John Dall (1918-1971) starred in top Hollywood productions Spartacus, Rope, and The Corn is Green, as well as the cult classic Gun Crazy. All in all, he made eight films, though unfortunately, ending his brief movie career on the campy Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961). A handsome, charismatic actor with broad acting chops (his impressive debut was starring lead opposite Bette Davis), it’s hard to believe after watching the following three films, back to back, that the name John Dall isn’t more recognizable today.
Dall gets second billing behind James Stewart in this groundbreaking Alfred Hitchcock film. The movie was shot in roughly ten-minute increments to create continual flow without edits or other camera gimmicks. As a result, the actors’ performances tend to be stilted, because they were worried about making mistakes and having to start the filming process over. Prop hands silently moved furniture out of the way and replaced it as the action swirled about the set. The plot was taken from the 1924 murder of Bobby Franks at the ruthless hands of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Dall and Farley Granger are riveting in their respective homicidal roles as they kill for the academic exercise of committing the perfect crime. They then invite family and friends of the victim to a dinner party with the body stuffed in the antique chest on top of which they are serving food. The film stayed out of circulation for thirty years which, according to film critic Roger Ebert, made Hitchcock happy since he considered Rope a failed experiment. Admittedly, with the odd production, the acting comes across as wooden, but Dall’s performance survives because his character is calm, cool, and collected, while his partner (Granger) begins to lose it. And that may be because the film — which plays more like a theater production as it was based upon the play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton — was a more comfortable role for Dall who came up through the ranks as a stage actor.
Gun Crazy, aka Deadly Is the Female (1950)
Peggy Cummins justifiably deserves a great deal of the credit for Gun Crazy’s enduring appeal as the woman who self-proclaims that she is “bad, but will try to be good.” Her good only seems to last while the money is flowing. John Dall plays Bart Tare, whose fascination with guns began as a young child, but after killing a baby chick with a BB gun, he’s left with a scar that makes him wary of harming anyone. Later, after reform school and a stint in the Army, he meets Annie Laurie Starr (Cummins), a stage performer with a traveling carnival. She fires a gun filled with blanks directly at Bart, who’s sitting in the front row awestruck. Because of his own skills, she gets him a job with the carnival, but after a vicious encounter with the owner — who has designs on Annie for himself — they are ousted from the big-top. Down on their luck, Annie gets tough with Bart, telling him that if he doesn’t want to go into a life of crime robbing banks then he needs to leave. The camera lingers on the expressive Dall rubbing his temples, knowing he’s in too emotionally deep with a femme fatale and with no foreseeable way out.
After a 2013 screening of the movie in San Francisco (video below), noir historian Eddie Muller asked Cummins to elaborate on Dall “who makes you look good, and you make him look good.” Ms. Cummins agreed and the audience gave John Dall a well-deserved round of applause as she, in a tender moment, looked skyward. She went on to credit their success to both being theater actors. Other qualities which propelled Gun Crazy to cult-film status include key scenes like the bank heist (one long, striking screen shot) to its final showdown in the mountains as the outlaw couple is surrounded by fog with the law closing in.
Trivia: the screenplay credited to Millard Kaufman and MacKinlay Kantor was, according to Kantor, actually a “front” for Dalton Trumbo, who was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten because he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
When we first see John Dall as Andy Cullen, he is beaming, eager-to-please, having just been promoted to police detective. He begins working alongside his older brother, Lt. Edward Cullen, played by Lee J. Cobb. Lt. Cullen is in a romantic relationship with socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt), who finds a gun that her soon-to-be ex-husband has stashed in their home. Lois assumes her husband is going to kill her and beats him to the punch, while the startled lieutenant looks on. He decides to spare his new squeeze inconvenient jail time, dumping the hubby’s body near the airport to make his death seem like a random robbery. Brother Andy tags along on his first murder investigation, unaware his brother is the man he’s after. However, he begins piecing together the evidence that this death was more than the random killing which the lieutenant is trying to sell. The final, tense scene of a cat-and-mouse hunt at the abandoned Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge is noir greatness. Dall manages from his first to last scene to believably transform from a gullible innocent into a hardened cop who realizes his brother is complicit. The metamorphosis is even more remarkable, because this flick has a pithy running time of just eighty-one minutes.
John Dall’s last four on-screen appearances were in minor (but pivotal) roles on the Perry Mason TV show. He passed away in 1971, at the much-too-young age of fifty-two from, depending on the source, either a heart attack or a punctured lung.
Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent anthology collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories.
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I don’t remember seeing that particular Alfred Hitchcock film though I’ve always enjoyed most of his movies like Psycho and The Birds.
And, Mates, it sounds like old Hitch wouldn’t have wanted you to see it based on several different articles I scoured for this post. For me, I enjoy Rope as a curio but wouldn’t return to it like I do Psycho or my favorite North by Northwest. But the actors give it the college effort and the director’s creativity makes Rope a must for film aficionados.
Don’t remember John Dall, maybe he wasn’t in enough movies to get remembered or I just missed them.
I’m hoping more people discover Dall’s work. He deserves the attention. Heck, legend James Dean only made three films and Dall has him beat with eight.
Great to see Dall appreciated here. I treasure his performances in Gun Crazy and Rope, need to see The Man Who Cheated Himself.
Brian, Gun Crazy remains my favorite of the three but The Man Who Cheated Himself is a close second with a superb finale at Fort Point.