August 6, 2013
Second-tier actor Mark Stevens directed two first-rate film noirs in the 1950s, Cry Vengeance (1954) and Timetable (1956). Made when his acting career was in decline, these are self-lacerating works in which Stevens casts himself as a physically and morally disfigured criminal, as if doing penance for his Hollywood failures. In both films America is a prison his characters are desperate to escape, a repository of the fearful past. The destinations of his flight take on symbolic weight, from the vertiginous heights of Ketchikan, Alaska in Cry Vengeance (shot on location), to the neon claustrophobia of the studio Tijuana in Timetable. Stevens, a former handsome romantic lead, plays his obsessives with bitter quietude, his delivery a strangled monotone, as if he is devouring his own charisma. These are strikingly melancholy works made in near anonymity for Allied Artists (formerly known as Poverty Row studio Monogram), and thanks to Olive Films Cry Vengeance is now available in an appropriately funereal B&W Blu-ray. Timetable is in public domain hell, and is viewable in various samizdat versions on YouTube.
Born Richard William Stevens in Cleveland, his name was changed to Stephen Richards as a contract player for Warner Brothers. Most able-bodied men were enlisted to fight in WWII, but Stevens had long-time back problems that exempted him, stemming from a diving accident that incapacitated him for months as a teen. It bothered him all his life, lending his motions a stuttered, tortured quality appropriate to noir heroes. He gained his modicum of fame after he jumped to 20th Century Fox. It was there that Daryl Zanuck dubbed him “Mark Stevens”, and his short-lived career as a leading man began, from Henry Hathaway’s noir The Dark Corner (1946) to the Oscar-nominated melodrama The Snake Pit (1948). They also tried him in light musicals (Oh You Beautiful Doll (’49)), but they released him from his contract in 1950. Hathaway blamed The Dark Corner’s box office failure on Stevens, saying he, “never quite cut it. Too arrogant, cocksure.” Once one of the top ten actors “Most Likely To Achieve Stardom” in a 1946 Motion Picture Herald poll, Stevens had to take whatever work was available. In the early ’50s he moved on to a few mid-budgeted action-adventures at Columbia and Universal-International before he finally went bust at the big studios, and had to move into the independents, while expanding his work in TV. He nabbed a starring role in the short-lived ABC series News Gal (1951), and went on to a prolific career on the small screen, from the newspaper drama Big Town (1954 – 1956, which he also produced) all the way to guest spots on Magnum P.I. and Murder She Wrote.
He acted in two films for Allied Artists before becoming a director, the cheap Korean War drama Torpedo Alley (1952), directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, and the vigilante Western Jack Slade (1953). It was through these productions that Stevens met producers Lindsley Parsons and John H. Burrows, who gave him the opportunity to direct. Production began on Cry Vengeance in September 1954 at the KTTV studios in Los Angeles. Location photography would be shot in San Francisco and Ketchikan, Alaska. The script by Warren Douglas and George Bricker involves former police detective Vic Barron (Stevens), released from a three-year jail stint after being framed for taking bribes. He was set up after pursuing mobster Tino Morelli (Douglas Kennedy), and lost his wife and child in a car bomb, along with half his face. He is hell-bent on revenge. Horrifically scarred, Vic is a tense ball of hatred, his first act as a free man to purchase a revolver at the local pawn shop.
He is a ghost to his old friends in San Francisco, speaking in mono-syllables with a stooped, mechanical gait. Their sympathy clangs off his rigid exterior until he starts throwing haymakers to escape their impotent pity. The thrum of San Francisco is replaced by the chill of Alaska, as Vic tracks Morelli north, hiding as a single father in the small fishing town of Ketchikan, aping the movement of city to country in Nicholas Ray’s noir On Dangerous Ground (1952). The entrance from the airport into town is a vertiginous wooden walkway emblazoned with chamber of commerce ads like “Salmon Capital of the World”. It is a neighborly small town, where even the bar owner Peggy (Martha Hyer) is a conscientious community member. Even Morelli is softened by the ocean air, going so domestic even his hired goon has turned into a modified babysitter for his little girl.
But the past is never past, and so bleach-haired killer Roxey (a serpentine Skip Homeier) stalks into town with addled floozy Lily (Joan Vohs) in tow, ready to rub out Vic and Morelli for fun and profit. Vic is courting death, whether his own or Morelli’s, he doesn’t seem to care. Walking with tin man stiffness in the natural light of Alaska, he sees Roxey as another unnatural man with a similar talent for self-destruction, so they test each other’s gift for annihilation in a perilous chase up through a paper mill, higher and higher into obliteration.
[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
In Timetable (1956) Stevens plays an outwardly adjusted American male, but who is inwardly even more twisted than Vic. For this film Stevens set up his own production company, Mark Stevens Productions, of which Timetable is the only result (while commonly known as Time Table, the AFI Catalog notes that “All available contemporary sources” list the title as one word, which I will follow). Mark Fertig discovered the fate of this venture in his extensively researched profile of Stevens in Noir City:
Mark Stevens Productions was formed in 1955, with huge plans: there was to be a filmed version of the dark western novel Feud at Five Rivers, a new primetime series for future Mister Ed star Alan Young, and a pilot based on the radio drama The Mysterious Traveler, set for Vincent Price. Stevens also expanded into the music business, launching Mark Stevens Music (publishing), Mark Records (distribution), and Marelle Productions (retail). None of the ventures panned out — Mark Stevens Productions officially brought just one film to theaters, Time Table(though at times Stevens claimed others, including Cry Vengeance and The Bitter Ride). All four companies crashed within a year when, as described in a Twentieth Century Fox press release for the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter, “outside management of his company forced him into bankruptcy.”
Timetable‘s Charlie Norman is close to Stevens’ heart – a hard-working striver stuck in middle-management who eventually gives up and leaves for foreign lands. Norman is an insurance investigator who goes rogue to mastermind a train payroll heist before lighting out for Tijuana. Stevens is a frustrated actor and director who eventually leaves Hollywood for Majorca, spending his days running restaurants and his nights cranking out adventure novels. He even told Los Angeles Times in 1956 that, “I don’t like to act, I’m not a very good actor and I’m not kidding myself about it.”
It is this self-doubt and makes Stevens such a riveting performer in Cry Vengeance and Timetable, a sense of exhaustion perfectly apt for his profoundly alienated characters. Norman has what seems to be the ideal American life – a solid job and a doting wife in the big city, but it is all a fragile facade. The film begins with a bravura heist sequence, one we are led to believe Norman is investigating. But less than thirty minutes into the film he is revealed to be the architect of the robbery. His reason, he later tells his astonished wife, is that “The house becomes a prison, the job a trap.” For Mark Stevens acting became his prison, and Cry Vengeance and Timetable are a bracing ventilation of all of his resentments toward his chosen art.