If you were wondering what the love child of a detective drama and patriotic propaganda would look like, Southside 1-1000 is the noir for you. Eschewing the goings-on of the rich and dubious so that it may focus on what Uncle Sam’s enemies are up to, this hard-boiled thriller manages to break down a concept as heady as the economy into a palatable package for mystery buffs. It doesn’t go about its business in the most subtle fashion, and in attempting to emulate the narrator-driven procedural format that Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” would come to perfect, its delivery can come across as a little too dry. But once it does manage to wedge the stick out of its hindquarters, Southside 1-1000 develops into quite the clever crime picture, a novel flick that bleeds red, white, and blue but still has the guts to go out on a realistically down note.
As the Korean War rages on, America’s adversaries are busy plotting to strike at us through a most insidious means: our money. Fiends are working around the clock to devalue the dollar, creating new and improved ways of whipping up bogus bucks with which to flood the economy. Eugene Deane (Morris Ankrum) is one of the finest counterfeiters in the racket, with not even terminal illness being enough to stop him from perfecting a $10 plate…from inside his own prison cell. In no time, the funny money has made its way into circulation, but fortunately, the government is on the job. Dedicated treasury agent John Riggs (Don DeFore) is assigned to the case and pursues what few leads he can in order to stop the fake funds for good. It takes all the cunning he can muster, but Riggs finally ends up embedding himself within the counterfeiting ring, a precarious position in which the slightest wrong move can spell doom for both him and the currency rate.
It’s clear from the beginning that Southside 1-1000 is going to be a fairly uptight affair. As our narrator lectures us on the power money holds as a sort of weapon after the opening titles, the flick does give off a rather humorless vibe, in the same spirit as those old PSAs about how not cleaning your room the right way was somehow undermining democracy. Eventually, what’s most bothersome isn’t the jingoistic call to action that sets up the plot (which, as thin of a beef as it may be, gets the job done) but rather that droning voice hounding us for a hefty slice of the running time. The narration is really that intrusive, often explaining characters and subplots that aren’t that hard to keep track of, as if this were one of those Yakuza dramas with a million things happening. It’s meant to supplement the film’s documentary-esque, “you are there” style, but there are many times when the story accomplishes that on its own, only for Mr. Voiceover to start stating the obvious and spoil the mood. Then again, this is just one part of the tough go the movie has at developing a crackling personality; you always know who’s who and what’s taking place, but after a while, staring at the same succession of gray suits for 80 minutes grows a touch tiring.
But when Southside 1-1000 shakes off its stiff dressing and gets down to business, it comes alive and puts on a good, gritty show. Though it takes a little time to get there, the meat of the film lies with Riggs’s tour of undercover duty, wherein he adopts a gambler’s persona and uses his wits to sniff out the head of the whole operation. The scenes in which this subplot takes center stage are among the movie’s most tense and noirish, succeeding in turning the heat up on Riggs and steering him into some sticky situations, as when he falls in love with a hotel manager (Andrea King) who’s unaware of his true colors. He may be a bit on the square side, but DeFore’s performance gives the audience a hard-working hero to get behind. He’s as quick to think his way out of a jam as he is on the draw, and as Deane returns to the scene for the climax, the race to see whether or not Riggs’ plan will unravel becomes a real nail-biter. Ankrum does terrific work in his small role as Deane, a crook who doesn’t let a little thing like dying stop him from telling the feds to buzz off when they want him to come clean about his plans. King brings elegance and a whiff of unexpected complexity to her part, and the character actors playing the various members of the criminal underworld look as shady as the gin joints and boiler rooms in which their work is carried out.
While it looks like a typical G-man saga on the surface, Southside 1-1000 comes to prove its meddle as a noir treat. The boozy atmosphere is potent, the photography is crudely gorgeous, and for all of the narrator’s preaching about the good actual people like Riggs do, that it acknowledges the cold reality of how little credit they receive in the public eye is an unexpected move. If you can move past its stodgier sections, Southside 1-1000 shouldn’t have much trouble keeping you occupied with some quality vintage thrills.
(Southside 1-1000 is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)