Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir (2000) Arthur Lyons
Da Capo Press
Trade paperback, 224 pages
Some of the best film noir movies are lean, no-nonsense productions that get you in and out usually in under 90 minutes. Death on the Cheap takes a similar approach, giving readers a quick but thorough history of film noir before tackling the rise and fall of B movies.
Lyons debunks many B movie myths: B movies were sloppily made, frantically thrown together, and just plain bad. Not so. B movies were born of the double feature, a concept that is unfortunately no longer with us, at least not in the way it once was. Lyons explores the development of the B picture before delving into what made the B film noir movies so unique. It’s a great story.
All of this – combined with some great movie stills – constitutes the first 60 or so pages of Death on the Cheap. From that point, we’re treated to a wonderful filmography of B noir pictures, summaries of films most people have forgotten about or never heard of at all. Of the 140 films listed, I only recognized about 20 titles and had seen far fewer than that.
Reading some of these summaries, you realize how ridiculous and outrageous (and unintentionally hilarious) some of the plots were. Or in other cases, it’s the description of the plot, rather than the natural reveal of it in real (or cinematic) time, that makes it sound ridiculous. For example, the description of Backlash (1947):
While driving down the highway, attorney Eldredge stops to offer a lift to Fowley, who is really a bank robber. When the car is found crashed and burned, the body in it is identified as Eldredge’s. The police investigation focuses on four suspects – Eldredge’s partner; his wife, Rogers; Travis, who, it turns out, is in love with Rogers; and Fowley. When Eldredge turns up very much alive, it is revealed that he planned the whole thing to get even with all the people he hated. The burned body was that of his caretaker, whom Eldredge killed and put in the car. As Eldredge returns to kill his wife, his plot is foiled by the police.
Sometimes reading the description may be more entertaining than actually watching the movie. As you can see from this example, Lyons does not shy away from spoilers. (Apologies to anyone wanting to watch Backlash unspoiled.) Lyons also uses actor names rather than character names throughout his summaries. (In each entry, Lyons gives the title, year, running time, production crew, and actors.) Lyons also provides a (V) after several films, indicating their availability on video, but since this book was originally published in 2000, this information is extremely out-of-date.
In addition to being entertained by the movie summaries, Lyons also offers readers some fun extras. For instance, the Monogram picture Incident (1948) was directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine, “who earned his nickname by filming virtually every scene in his more than 150 films in one take. It didn’t matter if the corpse moved or somebody answered a phone that didn’t ring; One Shot would print the scene anyway.” Beaudine also directed such classics as Get Off My Foot, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. I’ve gotta check this guy out.
Plus there’s some great behind-the-scenes stories. Consider the off-camera career of actor Sonny Tufts, who “managed to stay in the public eye through a series of bar brawls and peccadillos. In 1954 he was sued for $250,000 by a stripper named Melody Carol who claimed Tufts had disfigured her by taking a bite out of her left thigh. Carol eventually settled out of court for $600…”
The book also includes a list of B noirs by year and studio, as well as a list of film noir resources that no doubt needs updating. In fact, a second updated edition of this book would be a dream come true. Even as it stands now, Death on the Cheap is an essential book for all film noir lovers.