Friday 29 March 2013

Movie Review: Whistle Stop (1946)

A faltering film noir of sorts, Whistle Stop stretches to reach some appealing dark and seedy ingredients but does not quite achieve the right mix.

After two years in Chicago, Mary (Ava Gardner) returns to her humble small hometown of Ashbury located by the rail tracks. Two men immediately vie for her attention: Kenny (George Raft) is an ex-lover, an altogether unimpressive and unemployed loser who spends most of his time playing cards. Lew (Tom Conway) is Kenny's rival and a successful businessman who runs the local hotel and bar. Gitlo (Victor McLaglen) is the popular bartender who works for Lew but is good friends with Kenny.

With Mary attracted both to Kenny's genuineness and Lew's riches, Gitlo tries to get Kenny involved in a plot to get Lew out of the way and steal some of his money, using the annual town fair as cover. But Lew has dark plans of his own to disrupt any chance that Kenny has to find happiness with Mary.

Whistle Stop suffers from the absence of any sympathetic characters to ground the turgid drama. Mary is the catalyst but she is unfortunately sidelined for the second half of the movie as the men engage in a distasteful battle of wills to assert dominance. While Kenny is supposed to be the anti-hero worth cheering for, his character seems quite beneath Mary, while Lew is boorishly unlikable. Mary seems best off with neither of them, and yet the film hinges on the battle for her affection between two unworthy men. When Kenny and Lew start plotting against each other, the only conclusion is that they both deserve to lose.

Russian - French director LĂ©onide Moguy never quite made it in Hollywood, but here he does create some limited ambience in a rather depressing small town where evil thoughts can find the desperation to grow. Ava Gardner's presence and performance are several notches above the material, although she suffers from dubious character motivations. Why Mary left Chicago is never explained, and what she could possibly see in a loser like Kenny is even more difficult to fathom. George Raft, Tom Conway and Victor McLaglen do what they can, but the shallow script constrains all the performances.

The soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin adds some much needed class to the film, but Whistle Stop is simply drowned out by roaring indifference.

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