Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Whodunnit Wednesday - The PayOff (1942) - starring Lee Tracy

Perhaps it's a result of having grown up in the era of Woodward and Bernstein and seeing the impact that their digging and reporting had on the country, but the image of the investigative reporter has always been something of a romanticized one for me. The idea of an intrepid man on the inside, fighting the powers that be for justice, bringing the things that people need to know out into the light, exposing those who would undermine our country, our cities, our way of life. Risking life and limb and reputation to get that headline that will ultimately result in the fall of those who are corrupt.

Yeah, I realize I'm exercising a little hyperbole here, but bear with me, because though it may not be an accurate description of the life of the investigative reporter, it is definitely accurate when it comes to the protagonist of today's feature.

Of course in today's society the "news" tends to be merely spin and there is little actual investigating done. After all, why investigate what the truth really is when the various parties and interest groups will certainly feed you enough spin to keep your twenty-four hour talking heads in a job for years? And besides, some actual looking at the facts might get in the way of the narrative that you're trying to spin and that could be problematic. But The Payoff's Brad McKay (superbly played by Lee Tracy) is incredibly far removed from today's rhetoric-spouting talking heads. For him what is important is digging out the truth, no matter where it might lead. (Though it should be noted that in the end even the intrepid McKay does a bit of bending the truth in the end, the final published version of the story not exactly matching the facts, a concession that even he acknowledges.)

When a special prosecutor who was about to lower the boom on a mysterious criminal mastermind is suddenly and mysteriously murdered, hard-drinking two-fisted reporter Brad McKay is assigned the story by his boss. McKay, who has contacts on both sides of the law (and the ingratiating/irritating habit of calling everyone, male and female either "sweetheart" or "baby" - except for Ian Keith's Inspector Thomas, who he constantly refers to as "Blue Eyes"), is soon up to his neck in bribes, gangsters, questionable women, damsels, and gunfire. Along the way his investigation turns up some surprising (for him, anyway, though the viewer is likely to be just a bit ahead on the big reveal) twists. What really keeps this movie going, though, is Tracy's degenerate charm and the liberal amount of humor scattered through the film. Unlike something like today's Public Enemies, this film never forgets that its number one priority is to engage and entertain its audience and that it definitely does.

Just a quick side not before we get to the preview - Lee Tracy was certainly no stranger to this type of role, as he originated the role of Hildy Johnson in the Broadway production of The Front Page, which you might remember from our discussion a couple of weeks ago of His Girl Friday. Unfortunately, however, when the time came to actually film The Front Page, Tracy was passed over for Pat O'Brien. Certainly, O'Brien was not a bad choice, but this film does give a taste of what the earlier movie could have been with Tracy in the role.

Ok, once again, an online trailer doesn't appear to be available, but here's the first seven or so minutes of the flick which will definitely give you an idea of the flavor of this mystery:

Ok, Skinny Time:
Title: The Payoff
Release Date: 1942
Running Time: 74 min
Black and White
Starring: Lee Tracy, Evelyn Brent
Directed by: Arthur Dreifuss
Produced by: Harry D. Edwards, Jack Schwarz
Released by: Producers Releasing Corporation

The Payoff is available to watch or download for free here. (BTW, the page actually says that it's the 1935 film of the same name, but it actually is this one.)
It's available on DVD from Amazon: The Payoff.
And you can always rent the DVD from Netflix: The Payoff

As always, if you've seen today's flick, please let me know what you think about it in the comments section. Your feedback is definitely encouraged.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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