When queried on the whys and wherefores of film noir, the late Arthur Lyons, founder and patron saint of the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, would say, “It’s all about the story”. In the introduction to his wonderfully necessary book, Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, Lyons laid it out:
“In the noir world, all characters are motivated by obsession – by money or lust – or suffer from alienation or loneliness. Their choices are inexorably ruled by their own flaws and compulsions and by events in the world around them, ensuring their own destruction.”
Fully alive among these characters and their ill-fated existences was Hollywood writer Don Martin. His urgent, plot-spinning novels, stories, and screenplays anchored a long list of often-better-than-they-deserved-to-be classic B noirs put out by low-rent studios such as Screen Art Pictures, Equity Studios, and Producers Releasing Corporation.
Born in Philadelphia in 1911, Martin me to Hollywood in the ‘40’s with a reputation as published poet, playwright, novelist, and newspaper journalist. He started in as a writer for the Hollywood Reporter and then as a public relations flack for various studios including United Artists and MGM. He took a first swing at screenplays after being asked to help out with the adaptation of one of his own stories. Shortly after, he joined the starting lineup.
Few of the films and television shows for which Martin received a writing credit have been released commercially on video or screened on TV in recent years – though some have had festival screenings and virtually can be found somewhere in the videosphere. His is not likely the first name to come to mind in connection with classic B noirs even if he did write films such as The Pretender (1947) or Shakedown (1950). Though film noir may be “all about the story”, appreciation doesn’t always go as far as to recognize the person who wrote and/or adapted it for the screen.
This is particularly the case with B releases where poverty row production values, uninspired direction, or humdrum performances can take a toll on even the best-written scripts. Fortunately, the inventiveness, pulp conviction, and sheer stamina of Martin’s storytelling ensure that nearly all of the films below grab the viewer’s attention and doesn’t let go. For better or worse, Don Martin can be a very fatal attraction.
LIGHTHOUSE (1947) Dir: Frank Wisbar
Cannery girl, Connie (June Lang) strikes back at her feckless, two-timing lover, Sam (Don Castle) by marrying his boss, lighthouse keeper Hank (John Litel) in a storm surge of jealous anger. Two’s company and three’s a recipe for revenge served hot on the isolated lookout station off the coast of Northern California.
Martin keeps the plot whirling like a top as emotions run high and motives remain murky. Does Connie still have a thing for Sam? How far will Sam go to find out? How much does the overly-trusting Hank really know about Connie’s questionable past and her relationship with Sam? Lighthouse is no more than mid-weight melodrama but arguably more noir than Clifford Odet’s tortuous Clash by Night (1952) to which it could be compared – if one were out looking for an argument.
THE HAT BOX MYSTERY (1947) Dir: Lambert Hillyer
Susan Hart (Pamela Blake), assistant to private detective Russ Ashton (Tom Neal at his seediest) is given a camera concealed in a hat box and instructed by a mysterious client, John Moreland (Leonard Penn), to take a photo of a woman leaving an apartment. However, the camera turns out to be a gun and the woman in question is shot dead. Susan is charged with murder but ‘facts’ of the shooting don’t tally and Russ sets out to prove that she and the agency have been set up.
The Hat Box Mystery was intended as the first of a series of short, forty minute dark thrillers. Unfortunately, Martin’s imaginative, quirky script is rendered flatfooted by a static camera, stagebound sets, flat lighting and stagey performances – except for that of Leonard Penn whose facade of somber respectability can’t disguise the thick-earred thug beneath.
THE PRETENDER (1947) Dir: W. Lee Wilder
Kenneth Holden (Albert Dekker) is a middle-aged investment advisor who’s been helping himself to the estate of Claire Worthington (Catherine Craig), a younger and very attractive client. After plundering of one of her accounts, he decides to propose marriage to Claire. When she reveals that she’s engaged to someone else, Holden hires a hitman to kill the dearly beloved. Then Claire suddenly breaks offs the engagement to accept Holden’s proposal and through circumstances and the vagaries of fate, he can’t cancel the hit. Holden, now the official husband-to-be, is left caught in the crosshairs of his own contract for murder.
