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16 May 2017

Hidden Treasure: Four Hours to Kill

Richard Barthelmess as Tony Mako
What strikes the present day viewer seeing this film is how minor the violence is; we're so used to modern detectives who seem to discover serial killers every week, or steely-eyed heroes who blow up buildings full of bad guys. It's a bit surprising that the killing of one unimportant little man by another unimportant little man seem causes so much pain and fuss. But that's fiction; in real life, the killing or injuring of a fellow human being is not so easy. A real human being, even a minor hood like Tony Mako finds it hard to live with such a crime. And that's something to be grateful for.

It seems odd at first that Four Hours to Kill is not better known; it was a production of a major studio, Paramount, it was the debut of a director who would become very successful, Mitchell Leisen, and was adapted from a Broadway hit by the well-known playwright Norman Krasna (originally called “Small Miracle” — a title with quite a bit of resonance once you’ve seen the whole story). It starred Richard Barthelmess, whose career was on the downswing but whose name above the title could still bring in audiences, and could boast an excellent supporting cast, headed up by Ray Milland, Henry Travers, Helen Mack, Gertrude Michael, and Roscoe Karns. It is snappy and fast-moving, and the story is clear and exciting.

At first it seems odd — until about eight minutes into the movie, when you realize that the sincere young lovers, Eddie, a uniformed theater cloakroom attendant, and his girlfriend Helen (Joe Morrison and Helen Mack) have a problem you have never seen before in any film made before about 1980. The young man, who is still presented as a good guy, has apparently gotten another girl, Mae (Dorothy Tree), pregnant, and they are scrambling to come up with $200 to pay for an abortion. The words are not spoken, but it’s perfectly obvious and everyone involved knows exactly what they’re talking about. Now you know why this movie is not better known, and why it never turned up on late night television throughout the sixties and seventies. The real question is how it got made at all.

Eddie just told Helen about his problem

And that is really a shame, because, for one, it’s a very interesting look at how real people faced real problems they weren’t allowed to mention in popular media. It is also one of Richard Barthelmess’ finest performances; the more you see of it, the more beautiful it gets.

Richard Barthelmess was a truly great actor. His characters were created from the inside out, with strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, attitudes, stance, and gait of their own (see the way the gentle Chinese missionary walks in Broken Blossoms).  When sound came he still presented a variety of characters, from the tormented veteran of Heroes for Sale to the smart-aleck Native American rodeo star in Massacre to the mob-bought southern reporter in The Finger Points. But despite that, his career faded throughout the 1930’s, for a lot of reasons. He did get excellent reviews for this film, but it did not revive his career, and he had only one more real high point, Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.

Whatever its checkered history, we can see Four Hours to Kill now. (Quite a good print has turned up on youtube, and from various rare film sources -- although the print in circulation now has French subtitles!) Barthelmess plays Tony Mako, a murderer being returned to prison under guard after breaking out a few weeks earlier; he spends ninety percent of the film handcuffed to Charles C. Wilson, the excellent actor playing Taft, the experienced New York City detective charged with bringing him in.

Mako is not a celebrity gangster like Little Caesar, Scarface, or the Public Enemy, not a boss of bosses or a headline grabbing killer; he’s a small-time criminal, who, to his agonized regret, shot and killed a gas station owner in the course of an ill-planned hold-up. He was caught and convicted of murder — of which he is clearly guilty — and is being taken back to prison for execution. There is no danger of his gang coming to rescue him; he has no gang. He's just a punk, We first see Mako and Taft in the auditorium watching the show, handcuffed together, with an overcoat draped over their joined wrists to avoid scaring the other patrons. Taft is a kindly but thoroughly professional cop; he and Mako are simply killing time waiting for a train.

One of the interesting things about this movie is that so much is shown without dialog — we are shown but not told that Mako is feeling ill, and the two leave the auditorium and head to the men’s room. Another one of the interesting things about it is that the next scene takes place, in fact, in the men’s room (something I can’t remember seeing in any film of the 20s, 30s, and 40s), where you see Mako rinsing out his mouth and spitting in the sink as if he has just been sick (another first).

The detective is solicitous and sympathetic, but he doesn’t let his guard down for an instant. He needs to telephone headquarters, and as he and his prisoner move through the lobby to the public telephone booths you see Mako’s black eyes dart around, automatically checking for vantage points and possible ambushes — he’s not expecting to be attacked particularly, it’s just what he does out of habit. He’s always lived that way. You also see him catch sight of an attractive woman in a low-cut evening gown across the room, and his expression tells you that, having been in prison, he hasn’t been with a woman in quite awhile; and the glance he exchanges with Taft accepts the fact that he never will again. His next and final date will be with the hangman.

Mako instinctively cases the joint
Instead of going back into the auditorium, they decide to stay in the lobby, which is a sort of lounge, with sofas, tables, and ashtrays, for people to smoke during intermissions and at any other times they might want to get some peace and quiet as the show goes on. As Mako and Taft sit smoking cigarettes, a disheveled man (Roscoe Karns) rushes in to use the telephone. It turns out his wife is having a baby, and the doctor has told him to go away and wait for the hospital to notify him.

Mako and Taft overhear this phone call with interest, which leads to a friendly conversation. Mako says it never occurred to him that he would ever marry and have children, and wonders, “Gee. I guess it’s a good thing I ain’t got no kid; how would I feel?” Mako earns Taft’s respect by frankly accepting that he’ll soon die, without making a dangerous or distressing fuss over it. They chat about lifestyle choices, and many of Mako’s remarks have an edge of irony, but not self-pity.

