John Payne (1912-1989) would have turned 100 today, May 28, 2012. He began his career in Hollywood as a light leading man and musical star at 20th Century Fox, appearing in Technicolor musicals during the war years with such leading ladies as Alice Faye, Betty Grable, June Haver, Sonja Henie and Carmen Miranda. He could sing and dance and was quite good in those films (as well as the black-and-white ones like TIN PAN ALLEY), but it was after the war, when he’d developed some seasoning, that he began starring in more hard-boiled fare in the western, crime, and adventure genres, with a helping of film noir.
In this regard, his career paralleled those of Dick Powell and Dennis O’Keefe, two other light leading men/musical stars who became tough guys during or after the war, Powell most memorably when he took on the role of Philip Marlowe in MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), a screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s private eye novel, Farewell, My Lovely. Of these three stars, I would argue that Payne went furthest and made his mark in a longer run of memorable genre fare. After starring in the family classic, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), Payne made the transition in his next films to harder-edged fare with titles like LARCENY, EL PASO, THE CROOKED WAY and CAPTAIN CHINA.
Payne had a handsome, but slightly worn face that got knocked around somewhat regularly in these films, and he specialized in ordinary jokers who’d had a spell of bad luck and were seeking to set things right. He was usually surly, embittered and unshaven, and not often very nice to the other characters, although by the end, no matter how bad he’d behaved in the lead-up, he could usually be counted on to do the right thing, even if it meant self-sacrifice.
The two films that most stand out in his filmography from the post-war period were two black-and-white crime thrillers he made for director Phil Karlson, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) and 99 RIVER STREET (1953).
In KANSAS CITY, he plays an ex-con-turned delivery truck driver who gets accused of an armored car robbery after robbers use a truck from his company to engineer the heist. He’s got an alibi and he’s set free but he’s fired from his job and wants to catch the actual culprits.
So, despite the film’s title, the action shifts early on from Kansas City to a resort in Mexico where most of the film takes place and where the actual robbers, who were all masked in the preparation and execution of the robbery and don’t know the identities of the other participants or the mastermind behind it, are holed up waiting for the pay-off. Payne travels there, taking on the identity of one of the robbers who’d been killed by the police, and tracks the rest of them to their hiding place. It gets a little contrived in the Mexico portion, with Payne embarking on a romance with the college-educated daughter (Coleen Gray) of the ex-cop (Preston Foster) who planned the robbery, but it’s fun watching Payne square off against such other great tough guys of 1950s crime movies: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. Somehow I can’t see Dennis O’Keefe quite pulling that off so convincingly. Or even Dick Powell, for that matter.
Payne confronted by Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef:
Turning the tables:
In 99 RIVER STREET, Payne plays an ex-boxer-turned-cabdriver whose cheating wife (Peggie Castle) is murdered, with Payne accused of the crime. Payne, with the help of an aspiring actress (Evelyn Keyes) and his taxi dispatcher (Frank Faylen), goes after the gangsters his wife was mixed up with, all while trying to elude the police.
It’s been decades since I saw it at a revival theater (the old New York Cultural Center), and it’s one I don’t have on tape or disc, so I was unable to re-watch it for this entry, but I remember it quite vividly and still think it’s one of the best films either Payne or Karlson made. It was a tough noir melodrama with a keen sense of nighttime urban flavor and a number of plausible, colorful characters who kept one engaged throughout. As in K.C.C., Payne plays a working man sucked into the machinations of career criminals and he has to fight his way out of their grip to clear himself. How many crime or action films made today feature ordinary working joes as their protagonists?
