A Voice in the Night

by Mark English

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From an aesthetic point of view, early television was inferior not only to cinema but also to radio. Image quality issues and low production values give much old television programming a tacky and tawdry feel. In a real sense, radio’s restriction to one sensory modality was a form of freedom. Almost from the outset, radio was a powerful and flexible medium with a remarkable capacity for direct and intimate communication. It engaged the emotions – and the visual imagination.

Because of its presence in the home and capacity for live programming, television posed a threat to radio that cinema had not, gradually replacing it in most of its traditional roles and formats. Cinema and radio, on the other hand, had peacefully coexisted for decades. In fact, the respective golden ages of cinema and radio could be seen to have coincided, or at least overlapped.

Though I have a broad interest in the music and popular culture of the 1940’s and 1950’s, it is generally serious film dramas which most interest me, especially in so far as they reveal the preoccupations, moods, manners, politics and underlying values of the time.

I want to say a few words here about an unpretentious little movie of the 1950’s which was centered around one of the abiding preoccupations of American cinema: organized crime. It stars and is narrated by an actor who made his name in radio in the 1940’s. Frank Lovejoy was often (but not always) cast as a reassuring character, an American everyman, encapsulating in his distinctive voice and (later) his screen presence a kind of middle ground of decent normality in a world in which such qualities were seen to be at risk.

On radio, he was the first narrator of the long-running crime drama series (based on stories from the files of the agency), This Is Your FBI. (FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called it “the finest dramatic program on the air.”) But Lovejoy was probably best known for playing a Chicago crime reporter in another radio series, Nightbeat.

Social and cultural historian (and Jack the Ripper expert) Paul Begg writes:

Broadcast on NBC, Nightbeat … starred Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone, a tough and streetwise reporter who worked the nightbeat for the Chicago Star, looking for human interest stories. He met an assortment of people, most of them with a problem, many of them scared, and sometimes he was able to help them, sometimes he wasn’t. It is generally regarded as a “quality” show, and it stands up extremely well. Frank Lovejoy (1914–1962) isn’t remembered today, but he was a powerful and believable actor with a strong delivery, and his portrayal of Randy Stone as tough guy with humanity was perfect.

Finger Man is a low budget but well-crafted crime drama in typical film noir style in which Lovejoy plays another “tough guy with humanity.” The film was directed by Harold Schuster. The script is credited to Warren Douglas, “based on a story by Morris Lipsius and John Lardner.” Lardner was a distinguished sports writer and war correspondent, a son of Ring Lardner and brother of Ring Lardner Jr., blacklisted screenwriter and one of the Hollywood Ten. The writing is taut and generally convincing, though very stylized.

A point of interest is that Lipsius, who had co-authored a dictionary of underworld slang, was a former criminal who had been recruited five years before by the Treasury Department’s undercover wing. The plot of Finger Man and many details of the script clearly owe much to Lipsius’s personal experience. Also, John Lardner had known Lipsius at least since 1951, as an article about him by Lardner appeared in the New Yorker in November of that year.

The main character/narrator of the film (played by Lovejoy) introduces the story by saying that these things happened to him, but he can’t give certain details as “there are still people around, people who never forget and I’d like to keep on living… My name? Let’s just say it’s Casey Martin.” Routine stuff, sure. And then there is Casey’s sister who is now a junkie and her cute little daughter. It’s Hollywood, but with an edge.

Martin is picked up on Christmas eve for hijacking a truck, but is promised a clean slate if he puts the finger on a major underworld figure, Dutch Becker. The eventual sting operation involves illicit alcohol.

In real life, Lipsius had facilitated the conviction of a powerful underworld figure, Irving Wexler, aka “Waxey” Gordon, via a plot regarding heroin deals. Undercover Treasury agents had, in December 1950 (was it Christmas eve, as in the film?), recruited Lipsius, an ex-convict, to befriend Wexler and set him up for what would be his final arrest on August 2nd, 1951. Wexler was convicted and died in prison. Wexler was also heavily involved in gambling and prostitution, like the fictional Dutch Becker.

