The U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Committee created a sensation with its long series of television hearings investigating organized crime, triggering a wave of noirs on the topic. The Turning Point belongs to this wave and even incorporates television into its plotline, as hard-nosed crusader John Conroy (Edmond O’Brien) is appointed to investigate crime and corruption in an unnamed city dotted with Los Angeles landmarks. He’s introduced making statements to the cynical newshounds as the camera sweeps majestically over the heads of the moving crowd.
Conroy is assisted by his high-society girlfriend, Amanda Waycross (Alexis Smith), presumably because chic unqualified persons always participate in such official endeavors. Conroy also drafts his reluctant father, old-time flatfoot Matt Conroy (Tom Tully). We shouldn’t think too hard about a committee investigating corruption where the chief appoints his relatives and girlfriends, or this story can’t take off. In Hollywood melodrama, abstract ideas are always dramatized through personal connections.
Another personal connection is Conroy’s boyhood chum Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), one of the cynical newshounds. He makes speeches about Conroy as a naïve golden boy getting set up as a sacrificial lamb in a pointless charade. Meanwhile, Jerry’s prickly vibe with Amanda begins taking on heat to symbolize how Jerry’s hardboiled nature is softening as he’s the one who starts putting himself on the line for the greater good. The Turning Point‘s script is as much about his convincingly acted and written transition as it is about gang busting.
The gang is run by dumpy, dapper Eichelberger (Ed Begley), who runs things like a CEO and shows himself to be increasingly ruthless, underlining the implication that “crime” and “business” are both about the circulation of money. In his commentary, film historian Alan K. Rode explains that Eichelberger is so clearly modeled on real-life mafia manager Frank Costello that the television sequence emphasizes his nervous hand gestures. The real-life broadcasts had focused on Costello’s hands, and Dieterle’s set-ups place Begley’s hands in the foreground.
Seen among Eichelberger’s bad guys are busy character players Ted de Corsia, Danny Dayton, Russell Johnson, Don Porter, and Neville Brand, while other roles in the large supporting cast are played by Ray Teal, Howard Freeman, Carolyn Jones, Adele Longmire, Soledad Jimenez, Gretchen Hale, and the eternal Whit Bissell. Just watching all these people on screen is one of the pleasures of watching The Turning Point.
A different trend in The Turning Point is the shift toward documentary realism encouraged by location shooting and the examples of Italian Neorealism. That’s why another pleasure of this film is observing all the streets and landmarks. Most notable is the Angels Flight funicular railway, which appeared in more noirs than you can shake a stick at. Rode points out every location, especially around the now-vanished Bunker Hill neighborhood; he notes his invaluable source in Jim Dawson’s Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill (2012).
The sense of realism is augmented by another early ’50s trend that led to a spate of films without background music. The Turning Point is among these. Although stock music is heard over the credits, the entire story is presented only with natural background sounds. This choice adds to the tension and credibility of the proceedings. There’s even one scene where somebody on the phone asks about music in the background; he’s told they’re old records, and then they’re shut off. The scoreless ambiance is something Hollywood discovered every 20 years: first in the very early talkies, then the early ’50s, then again in the early ’70s, and each era has its striking flavor.
Rode discusses that in addition to credited writer Warren Duff, The Turning Point had four previous writers adapting a story by hardboiled maven Horace McCoy: John Bright, Sydney Boehm, W.R. Burnett, and Richard Breen. All are noir notables, with Burnett especially important as a master of gangster noir. He’s the source of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of the decade’s first films to dispense with music except at the beginning and end.
Dieterle and cinematographer Lionel Lindon (later an Oscar-winner) stage The Turning Point with intelligence, bustle, and zing, often with pans and high or low-angle shots. Abetting the tension and suspense is the work of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic editor George Tomasini, especially in the three major scenes of violence; he was still ten years away from the shower scene in Psycho (1960). Rode points out that certain violent elements in The Turning Point violated Hollywood’s Production Code, but they’re here anyway.
German émigré Dieterle was one of Hollywood’s most reliable and prolific stylists, excellent with actors and atmosphere. He’s never quite gotten his due, perhaps because instead of flourishing a strong “personality”, he submerges himself in every kind of genre and mode, from the lushest and extravagant to the most modest and efficient. In The American Cinema (Dutton, 1968), film critic Andrew Sarris has the gall to list him under Miscellany, though he allows “Dieterle was around on the set when many interesting things happened over the years, and it is reasonable to assume that he had something to do with them.”
Such protean mastery should be a point in Dieterle’s favor rather than a mark against him. Seeing this consummately made Paramount production remastered from a 4K scan only underlines how Dieterle’s films have remained smart and watchable.