Tuesday, December 03, 2019


In the 1959-1962 period, producer Robert E. Kent made many low-budget feature films for release through United Artists as bottom-of-the-bill fillers, kind of like what Robert Lippert did for Twentieth Century Fox with his Regal Films operation. Undoubtedly, UA offered a set amount for a completed feature, with some recognizable names (Cameron Mitchell was in a few) in the cast who could be listed on the poster and the lobby cards, and a recognizable genre, most often crime or mystery or adventure. Someone like Kent could make a professional looking product that was entertaining and, at 65-70 minutes or so, would allow exhibitors to have more showings per day, which meant more income.

TCM used to run these here and there (controlling the UA library from that era), and such films as INSIDE THE MAFIA, PIER 5 HAVANA, VICE RAID, THE WALKING TARGET, THREE CAME TO KILL, and CAGE OF EVIL were solid and efficiently told little programmers that were the perfect way to spend a free 70 minutes. I’ve always kept my eyes out for more of these films and was excited to find this 1962 crime (sort of) melodrama on You Tube.

I stumbled across this film by looking for features starring Robert Lowery, great B-leading man of the 40’s and early 50’s, and my favorite Batman (from the 1949 Columbia serial, BATMAN AND ROBIN). Lowery evolved in the early 50’s from leading man to character actor, growing a mustache, letting the grey streaks in his hair come out, and often playing heavies and crooks. He’s the co-star in this one, playing a low-rent nightclub operator who is presently broke and looking for his next big score. It seems as though in every other scene, he’s asking one of the ladies to make him a drink. “This calls for some liquid refreshment,” he says with bravado, with the weakest excuse. He is married to a blonde woman who was part of a sister act that plays nightclubs. They live in Acapulco, Mexico, with the black haired sister, who’d been married to a man from a wealthy family who is killed in a car racing accident seen at the beginning of the film (probably newsreel footage, as we never see any closeups of anything). She’s the “good” sister here. She also has a child, but the rich matriarch of her late husband’s family wants the child to be raised by herself, the boy’s grandmother, and wants the mom to sign away her rights to the child for $500,000 (probably 10 million today).

The man who is hired to go down to Mexico and broker the deal is a poor attorney, who’d been a junior member of a firm run by a gang lawyer who was disbarred. He himself was innocent, and after an investigation, was not disbarred, but this did not help his practice any, and he was reduced to representing low-paying clients in night court. This man is played by CRAIG HILL, who’d worked for Kent in two other features previously, and a year before this one, even worked with the same director (Reginald Le Borg) for the same production company. Hill was a busy supporting actor in the 50’s, and eventually starred in the much-loved WHIRLYBIRDS TV show. Two years after DUO, Hill went to Europe to star in a Euro-western and soon became one of the most popular stars of Spaghetti Westerns, and made a permanent career in the Spanish cinema. He lived the rest of his life in Europe, working primarily in Spain. His last film credit is 2003, and he died in Spain in 2014. I’ve included one of his Eurowestern movie posters to give you an idea of how he evolved. In 1962, Hill was still a handsome B-movie leading man, but the move to Europe led him to re-invent himself as a grizzled, tough bounty hunter type, who could stare down anyone and who radiated toughness.

He’s given a good role in DEADLY DUO, as he knows he is walking on thin ethical ice with this case (the reason the matriarch does not approach a more established attorney), but he is broke, and he knows if he does not arrange this deal, someone else will. There’s a nice scene near the beginning where he pretends to be more successful than he is when another attorney dangles this case in front of him, and Hill’s bluff gets called.

Both sisters are played by Marcia Henderson, a name new to me (she worked extensively in television), via wigs and very different characterizations. The good sister is reticent about the deal, not wanting to “sell” the son she loves, but the bad sister and her scheming sleazebag of a husband (I can’t say enough about how oily Lowery is in the part!) figure they can talk her into going for the deal, and getting a nice cut themselves in return for making it happen. The first half of the film basically sets up the deal, and the machinations and dirty dealing take up the second half of the film. There are a number of split-screen scenes where both sisters are seen at the same time interacting with each other (like in the old PATTY DUKE SHOW), and these are handled very smoothly. This may be a low budget film, but it’s professionally made, just shot cheaply on a few sets, much like a television show.

As for the Acapulco setting, we see some mountains near a coast that look vaguely “southwest” through a window, dialogue MENTIONS some of the beautiful and picturesque things of the Mexican coast, and there are some Hispanic actors playing some of the locals, but the setting is largely in the viewer’s imagination. That’s fine with me, and in the tradition of earlier Kent productions such as PIER 5 HAVANA and the masterpiece of the lot, the amazing HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL, with Gene Barry as a lounge-singing secret agent, no money is wasted on second-unit photography, or even mis-matched travel footage.

Much of the film’s second half involves the sisters arguing with each other, and Marcia Henderson should get some acclaim for pulling this off so well. The film’s final ten minutes (I won’t ruin the surprise with any spoilers) lead the viewer down one road which is somewhat brutal, but then a delicious twist (the Acapulco police inspector, Lt. Reyes, played by Carlos Romero, is in some ways the real hero of the film during its climax) causes us to have to recalculate everything we thought we knew, and the ending is both unexpected and satisfying.

With this film being so set-bound and with really no physical action (no fistfights or car chases or shadowing suspects down urban streets), some might find it boring and too much like a TV show, but clever plotting and good casting and interesting characters and the sister angle make DEADLY DUO a first-rate crime/mystery programmer. Also, fans of Craig Hill’s Eurowesterns will find this of interest because the man really re-invented himself when he arrived in Europe. In DEADLY DUO he was still being utilized by Hollywood as the fresh-faced young leading man type (he also guested on WB detective shows such as HAWAIIAN EYE, BOURBON STREET BEAT, and SURFSIDE SIX during this era, and he was like the stars of those shows…in DEADLY DUO, he even takes his shirt off in a scene, the way Troy Donahue or Van Williams might have), but that all ended and he became a much more powerful and intense screen presence in Europe, and his potential became unlimited.

I bet my jaw would drop if I found out how inexpensively this film was produced, and I applaud the creativity and imagination and sleight-of-hand that these low-budget filmmakers bring to the table. DEADLY DUO is as satisfying as a story in the MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE (which is high praise coming from me!), and like a printed story on the page, you have to use your imagination to make it fully come alive….which it certainly did for this viewer.

1 comment:

AeroplaneBlues said...

Great review.