In Tony Mako Barthelmess creates a whole person, a city kid who started life as a pickpocket and grew up to become a career criminal, never achieving anything but more and bigger crimes. He’s neither a hero nor a villain; he’s just a guy coming to the end of a life full of wrong turns. He never intended to go straight. But he never intended to kill anyone, either, and the tormenting guilt he can never escape has burned away all desires but two — he wants to kill his former partner, who ratted him out to the police for a skimpy reward. And he wants to die before he can hang, for he fears hanging more than any other death. Indeed, he longs for death; just not that way.

Mako and Taft’s friendly talk starts out with Taft telling about his daughter’s upcoming graduation from grammar school, but it takes a hair-raising turn as Mako describes his crime — which he expects no forgiveness for, even from himself — and his constant thoughts about his own demise, and attempts at suicide.

“When I was in jail I only wanted one thing — I wanted to kill myself. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, screamin,’” he says, “all day long I’d be in a cold sweat. It would come right through my clothes — soaking wet. I thought, if only I could knock myself off in a hurry, that’s all I wanted.”

He tried and failed to end his life. He tried to feel what hanging would be like by clapping his hand over his mouth and cutting off his own breath.

“I thought about getting knocked off lots of times. I thought maybe I’d get shot and that would be all right if it was quick… And then I thought, why don’t I try to get out of here — what are they going to do to me, shoot me in the back? I’d thank ‘em.”
“And you got away?” Taft says.
“Yeah. They double-crossed me. Nobody shot me.”

Re-living his crime
Quite frankly, I can't think of any other actor who could do this scene so effectively. As he speaks, the thoughts behind the words flicker across that remarkable face, the sorrow behind a simple statement of fact, the fear and anger behind a joke. He is completely there every moment. The remarkable thing about this character, and this story, is that this ordinary, undistinguished little man, nothing more than a small-timer, suffers agonies of remorse due to his own conscience. He’s not cowering under the weight of condemnation from the court or the church; it’s his own ethical code that he has broken and for that he cannot forgive himself. Barthelmess shows the depth of Mako’s endless pain, and the longing for death which is quite sincere.

On the fire-escape
Instead of going back into the auditorium, Taft and Mako go outside to sit on the fire escape and continue to discuss Taft's daughter's coming graduation. Mako has some cash on him, and insists on giving it to Taft, saying that otherwise it will just go to some crooked prison guard. As they do this, the plot thickens.

Mako's story is interwoven with that of the desperate young couple and another couple, Carl and Sylvia, played by Ray Milland and Gertrude Michael, who are illicit lovers meeting behind her wealthy husband's back. First you see Mae, a pretty hard-faced blonde, confront Eddie, insisting that he either come up with the $200 or marry her immediately. Then Sylvia misses a diamond brooch that was pinned to the fur cape she has checked -- with Eddie in the cloakroom. At the same time, the doorman (Henry Travers) has been directed to carry the gun he was issued to insure security of the box office receipts.

Ray Milland and Gertrude Michael as Carl and Sylvia

Then, topping it all off, Mako spots Mae -- and, although he denies it, he knows her immediately. Because, far from being a mistreated cast-off of Eddie's, she is actually the wife of Mako's former partner, Anderson, the man who turned him over to the police for $200. He plans to keep an eye on her in the hope that she'll lead him to his greatest enemy.

Mako can't resist the opportunity; he slips the doorman's gun from his pocket -- he started life as a pickpocket, after all -- and when Taft unlocks the handcuffs for a brief moment, he escapes through the air duct system. Taft, however kindly, does no hesitate to shoot at Mako as he disappears into the ventilator shaft, but apparently misses. Mako phones the poolroom where Anderson hangs out and gives him a message that Mae wants him to come and meet her at the theater. Then he hides in he lobby to wait. Taft calls the local precinct for reinforcements.

Anderson does arrive during intermission, when the lobby is crowded with people; Mako lies low to wait for the crowd to disperse. Sylvia and Carl have a serious argument, as she realizes he's only interested in her if she gets a large divorce settlement. He also unfairly accuses Eddie of stealing her lost diamond brooch -- he does have it, but found it on the floor as it fell from her cloak. Sylvia is not happy with Carl's eagerness to get Eddie into even more trouble.

Additional police officers arrive and search the theater after the audience members return to the auditorium, but Mako has found a good hiding place. The detectives mill around and try and figure out what Mako's motivation is. Anderson returns, not having heard of Mako's escape, and the police take him into custody. Eddie finds out that Mae was just playing him to get the money; she's not pregnant at allf. Sylvia also insists on clearing him of stealing her diamond brooch.

Mako, hearing Anderson's voice raised in begging the police to protect him, emerges from an out-of-order phone booth, gun in hand.

"Don't be a fool, Mako!" one of the detectives says, "You can't get out of this building."

"You don't see me trying, do you?" Mako replies. Then he shoots Anderson.

"Don't be dead too quick," he says. "You'd like another bullet, but you can't have it -- they weren't going to kill me quick, either."

As he backs away, Taft comes down the stairs behind him, having been searching the auditorium. He draws his gun and shoots.

"Thank you, pal."

Mako falls. As the detectives lift him up, he whispers a few words, and dies. The words are,

"Thank you, pal."

This movie is so unusual that it's not really surprising that it's unseen. This is a story of abortion, adultery, murder -- and the most sympathetic character is not only a murderer, but plans to -- and does -- commit another murder without the slightest remorse. Mitchell Leisen does a terrific job keeping the threads of the complex story clear. The effectiveness of the drama rests on Barthelmess' shoulders, and his ability to involve the viewer in his character's feelings, which he does brilliantly. It would be quite a swan song, except that, of course, it wasn't. A few more roles were still to come, including one of the all-time greats, Only Angels Have Wings.

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