This was a pretty solid crime caper. I’m not so sure its actually film noir, but that really is a whole other conversation, regards what actually qualifies as noir (coincidentally, there’s an essay entitled ‘What Do We Expect When We Watch a Film Noir? written ‘by Ellen Cheshire included in the book that accompanies the films in this Indicator boxset). For my part, I think it would fit better in a ‘Columbia Crime’ boxset but I can accept how ‘fluid’ any definition of film noir can be, so yeah, no real problem having this title in this set: there’s certainly few of the standard atmospheric visual trappings of a dark-edged noir and no femme fatale but certainly the usual sense of moral ambiguity (just who’s the good guy here and who are we rooting for?) and treachery (double-crossing bosses swindling our ‘hero’ out of money, and a cheating wife proving his undoing). Perhaps its biggest nod to noir sensibility is the fact that the biggest bad guy appears to survive unscathed, a typically unsettling refute to the usual ‘crime doesn’t pay’ message of non-noir dramas.
So what’s it about? Well, one has to make allowances for the fact that as this film is 70 years old its centred around technological conceits so obsolete as to render it almost a science fiction artefact from anther world. Telephone technician Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) is smarter than his job deserves and his gambling vice gets him an opportunity to better utilise his talents for crime magnate/bookie Vince Walters (Barry Kelly). Kelly is great here in a surprisingly (spoiler warning?) short-lived role- I thought he was one of the highlights of The Undercover Man (featured in Indicator’s previous Columbia Noir set) and while I expected his character to stick around longer he’s a convincingly menacing figure leaving quite a mark. In a refreshing change from the usual physical strengths espoused in these thrillers, Mal’s wits are his biggest asset, and his eye for opportunity leads him to replace Vince which brings him under the gaze of a criminal Syndicate that represents the Big League. Leader of this Syndicate is Carl Stephens, played by Otto Kruger (another familiar face, this time from Escape in the Fog, again from Indicator’s previous noir set). There is a very modern feel to Stephens, prefiguring themes of the decades-later Godfather films regards how he seems to believe crime can pretend to be respectable, running his crime syndicate like any typical corporation except that when it sacks staff it seems very permanent (“I think he’s a very sick man – I don’t believe he’ll ever get well,” to which his stooge asserts “I’ll see that he doesn’t”). Mal doesn’t appear too intimidated by the Syndicate moving in on his operation, seeing it as an opportunity as ever- or perhaps distracted by Syndicate rep Larry Mason’s wife Gail (Joanne Mason). Breaking his own code of never getting serious with a dame by starting an affair with Gail, this sets up a chain of events that may prove to be Mal’s downfall.
One thing I will say is clear from watching so many of these 1940s/1950s films- they are so very brutally efficient, there’s nothing in them that you can imagine cutting out; every scene has some bearing upon the next, every piece of dialogue seems pertinent to the plot and there is no padding evident at all: a lesson that perhaps modern films could heed. 711 Ocean Drive is possibly lengthier than most, running at 102 minutes so teetering towards the unheard-of two hour mark but it feels very brisk, at least until the end when director Joseph M. Newman perhaps becomes too enamoured by the production value of location filming at the Boulder (Hoover) Dam: but that being said, its certainly an impressive setting for a finale. One of the many appeals of these films is that sense of witnessing a lost world, as if they are becoming as much historical documents as they are thrillers and dramas. The fashions, the décor, the cars and trucks: the locations can hold a fascination all their own. 711 Ocean Drive also features a great score from Sol Kaplan, a composer familiar to me from his work for the 1960s Star Trek. Kaplan was not the only person behind 711 Ocean Drive to make an unlikely foray into science fiction- Joseph M.Newman would soon after move on to direct This Island Earth.