Black Tuesday (1954)
Directed by Hugo Fregonese
Produced by Robert Goldstein
Written by Sydney Boehm
Cinematography by Stanley Cortez
Editing by Robert Golden
Music by Paul Dunlap
Black Tuesday has to be one of the angriest, grittiest, most unflinching movies in all of film noir, due in large part to Edward G. Robinson’s stellar performance as Vincent Canelli, a ruthless and utterly terrifying gangster.
As the film opens, Canelli is trapped behind bars, awaiting Black Tuesday, the day death-row inmates are scheduled for the electric chair. Canelli paces like an animal, daring anyone to get close enough to his cell (which one guard does, to his regret). Yet Canelli won’t take this walk to the chair alone; also scheduled to fry is Peter Manning (Peter Graves, below left), a man who killed a cop and made off with $200,000. Manning is nowhere near the criminal Canelli is, but Manning has some prime bargaining power: the warden is willing to grant him ten more days of life if he’ll cough up the dough. Manning refuses, unwilling to turn the money over for anything less than a commutation of his death sentence.
Meanwhile, Canelli’s girl Hatti (Jean Parker, below middle) and Joey Stewart (Warren Stevens), his man on the outside, kidnap the daughter of one of the prison guards in order to secure the guard’s help in Canelli’s escape. Of course the set-up is absolutely implausible, but at this point, who cares? Director Fregonese sustains the tension at a fever-pitch and you simply can’t take your eyes off Robinson. Even when Canelli takes far too many hostages for the thing to be believable – a priest, the death chamber M.D., a reporter, and the daughter of a prison guard – we’re riveted with suspense rather than bursting with laughter.
I’m not sure anyone knew how good Black Tuesday was when it was released on New Year’s Eve 1954. I’m not even sure how many people saw it, but if they did, how did they take it? The execution has the feel of a sporting event with a gallery of chairs set up with men jockeying for the best seats. The warden even goes thorough the rules like we’re about to witness a heavyweight fight rather than the end of a man’s life. You might as well call it Tuesday Night Executions. Although I’m sure the film was not primarily intended as a statement on the death penalty, that issue is certainly there.
I’m also not sure how large (or small) the budget was; I can’t find any information on that, but Stanley Cortez was certainly an A-list cinematographer (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter, The Three Faces of Eve, and an uncredited Chinatown) and Sydney Boehm had just come off writing the screenplay for The Big Heat one year earlier. Edward G. Robinson, of course, was a major star, but was fighting his way back from having his life practically torn apart. (For more on Robinson’s downfall and rise back to greatness, see this excellent post at Where Danger Lives.) The film also features a small part for Russell Johnson and an uncredited appearance by William Schallert. Yet for all this, it’s clearly a B picture and a fine one.
One of the most amazing relationships in the film is that between Canelli and a priest, Father Slocum (Milburn Stone, who would one year later begin the role he’d be remembered for most, Doc in the TV series Gunsmoke). Early in the film, Canelli rebuffs Father Slocom’s offer to administer last rites or anything else having to do with the faith. Throughout, Father Slocum shows no fear in Canelli’s presence.
Canelli: “You’re as tough to figure out as some of these gadgets.” (Canelli is playing with electronic children’s toys)
Slocum: “I’m protected. The only kind of protection worthwhile.”
Canelli: “You’re not scared to die?”
Slocum: “No, Vincent, I’m not.”
Nodding at the gun Canelli’s holding, the priest says, “That’s your kind of courage.”
There’s a tremendous scene late in the film between Canelli and the priest. I’m not going to tell you what brings it about or how it ends, but this one moment in the film is quietly spectacular. In it we learn that perhaps it’s possible to get underneath the rough exterior of Canelli, that maybe the gangster realizes that Slocum has something that Canelli doesn’t have, grace and forgiveness, something that just possibly could be his also. This is a short scene, yet one that’s filled with depth and a theological awareness that would’ve seemed trite and overplayed in most films, yet Robinson plays it as if we’re working through this thing called grace that seems too good to be true, yes, but what if it is real? What if this priest is onto something? In the midst of a film that’s clearly a survival-of-the-fittest, this moment of grace is a real shock to the system.
The last fifteen minutes are ablaze with tension, anxiety, action, and the hard-edged consequences of a life of crime. One of the most amazing moments occurs when the police inspector – clearly exhausted by trying to end the standoff with the minimum of lost lives – admits, “I want you to know how it is with me, Father. God forgive me, but I can’t help any of you.”
As far as I can tell, Black Tuesday is unavailable on any legitimate DVD or Blu-ray format. The only place I know to see it is on TCM, at a film festival, or at Rarefilmm, which is absolutely free, but feel free to contribute to help continue the site. (All screenshots are taken from there, so you can see the quality of the video, which was probably recorded from cable TV.) Who knows when it might come around again? If you’re a film noir fan, you won’t want to miss it.