Noir-ing It Up

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

“Hi, Nelly!” began as a sprightly 1933 newspaper-drama in which managing editor Paul Muni choses to “back the wrong horse” by not tarring a missing banker as an embezzler. When evidence seems to contradict his hunch and every other paper plays the story big, Muni, whose contract precludes his being fired, is demoted to serving as “Nelly” the paper’s pseudonymous Advice to the Lovelorn columnist. There is some low comedy as Glenda Farrell (the previous Nelly) and her newsroom colleagues rub Muni’s nose in his comedown and a bit of drama as Muni hits the bottle and trashes his office, before Farrell sobers him up with the old Rico line that he could give it out but can’t take it. The chastened Muni returns to the column and an encounter with an undertaker’s lovelorn daughter sheds new light on the banker’s disappearance.

The rest of the story resolves itself as an efficient Warner Brothers crime movie as Muni discovers that the banker was murdered at the behest of a local mobster whose gang has looted the bank. Muni, proven right in his initial decision not to tar the banker as a thief, and instrumental in getting the mob boss behind bars, is re-instated as managing editor by his paper’s nervous nelly owner.

When Warners chose to dust off this golden oldie in 1948 as “The House Across the Street,” they decided to do it as more of a straight crime movie. The banker of 1933 became a state’s witness in 1948 and, in line with trend toward crime films dealing with urban corruption, the film opens with the witness’ murder. Wayne Morris, taking on the old Muni role as the crusading managing editor, makes no errors in judgment, real or imagined. This time he upsets the paper’s owner (a pill-popping Alan Hale) by lambasting the police for incompetence and shining a light on the doings of underworld czar Bruce Bennett. Bennett usually played “bricks” at Warners and did a nice job as the tight-lipped crime boss. Morris played the newsman in a breezier manner than Muni and never really seems all that threatened by Bennett or his minions, although Bennett’s top hood does rip up Morris’ jacket. (A reminder perhaps of director Richard Bare’s background as director of the Joe McDoaks shorts–including “So You Want to be a Detective,” which actually crossed more noir “t”s and dotted more noir “i”s than “The House Across the Street.”) Although “The House Across the Street” itself is sometimes classified as a film noir, it lacks the requisite mood. Even in terms of pure stylistics it comes off as somewhat flat. Of course in 1948 no one at Warners was saying: Let’s do a film noir. What they were doing was re-casting a newspaper dramedy with crime movie overtones as a straight crime movie with humorous undertones, mainly provided by the repartee between Morris and Janis Paige, taking on the Farrell role as the former sob-sister, but lacking Farrell’s sass and bite. Ultimately it is the earlier film with its wise-cracking newshawks that moves better and is more dramatically satisfying than its lead-footed remake. “The House Across the Street” is worth seeing for Bennett’s grim boss Keefer, miles better than his deese-and-dose generic predecessor (if nothing else, noir knew how to jazz up its villains), but in every other instance, Warners got it right in 1933. They should have quit while they were ahead.

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