While the plot of Anthony Mann’s Railroaded! may seem rather conventional at first blush, there is some reasonable psychological depth in this 1947 film noir. Based on a screenplay by John C. Higgins from a Gertrude Walker story, this picture is often overlooked because it doesn’t feature the cinematography of John Alton and doesn’t rock a gangbusters cast.
But there is a lot to like about Railroaded! and Mann accomplishes a lot with a little. This is Poverty Row stuff, with a reported budget of about a half million bucks. It was released by Producers Releasing Company with Guy Roe serving as the cinematographer. He captures the cynical shadows and cruel corridors of Mann’s universe and transforms Higgins’ script into something tangibly miserable.
The picture opens on Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph), the wiseacre beautician who just so happens to double as a bookie. She’s running a joint out of her New York shop and one night she sets up an inside job and has the money stolen. The robbery goes haywire, however, when a police officer is shot and one of the robbers is injured.
Detective Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont) is on the case. He follows the evidence to Rosie (Sheila Ryan), who he barely recognizes now that she’s all grown up, and her brother Steve (Ed Kelly). See, Clara’s boyfriend Duke (John Ireland) made good and sure that Steve would go down for the crime he didn’t commit. And when Rosie vows to defend her brother at all costs, she doesn’t know where to turn.
Railroaded! follows the basic thread of a police procedural with a few dips into the darker side of the pool. It showcases how things operate on both sides of the law, how innocent people can get caught up in crime just because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ferguson’s job is to follow the evidence where it leads and he makes that perfectly clear to Rosie, but she has some issues with authority. When we meet her, she’s discussing a movie she just saw about how the police got their man. She doesn’t have an affinity for the boys in blue and the situation with her brother only underlines her distrust.
Ryan’s portrayal is an interesting one because she details the “goodness” of her character. She’s kind to her mother and she plays things like a decent young woman, even as she tiptoes right up to Duke and plays in the shadows. A critical scene occurs when she’s caught between the bad guy and the good guy. Her expression suggests she’s enjoying the encounter on a more carnal level.
The sexual lure of corruption is delineated in the relationship between Clara and Duke. Despite her tough-talking exterior, Randolph’s character spends the bulk of the picture running scared. Duke is out for revenge and wants to pull off another score, but his dame is barely holding it together. She turns to drink and weeps nonstop, crime undoubtedly wearing away her sensibilities.
Beaumont and Ireland make for a sharp contrast. While some have disparaged the former for what is ostensibly a wooden performance, there’s something to his by-the-book approach that keeps Ireland all the more ominous. Beaumont works well on the bureaucratic end of things and his economical slant keeps the police work nice and clinical.
Railroaded! is a cynical film and its mistrust of the process is only slightly undone by its too-snug conclusion. There’s still a lot to appreciate about Mann’s rendering of the elements and Roe’s understated lensing is compelling. And while it may not reach the same noir heights as Raw Deal or Mann’s other more well-known pieces, there are still more than a few bleak rewards in this clever movie.