from his novel The Condemned
Produced by Robert Stillman
Directed by Cyril Endfield
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Socially conscious ‘issue’ movies are not all made equal. Some deliver pat messages and fatuous advice ranging from, “It’s not the criminal’s problem, it’s our problem”, to strange tracts asking us to take draconian measures against the particular evil being critiqued. Under a Production Code that forbade any realistic depiction of societal flaws, the movies could say nothing about the large numbers of vigilante lynchings being committed in the South, all the way up to the 1940s or so. Fritz Lang made a fierce indictment of mob violence in his 1936 classic Fury, and Mervyn LeRoy followed up with may be the first realistic look at the political powers that allow some lynchings to take place, They Won’t Forget. Both of those movies were based on true cases with white lynching victims; the second couldn’t even directly acknowledge anti-Semitism as a factor. 1950’s Try and Get Me! was so harrowing that it didn’t attract the big audiences of the earlier films, released respectively by MGM and Warner Bros. The story paints an image of human nature even blacker than Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which at least has moments of (black) comedy. In fact, Try and Get Me! may be the biggest emotional downer of the second phase of classic film noir, the most caustic critique of American values. In fact, a theater manager reported that at most showings, at least one person commented on the way out, calling the film anti-American.
Producer Robert Stillman had helped to finance Stanley Kramer films Champion and Home of the Brave, and then decided that he could make his own socially conscious films, just like Kramer’s. He even hired two of the stars from Home of the Brave.
Part of Try and Get Me! was filmed on location in Phoenix, Arizona. Unemployed Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) already has a son. His wife Judy (Kathleen Ryan) is anxious for him to find a job so they can hire a doctor to deliver her second child. Humiliated by his failure to provide for his family and demoralized by his bleak prospects, Howard falls in with the holdup artist Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a narcissistic braggart who lures him with promises of easy money: “Getting any other offers lately?” Howard drives the getaway car for a series of Jerry’s robberies; he tells his wife that he’s found a job and begins to drink heavily. The unstable Jerry bullies his reluctant partner into helping kidnap the son of a wealthy local, and then murders the helpless man. Torn by guilt and self-loathing, Howard continues to drink. He accompanies Jerry on a nightclub holiday with the loose Velma (Adele Jergens) and her mousy friend Hazel Weatherwax (Katherine Locke). Unable to keep silent, Howard breaks down in Hazel’s apartment. Then the secret gets out and the police close in. When the horrible details of the crime are discovered, columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) find out sensational stories about the kidnap-murder sell phenomenal numbers of newspapers.
A social horror movie for depressed times, Try and Get Me! is not recommended for everybody — its emotions run high even before the crime and kidnap story gets into gear. Howard Tyler’s unemployment experience is sheer misery, death in small doses. He can’t possibly tell his wife how hopeless things have become. It hurts when his kid asks for money to go to a ball game. The neighbors’ new television is just more evidence of Howard’s failure.
Author-screenwriter Jo Pagano indicts American society as aloof to the needs of working class citizens in dire economic straits — the Land of Riches doesn’t give a damn if Howard’s family goes homeless or starves. A bartender sees nothing wrong with charging Howard extra for a grade of beer he didn’t order. The situation is emasculating, especially with the preening, suppressed homoerotic Jerry showing off his muscles and asserting his superiority. The film’s key image shows Howard unable to sleep, standing in the dark staring out the window. He’s a criminal. He knows that he’ll be caught sooner or later. As haunted as Bart Tare in Gun Crazy, Howard is living an ‘unreal’ nightmare of guilt and shame.
Howard Tyler’s personality disintegrates as the story races to a finish devoid of redemption. He loses what’s left of his judgment and dignity, and the sordid trap becomes tighter. Unable to tell Judy the truth, he turns to the pathetic Hazel, a wallflower who thinks she’s found the love of her life. Tyler’s son witnesses the arrest. Judy Tyler can only wail, “Oh Honey … what did you do?” In a jarring shock cut, Howard’s son bolts upright in bed with a nightmare, traumatized like the kid from Invaders from Mars three years later.
Jo Pagano’s second thesis is that law abiding, ‘decent’ Americans are easily stampeded into savage acts. He based his story on a true incident from the Depression year 1933. Two arrestees in a kidnap-murder were openly lynched before a huge mob, not somewhere in the South but in San Jose, California. The mob action was triggered by sensational, irresponsible newspaper coverage suggesting that the suspects were going to be set free on a technicality. An enormous crowd came from miles around to witness the hanging. [My mother was nine years old at the time and lived in Mountain View, 13 miles away; she remembered the town emptying out in the rush to get to San Jose.] Despite an early warning, California’s governor refused to reinforce the local police. He then praised the vigilantes in interviews, as did the beloved personality Will Rogers. Unlike Fritz Lang’s Fury, Endfield’s Try and Get Me! closely follows the true incidents, including the fact that college students were key participants in the lynching violence. Nowhere is the horror of lawlessness so graphically represented: in full view of their neighbors and hundreds of strangers, citizens defy the civil authority: “There’s no law against what’s right!”