The world of Finger Man (and many other noir dramas) was a Manichean world in which the forces of crime and depravity were in a constant battle with the forces of justice and decency and there was no certainty what the ultimate outcome would be.

This is how the Lovejoy character, as narrator, assesses his situation early in the film: “Well, there it was laid right in my lap. I come out clean or I come out dead. The Treasury Department and the police were on my side. Against me was a big-time hoodlum by the name of Dutch Becker – and the entire underworld from coast to coast. There wasn’t a gambler alive who’d make book with those odds.”

In trying to convince him to cooperate the Treasury Department secret service chief had appealed both to his sense of decency and to patriotism:

“You know the mobs, how they operate. One strong, ruthless man can tie a syndicate together. He pushes the buttons and pulls the strings and all over the nation his vicious rackets are set in motion. He’s a dictator. We’re after one of those dictators… Put the finger on him and you’re a free man… [Y]ou know Dutch Becker as well as I do. He has no conscience. He has no soul. It makes no difference to him if he destroys an individual or a family or a nation. And enough men like Becker could destroy a nation… We know that Becker is operating in at least nine states… He gets his cut out of everything rotten that’s sold. We want him.”

“Let me show you something,” the agent continues, shuffling through a batch of photographs. “Here’s a girl 17, dead before she even started to live. Sixteen. Twenty. There’s a girl 19. They found her in a trunk. She wanted to go home to her family but the boys couldn’t see it her way. The hospitals, jails, asylums and morgues are full of human beings who were destroyed by men like Dutch Becker.”

The narrator gives a few more details about him: “He was one of the biggest gamblers in the country. He was the king pin of an illegal alcohol ring. He employed beautiful girls as escorts, hostesses, shills and b-girls in his clubs and gambling houses. If they crossed him they were not very pretty to look at when he paid them. And he always did.”

The villain is effectively played by Forrest Tucker as a smooth psychopath. And Peggy Castle is believably vulnerable as Lovejoy’s love interest and a woman trying to escape from her past life as one of Becker’s girls. But what ties it all together – holding the line not for idealism but at least for some small measure of hope and decency – is Lovejoy’s voice and presence.

35 Comments »

  1. Lovely piece Mark, with just one caveat. It is bizarre, borderline crazy to suggest that the golden age of television — the television of The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy and Your Show of Shows — the latter of which included arguably the greatest assemblage of writing talent behind any show in the history of television — was “aesthetically inferior” to anything. Otherwise, terrific stuff.

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    • Television of the forties and fifties was “aesthetically inferior” visually—low resolution and relatively monochromatic—due to the technical limitations of that period. Notably, the best early TV—Gleason and Caesar in the fifties—kept the visual experience relatively simple.

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      • It was at best technically inferior. Certainly not aesthetically. And there was nothing on radio in the US that even remotely could boast the artistic talent behind it as Your Show of Shows. Frankly, i was really surprised by this aspect of Mark’s piece. Surely he knows this.

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        • I don’t think we’re disagreeing. As indicated by the second sentence of the piece, compared to the fine grain and extended gray ranges achievable on the silver screen by the forties, early television had a somewhat blurred, halftone look. The comedic/dramatic quality of much early TV, however, was aesthetically most memorable.

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    • It’s performance on a stage with a couple of cameras, pretty basic stuff. The writing may be interesting in context, but it’s visually uninteresting. There’s no comparison to Vertigo, Some Like it Hot, Paths of Glory, Sansho the Bailiff, Nights of Cabiria, The Apu Trilogy etc. Ernie Kovacs’ stuff is primitive, but he really tried to use the medium to describe the world it was a part of. It was the first “video art”.
      But I never know how to respond to someone talking about “aesthetics” An aesthetic is a manifestation of an ethos. If a work is seen as important it’s because of the richness of description of the world that made it. Aesthetics is for advertising.