Fraught and chilling, The Pretender features a bravura performance from Albert Dekker, the shimmering cinematography of John Alton and Martin’s high-pitched re-working of the Jules Verne story, Tribulations of a Chinaman in China. W. Lee Wilder (The Glass Alibi, 1946; The Vicious Circle, 1948; Once a Thief, 1950) showed again that, if handed a decent script, he was perfectly capable of crafting a better-than-decent movie on a next-to-nothing budget.
SHED NO TEARS (1948) Dir: Jean Yarbrough
Used-car salesman, Sam Grover (Wallace Ford) and his fatally glamorous wife, Edna (June Vincent, Black Angel, 1946) fake Sam’s death in a Los Angeles hotel fire in order to collect on a fifty thousand dollar insurance policy. Afterwards, he hides out while Edna waits for the payout. Meanwhile, Edna’s intending to burn Sam one more time by taking off with both the money and her flashy boyfriend, Ray Beldon (Mark Roberts). Sam’s son, Tom (Dick Hogan), thinking there’s something hinky about his father’s death, hires Huntington Stewart (Johnstone White), a private detective to investigate. It doesn’t take long for Stewart to figure out that the whole thing’s a con – and how to best cut himself in on the deal.
Though the screenwriting credit went to others, Martin earlier had penned the hard-boiled novel (later published in paperback as Blonde Menace) on which the film is based. A twisted tale of fraud, betrayal, and murder, Shed No Tears begs one to keep watching in order to see which of these reckless schemers is prepared to go the furthest to get what they want.
DEVIL’S CARGO (1948) Dir: John F. Link
Devil’s Cargo was the 14th title in the Falcon series and the first of three films to star John Calvert, a charismatic professional magician and part-time actor. The Falcon, now Michael Waring (though in the credits it’s Watling due to rights issues) is visited by Ramon Delgado (Paul Marion) who confesses that he’s killed a man involved with his wife. He wants Waring to come with him to the police station and also to look after a key, which all sounds straightforward enough. However, after a thief lifts the key off Waring and Delgado dies in prison under suspicious circumstances, Waring if left wondering if he’s next in line.
This cheapie mystery/ detective picture falls short of its potential, given Martin’s hard-working screenplay. That said, this later post-war Falcon is intriguing for how it departs from the earlier films. Calvert’s oily panache is more George Hamilton than George Sanders (or sibling surrogate Tom Conway) but the film’s meaner characterizations and Martin’s unpredictable plot ultimately nudge it toward a far darker place.
APPOINTMENT WITH MURDER (1948) Dir: Jack Bernhard
Watling has been hired by an insurance company that’s paid out on the theft and disappearance of two Renaissance paintings. However, the owner and policy holder wants them back and is willing to reimburse the payout if the artworks can be recovered. But there are others who want them, those who may or may not have them, others who believe they were fakes to start with, and still others who end up dead.
In this one, Martin’s ability to tender complicated plotlines that don’t end up chasing their own tails is front-and-center. Though Martin makes some daredevil bets with his storylines, they nearly always pay off and Appointment with Murder comes through big enough.
SEARCH FOR DANGER (1949) Dir: Jack Bernhard
Watling has been hired by club owners, Kirk (Albert Dekker) and Gregory (Ben Weldon) to trace their missing business partner Larry Andrews who’s embezzled $100,000 from the club. He follows Andrews to a cheap hotel in Santa Monica and lets his clients know where their runaway associate can be found. When they brace Andrews, he tells them that Watling has the money. Watling knows nothing about it and when he returns to the motel, he finds Andrews dead. Watling now realizes he’s been set up. The question is why, and by whom?