Payne also made a distinct group of adventure films for a pair of producers named William H. Pine and William C. Thomas, together known as the “Dollar Bills,” for their ability to squeeze production value out of low budgets. I remember watching most of these films when a local TV station in New York (WOR-TV) ran them regularly on late-night television in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Payne starred in eleven films for the team from 1949-1957: EL PASO, CAPTAIN CHINA, THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK, TRIPOLI, PASSAGE WEST, CROSSWINDS, CARIBBEAN, THE BLAZING FOREST, THE VANQUISHED, HELL’S ISLAND, and BAILOUT AT 43,000, all but two of which were in color. In these films, Payne often played someone who either works undercover as a bad guy (CARIBBEAN, THE VANQUISHED) to get the goods on local tyrants, or someone who’s suffered a loss and demotion and has to struggle to regain his reputation (CAPTAIN CHINA, CROSSWINDS). I re-watched two of these films for this entry: CAPTAIN CHINA and PASSAGE WEST. I don’t have DVDs, so I didn’t get screen grabs, although I do have a still from one of them.
In CAPTAIN CHINA (1949), Payne plays Captain Charles S. Chinnough, commonly known as “Captain China,” from his years of sailing ships throughout the China Seas. He loses his command after an incident in which he’d gotten drunk and his ship was run aground on a reef and abandoned by the crew, leaving him for dead. He winds up as a passenger on the Crosswind, now piloted by his old first mate, Brendensen (Jeffrey Lynn), and intends to appeal for a new inquiry to try and prove that the mate had changed course against orders, which caused the ship to run aground. The crewmen include the two men (Lon Chaney Jr., John Qualen) who’d locked him in his cabin that fateful night and they conclude that their future freedom depends on Captain China not surviving this voyage. Eventually, when the ship gets caught in a typhoon, the ill-prepared Brendensen turns to the more experienced China for help to keep the ship afloat until the storm passes.
It’s a rousing adventure of the kind Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, filled with working men who do their jobs and the kind of enthralling events that arise simply from believable conflicts between men of differing ethical makeup and between men and nature. There is plenty of action in the film, including a brutal fistfight that lasts about six minutes between Payne and Lon Chaney Jr. on the deck of the ship. Both men get battered, but neither wins. This still shows the aftermath of the fight, when leading lady Gail Russell, a footloose American girl traveling to Manila, decides to patch up Payne’s wounds:
Once the typhoon hits, there is a tremendous amount of dangerous action involving tying down various things on the ship, including some large machines which have become unmoored in the cargo hold. Huge torrents of water are blasted onto the set during these scenes and all shot in real time—no post-production effects. (If they made this film today, it would all be CGI.) In the scene where they try to attach cables to get hold of the loose cargo, Lon Chaney’s character decides, unwisely, that it would be a good time to try to dispatch Payne—by “accident.”
Gail Russell gives what seems to me to be her most unflappable performance. She had a vulnerable quality in most of her films that made her endearing to a lot of fans, but here she doesn’t show a trace of vulnerability. She watches the vicious violence of the fistfight with thinly veiled amusement and gives the bloodied Payne an appreciative once-over as he closely passes her on his way back to his cabin. She soon joins him there, ostensibly to provide first aid, but also for a smoke and a drink. She’s also shown interest in Brendensen and her loyalties shift from one to the other and back again in the course of the film, all while contemplating her impending reunion in Manila with “Bill,” her long distance boyfriend from Council Bluffs, Iowa, whom Payne has derisively dubbed “solid citizen.” We even hear Bill’s voice-over reading the letter he wrote to her which she carries, making a case for the dull but steady and secure life of “home” in Council Bluffs. It might not be hard to figure out which way she’s going to turn once the ship docks in Manila, but it’s handled in such a way that it’s still a pleasant surprise. I’m a huge Gail Russell fan and this is my favorite performance of hers.
