The Pretty Big Town, Part 2

The Knoxville film-noir epic, exposed

There I was, in some mysterious dame's salon with my wife and kids and a VCR playing a movie I'd never seen before. The credits rolled: A Woman In Hiding. The movie I'd heard about for years. The forgotten film-noir thriller set in Knoxville.

It's film noir, all right. You can tell that in the first few frames. You know you're not watching a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical when the narrator's a dead heiress at the bottom of a river. At least, you think she's dead. You and the bum husband who killed her think she's dead, but after a while, neither one of you know for sure. Her wrecked car's being fished out of a river, empty, somewhere in the Smokies, where he had taken her on her honeymoon. The mountain scenes look a lot like the same dry, sandy mountains they called the Smokies in Elvis's Kissin' Cousins.

There's a flashback, as there always is in any self-respecting film-noir flick. Ida Lupino's the heiress from North Carolina who marries the manager of her father's factory. In a cabin in the Smokies, she learns the two things every new bride dreads to hear on her wedding night: that your new husband has a longtime mistress; and that he killed your father. She flees in a big sports car, but the brakes fail and it runs off the road. Only she's not in it. She bailed out at the last minute, just like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. I bet Jimmy got the idea from this dame. She hides in the bushes. Everybody thinks she's dead.

Her husband begins to suspect something's fishy, and runs advertisements for the missing dame. Suddenly there's Howard Duff, a gumchewing coolcat who runs a bus-station newsstand in Raleigh. You don't know if he's on the square, but he's young, real young. This is 1949, just after he was the heavy in Naked City. He scopes this Lupino chick who looks a lot like the dame reported missing by her murderer husband. On the lam, she gets onto a bus called KNOXVILLE. Duff follows her hoping to get lucky and maybe collect a reward in the bargain. About 50 minutes into the movie, Lupino gets off at the Knoxville station, and Duff follows her.

When she seems suspicious, Duff shrugs. "I know a couple of people here," he says.

Soon they're surrounded by loud conventioneers. Drunk middle-aged men, salesmen for Made Rite Tools. The dame checks into a hotel called the Claiborne. Duff checks into another place called the Jefferson.

She tries to shake him, says she came to Knoxville just for a job, and it didn't pan out.

"It's a pretty big town," Duff says. "There must be other jobs."

He's got her there. He asks her out, and she gives in. They set out in search of restaurant that serves a two-olive martini. I winced. In 1949, you couldn't even get a one-olive martini in Knoxville unless you knew somebody at Cherokee. A martini was called "liquor by the drink," mister, and they were as illegal as this videotape. Olives were considered paraphernalia. I finished my martini off and wondered what happened to the dame who served me.

Duff and Lupino set out on a date, looking for a lake. They find one, somewhere, and row a boat around in it late at night. It doesn't look like Fort Loudoun. It looks smaller, calmer, maybe like the duck pond in Fountain City. You see a few more scenes that might pass for places in town, but most of it's back at the Claiborne, which is always mobbed with drunk conventioneers.

Suddenly you see somebody you didn't expect to see in Knoxville, or in this movie. It's Joe Besser in a party hat. Joe Besser, who was later one of the bad replacements for Curly in the Three Stooges. He's funnier in this movie, a crazed conventioneer banging on a tom-tom. I figure these Knoxville scenes were the peak of his artistic career. If you look close, I think you can also see the guy who played Uncle Charlie in My Three Sons, a drunk riding a bicycle into a closed elevator door.

Meanwhile, Lupino's husband, who looks a lot like Victor Mature, tracks her back to Knoxville. He finds her alone, seeking refuge from the drunk conventioneers, in a locked stairwell. He tries to kill her again.

The Knoxville half-hour ends with a desperate scene at the train station, which could pass for the Southern Depot except for the sandy Southern California hill in the background. Back in North Carolina, the movie turns into a thriller, the kind where you don't know who's bad and who's dead.

It was Lupino and Duff's first movie; they later got married and costarred in some more gritty crime movies, Private Hell 36 and While the City Sleeps. I've never seen them, but I somehow doubt they're set in Knoxville. I wouldn't blame them for staying away. They had some bad memories here. When Lupino left town, she thought Duff was trying to kidnap her for money.

You can't see A Woman In Hiding unless you find a good supplier. It's not out on video. Before, when I tried to find it from legitimate sources, I figured it wasn't out because it was no good. But this movie's swell. Even the few big-shot movie critics who've seen it say it's all right. If you've got a movie with two big stars like Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, and throw in a future Stooge, and if that movie's easy on the eyes, and if that movie's still not out on video—well, it's a cinch somebody somewhere doesn't want you to see it.

Who wouldn't want you to see a movie that portrays Knoxville as a city full of obnoxious drunk conventioneers? It's a pretty big town. There are lots of suspects.

© 2000 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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