Martin’s screenplay for Search for Danger is the best of the three Falcon titles featuring Calvert. It’s mind-bendingly complex but every twist and turn comes with its own reward and the ending is a genuine surprise. The series had begun to hit its stride, with Martin as producer and Jack Bernhard (Decoy, 1946; Violence, 1947) in the director’s chair for the second time. Unfortunately, Search for Danger was to be Falcon’s last case.
DESTINATION MURDER (1950) Dir: Edward L. Cahn
Co-ed Laura Mansfield (Joyce MacKenzie) sees her father gunned down at the front door by someone in a messenger-boy uniform. She picks ferret-faced Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements, ex-Mr. Gloria Grahame) out of a police line-up, and while she suspects he’s the killer, can’t give a positive identification. Laura, who’s unknown to Jackie, tracks him down and sweet-talks him into revealing his connections: nightclub owner, Armitage (Albert Dekker), and club manager, Stretch Norton (Hurd Hatfield). She then gets herself hired on at the club, to the annoyance of Alice Wentworth (Myrna Dell) who sees her as a rival for the boss’s affection. Nothing is as it seems and Laura begins to understand she’s not in Kansas anymore.
Produced by RKO Studios, the crime thriller was a step up the studio ladder for Martin and he made good with his offbeat and clever original script. Like notorious B noirs such as Night Editor (1946) or The Big Combo (1955), the film dared the censors to get past looking to seeing, something they sometimes failed to do in their basic disregard for the films. Thus we have the sadistic Armitage, who refers to himself only in the third person and who revels in violence while Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ plays at full volume on the pianola; and the felt homoerotic relationship between Armitage and Norton which is revealed as something more when Norton proclaims, “Haven't you heard? I don't like women!” Martin’s story fuses culture, deviance, and brutality in an exhilarating outré B noir style. And while it doesn’t rate with the best of the B’s, Destination Murder does rank among the better.
SHAKEDOWN (1950) Dir: Joseph Pevney
Shutterbug Jack Early (Howard Duff) is desperate to make it big. He’s just fine with watching a man drown or urging a woman to jump from a burning building if it means getting the photos that will land him a job with a major daily. Jack also see advantage in cozying up to local mobsters Nick Palmer (Brian Donlevy) and Harry Colton (Lawrence Tierney) to set one against the other. He blackmails Colton while secretly romancing both Palmer’s wife, Nita (Ann Vernon) along with Ellen Bennett (Peggy Dow), the newspaper’s comely photo editor. Early’s false ambitions leave him with friends turning their backs on him and enemies looking to kill him.
Shakedown (working title: The Magnificent Heel) gave Martin the opportunity for involvement with a major studio (Universal) and a better director, Joe Pevney. The film also aimed to deliver a much bigger emotional punch with the greater emphasis on its main character, one of the most unscrupulous and unsympathetic protagonists in film noir: a self-serving, self-pitying homme fatal unable to be anything but what he is. Martin Goldsmith (Detour, 1945; The Narrow Margin, 1952) wrote the final draft which ended up on the screen as one of the post-war’s period’s most unflinching noirs and the perfect bookend B-title to Billy Wilder’s coruscating Ace in the Hole (1951).
THE DEADLIEST SIN aka CONFESSION (1955) Dir: Ken Hughes
Mike Nelson (Sidney Chaplin) returns home to the UK from America with a suitcase full of stolen cash. Then his partner, Corey (Patrick Allen), turns up, wanting his share but is killed accidently by Mike’s friend, Alan Pool (Peter Hammond). Tormented by grief, Alan goes to his priest to confess the crime. But Mike, afraid that Alan knows too much, shoots him as he sits the confessional. Scotland Yard investigates and soon enough Mike at the center of the overseas robbery and the killings, though the evidence is circumstantial. Mike doesn't know this, however. The police set a trap, figuring Mike will try ot kill the priest if he’s convincing the Church will allow the clergyman to testify.