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      • Don’t agree with you re: the aesthetic. I’m teaching formalism in aesthetics right now: specifically, Clive Bell, and he explicitly says that the truly aesthetic is never wrapped up with human concerns. His conception of “aesthetic emotion” is highly rarefied and abstract.

        “Let no one imagine that representation is bad in itself; a realistic form may be as significant, in its place as part of the design, as an abstract. But if a representative form has value, it is as form, not as representation. The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant. For, to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life. The pure mathematician rapt in his studies knows a state of mind which I take to be similar, if not identical. “”

        https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16917/16917-h/16917-h.htm

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  2. Thanks, Mark.

    I grew up in the age of radio. And I miss it.

    As for cinema — I think it has been ruined by the lack of censorship. When censors were active, the film producers had to be subtle to get around them. But now subtlety is gone, and much of the artistic inventiveness has been lost.

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    • Neil

      “When censors were active, the film producers had to be subtle to get around them.”

      This is certainly true.
      I am also sympathetic to your negative judgment concerning cinema’s general trajectory, but subjective judgments like this are difficult to defend in a compelling way. I am certainly not trying to do that here, though if I were to select a handful of films which seemed to me to represent some kind of high point of the form, they would in fact be from times and places where there were strict constraints (explicit or otherwise) on what could be shown or said.

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        • Nah, sixties beat the 70s regarding music. (Assuming you speak of popular music here.) By the 70s, at least after the first couple of years, the biz/production side of the scale had insinuated itself deeply and creativity gave way more and more to genre and matching of expected templates. THe decade boundary is actually a bit artificial here. The pinnacle in truth was something like 1965-1972, with the heights around 1967-1970,

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    • Tautology “Art is Art” meaningless garbage.
      Military formality reinforces a military ethos. Victorian manners manifest Victorian morality. The great art of the Catholic Church manifests the contradictions of Catholic culture.The “aesthetic” of the architecture of the Lutheran Church manifests the sensibilities of Lutheranism. 20 years ago I spent an hour in an unrestored German Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn. Simple forms in brown wood and white plaster walls. Luther was key. I’d never seen anything like it.

      Neil Rickert, defending the government of Iran, and Iranian cinema.
      The struggle for freedom makes people strong. Freedom itself makes people weak. Doesn’t say much for America does it?

      “Thus we observe here as elsewhere in human affairs, in which almost everything is paradoxical, a surprising and unexpected course of events: a large degree of civic freedom appears to be of advantage to the intellectual freedom of the people, yet at the same time it establishes insurmountable barriers. A lesser degree of civic freedom, however, creates room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity.”
      Kant, What is Enlightenment?

      “Everything that constrains a man, strengthens him.”
      Joseph de Maistre

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  3. Frank Lovejoy’s qualities as an actor, which the piece ably describes, were, perhaps, best displayed in Nick Ray’s noir tragedy, “In a Lonely Place,” in which Lovejoy’s middle-class LA detective stands in contrast to the volatility of the protagonist, an “old friend” and screen-writer-in-paranoid-decline played (superbly)by Bogart.
    Mr. English is undoubtedly also familiar with Lovejoy’s television series “Meet McGraw,” (later retitled (disappointingly) “The Adventures of McGraw”), created and largely written by Blake Edwards, in which Lovejoy played the eponymous (and apparently mononymous) “troubleshooter” without portfolio. I recall that each episode began, Conrad-like, with the same phrase in a voiceover spoken by one of the characters of that episode, “Yeah, I met McGraw . . . ,” followed by a brief scene-setting intro, all delivered like a reminiscence over drinks at a dive bar after midnight, and each evoking and affirming McGraw’s legend-like status: Odysseus in a fedora.

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    • I was responding to an un-thought-out defense of censorship. The greatness of Iranian film has everything to do with the need to express things indirectly. Iranians I know understand the irony and laugh.

      Art is always the product of a tradition. The arts are Burkean. They’re never authoritarian, but they deal with it in interesting ways.

