“I got so mixed up I didn’t know what I was doing.”
The Argyle Secrets has a lot working against it. It has no movie stars, and the film’s writer/director, Cy Endfield, is mostly remembered for being part of the Hollywood blacklist. It was given a budget of $100K and an eight-day shooting schedule, making it cheap even by Poverty Row standards. It should, by all measures, be a forgettable mystery that filled out the bottom end of a double bill in 1948 and was never thought of again.
That’s not what we got. The Argyle Secrets is a deliriously over-the-top film noir, so ripe with ridiculous tropes and exaggerated characters that it doesn’t have time to stop and consider its own monetary restraints. It takes off at a dead sprint and keeps up the pace for 64 minutes, resulting in a viewing experience that’ll stick with you longer than a knife to the gut.
The premise of the film is glorious pulp nonsense. Harry Mitchell (William Gargan) is a reporter brought in to interview newspaper columnist Allen Pierce. Pierce claims to have found the mythic “Argyle Album”, which contains a list of people who were traitors and war profiteers during WWII. Before he’s able to do anything with the information, however, the columnist winds up dead. Mitchell takes a powder without alerting the hospital, and the foul play surrounding Pierce’s death (he had a heart attack and a knife buried into his stomach) make him a prime suspect for the police.
Mitchell is a real piece of work. He’s so oblivious to the fate of others that he’s willing to track down Pierce’s secretary and slug her in order to search the premises for the album. He apologizes before doing it, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s the least heroic hero this side of Mike Hammer. Mitchell’s blatant seediness would be a detriment to the film were he not surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of criminals and femme fatales stranger than him.
Mitchell runs afoul of Marla (Marjorie Lord), a woman who seems clueless but gradually reveals herself to be the smartest of the lot. She leads him into the clutches of thugs who give him a good working over, but then proceeds to help him escape when she realizes she can cut everyone else out of the deal. This exchange might be the most infamous of the entire film, as she tells the reporter to choke her so the escape attempt looks real. Mitchell gets so caught up in the heat of the moment that he kisses her mid-choke (his narration claims not to know why). It’s a shocking and sexually frank detail for a 1948 release, decades before the “erotic thriller” became a commercially viable direction.
Endfield was no stranger to outrageous storytelling. His resume is filled with examples of high concept noir, whether it be the dreambound logic of The Limping Man (1953) or the fraught violence in The Sound of Fury (1950). He knew how to put butts in seats, and The Argyle Secrets is perhaps his finest achievement when it comes to the pure kineticism of the medium. The film is constantly moving from apartment building to hospital to airport bar, and the characters are so consumed by their need to locate the “Argyle Album” that they’re willing to block out all common sense.
At one point, Mitchell is holed up in a laboratory and bluffing his way through a standoff with one of Marla’s aforementioned thugs. He posits that he can’t be harmed because he has the “Argyle Album” on him, but the thug is so carried away that he creates a Molotov cocktail to incinerate his only lead (Mitchell only survives because the other thug wants to hear him out). There’s also multiple instances where shootouts erupt and Mitchell is the only one standing, despite him not having a gun. “The Argyle Secrets” operates with all the subtlety of a Looney Toons short, and one can’t help but be swept up in the fun.
The film was adapted from a radio play that Enfield also wrote, and the closer one looks at the more confusing it gets. There’s lots of double crosses regarding the titular MacGuffin, which gets turned over to the police without so much as a glance. This contradictory handling of the “Argyle Album” falls in line with the rest of the film’s reasoning: Mitchell is willing to die for a document he never even bothers to read.
The Argyle Secrets was screened at the recent Noir City festival in Oakland, which I had the pleasure of attending. I’d never heard of the film before, and watching it with a crowd of fellow first-timers was intoxicating. We all gawked and laughed and shrieked at the absurdity of Mitchell’s mission, and the fact that he managed to get himself out of situations he needlessly got himself into in the first place.
Film noir is about nothing if not the absurdity of the human condition, and I can think of few “deep cuts” that better communicate this idea than The Argyle Secrets. It’s low-stakes fun of the highest caliber.
You can find all of Danilo’s Film Noir Review articles here.
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.
This sounds too good to pass up. Thanks for the review
“The Argyle Secrets” is an interesting 1948 low-budget film noir, filled with seedy characters, written and directed by Cy Enfield. It stars William Gargan, Marjorie Lord, Ralph Byrd, Jack Reitzen, John Banner, and Barbara Billingsley. I agree with reviewer Danilo Castro, who describes the picture as “deliriously over-the-top film noir, so ripe with ridiculous tropes and exaggerated characters that it doesn’t have time to stop and consider its own monetary restraints. It takes off at a dead sprint and keeps up the pace for 64 minutes, resulting in a viewing experience that’ll stick with you longer than a knife to the gut.”