The newspaper columnist Gil Stanton is set up as an obvious audience surrogate. At first unforgiving of Howard Tyler, Gil meets the despondent Judy and shifts his column to a more understanding tone. Everybody resents him except the Sheriff (Cliff Clark). Gil’s publisher Clendenning takes over and continues to churn out the provocative headlines that make his papers sell out three times a day. Velma and Hazel become the pawns of the publicity machine, and pose smiling for photos in the courthouse.
Alas, the show has one glaring flaw. Injected into the screenplay is a character out of left field, an Italian mathematician-sociologist Dr. Simone (Renzo Cesana), who appears at regular intervals to lecture Gil and others on civic responsibility. His erudite but superfluous harangues are the epitome of weepy liberal pleading – ‘environmental factors’ are responsible for the ‘breakdown of social decency.’ It’s understandable that conservatives would reject Simone’s speeches as propaganda, especially when delivered by a man who is both an intellectual and a (gasp) foreigner. Director Endfield reported that he tried his best to minimize the ‘banal’ comments by Dr. Simone, but was overridden by the author Jo Pagano. Lang’s Fury and Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident remain the classic lynch law movies.
Actually, Cesana’s speeches contradict the film’s true message. Howard Slocum isn’t an underprivileged slum kid denied a moral upbringing, he’s a desperate everyman shoved aside by the economy. The body of the movie faults society’s emphasis on material success and conspicuous consumption. Howard goes bad trying to keep up with a rat race he can never win. Actor Renzo Cesana has a fairly interesting list of film credits, atop a truly weird overall career. Don’t forget to read about his TV show, The Continental.
The lame social commentary lectures hurt Try and Get Me!’s chances for classic status, the same way that a vague ending hurts the otherwise ferocious race-riot movie The Well. The question is, were these early 1950s pictures damaged by Production Code pre-censorship? Author Brian Neve does report that the Production Code Office insisted on a few changes, such as the addition of dialogue suggesting that the mob leaders would be arrested and go to jail. More extreme content from the book had already been dropped. In Pagano’s original script Tyler was savagely beaten in the jailhouse, and his wife suffered a miscarriage. Also the hanging was to be shown more explicitly. The book had pointed to anti-Semitism as another motivation for the murder: Jerry Slocum at one point asserts that “Hitler had the right ideas.”
There’s no denying the power of Try and Get Me!, which begins with a blind street revivalist preaching at full pitch: “Why do you do the things you do? Why?!” Howard Tyler and Jerry Slocum are dead-to-rights guilty yet wholly undeserving of their barbaric fate. The Sound of Fury is the roar of the mob, which transforms society into a savage animal. The onrushing citizens overwhelm the few deputies on guard and storm the jail. Howard collapses into psychic agony, and Jerry fights back like a rabid dog. It’s a scene of total horror. Forget movies in which the stern Sheriff threatens to kill ‘the first man who steps forward.’ Doing that would surely result in multiple deaths, including most of the deputies. The implication is that citizens can be herded and bullied into doing terrible things — by newspapers, by politicians, by television demagogues encouraging lawlessness: “There’s no law against what’s right!” Present-day parallels make this show more chilling than ever.
Director Endfield said that the frightening lynch mob scene was not planned shot by shot but ad-libbed on the fly in the streets of Phoenix. They got all the local street drunks into the act, fired up the crowd and tried to catch powerful moments. The finished scene has no equal for realism; it looks like a documentary of a real event. The Tyler’s own neighbors are part of the mob.
Aside from those unfortunate lectures by the Italian busybody, every scene in this movie is a keeper. Cy Endfield’s direction of his actors is superb. The shooting style evolves as the story progresses. Howard Tyler’s long days trying to find work are shot in documentary style, but his alcoholic panic attack at the nightclub is highly expressionistic. Endfield was a skilled magician, and has the stage entertainer (Joe E. Ross, in his first film) do magic tricks in the blurred, distorted nightclub scene.
