(Shakedown was screened Wednesday evening at the San Francisco Castro Theatre along with While the City Sleeps as part of the film noir festival, Noir City 7.)
Howard Duff plays a homme fatale in Shakedown, a sordidly gritty “B” film noir about an unconscionable newspaper photographer who climbs his way to the top of his profession through shooting the most eventful happenings in San Francisco—with his camera. Creepily insouciant with a glassy, pitiless pair of eyes, Duff, as directed by Joseph Pevney, makes his Jack Early a cipher. This ethical black hole of a man is the film's repellent central character, and Shakedown's narrative incrementalism—Early becomes more pronouncedly brackish and more irrevocably insatiable and insufferable as a person as the film continues—makes the picture more engrossing. Following Duff's Early in his pursuits of photographing major, newsworthy moments in the city, the film takes a methodically masticating viewpoint, developing a sort of partially indifferent stance with regards to Early's actions. This intriguing approach makes the film more meta than it may initially appear to be. Pevney sagaciously mimics his protagonist's all-seeing amorality—the film follows him wherever he goes, just as he follows budding stories and dramatic episodes that seem to be cajoled into existence by the very existence of the urban jungle from which they sprout. This, naturally, befits the environment of film noir, and makes what could have been a merely melodramatic jeremiad into something more nutritious and rewarding.
Working from a story by Nat Dallinger, Martin Goldsmith's screenplay periodically stumbles from bouts of excessive literalism and prosaic formula. Yet there are some solid little touches that buttress the greater vein the narrative delineates. Early's homme fatale status is hinted at early when one pretty woman after another cannot avert their enamored gaze as he confidently marches into what he hopes will be the arena in which he will succeed at all costs, the city newspaper. When Early—quite literally—moves in on the cajoling girlfriend of his employer and intrepid newspaperwoman Ellen Bennett (Peggy Dow), the picture of the employer and timid beau of Ellen's, David Glover (Bruce Bennett) is pushed off of a desk, and falls down, to the ground and off camera range.
As the film gracefully concatenates Early in all of his lurid photography, from snapping sensationalist (and manipulated) shots of drowning men and defenestrating women, the atmospherically pitch-black cynosure of Shakedown becomes more perilously foreboding. Gangsters are introduced, such as Nick Palmer (Brian Donlevy) and Harry Colton (Lawrence Tierney). Ann Vernon plays Palmer's French wife, Nita—who quickly attracts the attention of Early. One of the more ambivalently delectable components of Shakedown is the efficacy with which the picture compels the audience to sympathize with the gangsters routinely exploited, coaxed and finessed by Early. The conflicted emotions provide greater detachment from the characters, a sanctuary from which the viewer can remain neutrally engaged for the entirety of the picture while remaining appalled by Early's outrageous antics.
Duff's performance zeros in on his character's gifts—an effortlessly natural charisma and prepossession that seem like necessities for any solid homme fatale—which manage to disguise his more ravenously ugly personality. Like any plausible seducer, Duff's Early is in no small way a feat of muted chicanery and profound deviousness. Securely ensconced within the more saporous property of his persona that ably lures sexual and professional foe alike, these gradually blossoming fragments of more perspicuous wrongdoing are given greater aromatic potency. Scenes in which Early, confronted by the prospect of making money, nonchalantly agrees to one crooked deal after another, pile up like so many sins to never quite be confessed.
Many films have portrayed the conflicts, turmoils and philosophical underpinnings of the art-form of both cinematic and still photography. From the Buster Keaton-starring Edward Sedgwick-Keaton film, The Cameraman to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up and many other examples, the act of photographing people in one context or another has left an indelible impression on those who partake in these films' cogent inquiries. Perhaps informed by the Platonic visage of concepts represented by the varied objects that populate the lives of people, the photographs made pivotal in the narratives of these pictures may likewise be avatars of effulgence, mayhem or clandestinely captured and unearthed secrecy. These visual representations are endowed by a finely tuned animistic perspective. Pictures, predominantly suspended in idyllic timelessness, are, a fortiori, typically portals into convivial illustrations. It is when this symmetrical concinnity is breached by invasive, world-altering misfortune that the preternaturally established environment finds itself poisoned. As master-manipulator Early massages one tragedy after another to personally gain from it, Shakedown comments on the dual egoisms of the character himself, circuitously, and the art form he exploits.
Photography finally distilled persuasively records Plato's eidos, while remaining neutral in Aristotle's divergent consideration, and rejection, of independently existing forms. Brought to the modernity in which Early's calculatedly emotive photography thrives, Heidegger's teacher, Husserl, finds relevancy in his “eidetic” application of Platonic phenomenology—but, a photograph may in actuality be the most finely sublimated literal snapshot, humorously, of Plato's eikasia, his comprehension and signification of the elusive human imagination, which is invariably focused on temporal imagery and appearance. Powell and Antonioni (and later Francis Coppola, who would adapt Antonioni's sight for sound in The Conversation) exquisitely detailed this. In Shakedown, however, the noirish storyline finds Early feasting on the sociological ailments that plague the urban jungle with his lethal weapon (the poster for the film notes that his camera was more deadly than the gangsters' guns). This media orchestration befits postwar American cynicism in pervasive institutions and even broad societal relationships, such as between the fourth estate and the populace. This bitterness would find scalding expression in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole from the next year. Shakedown places the role of media-sensitive conductor of bewildering machinations in a more achingly personal light, which leaves a different, but no less intriguing mark. Kirk Douglas' reporter in Ace in the Hole was ultimately a self-aggrandizing huckster. As wonderful as Douglas was in that film, his character was not psychologically crippled, and he, though reluctantly, could see the harm he had selfishly administered. Duff's Early is a man with emotional parts simply missing. That barrenness makes this film noxiously arresting; the passive act of watching functions as a recoiling sense of despair. Though Shakedown cannot match the aforementioned films in either ambition or execution, it is a searing documentation of irresponsible turpitude.