Tuesday, June 18, 2013

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "TWO-DOLLAR BETTOR" (1951)

Two-Dollar Bettor had been on my radar since I bought the poster at a memorabilia show about 20 years ago. It graced our dining room wall for a spell, probably killing my wife's appetite more than once. I caught up with the movie itself only very recently when it finally turned up on YouTube. Preparing for either a film noir or over-the-top "warning" picture, I found it to be instead a depressing drama about a decent, middle-aged guy who gets caught up in a hellish situation that gradually costs him his security, happiness and, eventually, his life. Some would consider that a good description of marriage, too, but you didn't hear it from me.
 
This won't be the last time he
puts his hand to his face in desperation.
Thanks to a winning tip the very first time he's at the track, widower John Hewitt gets on a lucky streak, acquiring a bookie in the process, and using the money to make life that much better for his two teenage daughters. I'd put the money toward a higher quality beer -- my daughter has it easy enough.

All good things have to come to an end, and when his favorite jockey is injured, Hewitt finds that he can't stop betting. Luckily for him he's a bank manager, allowing him to dip into the till, or, more accurately, a safe helpfully marked COMPTROLLER'S FUND, stealing $16,000 without anyone noticing. (This doesn't look like a bank that you could trust with your tip money, let alone your savings.) When that's not enough, he cashes in his war bonds, cleans out his accounts and skips the mortgage payments. Damn, why don't you take the quarters from the cystic fibrosis collection they have in every corner store? 

When you have lunch with a dame like this,
the only item on the menu is trouble.
Hewitt's bookie, not exactly in this business for his health, sends his associate Mary Slate around to collect his dough -- and take more bets. Mary seems to fall for Hewitt, and soon is urging him to cool it with the ponies. But another day older and deeper in debt -- his promotion at work hanging on an audit of his department -- Hewitt embezzles even more money, hoping that he can finally make a big score to square things for good. Mary offers to introduce him to her brother Rick, who pulls down $100,000 a year on "information horses." I initially thought she was referring to Mr. Ed's siblings, but these are horses who certain bettors know for a fact are going to win a particular race. Consider it equine insider trading. 

Oh yeah. You can completely trust that guy.
Confident that he's finally found the horse of his dreams, Hewitt skims another $20,000 from the bank to place his bet with Rick. Hewitt doesn't realize that Rick is actually Mary's sweetie, and they're playing him for a fool. Or, as Rick elegantly puts it, "Sounds like you hooked a real chump this time." When Hewitt's horse is scratched, Mary and Rick plan to beat it out of town to find the next chump. Luckily, Hewitt, as with all businessmen in old movies, has a gun in his desk drawer, and catches the scamming lovers just in time. Hewitt gets his money back, but not before gunplay erupts. Seeing Rick bite the dust is to be expected, but it's quite a shock when Mary gets plugged, even for a no-good jane in a B-movie like this. Satisfying, too.

In another "only in the movies" scene, Hewitt, though mortally wounded, has enough stamina to drive to the home of his boss, explain the whole sorry story, return $20,000 of the $36,000 he stole and beg him to lie to his daughters so they can continue to worship his memory. He might have lived if the idiot maid had called for ambulance instead of the cops. You just can't get good help anymore.

The bleak tone of Two-Dollar Bettor is broken from time to time by the ridiculous scenes of home life. As with most movies even today, all the high school kids are clearly in their twenties. Hewitt's daughters are forever inviting their friends over to dance to that bland post-swing, pre-rock & roll crap infecting the airwaves of the time. Hell, they even square-dance when Grandma sits down to play "Golden Slippers" on the piano while Uncle George calls out the moves. Did kids really engage in this bullshit even in 1951?

This doll's a bad bet.
On the other hand, Marie Windsor, the film noir femme fatale queen, is splendid as Mary. Not exactly beautiful, Windsor exudes a sexy charm that transforms her looks into something quite striking. (In that sense, she's a lot like actress Illeana Douglas, to whom she bares a passing resemblance.) That she was convincing enough to fool me -- a movie fan who's seen what every two-bit dame is capable of -- is all you need to know.

Who'd have thought
that Alfalfa would grow up
to be Lee Harvey Oswald?
Two Dollar-Bettor also offers two baby-boomer legends at the opposite ends of their career. Hewitt's secretary is played by Barbara Billingsley, six years away from gaining TV immortality as June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver, while one of the "teenagers" is 24 year-old Carl Switzer, long past his glory days as Alfalfa in Hal Roach's Our Gang comedies. Of the four movies Switzer made in 1951, Two-Dollar Bettor is the only one where he received screen credit. Trust me, he was grateful.

You'd gnaw at your finger, too,
if you lifted $36K from work.
But Two Dollar-Bettor is John Litel's show all the way. His performance as the doomed John Hewitt is often quite difficult to watch. Not that he's bad -- quite the opposite. You just feel so damned sorry for the sap. In this respect, Two-Dollar Bettor demonstrates the difference between movies now  and of an earlier age. Litel was 59 at the time; in today's Hollywood years, that would make him about 148. Like the losers he bets on in Two-Dollar Bettor, Litel would be ready for the glue factory. Yet it's that very factor that makes his frenzied reactions at the track, whether winning or losing, not only quite frightening but impossible for a current younger actor to duplicate.

If Two-Dollar Bettor were to be remade today, someone like Matt Damon would get the lead. And your first thought would be, "Oh, it's Jason Bourne, he'll get through this." And you'd be right. You'd have no emotional connection to his character whatsoever because the actor has proven himself damn near a superhero in role after role.

Yes, as played by John Litel, John Hewitt is a first class chump. But he's an old chump on a downward trajectory that he hasn't the ability to stop, and, as a result, arouses emotions that today's mainstream movies do everything in their power to avoid. No wonder why it took me two days to watch the 72-minute Two-Dollar Bettor; I'm not used to feeling anything in movies anymore. Today's studio product is made to deaden the senses. For that reason alone, Two-Dollar Bettor would never stand a chance with audiences now.

To put it another way: when was the last time you felt emotionally connected to any role played by Tom Cruise? Or Johnny Depp? Brad Pitt? You don't have to be a two-dollar bettor to call that one correctly.

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