A decade before all those tapes started self-destructing when he played American spy Jim Phelps in Mission:Impossible, Peter Graves played a different kind of secret agent in the 1957 crime thriller Death in Small Doses. One of the 30 film noirs that Elliot Lavine is screening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater as part of I Wake Up Dreaming 2014, Phelps is Tom Kaylor, an FDA agent sent undercover as a big-rig truck driver to get the scoop on the truckers’ “co-pilots,” amphetamines, in the wake of yet another fiery crash chalked up to demon Benzedrine. Kaylor’s driving partner Wally Morse (Roy Engel) warns him not to try the stuff. His boarding house roommate and fellow rig jockey Mink Reynolds (ex-major league baseball and NFL star and future Rifleman Chuck Connors) can’t get enough of the stuff, a jittery hipster who can’t sit still. Boarding house landlady Val Owns (Mala Powers) Kaylor sees as a victim of Benny, the widow of the dead trucker that inspired the investigation. There is big money to be made in pushing pills and before too long murder enters the picture.
All of the films in I Wake Up Dreaming 2014 are part of the Warner Archive, culled from the pre-code 1932 to 1965 when the production code was on its way out, and comprised of titles from Warner Bros., RKO, Monogram, MGM, and Allied Artists. Death in Small Doses is only one of the highlights, a nasty, atmospheric little thriller with not an ounce of fat on its lean 79-minute frame. Connors is a standout as the pixelated hophead Mink, scary and charismatic, in a role a world away from Lucas McCain, the quiet, upstanding sharpshooter that would come to define the actor during his five-year run on The Rifleman.
If Death in Small Doses is indicative of anything in I Wake Up Dreaming 2014, it is of the slate’s pure entertainment value. These movies, a mix of rarities and classics, are fun to watch and even more fun to watch on the big screen in a theater full of people. Among the highlights in the 2014 roster are:
The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)—The opening night film along with 1947’s The Unsuspected, this offbeat B-thriller is thought to be America’s first noir. As a reporter (John McGuire) finds himself on the fast track to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit, it is the police and the American judicial system that are revealed as bigger heavies than the killer—a sentiment that won’t be lost on 21st century film goers. Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr. costar.
When Strangers Marry (1944)—Future horror maestro William Castle helms this taut romantic thriller starring Kim Hunter as a woman who impulsively marries Dean Jagger, a man she just met. When she travels to New York to meet him and he fails to turns up, but Robert Mitchum, a charming old flame, appears, she wonders if she made a mistake. Her uneasiness turns to fear when she discovers that Jagger is suspected of murder. But did he really do it? This sleek suspense yarn keeps the audience guessing and gets a boost of adrenalin from the smoldering Mitchum.
The Locket (1946)—Mitchum stars as well in this Rashomon-like noir as one of Laraine Day’s past loves. Gene Raymond is about to marry her when a former husband (and her one-time psychiatrist) Brian Aherne turns up to warn the groom away from his troubled bride, telling a tale in flashbacks of kleptomania and murder.
Split Second (1953)—One-time Philip Marlowe Dick Powell makes his directing debut with this tense slice of nuclear paranoia. Stephen McNally is the leader of a group of escaped prisoners who hide away with a group of hostages in a Nevada ghost town. One of the cons is wounded, but that’s not the worst of it: the place is an A-bomb test site that is about to be vaporized. For the hostages, it becomes a desperate race not just to escape McNally and his men, but also the coming explosion. This tight, nail-biting relic of the Atomic Age costars Jan Sterling, Alexis Smith, Arthur Hunnicutt, and Richard Egan.
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)—Western auteur Budd Boetticher detours into noir with this thrilling and stylish biopic of the Depression era gangster. Ray Danton is Diamond, hoofer turned hood, who begins as Arnold Rothstein’s (Robert Lowery) bodyguard and rises to the top of the mob food chain—but not for long. Gorgeously lensed by legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard, this compelling period drama also stars the great Warren Oates as Danton’s consumptive brother Eddie.
Miracles for Sale (1939)—Robert Young stars as an ex-magician, manufacturer of magicians’ tricks and a debunker of the supernatural in Freaks director Tod Browning’s final film. When he’s called upon to protect Florence Rice, a young woman in peril, Young is pulled into a murder mystery involving mediums and illusionists. Full of magic tricks and comic banter, this lighthearted proto-noir also stars William Demarest as a crotchety police detective and Frank Craven as Young’s visiting dad.
Brainstorm (1965)—Actor William Conrad steps behind the camera to direct this remarkable late noir starring Jeffrey Hunter as a scientist who plots to murder his lover Anne Francis’ husband Dana Andrews, believing that his history of mental illness will help him elude punishment. Viveca Lindfors costars as Hunter’s psychiatrist and the one person who knows for sure whether or not he is really mad.—Pam Grady
I Wake Up Dreaming 2014 runs Friday, May 16, through Sunday, May 25, at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., San Francisco. For tickets and further information, visit roxie.com.