In the opening scene of Republic Pictures “The Man Who
Died Twice,” (1950) a car drives along a mountain road and two cops in a patrol
car remark that it’s nightclub owner T. J. Brennon (Don Megowan) passing by.
Next thing you know the car goes off a cliff and explodes in flames. Then a
woman (Vera Ralston) gets out of a cab in front of her apartment building and
looks up at the balcony where two men are fighting. She shrieks in horror as
one of the men comes plummeting down and lands on the sidewalk at her feet. Splat!
She watches as the other man climbs up a fire escape ladder to the roof. But
not before a third man appears on the balcony and the guy on the fire escape
shoots him. Vera Ralston faints from all the excitement and falls on the
pavement next to the fallen corpse.
The cops show up almost immediately, revealing that the
two dead men are members of the narcotics squad and the unconscious woman (whom
they just leave lying there on the concrete until the ambulance arrives) is
none other than Lynn Brennon, wife, now widow, of T. J. Brennon, the guy who
went over the cliff. All this in just the first few minutes of this low-budget
70-minute crime movie directed at a frantic pace by Joe Kane, veteran of
countless Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies., and penned by Richard C. Sarafian,
who would later be best known as the director of “Vanishing Point” (1971), the
ultimate car-chase movie.
“The Man Who Died Twice” is a pulpy story that borrows a
lot from other crime and gangster movies of that era. It’s a coincidence, I
suppose, that this film was released the same week as Don Siegel’s “The
Lineup,” but the similarities in the two films are pretty striking. The
McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for the thing everybody’s after) in both films is a missing
stash of heroin. In both films, dangerous drug dealers want their drugs back
and will stop at nothing to get them. In both films two of the more interesting
characters are a couple of gunsels who arrive from out of town to get the goods
back for their employers and in both films the heroin is stuffed inside a doll.
It makes you wonder if Serafian and Stirling Silliphant, who wrote “The Lineup,”
had some kind of competition going to see who could turn out the better script
using the same story elements. Silliphant wins that one hands down.
The gunsels In “The Lineup,” are played by Eli Wallach
and Robert Keith. Gerald Milton and Richard Karlan handle the roles of Hart and
Santoni in “The Man Who Died Twice.” While not quite on a level with Wallach
and Keith, they do a good job as the two killers. Milton is particularly nasty in
a casual kind of way in a scene in their hotel room when he hears a cat meowing
outside the door. He goes out in the hall, picks it up and puts out on the
window sill and then shuts the window. Karlan yells, “Hey, what’s the matter
with you. It’s three stories down.” Milton keeps calling his wife back home only to be disturbed by the fact
that she’s never there when he calls. He tells Karlan that one time a bartender
pal gave him the number of a hot babe, if he ever wanted a good time. Half-drunk
he put the number in his pocket and didn’t look at it until the next day and
found it was his home phone number!
Vera Ralston as Lynn Brennon was only 35 at the time this
film was made but she looks tired and bored. She was an ice skating star back
in her native Czechoslovakia when Republic Studios chief Herbert J. Yates
brought her to the U.S. and tried to make her a star. She made over 20 features
for Republic but despite Yates’s efforts audiences did not really accept her, and
she quit acting after “The Man Who Died Twice.”
The leading man in this B-movie extravaganza is Rod
Cameron, who has about as much charisma as a side of beef. Better known for his
westerns, he plays Bill Brennon, T.J.’s brother, who had sent him a telegram
asking for help, which was unusual because he and Bill hadn’t spoken in 15
years. But you know how it is, when your brother sends you a wire saying he’s
in trouble, you gotta do something about it. Right?
Also in the cast is Mike Mazurki, the former wrestler turned actor who played dozens of tough-guy parts in film noirs of the forties and fifties, including Moose Malloy in “Murder My Sweet.” Here he plays Rack, the bartender in The Blue Swan, the joint that T.J. owned and where Lynn Brennon sings every night. Mazurki seems to be riffing on Moose in this film, once again playing a guy hopelessly in love with a woman he hasn’t got a chance with—in this case Lynn. The cast of “The Man Who Died Twice” abounds in other familiar faces (if not names) from the period, including Don Haggerty, Louis Jean Heydt, Paul Picerni, and Luana Anders.
The story careens ahead with more murders and cops and Bill Brennon running around in circles trying to find both the heroin and the mysterious man who’s always lurking the in the shadows after the killings. Any guesses who’s behind it all? The movie’s title gives it all away.
“The Man Who Died Twice” is perhaps most notable for being one of the few black and white films Republic shot in something called “Naturama,” its own version of Cinemascope. According to the commentary track by film historian Toby Roan, the studio bought some anamorphic lenses from France and were able to use them on their old Mitchell cameras. The use of the wide angle allowed Kane to have long takes and gave cinematographer Jack Marta a chance to set up some interesting compositions. Too bad they never used Naturama on one of Roy’s or Gene’s pics.
Kino Lorber has released “The Man Who Died Twice” in a new HD Master from a 4K scan. The 2.35:1 black and white image is rendered in sharp 1080p detail with perfect grey scale. The only extras are the aforementioned audio commentary and several trailers from other films in the Kino Lorber KL Classics library. Kino Lorber keeps digging up interesting curiosities from cinema’s past, and, while this is not a great movie by any means, it’s fun to watch and an interesting bit of B-movie history.