Desperate (RKO 1947)


Anthony Mann’s 1947 film noir Desperate (whose star Steve Brodie is pictured on the front page of this blog in an original publicity still provided from Photofest) holds a special place in my heart because it was the first of his crime thrillers I researched while preparing my book proposal. My investigations into the making of this lower-tier “B” programmer took me to the UCLA Special Collections library in Los Angeles/Westwood, which houses the invaluable RKO Radio Pictures corporate papers. This proved to be an informational goldmine in that it shed sorely needed light on precisely how those modestly budgeted black-and-white crime melodramas we know today as “noirs” were actually conceived and produced. In the case of Desperate, the project began as the 66-page treatment “Flight,” which Mann co-wrote with Dorothy Atlas, and the UCLA files contain the actual typewritten, double-spaced onionskin manuscript submitted to RKO from the Nat C. Goldstone agency [1].

In The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, I conduct a comparative analysis between the original “Flight” treatment and the released motion picture (whose screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex and Martin Rackin), but a number of compelling technical details can be expanded upon here. A study of the studio budget for Desperate indicates an allocation to Mann of 75,000 feet of black-and-white 35mm negative raw stock (costing a mere .0397 per foot!) with an additional 70,000 feet of stock provided for developing (at .0075 per foot) and 35,000 feet for printing (.02138 per foot). As I indicate in the book, Mann ended up shooting nearly 96,000 feet of film (a 15-to-one ratio), which is surprising considering the film’s lower-tier status at RKO and what we would assume would be the vulnerability of a freelance director facing potential termination for exceeding his footage allotment. As it turns out, it was not uncommon for directors to consume more film than initially planned, and the RKO production files for other productions from the late 1940s (including Irving Reis’s Crack-Up and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire) indicate similar overruns.


In reviewing the Desperate filming schedule, it is clear that Mann allocated his extra footage for several highly cinematic suspense scenes requiring multiple camera angles and careful compositions. The first five days of production, for example, were dedicated to the studio interiors of the apartment for villain Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), and by the end of the fifth shooting day, Mann had already exposed 21,000 feet of film negative for these scenes alone. The tense apartment standoff between Brodie, Burr, and the latter’s henchman (left frame), and the climactic stairway shootout between Burr and Brodie (right frame), were filmed over two days, utilizing 24 camera setups and 10,250 feet of film [2].

[1] Desperate Script Files, Box 1241S, RKO Studio Records,3, Performing Arts Special Collections.

[2] Desperate Production Files, Box 163P, RKO Studio Records, ibid.


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