Shakedown (1950)

Shakedown (1950) is a slick and high speed journalism and media film noir crime and blackmail film about one young photographer's ambition to be the richest, best and most romantically involved snapper in the entirety of the great noir city.

Directed by Joseph Pevney and starring Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy, Peggy Dow, Lawrence Tierney, Bruce Bennett and Anne Vernon, Shakedown manages to blur the lines between crime and reportage.

With its hero to heel ending Shakedown (1950) is a lot more than a thrilling item of media noir, with its twin villains and twin romance stories, and with a central character about whom we shouldn't but do sympathise with.

It's a ruthless and cynical film at its heart and if anyone should be looking for modern equivalents then there is Nightcrawler (2014) with which it shares some initial premises — although we are thoroughly primed to like Jack Early, the hero of Shakedown (1950), largely for this over-enthusiastic and criminal-minded approach to reaching out for the American Dream — in this case the Dream appears to be purely financial.

Dark introduction in Shakedown (1950)

One of the best and actually quite darkly comic expressions of this cynical race to the top comes when Jack spots a car driving erratically and follows it. 

His hunch is good and the car drives straight into the harbour. Instead of rescuing the driver however, Jack Early demands the driver pose as he drowns, arranging him in an arms raised position of alarm — one of the most cynical and ridiculously enjoyable moments in all of journalism and media noir.

Bruce Bennett and Peggy Dow in Shakedown (1950)

That snapper Jack Early walks away from this too is possibly a cue for amazed laughter he cannot even take the time to rescue the drowning man whose likeness he is about to sell for big money.

In a similar manner he has a woman pose before she jumps out of a burning building. Perhaps there is something about Howard Duff's youthful and promising good looks and positive attitude that allows us to look both ways at once — it is certainly hilarious in a ridiculous and exaggerated sense, what he puts his photographic subjects through early in the movie.

This escalates into him however actually staging crimes in order to get that shot. And this is where this high class classic journalism and media film noir becomes truly deadly.

If you like your noir crazy then Shakedown (1950) might fulfil these desires with the big bad bulldozer that is Lawrence Tierney battling it out with the dapper Brian Donlevy, set against each other Yojimbo-style by the sword, by the fun and often by the evil stare. If you like your noir extreme than Shakedown (1950) is your vibe.

The main act in Shakedown is a textbook anti-hero, drowning in flaws so deep the only redemption he can find is in the icy clasp of death. The certainty of his doom is the heartbeat of this gritty tale, a relentless march towards the day when Early punches his ticket to the other side. But what's gripping, and quintessentially noir, is how the Second World War, its scars etched into American culture and the men it molded, lurks in the shadows, unspoken yet omnipresent.

Bruce Bennett in Shakedown (1950)

The echoes of war stain the narrative, silently shaping the lives of the male leads in this post-war noir. The protagonist's combat record is the ghost in the room, a truth so universally accepted by the audience that it needs no explicit mention. Early, having danced with death in the war, now captures the macabre dance of urban decay for a public as numb to horrors as he is. His moral compass, shattered by the brutality of war, finds solace in exploiting his subjects, turning tragedy into a grotesque spectacle that caters to the insatiable appetite of a numb society.

Howard Duff and Lawrence Tierney in Shakedown (1950) — it's a long walk home with your bag of money when you are being stared at in the back by the meanest man in noir

Jack Early's evolution unfolds in two distinct acts. In the first, he's a rising lensman, orchestrating calamities for the perfect shot. His skewed sense of theatre, reminiscent of Scandal Sheet's opening sequence, mirrors the dark underbelly of journalism—blind ambition corroding personal integrity and public morality.

Lawrence Tierney — the meanest man in noir? Shakedown (1950)

The second act, more contrived, unveils Early's machinations after tasting success. A tip from a slick racketeer propels him into a web of crime. Instead of being the whistle-blower, he becomes the puppet master, dancing between shadows and betrayals. His descent into criminality, driven by blackmail and a thirst for power, plunges the narrative into a convoluted abyss. The fatal flaw in Early's cunning plans? He's too damn smart for his own good.

In an ingeniously ironic climax, redemption beckons for Early, but fate demands a kinder soul than he possesses. His demise, a symphony of irony, paints the epitaph for a man too clever to escape the clutches of his own misdeeds. In the unforgiving world of film noir, where shadows harbor secrets and morality is a fading echo, Jack Early learns that being the smartest guy in the room won't save you from the dance of fate.