The Deadliest Sin aka Confession was the collaboration between Martin (on whose theatrical play the film was based) and British director Ken Hughes (Wicked as They Come, 1956, The Long Haul, 1957). Produced by the UK’s Merton Park Studios, the film’s reach exceeds its no-budget grasp thanks to Hughes’ atmospheric direction, a stellar British cast, and the challenging moral provocations of Martin’s carefully calculated screenplay.
DOUBLE JEOPARDY (1955) Dir: R. G. Springsteen
Property developer Emmett Devery (John Litel) is being blackmailed by a former business partner, Sam Baggott (Robert Armstrong) and his gold-digging wife, Marge (Gail Robbins). Meantime, Marge is planning something more with her car salesman lover, Jeff Calder (Jack Kelly). It all goes wrong and Devery ends up framed for murder. Devery’s lawyer and son-in-law-to-be, Marc Hill (Rod Cameron) and Devery’s daughter, Barbara (Allison Hayes) work to clear Devery. But with the police treating it as an open-and-shut case, where do they start?
A late-period title from Republic Studios, Double Jeopardy is the kind of fast-pulsed thriller beloved by film noir fans. It was this kind of story – compact, unpretentious, unpredictable – that Don Martin seemed most eager and well-equipped to tell. While director Springsteen doesn’t provide much visually to get excited about, Martin’s enterprising screenplay and performances by veteran players Tom Powers, Minerva Urecal, John Gallaudet, and Dick Elliot – all of whom appear to be relishing their roles – deserve to get Double Jeopardy taken off lists of ‘overlooked’ noirs.
NO MAN’S WOMAN (1955) Dir: Franklin Adreon
Carolyn Ellenson-Grant (Marie Windsor), a willful, self-obsessed art dealer has any number of people around her who would happily see her dead: her estranged husband, Harlow Grant (John Archer); Louise, the woman he wants to marry (Nancy Gates); Harlow’s father (Douglas Wood); her gallery assistant, Betty Jill Jarmyn; Betty’s boyfriend, Dick Sawyer (Richard Crane); and art critic, Wayne Vincent (Patrick Knowles). All fall under suspicion after she’s murdered, with her husband the prime suspect. Grant sets out to clear his name because it doesn’t look like the cops are going to make much of an effort to do it for him. But what of the others?
As she did in most of her films, like The Narrow Margin (1952) and The Killing (1956), Marie Windsor plays her part to the hilt and with Carolyn gone by mid-point, No Man’s Woman loses much of its propulsion. We know someone killed her but we don’t really much care ‘whodunit’. It’s a shame (and a surprise) how soon the air goes out of the balloon here. Martin, who wrote the story, most often would torque the suspense right ‘til the end. Unfortunately, things can happen betwixt and between as movies go through the agonies of birth. No Man’s Woman at least has Marie Windsor and lots of luminously bitchy dialog, both of which make the film worth watching.
THE MAN IS ARMED (1956) Dir: Franklin Adreon
Johnny Morrison (Dane Clark) is released from San Quentin after having taken the fall for his boss, Hackett (William Talman). Johnny wants to go straight but Hackett wants him in on a half-million dollar armored car heist. Meanwhile, detective Dan Coster (Barton MacLane) has Johnny pegged for the death of a fellow truck driver who went off the top of a building the day after Johnny’s release. Truth be told, Johnny’s never had a break in his life and nothing is going to change. His fate is never really in doubt, even though his girl, Carol Wayne (May Wynn) desperately clings to hope. However, Carol’s wishful “love is all you need” won’t come close to saving him.
With The Man is Armed, Martin is back on form. The story, though dire, is wound tight until the last frame, even though Johnny Morrison is doomed from the first. The part was an ideal one for Dane Clark, a brooding, ill-at-ease actor who often played characters not as tough as they wanted or needed to be. William Talman is almost as terrifying as he was in The Hitchhiker (1953), which really is all you need to know.