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  4. Dan

    As Kanthelpmyself pointed out, I specifically talked about “image quality issues and production values.” The latter relate to the look and feel of a production and so have an aesthetic aspect. Production values (from Quora): “a term … used to describe appeal that exists strictly on the basis of the technical and stylistic merits of a presentation. The production value of a movie would be related to the sophistication and effectiveness of the production itself, not the script, the acting or the story. High production value would be characterized by such features as perfect lighting, great coloration, effective camera work and scoring, clean sound, thematic and compelling editing, innovative special effects, etc..”

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      • It was most definitely all about writing and performance, and yet, the look of early television may not have been irrelevant to its success. Television’s soft, scan-line image during its earlier decades was, in substantial part, the basis upon which McLuhan declared TV to be a “cool,” i.e., individually engaging, medium, making it a medium, it seems to me, particularly well-suited to the type of comedy at which many early television shows excelled, e.g., Gleason, Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, et al. (Query: Might HD have diminished TV’s quality as a “cool” medium?).

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          • Possibly so, but I was addressing not production of programs, but something McLuhan, at least, identified as a quality of the medium itself that emerged from its technology at the time.
            In any event movies and TV appear to have reversed their prior cultural positions, with movies having become cartoonish, simple-minded and repetitive, as noted by, inter alia, Scorsese, Coppola, and Tarantino, while television, dramatically and thematically, is more sophisticated than ever.

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    • In other words, you indicated that tv was aesthetically inferior *because* of its production values. And that’s just false. Sid Caeser and Jackie Gleason were marred not one iota because of bad production values. If you’d just said that the production values were poor, I wouldn’t have said anything. But your point was much stronger than that, and given the level of quality in programming we are talking about — material that never ages or gets dated — I felt it important to call attention to it.

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    • There are no artistic revolutions. Art’s never ahead of its time. Impressionism gives us a richer description of the culture that made it than the work of the academicians who derided it. Cubism is a product of the early 20th century. The Bauhaus describes Weimar not the future. Artists respond to change and make use of technical advancements. It took time for people to make art out of TV. it’s taken longer for people to make art out of video games, but it’s going to happen.
      Many people thought sound film ruined film as art; it was no longer purely visual. Some people prefer black and white. Tarantino hates digital. It’s not progress. Maybe it’s the reverse. But it’s change.

      https://www.filmcomment.com/article/the-birth-of-narrative/

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  5. In comedy they don’t matter so much. Low production values may even be a plus. But in serious drama these things do matter, at least to me. I am put off by poor sets and phony scenery/backdrops, for example. They distract me and detract from the experience and make it more difficult to suspend disbelief.

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    • Interesting. I think classic Dr. Who is better than New-Who, regardless of production values. Same with the original Star Trek. And if production values matter anywhere it should be in Science Fiction.

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      • I nust agree about new Dr Who. Nevertheless I suspect this is merely a function of the “Golden Age of SF”, usually said to be 12, but perhaps 14-16 for 1960’s New Wave (PKD!) 😉

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  6. Mark,
    thanks for this; makes me want to watch Finger Man (which I haven’t yet seen)/

    As far as the ongoing aesthetics discussion on this thread I may have too much to say about it; perhaps I’ll come back to it or write on it separately.

    I do stand out a little apart here, because, as I’ve remarked on comments to articles by David Ottlinger, I don’t think television has any aesthetic of its own, and must be approached semiotically for fuller understanding. On that basis, of course, there were interesting television phenomena even in the early years, and some of these were undeniably entertaining.

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  7. Dan K.

    I have a bit more free time now, so I’ve started to advance in your introductory lecture series on philosophy and once again, thanks for doing it. I’ve nibbled at philosophy over the years, read Russell’s History of Western Philosophy many years ago as well Scruton’s Introduction to Modern Philosophy, listened to various talks and lectures on philosophy online and over 50 years had an introductory course on philosophy, which I found very inferior to yours since our professor never explained anything, never gave us any information about the historical context and his classes consisted of him presenting a series of arguments (generally one per class session), for example, the ontological argument for the existence of God and defying the students to refute it. If he had taken your approach to introducing philosophy, I might have ended up majoring in it.

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