In PASSAGE WEST, Payne plays the leader of a group of escaped convicts in Utah in 1863 who latch onto a wagon train containing members of a Christian religious community, which is never identified, traveling to farm land in California. They force the wagon train members to feed them and give them new clothes and allow them to mingle with them to throw off their pursuers. Long story short: they cause the community a lot of hardship and grief until the preacher leading the train, played by our old friend Dennis O’Keefe, decides he’s had enough and takes on Payne in a one-to-one fistfight, decisively beating him and effectively ending the train’s hostage status. (It’s later revealed that O’Keefe’s character had tooled around working as a lumberjack and a saloon bouncer before taking up preaching. Okay, so maybe O’Keefe could have taken on Van Cleef and Brand after all.) From that point on, Payne decides to stay with the train and behave a little better, gradually working his way to some kind of redemption. Payne’s a real bad guy in this, a murderer given a life sentence, who does real harm to members of the community, although one of the women (Arleen Whelan), the daughter of the founder of the community, takes a real shine to him after he forces a kiss on her. But he has a conscience and he keeps his fellow cons in line and ultimately does the right thing by the community. One of his avaricious con buddies is none other than his 99 RIVER STREET pal, Frank Faylen.
Payne is also very good in the other Pine-Thomas films I’ve seen, especially CROSSWINDS, which pairs him with Rhonda Fleming (one of four films they made together). There he played a Captain China-like character who gets cheated out of his boat by Forrest Tucker and is then coerced to work as a crewman on the same boat for a salvage job to retrieve a gold shipment from a downed plane upriver in Papua New Guinea in headhunter territory. I haven’t seen this in 30 years but I remember it as a real men’s pulp adventure with battles with the natives, fistfights on deck, battles over Rhonda, a perilous retrieval operation and colorful location filming in Florida.
I watched one other Payne film for this tribute: the celebrated color noir, SLIGHTLY SCARLET, which gives Payne two redheaded leading ladies for the price of one: Fleming and Arlene Dahl. Payne plays Ben Grace, a trouble-shooter for the crime boss of “Bay City” in California, and Fleming plays the secretary of the reform mayoral candidate, whom Payne is secretly supporting, while Dahl plays Fleming’s kleptomaniac sister, who flirts with pretty much every man she comes into contact with. It’s based on a novel by James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Ted de Corsia plays Sollie Caspar, the brutal crime boss. Much of the film plays out in a way that made me wish it was in black-and-white, while the gorgeous photography by John Alton, the set design, costumes and those magnificent red heads of hair on Fleming and Dahl all make me glad it was shot in sumptuous Technicolor.
Payne, again, is not a good guy here. He suffers humiliation at the hands of Caspar and gets his revenge by using his investigative skills (long-lens photography and hidden tape recorders) to help the reform agenda and get Caspar exiled so he, Payne, can take over. He plays both ends against the middle to enrich himself. When Fleming, who’s been pretty handily seduced by Payne, realizes his true nature, she’s repulsed. Eventually Payne gets caught in the crossfire but ultimately, again, suffers a twinge of conscience, and does the right thing before the end.
One other aspect of Payne worth noting is that no matter how much of a sourpuss he was, he always had great chemistry with his leading ladies, whether they were his musical partners in the 1940s, film noir partners like Coleen Gray, Evelyn Keyes and Gail Russell, or Technicolor queens like Rhonda Fleming, Arlene Dahl or Maureen O’Hara (TRIPOLI).
(They certainly spend a lot of time patching him up:)
Payne did several movies in his filmography that sound intriguing and make me wish I’d made the effort to track them down over the years: LARCENY (1948), THE SAXON CHARM (1948), THE CROOKED WAY (1949) and THE BOSS (1956).
Since we’re celebrating Memorial Day today, I should point out that Payne served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, right in the middle of his tenure as a musical star at Fox. IMDB says he was a pilot, while another site, Brian’s Drive-in Theater (no relation), says he was a flight instructor.
P.S. [Sept. 9, 2014]: In checking IMDB’s entry on John Payne for another research project, I just noticed that they changed his birthday from May 28 to May 23, which, if accurate, made this celebration of his centennial some five days late. In any event, at least I celebrated. Better late than never.