Brian Donlevy in Shakedown (1950)

As a potential lousy husband in the making, Howard Duff as Jack Early is the most lousy date ever too. Don't ever cook for him.

The room reeked of trouble as I sauntered in, the dame serving up a dubious meatloaf concoction. The flickering lamp shadows whispered secrets, but my appetite had taken a hit the night before—caught a mob hit through my lens.

"Eat up, Jack," she spat, her gaze colder than a coroner's slab.

The meatloaf, a tasteless gamble, mirrored the compromises of domesticity. I stabbed the fork, chewed on regret. Sometimes, the most dangerous shadows lurked at home.

Silence hung like a guilty verdict. The clock ticked, marking time in a noir tale where every bite was a step into the shadows.

While the image of the family home as central to the American Dream in the 1950s held a certain idyllic charm, it was not without its problems. The idealized notion of the suburban nuclear family and the single-family home perpetuated a narrow and exclusionary vision of the American Dream, overlooking the diversity and struggles faced by various communities during that era.

The post-World War II era witnessed a surge in suburbanization, with government-backed programs like the GI Bill promoting homeownership. However, these opportunities were not equally accessible to everyone. Discriminatory lending practices, known as redlining, systematically excluded minority communities, particularly African Americans, from obtaining mortgages and participating in the suburban housing boom. This perpetuated racial segregation and limited opportunities for upward mobility for marginalized groups.

The 1950s ideal of the family home was often steeped in traditional gender roles. The concept of the nuclear family, with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker, reinforced societal expectations about the roles of men and women. This idealization overlooked the aspirations and capabilities of women beyond the domestic sphere, contributing to the limitations placed on women's choices and opportunities.

The emphasis on the single-family home in the suburbs as the epitome of the American Dream created a culture of conformity. The pressure to conform to a particular lifestyle, with a focus on material success and the acquisition of possessions, stifled individuality and diverse expressions of the American Dream. Those who deviated from this prescribed model often faced social scrutiny.

The post-war suburban sprawl, fuelled by the American Dream of homeownership, contributed to urban and suburban sprawl, leading to environmental concerns. The expansive developments led to increased reliance on automobiles, the depletion of green spaces, and the rise of a consumer culture that was not sustainable in the long term.

The American Dream of the 1950s, centered around homeownership and material success, fuelled a culture of consumerism. The pursuit of material possessions and the desire for a larger, more luxurious home became ingrained values, fostering a society driven by consumption rather than sustainable and meaningful pursuits.

In retrospect, while the image of the family home in the 1950s symbolized stability and prosperity for many, it also masked deep-rooted issues related to systemic inequalities, rigid societal expectations, and environmental sustainability. The American Dream, as portrayed in this era, was an idealized vision that did not fully reflect the complexities and challenges faced by a diverse population.

Film noir takes place in both domestic settings and parking garages, it's a violent and colliding sketch of all of your life in 1950s America, and there is no escape from either, neither safety wherever you go.

Shakedown (1950)
does enjoy confronting this in the unrelenting domesticity this poor sap deceitful ambitious greedy careless unloving lug of blackmailing media creep does have to face. He can't take it, and knows his place is dead on the streets. 

Smokin' Jack Early played by Howard Duff in Shakedown (1950)

In the sordid realm of shadows, a burgeoning luminary behind the lens transforms his journalistic sway into a brazen tool for personal enrichment. A soul as ruthless and cynical as the darkest corridors of noir itself, he orchestrates a treacherous ballet, pitting two underworld titans against each other with Machiavellian finesse. This protagonist, a loathsome specimen reminiscent of the morally bereft Mike Hammer, navigates the murkiest waters of moral degradation.

Bruce Bennett in Shakedown (1950)

Embodied by the inimitable Howard Duff, whose prior stint in the noir classic "The Naked City" left an indelible mark, this character revels in unsympathetic malevolence. Duff's portrayal is an exercise in disdainful delivery, a performance laced with barely concealed contempt and unbridled ambition. His sleazy manipulations know no bounds, an artful puppeteer indifferent to the collateral damage wrought upon those unfortunate enough to be ensnared in his twisted schemes.

Peggy Dow in Shakedown (1950)

The supporting cast, no strangers to the nuances of noir, delivers commendable performances, with a nod of distinction to the perennially intimidating Lawrence Tierney. The narrative, lean and unapologetically sinister, mirrors the austerity of its production. While it bears the unmistakable imprints of a decidedly low-budget venture, a veneer of additional polish might have elevated the tension inherent in its nefarious machinations – a caveat, however, given the rawness of the copy I perused.

