Sunday, May 10, 2009


“Criminals Within” (** out of ****) exemplifiea one of many espionage thrillers that Hollywood immersed the market with prior to World War II. These pictures did not cost as much to make since the stories occurred in the United States and the villains were usually fifth columnists without uniforms. Ostensibly, this movie amounts to little, aside from its director, Joseph H. Lewis, who carved out a reputation for his himself in later films. “Secret Evidence” story contributor Edward Bennett penned the screenplay from “Texas to Bataan” scenarist Arthur Hoerl’s story. Hoerl’s output in screenplays far surpassed anything that Bennett. “Criminals Within” represented Bennett’s only screenplay, though he proved the story for director William Nigh’s “Secret Evidence.” The action replicates the typical Hitchcock thriller that incriminates an innocent man for a crime he didn’t commit. Everything about “Criminals Within” complies with the formula, right down to the racist abuse of African-Americans as secondary characters in traditionally subservient roles. Ironically, the African-American characters malign themselves. The maid character slams a door in her boyfriend’s face and later makes a joke that “it won’t turn black.” Early, she claims that her boyfriend couldn’t possibly know a character because the person is a gentleman and the boyfriend only knows people in prison.

Director Joseph H. Lewis gets “Criminals Within” off to a bang-up start. An U.S. Army officer meets with a civilian scientist at a huge, three-story, brick building, in a locked room with the legend Research Dept. and Chemical Div. inscribed on the marbled glass door panel. The bespectacled Professor Carroll (George Lynn of “Hitler’s Madman”) produces spherical glass containers and demonstrates the formula for a top-secret military explosive. “I wouldn’t risk putting anything so valuable in writing,” Carroll taps his head, “I keep it here.” He mixes the chemicals while the officer watches. “I shall demonstrate the process to you and you alone so that only you and I will know it.” Director Lewis frames the medium shot perfectly so that we see both individuals with the glass paneled door in the background. The shadow of an unknown assailant appears at the door between the officer and Professor Carroll. Lewis cuts to a medium shot of the man behind the door and the guy smashes the glass, thrusts his revolver through the crack, and guns down Professor Carroll.

The Army officer phones Military Intelligence and Martin forms a plan. “For the present, his death must remain an absolute secret,” Martin informs the officer. “I’ll be here to work with you.” Nobody else knew about Professor Carroll’s research except his younger brother, Corporal Greg Carroll (Eric Linden of “Gone with the Wind”), in Selective Service at Camp Madison. Corporal Carroll displays dexterity with playing cards and demonstrates considerable initiative in his job. Captain Bryant (Robert Frazer of “Robin Hood”), Carroll’s superior officer, summons him and inquires about a valuable document missing from his safe. Carroll knows the combination to Bryant’s safe because his superior often mumbles the numbers when he opens the safe. Since an important sheet of paper was never replaced in the safe, Carroll had filed the document away for safekeeping in a cabinet. Initially, Bryant believed Carroll had stolen the paper. Carroll remembers a list of scientists on the document, but the Bryant prohibits him from mentioning any names in front of Lieutenant John Harmon (Donald Curtis of “Bataan”) who is romantically linked with Alma. Interestingly, instead of a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt on Captain Bryant’s office, a picture of Abraham Lincoln hangs there. Bryant is concerned when Alma Barton (Constance Worth of “Meet Boston Blackie”) enters the filing room while Greg is searching for the paper. He fears that she may have access to privileged information.

Bryant detains Carroll in the guard house, but our hero escapes to warn his brother. You see, Carroll doesn’t know his brother has been murdered. Our hero gets a little help from parties unknown (actually Sergeant Paul) when he finds the jail cell key in his meal. Carroll goes to the Recreation Hall to telephone his brother, but his brother’s assistant answers and says he hasn’t seen the professor. Carroll conceals himself in an out-of-order phone booth in the recreation room with Barton’s blessing. Bryant visits around closing time. He tries to pry information out of a reluctant Barton. She conceals coded messages in the high heels of her shoes and regularly sends an African-American private with them to a cobbler, Carl Flegler (I. Stanford Jolly), who serves as the go-between for an espionage ring. Naturally, since “Criminals Within” is a pre-World War II movie, the identity of the foreign government is never disclosed. The cobbler passes the shoes along to men in suits ensconced in another office on the premises. The stylist villains have a torture chamber that they call a ‘fever’ room where they can rise and lower the temperature and force a person to talk.

