That’s what I like about you—you’ve got plenty of nerve.
1946 was Ava Gardner’s breakout year, with her portrayal of the most fatale of femmes opposite Burt Lancaster in The Killers. But fewer people remember her other 1946 noir drama in which she played a woman capable of driving good men to ruin—Whistle Stop, starring George Raft, Victor McLaglen, and Tom Conway.
Mary (Gardner) returns to her small Midwestern hometown, two years after splitting for the bright lights of Chicago, in need of money. Once home, she takes up with her old boyfriend, the short-tempered gambler Kenny Veech (Raft). But she also catches the eye of Lew Lentz (Conway), who owns a nightclub and several other business concerns, and has the money to give Mary the good time she’s looking for.
Mary’s vacillation between her old flames drives Kenny nuts. Into this tempest steps Gitlo (McLaglen), an ex-con who works for Lentz, with a bright idea. Lentz runs the concessions on the annual town fair and clears a healthy stack of cash in the process. Gitlo proposes that he and Kenny rob Lentz before he boards the midnight train out of town. With Lentz gone, and a good chunk of cash in his own pocket, Kenny’s obstacles to Mary’s heart vanish.
This being a drama of its time, of course, there’s a lot of tense build-up and a bungled execution. The town fair is a fantastic setpiece, with plenty of tense, silent glares across crowded fairways: Kenny watching Lentz, Gitlo watching Kenny, Mary watching the two of them, Kenny’s loyal ex-girlfriend watching Mary. Kenny foreshadows the heist with a BB gun shooting range game, putting Lentz in his sights. And a grotesque, cackling clown mocks Kenny as he heads off to his end of the heist (although when’s the last time you saw a clown used in film to signify actual, unironic joy)?
The plot is a bit of a jumble, structured to put our dashing leads in dramatic situations and not to make sense. Mary mentions her plans to sell the house she owns in town—a house where Kenny and his family all live—but never follows through. It’s her ambivalence between the rich, cultured Lentz and the passionate Kenny that drives the action, but we never get a sense of why she has such a hard time deciding. It doesn’t help that we’re shown an exhaustive list of Kenny’s flaws—he stays out all night drinking, he’s been unemployed for two years, he uses what money his folks give him to lose at poker, and he starts fights at the drop of a hat—but see none of his virtues, aside from his being played by George Raft.
While the plot stutters, the cinematography is sharp, full of the heavy visual cues that mark the period. A homecooked meal with Mary and Kenny is interrupted by a flunky delivering a giant bouquet of roses from Lentz; the bouquet sits in the frame between the erstwhile lovers, literally dividing them. Mary enters the film in a luxurious black mink coat and wears sleek black dresses on every date with Lentz, but in a flashback to two years ago, when she and Kenny were still an item, she wears pastoral white with a ribbon in her hair.
The dialogue from Philip Yordan, who’d later give us No Way Out and The Big Combo, is equally sharp. When Kenny asks Mary why she’s home one night, instead of on the town with Lew, she replies, “Lew had to drive to Mayfield. What are you doing home tonight?” “Lew had to drive to Mayfield,” he answers with a knowing grin. Everyone’s got a smart answer, even while being threatened. Kenny gives Lew a little lip while being tossed out of his bar in a flashback—”if you said that with a smile, it’d sound better”—provoking the fight that breaks him up with Mary.
And as tough as it is to buy Gardner as Mary and Raft as Kenny, Tom Conway and Victor McLaglen wear their roles like gloves. Conway, as Lew Lentz, is the most despicable villain, with an insufferable smirk beneath a perfect Niven moustache and above the best in Forties dinner jackets. McLaglen plays Gitlo, Kenny’s drinking buddy and lure into the world of crime, as the cunning-but-not-smart palooka that thrives in the noir underworld.
I know the smart money is to sneer at remakes, but Whistle Stop has all the elements of a perfect noir: a woman leading two rivals on; a short-tempered loser and a cool, untouchable winner; a seemingly simple plan that falls apart. All it needs is some tighter casting and plotting. Gardner isn’t quite enough of a vamp (I know, right?), nor Raft enough of a diamond in the rough, to make this version work. But it’s possible.