The show was released as The Sound of Fury late in 1950, and underwent a title change while in its initial run. It was thought that this was because it was uncomfortably similar to Lang’s Fury, which is loosely based on the same factual incident. But Cy Endfield biographer Brian Neve said that the title change was just an attempt to help the picture find an audience. Until recently Try and Get Me! was not an easy film to see. Its only previous home video release is a Republic Home Video VHS from 1990.
Cy Endfield was just getting positive responses from this film and his previous thriller The Underworld Story when a Supreme Court ruling against the Hollywood Ten cleared the way for a second phase of the industry witch hunts. Friendly witness Martin Berkeley fingered Endfield and over a hundred other people to the HUAC on September 19, 1951, making the director instantly unemployable in Hollywood. Rather than turn rat or plead the 5th, Endfield left the country, before the political witch hunters could subpoena him. He counted himself lucky to have obtained his passport the previous year, for the State Department refused to issue passports to citizens denounced to the HUAC. Directors Jules Dassin of Night and the City and Joseph Losey had the same experience – they knew a subpoena was on the way and decided to leave the U.S. before they could be served.
Endfield’s career momentum was smashed, and he lost roughly seven years of productivity. He would later achieve success in England directing, writing or producing the tough minded pictures Hell Drivers, Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn.
Endfield was not the only participant to suffer a career interruption. Alleged Communist connections put actor Lloyd Bridges on bad terms with HUAC until he cleared himself by becoming a friendly witness. A veteran of many socially conscious dramas and films noir, actor Art Smith was blacklisted outright after being named and betrayed by his old colleague Elia Kazan. Producer Robert Stillman went directly from Try and Get Me! into TV work with Queen for a Day. Talented Frank Lovejoy didn’t get many more starring roles, but his very next was in Warners’ reactionary Was a Communist for the FBI — possibly a conscious choice to remove the unpopular political taint of Try and Get Me! The soulful Irish actress Kathleen Ryan may hold the record for appearances as the suffering woman of a political victim-hero: between 1947 and 1950 she appeared in Carol Reed’s allegorical Odd Man Out, Edward Dmytryk’s pro-Communist Give Us This Day (a.k.a. Christ in Concrete) and Endfield’s searing Try and Get Me!
To fully appreciate how unusual was Try and Get Me! one must understand that America’s screens in 1950 were flooded with fare promoting family values, military vigilance and the joys of peacetime prosperity. Movies even slightly pessimistic toward American life, even hits like The Asphalt Jungle were considered “unhealthy” by many in the industry. Howard Hughes made embarrassing patriotic movies pumped up with messages about how grateful we should be to have been born Americans. Although the HUAC witch hunters focused mainly on the past affiliations of Hollywood talent (mostly bread & butter creatives unable to fight back), socially critical messages were present in several of their films, themes that conservatives would surely label subversive propaganda. Joseph Losey’s The Lawless and Leo Popkin’s The Well speak out about vigilantism and racial/ethnic prejudice. Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway indicts business as a closed system of rackets; Abraham Polonsky’s superb Force of Evil extends that logic to charge that our entire business culture is compromised by corruption. Christ in Concrete and Salt of the Earth were barred from release or boycotted by ultra-conservative organizations.
Today’s “free” movie screens approach political controversy almost exclusively in documentaries. Dramas even tangentially critical of the post- 9/11 wars haven’t been particularly successful. Few current films seem as morally courageous or sophisticated as the above examples from the highly politicized postwar years. If one can appreciate its political context, Try and Get Me! remains a blast of social protest.
Savant has seen Try and Get Me! in a revival print and on an old, good-quality Republic VHS. It may have played once or twice on Turner Classic Movies, but not for many years. Although not considered a core noir title, it’s more powerful than many of the noir classics, and well worth seeking out.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Try and Get Me! is a clean encoding from the printing elements of Paramount Pictures. It is encouraging to learn that the original elements survived various ownership changes intact: many independently produced pictures end up being lost or dumped when labs clean the vaults of unclaimed film.
The movie looks pristine. It beautifully contrasts drab docu realism with the more expressionist effects as Howard Tyler slips into an alcoholic funk. The superimposition of the main credits over an action scene is a progressive touch. On Blu-ray the audio has a lot of punch. I’m told that the disc was delayed for several years after the restoration was completed, so I’m glad that it is finally here. Try and Get Me! had a place on my personal “look for this movie” list for decades. A pessimistic refutation of the entire American Dream, it’s one of the most emotionally jolting films ever. “What Makes You Do The Things You Do?!” “There’s No Law Against What’s Right!” “Oh Honey, What Did You Do?”
I’m also happy to report that the disc has English subtitles — thank you, Olive Films.
Recommended reading: The Many Lives of Cy Endfield by Brian Neve
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Try and Get Me! Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson