Try and Get Me! (aka, The Sound of Fury, 1950)

Director: Cy Endfield

Try and Get Me lead

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“I didn’t know he was going to kill him!”

Really, Howard? You’re in film noir! Of course your partner was going to kill your hostage!

images-1On Saturday, January 26, I had the unique thrill of being at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the premiere of the restored 35mm print of Try and Get Me! at Noir City 11. Try and Get Me!, whose original title The Sound of Fury was scrapped, changed to something more lurid, and remarketed for national distribution when the film flopped in California, is the powerful film that blogathoners turned out in force to support during 2011’s For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, thanked a large coalition of organizations and people whose efforts were responsible for bringing this film back to pristine condition for future generations; yes, blogathoners, you received your due and the grateful applause of a sold-out audience.

From working with the Film Noir Foundation on the blogathon, I knew this film pushed the warning needle far into nasty. However, I was not adequately prepared for its visual and narrative power, or the nakedly emotional performances of Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, and Kathleen Ryan. Based on a real incident that took place in San Jose, California in the 1930s, Try and Get Me! is one of the darkest—and best—noir films I have ever seen.

Kathleen Ryan Try and Get Me3

When we first meet out-of-work ex-GI Howard Tyler (Lovejoy), he is in Seattle convincing a truck driver to give him a ride back to his California home. His young son Tommy (Donald Smelnick) is sassing his mother Judy (Ryan) when Howard comes through the door and gives his son half-a-dollar so that he can go to a baseball game with his friends. Judy is overjoyed that this extravagance indicates that Howard has found work—but he hasn’t.

Sound-of-Fury-1

One afternoon, after trying and failing to get day work, Howard heads for a bowling alley to get a beer. He ends up talking to Jerry Slocum (Bridges), fetching the conceited bowler’s shoes and following him home when Jerry hints that he knows about a job for Howard. He throws Howard an advance on his pay, and the elated man runs home to treat his family to gifts, groceries, and a good time. He has second thoughts when his job turns out to be getaway driver for stick-up man Jerry.

the sound of fury

After the duo commits a series of robberies, Howard’s discomfort grows unmanageable. Jerry says they will commit the inevitable “one last job” that will set them on Easy Street for good: the kidnap for ransom of a rich man’s son. Snatching Donald Miller (Carl Kent) goes smoothly, but when the three men go to a quarry where Jerry says they will hold Donald, Jerry orders Howard to tie the victim’s legs with a belt and push him down a gravel pile. The kidnappers follow, and Jerry bashes Miller’s head in with a rock. He and Howard dump the body in the water at the bottom of the pit and leave town with Jerry’s girl Velma (Adele Jergens) and Velma’s friend Hazel (Katherine Locke) to provide themselves with an alibi. Eventually, Miller’s body is found, and Hazel, who thinks Howard is single and interested in her, soon learns from the conscience-stricken man that he and Jerry killed Miller and turns them in. Newspaper columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and his profit-minded publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) try the case in the press, and public sentiment turns ugly. Stanton realizes too late that his appeal to emotion has set irrepressible forces into motion that will mean a horrible end for Howard and Jerry.

images

Lovejoy fills Howard with a genuine pathos, portraying a man too desperate to understand what kind of person he has gotten himself mixed up with. Jerry treats him like a lackey from the start, having him fetch his shoes and fasten his cufflinks, bullying him into increasingly reckless crimes. Any confidence and command Howard might have had drained out of him long ago; his son loves him, but runs wild, and his wife’s quiet acceptance of their situation is almost worse for Howard. He feels he is not good enough for them, and his rapid slide into crime seems almost a fatalistic attempt to get out of the way of a better future for his family, a wish he eventually voices explicitly in the last act of the film. Howard has our sympathy, a decent man with a loving but stressed family life, whose own lack of guile brought him a form of mob justice we feel he doesn’t deserve.

soundoffury1

Lloyd Bridges is insanely good as Jerry. A supreme narcissist without the brains to pull off anything as sophisticated as a kidnapping for ransom, his Jerry seems entirely without conscience. Obviously a sociopath, he knows a patsy when he sees one and closes one door after another behind Howard until there is no hope for escape. His partying with Velma, a blonde B-girl whose instinct when at the courthouse where Jerry and Howard are being arraigned is to pose seductively for the photographers, shows that he hasn’t given Donald Miller or Howard, for that matter, a second thought. When the angry mob forms outside the jail where the two men are being held, Jerry moves like a caged animal, pacing rapidly in his small cell, rattling the bars, bashing his head against the cell wall, and whining in a pained panic. His fear gives way to defiance: “Try and get me!” he challenges. Howard’s worried face is almost too painful to watch.

