Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Random (Free!) Movie Report #92: Non-Stop New York

Movie poster and link to the film on the Internet Archive
The grand old days of cinema were filled with programmers: fast-moving little films that would maybe serve as the bottom half of a double feature or simply keep a theater stocked between bigger releases. They were made to be enjoyed and forgotten, in the absence of television or video to give them a second life. Many of them disappeared, and others have fallen into the public domain, and they can be hard to evaluate from a modern perspective precisely because they weren’t made for posterity or to withstand intense critical scrutiny. And yet, some of them hold up.

Non-Stop New York is a movie I heard about and rented almost at random; I saw the poster once, was vaguely intrigued, and here we are. It’s a suspense thriller with a good sense of humor, and a jaunty adventurous spirit exemplified by lead Anna Lee. Though a British film it’s not much different from what Hollywood studios were producing in the mid/late thirties, and seems to have been made with the international market in mind. It’s a smart, well-written movie that, while it follows the usual conventions, does so with just enough aplomb to stand out.

Our heroine is Jennie Carr (Lee), an English showgirl whose travelling company has just opened and closed in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve. Waiting in New York for the next boat home, Jennie meets a nice young lawyer and goes up to his apartment for a meal (this being the Depression), before being shoved away by some threatening looking men. She later discovers that the lawyer has been murdered, and that a local vagrant named Abel (Arthur Goulett) has been fingered for the crime. But she saw Abel enter and leave the man’s apartment in search of food before she herself was pushed out. By the time she reads about what’s going on, though, she’s back in London, and Abel has already been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The only way to present the evidence that will exonerate Abel is for Jennie to go back to New York, and the only way to do that in time is to stow away on board an overnight plane. Said plane, an advanced and entirely fictional double-decker model with individual passenger cabins and an open balcony, also by circumstance comes to contain the lead gangster Hugo Brant (Francis L. Sullivan) posing as a Portuguese general, trying to make sure the wrong man dies for his crime, as well as a handsome Scotland Yard inspector (John Loder) lured into the case by a shady blackmailer.

So the plot is more or less the dictionary definition of “convoluted”, and I have to confess my summary isn’t doing it too much justice. The whole thing is loaded with contrivance, but that’s where the tone saves it- this is not an entirely serious thriller, more a light comic adventure, with plenty of humor and romantic patter to break up the tension. The plane is basically treated like a flying Orient Express, with a colorful cast of passengers and pleny of room for comings and goings. (In a way the film is almost science fiction, though I’m not sure the “flying boat” concept was ever so much technologically remote as it was economically unfeasible.)

Fortunately the writing is actually pretty clever; it’s not at the level of The Thin Man, but there’s a spark to it. Jennie is a nicely scrappy character, and the obligatory romance with the handsome inspector is nicely handled by the two going out on the small balcony and having all their potentially sappy dialogue drowned out by the noise. There’s a kid who plays the violin (but wants to play jazz saxophone) who is refreshingly non-annoying, and it’s honestly fun to watch the various plot devices interact. A phony coin here, a parachute there, it gets fairly interesting. It’s also striking to see the role the Great Depression plays, especially in early scenes- Jennie is driven by hunger, as is Abel in sneaking into the lawyer’s apartment, and the idea of a bunch of rich gangsters conspiring to end the life of a vagabond for their own convenience is a strong one.

Anna Lee gives a great performance, staying energetic and charming even when being wrongly thrown in prison or having her life threatened. Sullivan is a strong heavy, and John Loder manages to not be as boring as his character would look on paper. The whole film has a strong cast of character actors who manage to be distinctive without being shrill.

There’s nothing in Non-Stop New York that would push it into the realm of a true classic, but for a B picture it’s surprisingly slick. It hums along amiably, never creating an awful lot of suspense as to the eventual outcome, but still being an entertaining ride in itself. The film is in the public domain, meaning you can watch it at the Internet Archive, who have a better print than Alpha Video, which somehow managed to screw up the cropping on a 1.37:1 picture. For free, you can’t do a lot better.

Based on the novel “Sky Steward” by Ken Attiwill
Written by J.O.C Orton, Roland Pertwee, and Curt Siodmak, with additional dialogue by E.V.H. Emmett
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Grade: B+

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