HOT CARS (1956) Dir: Don McDougall
Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) is a used car salesman who’s fired for giving customers the straight goods. He then ends up working for a rival dealer that’s a front for moving stolen cars. Nick plays along because he needs the money to pay for surgery for his infant son. Helping to Nick in line is racket boss Arthur Markle’s (Ralph Clanton) curvaceous blonde girlfriend, Karen Winter (Joi Lansing). When a nosy cop (Dabs Greer) gets too close to the action, Markle kills him, then frames Nick for the murder.
Don Martin’s screenplay for Hot Cars was more than good enough to anchor a bigger budget production with a marquee cast. As it is, the movie is a hugely entertaining crime drama and noir morality tale with Bromfield and Lansing giving starring performances. Lansing was a better actress than she ever had a chance to show and this part is as good for her as she is for it. Plenty of period Los Angeles locations and a heart-pounding finale hoists Hot Cars up with some of the better of the later period noirs.
VIOLENT ROAD (1958) Dir: Howard W. Koch
Mitch Barton (Brian Keith) leads out a truck convoy racing against time to deliver a load of explosive rocket fuel to a new plant after the old facility is mothballed. Avoiding population centers, the convoy must navigate dangerous desert terrain and treacherous mountain roads. Barton’s toughest job is working to keep his crew in line - a bunch of desperate last-chancers, most of whom are their own worst enemy. Barton couldn’t care less about any of them. He only wants the big payout of which he’ll end up earning every cent.
Violent Road is no The Wages of Fear (1953) but then Don Martin never aspired to be Georges Arnaud and Howard W. Koch was no Henri-George Clouzot. Violent Road is a gripping B-actioner from Warner Brothers with a workhorse supporting cast that includes Dick Foran , Arthur Batanides, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Perry Lopez. Also onboard is Ann Doran as Sarge’s suffering wife and Merry Anders, a not-so-dumb blonde whom Mitch picks up one night, no strings attached. Which is just as well. Mitch is a man’s man who likes to pitch lines like, “I knew a woman once.” and, “I’m not allergic to a buck.” before heading on his way.
After Violent Road, Martin, like many Hollywood writers of the period, took his talents to television, which he’d started into in the early ’50s on a part-time basis. Later he’d contribute teleplays to anthologies like Schlitz Playhouse, Lux Video Theater, and Celebrity Playhouse, the productions starring noir favorites such as Edmond O’Brien, Kent Smith, Arthur Franz, Alexis Smith, Scott Brady, Angela Lansbury, and Howard Duff.
In 1957, Martin was hired to write for the TV series Official Detective, based on the true crime magazine of the same title (as well as a radio program which ran from 1950 to 1956). The show, riding on the coattails of popular police shows such as Dragnet and M Squad, was hosted by Everett Sloane as the “Official Detective Investigator.” Of available episodes to be seen , several contain Martin’s signature tangled plotlines, notably Hostages, an episode starring Robert Blake as one of a trio of escaped convicts who hold two teenage sisters hostage in a derelict house in downtown Los Angeles. Other Martin-scripted episodes feature an array of noir-stained supporting veterans, including Ted de Corsia, Dabbs Greer, Wayne Morris, John Doucette, and Mike Mazurki, and young gun Mike Connors.
After Official Detective, Martin shifted his attention to Western series, including U.S. Marshal (1958 – 1960) with John Bromfield, The Texan (1958 – 1960) featuring Rory Calhoun, and Bronco (1958 – 1962) starring Ty Hardin. Typically, Martin had come well prepared having earlier written several well-received Westerns: Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback (1955) with Joel McCrea, Quincannon, Frontier Scout (1956) starring Tony Martin, The Brass Legend (1956) headlining Hugh O’Brian, and The Storm Rider (1957) with Scott Brady.
Martin was nothing if not versatile, and ranks among the most productive and reliable writers ever to toil in the take-no-prisoners world of Hollywood B-movie and television production. No matter what the genre or the medium, he would forever stay faithful to “the story.” He passed away in Woodland Hills, California, in 1985, at the age of 74.
(A version of this article appeared in Noir City magazine, No. 21, 2017)