Jul 21, 2014

On DVD: The Counterfeit Plan (1957) and Slander (1957)

This week I watched a pair of new releases from Warner Archive, both made in 1957. They differed so much in sophistication that it was hard to believe they hit theaters the same year.

The Counterfeit Plan is the less glossy of the two, a brisk Warner Bros. release featuring the reliably sleazy Zachary Scott as Max Brant, a convicted murderer who escapes the gallows ready to commit a new crime. In a brutal opening scene, his convoy is attacked on a road in the French countryside. With his captors dead, Brant flees to a waiting plane with one of his rescuers and is flown to England.

There they invade the estate of former partner-in-crime Louie Bernard (Melvyn Johns). Brant blackmails the world-weary retired criminal into setting up shop again. He needs his forgery skills to start a large-scale counterfeiting operation.

It's remarkable the amount of effort this thug puts into the project too. He's clever, hardworking and ambitious. It's difficult to understand why he didn't just go legit in the first place, but then this is a killer. He has trouble in his blood. It's clear that there's no way this risky scheme could go on for long, but Brant and his associates plug ahead, quickly finding buyers for their fake cash and setting up a distribution network.

Bernard's daughter (Peggie Castle) shows up unexpectedly, reminding Max that he hasn't left much time for play. Repulsed by his leering and the revelation of her father's criminal past, she puts all her resources into escaping. She finds quite the match in the nasty Brant.

The Counterfeit Plan is reminiscent of many crime flicks, but it has character, avoiding the rut of its clich├ęs. This is mostly due to Scott, who is magnetically evil, though never a bit attractive or sympathetic. He speaks in this hypnotically deep voice with a nasty little rattle at the back of it. As rotten as he is, you understand why he has won the loyalty of his men. He's reliably clever and he never panics, because he always has a plan.

It's great fun to see Scott released from the studio settings of many of his more famous films. He's an edgy actor, full of well-compressed energy. It makes more sense to see him outdoors occasionally, with the wind blowing in the trees and unexpected sights like a random shot of a feral cat strolling by in the background.

The movie also takes its subject very seriously, sharing many details about the complex work of counterfeiting. It's amazing how exhilarating it can be to learn about paper pulp, chemicals, ink and watermarks when it is presented at the right rhythm. It makes the shock of its violent moments more surprising. This is an engrossing little crime flick.

While Slander is in a fashion just as brutal as The Counterfeit Plan, the MGM production feels almost childish in its lack of complexity. In an atypically subdued performance, Steve Cochran is H.R. Manley, publisher of the Hollywood Confidential-style tabloid Real Truth.

The magazine's motto is displayed in large letters on an imposing sign in Manley's office: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." He lives by this too. Despite the title, there is no actual slander to be found in this film.

Manley is plenty of trouble though. Not all psychopaths are serial killers; Cochran plays the publisher with an unrelenting coldness that leaves no doubt that he will not have a charming change of heart by the final scene. He ignores any truth that doesn't please him, anything that threatens his feeling of control. His own mother, whose life he has planned to the minute, can see the evil in him.

Faced with declining sales, Manley looks for dirt about a Broadway star with a spotless reputation. Scott Martin (Van Johnson), a children's puppeteer on the rise was a childhood friend of the actress and he knows her secrets. He also served four years for a violent crime he committed as a youth, desperately trying to help his poor and sick mother. The publisher tries to strike a deal, Martin gives him information, he doesn't print the story about his troubled past.

Martin is too decent to betray the actress to save himself. Manley follows up on his promise and the puppeteer is ruined, losing a prestigious television gig. His wife (Ann Blyth) and son (Richard Eyer) stand by him, but they suffer.

Slander moves along grimly, tight with tension, but oddly not very suspenseful. After Martin is exposed, he and his wife are hit with a string of hardships, some expected, others shocking. The worst of them feels off, giving a certain inevitability to the outcome that's a bit deflating.

In a more compelling film, that misfortune could have had some weight, but Slander's message is too simplistic, almost scolding. It makes it clear that scandal sheets are bad, but doesn't offer much more commentary. In a downbeat situation with nothing to mull over, it's difficult to maintain enthusiasm.

Though Blyth and Johnson are a bit stretched in their borderline melodramatic roles, they are deeply sympathetic. Neither of them are particularly powerful performers, but they exude an appealing strength and decency. It was also fascinating to see the usually blowsy Marjorie Rambeau in a quiet, but intense performance as Manley's mother.

Slander is an adequately engaging drama, appealing enough for fans of the stars.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review.

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