Monday, September 14, 2009

Dial 1119

Gerald Meyer, a thoroughly mediocre television director, made his feature debut with the 1950 noir DIAL 1119, thanks to his status as the nephew of Louis B. Mayer.

Marshall Thompson, of all people, plays a sociopathic escaped mental patient named Gunther Wyckoff who murders a bus driver and takes a barroom hostage. His only demand is to face the psychiatrist he blames for his stint in a padded room, Dr. John Faron (Sam Levene). While waiting for Faron to show up, Wyckoff waves his stolen gun around and strikes fear into the other inhabitants of the Oasis bar, including rumpot Virginia Field, two-timer Leon Ames, naïve Andrea King, and bartender Keefe Brasselle.

The title refers to the telephone exchange for the police. What’s really interesting is the use of television as a plot point. The Oasis has a large-screen set (did they make ‘em that big back then?) above the bar that cost $1400 (!), which must have seemed almost like science fiction to audiences of the time. Live TV news broadcasts are a staple of the hostage genre, but I haven’t seen it used in a film made this early.

Also ahead of its time is the narrative’s clash of old-fashioned police work, represented by Captain Keiver (Richard Rober), which wanted to send Wyckoff to the electric chair, and newfangled psychological profiling by Dr. Faron, whose testimony sent the killer to a life sentence in an asylum instead. It’s evident which side the movie sides with.

Better known for bland nice-guy roles, such as veterinarian Marsh Tracy on the TV series DAKTARI, Thompson is flat as a board and almost as expressive. There’s nothing wrong with his decision to underplay a crazy killer, but he’s barely there, which also describes Mayer’s direction.

Be on the lookout for glimpses of Barbara Billingsley (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER), Paul Picerni (HOUSE OF WAX), Frank Cady (GREEN ACRES), and 29-year-old William Conrad (CANNON) as a bartender named Chuckles.

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