Emotionally restrained yet unapologetically visceral, this film eschews sentimental indulgence in favor of a down-and-dirty revelry in the darker recesses of human nature. It may not resonate with profound emotional resonance, but it unfurls as a gritty, unapologetic escapade that seduces connoisseurs of the shadow-laden cinematic underworld.

Howard Duff as Jack Early in noircore classic journalism and media noir Shakedown (1950)

Howard Duff as Jack Early may be one of the quintessential qualified good and bad guys in all of Old Filme Noire. He's so ambitious to get ahead that nothing else and nobody else matters. He's charismatic and yet cannot be trusted, and is both dangerous and inviting all at once.

The photographer creates the crime then shoots it! Shakedown (1950)

Although we meet young Jack Early on the job at the start of Shakedown, getting beaten up in a railway yard for taking a picture of some criminal action, when he strolls into the newspaper office, he is portrayed as being irresistibly to the ladies, who cannot get enough of him.

Bruce Bennett plays the moral and po-faced boss of the paper, but is pushed and bullied and coerced and persuaded into giving young Jack Early a job on the paper, which he eventually does.

Howard Duff and Anne Vernon in Shakedown (1950)

Jack's next noir quality however is his love of women which he combines with a similar lack of scruples, simultaneously entering as many relationships as he can. As soon as he gets to the newspaper and meets the attractive picture editor played by Peggy Dow, he immediately starts strong-arming her into a relationship, even though she is engaged to a dentist in Portland.

Peggy Dow in Shakedown (1950)

Then he begins to work his magic on the streets, using a variety of hustles to get his winning photographs. His break comes when he manages to persuade crime lord Nick Palmer played by Brian Donlevy that they can work some kind of magic together. Using Nick's inside knowledge of crime in the city Jack Early finds he can turn up at crime scenes just at the right moment to catch a photograph.

All of which leads to jack's next scam, which is blackmail, shaking down one criminal in particular, Lawrence Tierney who plays Palmer's former henchman, Colton. Upping his game, Jack early shakes Colton down for an eye-watering $25,000, threatening to release negatives of Colton caught in the act.

Howard Duff and Anne Vernon in Shakedown (1950)

As if pressurising Peggy Dow's character Ellen Bennett into a relationship, Jack Early is determined to also have a relationship with Palmer's wife, played by Anne Vernon, even though she is loyal and loving, and none of this stops him badgering her, grabbing her, courting her, seizing her for kisses, pressurising her and pressing her at every possible point into a relationship.

The results of this in Shakedown (1950) are fascinating, because Jack early is by far a nastier piece of work than anybody in the picture, certainly the criminals, around whom he runs rings.

Jack is meaner, smarter and greedier than all of them, and Brian Donlevy as Nick Palmer seems fairly benign by comparison, while his wife Nita seems entirely moral, rejecting Jack's advances on the grounds that she actually loves her husband and wishes to remain faithful to him.

Lawrence Tierney — Shakedown (1950)

Jack it turns out cares for nobody and uses Peggy Dow's character Ellen, who starts off faithful to her own fiancée but dumps him in favour of the slick sleaze that is reporter Jack.

The idea throughout may well be a warning on the dangers of the press, although this is not laid out in methodical and critical fashion as it is in other examples of journalism and media noir, such as those made by Billy Wilder (Ace In The Hole) or Fritz Lang. While these films tend towards a critical examination of the subject, Shakedown is a fantastical blast from start to finish, with the hero Jack Early (Howard Duff) every bit the crime lord.

Howard Duff and Anne Vernon in Shakedown (1950)

Indeed, in watching Shakedown (1950) we are watching a film in that mould entirely, the type of noir that demonstrates the rise and fall of an ambitious crime king pin, a man sod riven by money, success and of course women, that his morality defies any possibility that he might stop, put a cap on it, and start to care for those around him.

He is indeed the Little Caesar of the newspaper world. 

Lawrence Tierney and Howard Duff in Shakedown (1950)

Hoist on his own petard — one of the most ironic and even iconic ironic endings in all of classic film noir — the photographer and killer both shoot in Shakedown (1950)

Shakedown (1950)
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Genres - Drama, Thriller  |   Release Date - Sep 1, 1950 (USA - Unknown), Sep 1, 1950 (USA)  |   Run Time - 80 min.  |   Countries - United States

No comments:

Post a Comment