screen_image_434926

Ryan, playing a version of her loyal Kathleen Sullivan from the British noir Odd Man Out (1947), Irish accent and all, is quite affecting in pleading with Stanton not to characterize her husband as a monster. Her understated fear runs as a steady undercurrent throughout the film and economically characterizes the financial hardships and privations so many families felt in postwar America, the unease that defines much of what we call film noir. Katherine Locke has a truly kooky role—the plain friend of the sexpot Velma who lives in a fantasy of finding true love, believing Howard is actually her boyfriend whom she has a right to scold for his drinking. We’d laugh at her in another film, but she has just enough edge of crazy to her to make us hold back. Cliff Clark brings a no-nonsense authority to his supporting part as the town sheriff trying to uphold the law and keep his prisoners safe.

anarchy

What makes Try and Get Me! truly extraordinary is Cy Endfield’s direction, his last major American film before the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s gobbled him up and forced him into exile in England, where he continued to make powerful films such as Hell Drivers (1957) and Zulu (1964). His camera is always on top of the action, as we can practically feel Miller rolling down the hard gravel to his doom and imagine his murder from indistinct movements Howard only hears and interprets with a wretched, horrified face. I have always wondered how a well-guarded jail could be breached by a mob. Now I know. Endfield’s climactic scene builds in intensity as the mob masses and works together like a colony of army ants to overpower the tear-gas-wielding cops with fire hoses and pull open the doors of the jail with gangs of men pulling on ropes in unison to the cries of “heave, heave, heave.” The audience in the Castro Theatre was breathless with horror, watching with compulsive fascination the extraordinary staging of one of the most compelling scenes ever committed to film.

Try & Get Me Bridges

Endfield was radicalized by the Depression of the 1930s, an era that produced Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s version of this true story that accorded more with the zeitgeist of its time. Try and Get Me! appeared just as audiences and critics alike were turning against dissent and discord to achieve the artificial peace of the 1950s. Endfield’s nihilistic vision of group think and the court of public opinion was not destined to find favor in its own time. Looking at the film now, it seems timeless in the brutality of its psychology, making the haves of society as represented by Stanton and his circle seem decadent and profit-driven, and showing how desperation and lack of opportunity can prove a breeding ground for criminality of every type. Blogathoners, you should be very proud to have contributed to bringing this important, brilliantly realized film back to life for future generations to view and ponder.

  • Brian Darr spoke:
    2nd/02/2013 to 11:07 pm

    Great review, Marilyn! It was great meeting you at the festival this year, and I’m so glad your analysis will stand as a record of the screening when it begins to fade from memory. Not that this is likely to happen soon; a uniquely powerful film like this usually sticks in the craw longer than usual. Endfield’s direction set a high bar for the week. One that few other Noir City auteurs came even close to matching. Though there’s still one day to go…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 7:44 am

    Hi Brian, and thanks! Meeting you was fantastic, as was the entire experience of going to Noir City and meeting so many great people, including the fabulous Peggy Cummins. Although I only got a sampling of the festival’s offerings, I’m sure you’re right that this had to have been the feature highlight. I was horrified and exhilirated all at the same time, and immediately went up to Alan Rode after the screening to congratulate him and Eddie on picking a real winner to restore. Not surprisingly, they have superb taste in noir. Enjoy the rest of the fest, and I hope to see you again before too much time has passed.

  • John Raspanti spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 12:27 pm

    Your review captures the film nicely. I was stunned by the power of the movie and felt numb while watching it. I’m very aware of the events that inspired the film. But, the scenes onscreen unfolded like a nightmare. I was almost hoping that the ending would be different….

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 12:37 pm

    John – Thanks. I know how you feel. The film is so painful, really puts you in scene after scene and doesn’t let you escape. Even if I had gotten up and left in the middle, I would have been haunted by the lives Endfield depicted. It’s so real, a heightened reality to be sure, but not by much.

  • Pamela spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 12:38 pm

    Great article (Alan Rode’s FB page brought me here.

    By sheer coincidence, I was reading this earlier today:

    http://tinyurl.com/d2hxp5d

    The heroine of the Life magazine piece ~ Pearl McLain ~ finally did make it to Hollywood…as the infamous Liz Renay.

    P~

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 1:09 pm

    Interesting, Pamela. That’s her in the lead photo, isn’t it?

  • Pamela spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 1:17 pm

    Hi, Marilyn:

    Yes, that’s Liz pre~Hollywood.

    P~

  • Vanwall spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 1:23 pm

    I’m so glad you got to see this film after your hard work on the blogathon, well deserved. Lovejoy was an underrated actor, and I was always fascinated by his ability to portray men under the influence of others, he played that kind of suppressed fear and self-loathing convincingly. This probably Bridges high-point, too. He played much less edgier characters for so long, more people should see this film just for his work. Enfield was the real goods, too, a deep action and process director, but he got some great performances out of his actors, too. Excellent write-up!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/02/2013 to 3:27 pm

    Thanks, Van. I am personally very happy Endfield got a chance to keep working in England. His was a unique vision and voice that thankfully was not silenced by the fascists of HUAC.

  • Ivan spoke:
    15th/02/2013 to 5:06 pm

    Just saw this on Netflix streaming and found much of it brilliantly painful. The voice of conscience—the Italian professor—was probably not necessary, since the plot was sufficient to make the point. This is one of the screen gems of the era.

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