CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Leonide Moguy’s “Whistle Stop” (1945) offers the most acerbic portrait of small town life in the 1940s this side of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” Perhaps because the Russian-born Moguy worked mostly in Europe he didn’t subscribe to our dream of small town virtue, and almost seemed to cherish every little brushstoke of the seedy mise-en-scene that he and his cinematographer Russell Metty breathed into the town of Ashbury. Virtually everyone in the film’s ensemble cast is a no-good of some type or another. The putative hero, Kenny Veech (George Raft) is a lay-about who occasionally helps out at the railroad depot–hence the title–but spends most of his time drinking or gambling with his boon companion Gitlo (Victor McLaglen) a bartender and “a good guy” who “buys him drinks.” Gitlo is employed by Lew Lentz, the town success because he owns the fanciest bar and runs a yearly “charity” carnival. In playing Lentz Tom Conway departs from his usual suave demeanor to play a shifty sort who operates just this side of the law.
The women in the town are no bargain either, headed up by relative newcomer Ava Gardner’s Mary who went off to Chicago and returned with a mink coat, a gift from an admirer who owns a department store. Kenny and Lew both lust after Mary and after a plan hatched by Gitlo and Kenny to rob Lew goes awry, Lew retaliates by framing them for the murder of one of his underlings. This he hopes will remove Kenny from the picture and clear his way to Mary. The other women are Frances (Jorga Curtright) a waitress at Lentz’s Flamingo Bar who carries a torch for Kenny, Kenny younger sister (Jane Nigh), who does not, and Kenny’s mother (Florence Bates) who provides endless excuses for the misdemeanors of her wayward boy.
With lust, attempted robbery and murder on the bill of fare, “Whistle Stop” is certainly not dull. I don’t know what Maritta Wolff’s original novel was like before Philip Yordan adapted it to the screen, but the end result of this Seymour Nebenzal production is a pleasant minor entry in the film noir canon. In a more rigorous version of noir, Lentz’s frame-up would have worked, but here, although shot by Lentz, Gitlo finally chokes the life out of his hated boss and takes a nice big slug of Lentz’s private stock whiskey before he expires, Kenny is declared innocent of murder–how is never quite explained–and after Frances has berated him as a grade-A heel, Mary sticks by him and they go off into the sunrise together.
I should also add that although Raft regularly took critical knocks for his “expressionless” acting style, I thought he did quite well with the Kenny Veech role, portraying a little big man whose sense of being special captivates Mary and drives the rotten but still full-of-himself Lentz to murder.