Tom Conway, Ann Rutherford

‘Two O’Clock Courage’ Is Only a Quarter to Noir

This is a solid minor crime lark that tips its fedora to basic noir tropes.

A man’s silhouette walks unsteadily away from the camera, which follows slowly behind him as he approaches the signpost of an intersection at night. The shadowy man leans against the post because he’s hurt, bleeding from a head wound. He’s nearly struck by a cab, whose spunky little female driver jumps out to give him a tongue-lashing until she realizes he’s injured and doesn’t remember his name or anything else. “It’s am-something,” she says, and she’ll spend the rest of the night helping him retrace his steps to find out if he’s guilty of the murder that’s just occurred near that location.

This description resembles the set-up of many noir films, especially those inspired by the works of Cornell Woolrich, such as Street of Chance (1942) and Deadline at Dawn (1946). However, Two O’Clock Courage is based on a story by Gelett Burgess, a very different type of author famous for children’s books and nonsense verse like “The Purple Cow”, and despite its initial noir trappings, this quick B picture turns out to be one of the many light-hearted throwaway mysteries common to the era.

The fact that Burgess wrote a 1934 mystery novel with an amnesia element unwittingly makes this humorist an influence on the whole amnesia subgenre of what would be called noir fiction. In fact, Benjamin Stoloff had directed a 1936 film version for RKO called Two in the Dark starring Walter Abel and Margot Grahame. The same Stoloff now produced this 1945 remake at the dawn of the film noir era, and it would be interesting to compare the two films.

Tom Conway, famous as George Sanders’ younger brother who took over the Falcon series of mostly larkish crime movies, plays the hero who doesn’t recall his name. Ann Rutherford overplays the sprightly woman cabbie bit, a type of character not uncommon in movies of the cultural moment when “the boys” were still coming back from overseas. They spend the plot running around and trading wisecracks in an increasingly unlikely investigation with a surprisingly accommodating homicide detective (Emory Parnell) and annoying comic-relief reporter (Richard Lane).

The suspects include two high-class dolls played by Jean Brooks, who’d been in several Falcon outings, and Jane Greer, billed as Bettejane Greer in her first credited film two years before her iconic femme fatale in 1947’s Out of the Past. To noir fans, the promise of her presence is as exciting as the fact that this picture was directed by Anthony Mann, and that evocative opening shot almost looks as good as some of the visual ideas he later fabricated with photographer John Alton, but the cameraman here is Jack Mackenzie. Outside of that opening shot, the picture doesn’t take real advantage of the fact that all the action occurs at night.

Just as the rest of the film’s style will prove less exciting than we’d hope, so the screenplay by Robert E. Kent, with additional dialogue (probably sprucing up the alleged witticisms) by Gordon Kahn, turns out to be a routine whodunit. That’s good enough for Warner Archive to release it on demand under its Film Noir banner, but noir fans should be warned that this entertaining time-passer isn’t a lost classic of the genre. It’s merely a solid minor crime lark of the good-natured school that tips its fedora in the direction of certain ideas and icons to be better developed in the more serious noirs. If you know what you’re getting, you’ll not be disappointed.

RATING 5 / 10