“This movie is one of the most acutely realized movies about class distinction that was made in American cinema at the time,” New York Film Festival programming director Kent Jones said before a screening of TRY AND GET ME ! (1950) on Tuesday night.
Presented at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater as part of the NYFF Revivals sidebar, the independently produced (by Robert Stillman) film noir is perhaps best known for contributing to the unfortunate fate of its director, Pennsylvania native Cy Endfield.
“He had the distinction of being blacklisted,” Jones said.
Why Endfield ended up on the wrong side of the Red Scare becomes clear when you watch TRY AND GET ME!, which was recently restored with funding from the Film Noir Foundation, and screened in a beautiful 35 mm print from the UCLA Film and Television Archives.
Based on The Condemned, Jo Pagano’s 1947 novel about an actual kidnapping and murder in San Jose, California fourteen years earlier, TRY AND GET ME! is the story of Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) a broke WWII vet coerced into a life of larceny by charismatic criminal Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges). With one kid at home and another on the way, Tyler reluctantly agrees to drive the getaway car as Slocum knocks over out-of-the way gas stations. But what starts as small time crime soon morphs into murder, when the pair abducts a wealthy young man in hopes of a big payoff. Incendiary headlines from tabloid reporter Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) incite the local citizenry into a frenzy, and only when visiting Italian intellectual Vito Simone (Renzo Cesana) pleads with the journalist to allow justice to take its course does he turn down the hyperbolic heat. But, by that point, the damage has been done, and violence erupts with predictably tragic consequences.
Clearly a cautionary indictment of the fear mongering and finger-pointing of the McCarthy Era, TRY AND GET ME! had a troubled reputation from the start. It was unsuccessfully tested in limited release under the title THE SOUND OF FURY in November of 1950, before producer Stillman pulled it and retitled it. The New York Censorship Board reportedly insisted that the final reel of the film be cut before they would allow release in the Empire State. And later that year, Endfield – who had also helmed THE UNDERWORLD STORY, a 1950 crime drama with a similarly “subversive” plot – was identified by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a Communist. When he refused to name names, he was blacklisted.
Ironically, TRY AND GET ME! is about as American as a story can be – a powerful plea for due process and a damning indictment of mob mentality. Weather-beaten Frank Lovejoy gives a finely textured performance as a loveable loser who can’t catch a break, and 37-year-old Lloyd Bridges (eight years before his heroic turn in TV’s Sea Hunt) is perfectly preening as Slocum. Kathleen Ryan is heartbreaking as Lovejoy’s clueless wife. And Carlson (better known as a square-jawed hero of ’50s sci-fi) is strong as the muckraking reporter, though his third act conversion feels a bit narratively convenient and broadly drawn.
The problem (at least in the eyes of the witch hunters) seems to lie in the words that inspired that conversion, which Endfield and Pagano (who also wrote the screenplay) put in the voice of the foreign doctor, who is in town to lecture young people:
“ Violence is a disease caused by moral and social breakdown,” he continues. “That is the real problem, and it must be solved by reason, not by emotion. With understanding, not hate. Only thus can we regain the moral center of our universe.”
Endfield reprises those remarks over the final images of the film – a bookend rebuttal to the fire-and-brimstone street corner evangelist who opens the movie, proclaiming “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap!” And in case you didn’t get Endfield’s point, the preacher in the opening scene is blind.
This sort of pragmatism and behavioral nuance were clearly not part of the sociopolitical Zeitgeist in 1950, and Endfield paid the price. That’s a shame because, in retrospect, TRY AND GET ME! looks like a clearheaded parable about an era of madness. Coincidentally (or not), star Lovejoy’s very next film was I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI (1951), a pro-HUAC potboiler which undoubtedly redeemed his image with McCarthy & Co.
Happily, Cy Endfield went on to a thriving career in England, where he directed memorable movies like HELL DRIVERS (1958) and ZULU (1964). Although he never renounced his citizenship from the country that betrayed him, he remained in England for the rest of his life. He died in 1995 at the age of 80.
The restoration of TRY AND GET ME! (1950) has not yet been released on DVD, but you can watch it streaming at Amazon.