Saturday 19 July 2008

Tomorrow We Live (1942)

While Ricardo Cortez almost exactly a hundred films in his career, that career slacked over substantially towards its end. The first half of his credits them came in the first eight years, preceded by a couple of odd uncredited roles, but his last ten films took double that time, from this one in 1942 to the end, in a film appropriately titled The Last Hurrah in 1958. He'd fallen a long way in a decade and a half.

In 1926 he was one of the great romantic leading men of the silent era, credited above Greta Garbo in Torrent. In 1941 he was Sam Spade in the original version of The Maltese Falcon. He worked his way down through the precodes, entries in thirties detective series and eventually to things like this, for a studio called Atlantis Pictures and a director like Edgar G Ulmer, who was a seriously talented man but one constrained by insanely tight budgets.

This one opens like a silent film, with looks and suggestions set to the musical accompaniment of a single on the jukebox at a greasy spoon cafe. At a table Julie Bronson and her father, who runs the place, are having a scene, while mysterious lights flicker outside, and they're far from the only things mysterious around here. Julie has been back home from school for four weeks and is asking a lot of questions, given that her dad paid her way through college, as regular as clockwork, but the cafe has hardly any customers.

It's all about the Ghost, a local gangster who uses the cafe shed for some nefarious purposes. Julie herself has some mystery to her, given that she seems to have been doing great in college, before quitting with a few months to go. The Ghost is mysterious too, of course. How could he not be with a name like the Ghost? He's a gangster, nightclub owner, empire builder... and he sees himself as a ladies' man too. He says he has a 'talent for organisation', which is a stunningly obvious euphemism (there are strong similarities to Lucky Luciano) but is literal too: he even has a file in his cabinet marked 'Julie Bronson, Pop's Daughter'. Needless to say, he has serious designs on her and he has a magnetism that nearly wins her over on their first meeting but then that would hardly lead to much of a film, would it?

Tomorrow We Live has far more than a basic romance, and every bit of it is from the standard low budget pulp noir thriller plotbook. Everyone seems to be something but is something else too, hidden behind a front (even Pop has his hidden past) and everybody wants something. The Ghost only has a couple of years to live and he wants Julie. Big Charlie is the competition and he wants the Ghost's territory. Pop wants to get out from under the weight of deception. Julie wants Lt Bob Lord, local army guy, and Lt Bob Lord wants Julie. People even say things like 'What could possibly happen?' It's that sort of film.

Luckily everyone feels right. Cortez proves he still has charm as the Ghost, Jean Parker brings class to the role of Julie Bronson and Emmett Lynn, who plays Pop, was always a great grubby old man. He tended to play the sort of roles that Walter Brennan played: sidekicks, prospectors, people with names like Buckskin Blodgett. You get the impression that half the characters he played ought to have been called Pop even if they weren't. The rest of the cast are low budget actors playing low budget parts and they do their jobs fine.

The downside is that this is a 64 minute formula film, and whatever a talent like Edgar G Ulmer throws at it, it inevitably still ends up as a 64 minute formula film. I like the line, 'Last night was a long time ago,' but this was 1942 so it turns into a blatant propaganda film to back up the army's part in the war with lines like, 'Hitler? Why that cheap punk! He's an amateur.' The army become the 'little people' of America, 'little men, honest men, big with the dignity of toil and strong with the courage of decency'. The gangsters are 'all noise and bluff', 'mad dogs' who 'die of their own venom'. Lord has a showdown with the Ghost at his office at the Dunes and tells him that 'Birchesgarten must look like this.'

Ten minutes later we have a fitting finale, then a tacked on propaganda scene, all flags and howitzers and the inevitable happy ending for the code era. The propaganda doesn't really grate, because hey, it was 1942 and the Americans had finally turned up for the war and were trying to persuade their country that it was justified. What grates is that it's not a propaganda film, it's a low budget gangster film that has propaganda scenes grafted in with no attempt to make them fit, no attempt at all. Sigh.

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