When a holdup goes wrong, Sheila Ryan has to clear her innocent brother by getting involved with scary bad guy John Ireland.
“Women should be struck regularly like gongs. That’s from Oscar Wilde, you know.”
“Give it back to him.”
Not counting Oscar Wilde, Anthony Mann’s Railroaded! has some of the hardest boiled dialogue you’ll ever hear; this 1947 film wastes no time and spares no feelings telling the story of a bookie joint holdup gone bad, a robber shot and a policeman killed, some beauticians who must be silenced (the joint was in the back of a salon), and a scapegoat who gets framed. Sheila Ryan plays the tough sister of the scapegoat (Ed Kelly), comes from a family who doesn’t think much of cops and now has all the more reason to be resentful of the law.
Hugh Beaumont plays the detective who knows the family from school days, and comes down hard on Kelly but also comes to believe he’s innocent. Sheila Ryan decides to use her feminine wiles to get closer to crooks John Ireland and find the evidence that will clear her brother, caring little for her own safety and trusting less in the police’s ability or desire to help her brother. Beaumont takes the high road, pursuing the truth with shoe leather and forensics, while keeping an eye on Ryan, because he’s sweet on her. As their paths cross, Ryan starts to recognize Beaumont’s care and concern, and they both end up in a tight squeeze (different types of squeezes for each) with the dangerous Ireland.
Sheila Ryan is good in her role, a nice girl next door type who might be underestimating the trouble she’s getting into but, admirably, has no second thoughts about charging into battle. Beaumont is always fun to watch, you get a different look at him in these movies he made before becoming better known as Ward Cleaver, model dad. Here, he’s rebuffed by Ryan but persistent, authoritative and reasonable, and plays this role like John Payne might do, with a weary goodness and a patient, sometimes playful charm. Jane Randolph gets a great part as the inside vixen at the beauty salon; she gets sucked in, used and then tossed aside by Ireland. As much of a bombshell as Lana Turner, Randolph has sass that jazzes up a tough little noir like this, while also eliciting sympathy for getting tragically tangled up with Ireland.
Those folks are all good but the star of this show is Ireland, a human machine gun with laser focus, firing off one word commands and spitting insults like ammo, with women getting the worst of it. The gimmick of Ireland perfuming his bullets is something truly unique, though not very smart from a forensic standpoint. It’s also not very butch, which combined with his distrust and hatred for women makes you wonder what kind of weird complex his character has. When Randolph and Ryan have a catfight, Ireland watches from the dark, clearly enjoying himself and following their movements with his pistol. Ireland makes for a thoroughly creepy figure who’d give both Lawrence Tierney and Richard Widmark the shivers. He just steamrolls on, terrifying, unstoppable and totally unfeeling, not even pausing for dramatic effect when gunning down his Wilde-quoting accomplice, or displaying a smidgen of feeling for anyone.
Mann didn’t work with his best known director of photography John Alton on this movie, so it lacks his signature dramatic lighting (the darkness is overwhelming but effective here), but Mann uses many nice dolly or long shots and camera angles that bring this quickie to life. It’s pure grit with not one lick of glamour, a raw piece of meat that doesn’t need to rely on big stars but has the material to make them. Like its one-word title, like Ireland’s favourite speech pattern, Railroaded! is short and sweet and hits the mark.
A version of this article was previously published in The Dark Pages Directors’ Issue.