Meanwhile, Barton grows scared enough of Bryant that she has him murdered in the Recreation Hall. Carroll discovers Bryant’s corpse in time to get away before Lieutenant Harmon shows up with security. Initially, Carroll throws Harmon off the trail by smashing a window and then taking refuge in the out-of-order phone booth again to mislead them. When he overhears the lieutenant phone Alma, Carroll slips out the window and heads to her apartment. Meantime, a sergeant who was a former newspaperman calls newspaperwoman Linda (Ann Doran of “Mr. Skeffington”) and she gets on the case. Linda employs a loquacious African-American maid Mamie (Bernie Pilot) whose boyfriend is none other than Sam Dillingham (Dudley Dickerson of “Kentucky”), the canteen orderly. Clearly, the filmmakers ignored military customs since Sam never wears his cap. Anyway, Sam has been delivering Alma’s secret messages without realizing it. Linda hustles over to Alma’s apartment and Greg arrives not long after. She hides in the hallway and Greg discovers Alma has been murdered. About that time, fifth columnist Stanley Hume (Dennis Moore) arrives and demands to see Alma. Greg clobbers him, stashes him bound and gagged in a closet, and leaves dressed in his clothes. On the way out the door, Linda intercepts Greg. They team up and narrowly miss Lt. Harmon and his MPs heading for Alma’s apartment.

Linda takes Greg back to her apartment and orders him a new suit of clothes because she thinks the military will pick him up based on a description of his apparel. In the meantime, Harmon and his MPs find Alma’s corpse and Hume tied up in the closet. No sooner does the military have Hume in custody than an attorney arrives with a write of Habeas Corpus to obtain his release. The commanding officer-in-charge gives these two a dressing down because they are using the hard-fought for privilege of all Americans to their fiendish advantage. This obvious bit of flag-waving exposition is as patriotic as “Criminals Within” gets in the course of its 70 minute running time. The two fifth columnists are cruising away from Camp Madison when they are overtaken by the inside man, Sergeant Paul (Ben Alexander of “Dragnet”) who is a double-agent of considerably higher rank in his country masquerading as a non-commissioned officer. He reprimands the attorney for showing up too early, thus tipping off the military that something is amiss.

Greg and Linda go to the cobbler’s shop, but he is captured at gunpoint and has to accompany them to their superior who threatens to shoot Greg if he refuses to divulge the name of the scientist. In fact, Greg never learns during the story that his brother was murdered. When Greg refuses to talk, the fifth columnists capture Linda and imprison her in the ‘fever’ room to break Greg. Surprising everybody, Linda smashes the observation window in the room and Greg gets the drop on the villains. The surprising but least believable moment comes when Linda exerts her strength to break the observation window. Everything is neatly sown up in the end with the capture of the spy ring.

This forgettable, low-budget, Producer’s Releasing Corporation espionage thriller appears to have been lensed largely within the confines of a studio. Aside from the checkpoint gate and the base’s name sign, we never see anything remotely resembling the actual exteriors of a military installation. “Criminals Within” was produced in 1941, but the film was not released until 1943. One character sums up “Criminals Within” concisely with the line: “Oh, brother, this is worse than a movie melodrama.” The best thing about this mystery is the identity of the traitor. “Criminals Within” qualifies as an efficient but unremarkable potboiler. Interestingly, Frazer as the distinction of being the first actor to portray Robin Hood in the cinema. Furthermore, director Joseph H. Lewis would helm bigger and better movies like “The Big Combo” (1955) with Cornel Wilde, “A Lawless Street” (1955) with Randolph Scott, and “Terror in a Texas Town” (1958) with Sterling Hayden. Primarily, Lewis is best known for his B-movie jewel “Gun Crazy” (1950) written by blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo based on MacKinlay Kantor’s story “Gun Crazy.”

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