Weekend Film Recommendation: Railroaded!

railroadedI have praised Anthony Mann’s many noir westerns with Jimmy Stewart here at RBC, but have never recommended any of his more traditional urban noirs. Let me rectify that by pointing you to his 1947 low-budget triumph, Railroaded!.

The film opens with a high-voltage portrayal of a blown stickup, as some luckless bad guys fail to get away clean while robbing a gambling joint, despite having inside help. But the heart of the story comes after the opening fireworks, as the lead gunsel (reliable bad guy John Ireland) and his boozy floozy (Jane Randolph, who excelled in these kinds of roles) frame an innocent man (a sympathetic Ed Kelly) for the crime. A police detective (a pre-Leave it to Beaver Hugh Beaumount) at first isn’t convinced that the guy in the frame is innocent, but he is persuaded to investigate by the attractive, goodly sister of the accused (Sheila Ryan). Action, suspense and romance ensue.

This film was made on Poverty Row, which churned out low-budget B-movies until its business underpinnings were destroyed by the Paramount Supreme Court Case, which I have written about before. The budgets of Poverty Row studios were too small and the films were shot too quickly to consistently achieve quality, but these studios were also a playground for talented people who went on to better opportunities later, including Anthony Mann. The Poverty Row studios were also more comfortable pushing the envelope with the censors, an example in Railroaded! is that when the slatternly Randolph and the saintly Ryan meet in this movie, they get into an extended brawl! (Nice touch by the way: They were dressed in inverted colors for the fight, Ryan all in sinful black, Randolph in angelic white).

Railroaded!, in addition to being an exciting story on its own terms, shows how skilled filmmakers can overcome low budgets. The noir lighting and plenty of closeups keep the viewers from contemplating the cheap props and sets. And Mann’s brisk pace (the film is not much more than an hour long) stops anyone from thinking too hard about some of the less plausible aspects of a script, which would have benefited from one more rewrite to iron out some plot contrivances.

By the way, Hugh Beaumont isn’t the only person in this tough, dark crime movie who went on to inordinately wholesome TV stardom. Ellen Corby, who later became Grandma Walton, appears uncredited as Mrs. Wills.

In summary, this is a remarkably solid and entertaining movie given that its budget was probably around two bits. I believe the poverty row studio movies are in the public domain at this point, so I am posting Railroaded! right here for you to enjoy.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Railroaded!”

    1. @Dennis: Well call me a scissorbill: until an email from Mike O’Hare just now, I did not know the etymology of gunsel (Yiddish for catamite).
      Apparently, Hammet used it in his homophobic Maltese Falcon and it caught on as a more generic term for hoods.

      1. Not objectionable in the least — and having read your posts, incompetent doesn’t apply either.

      2. “Gunsel” is one of those words that people who like etymology (e.g. me) like to tell other people about.

        “In convict and tramp slang a gunsel was a young homosexual male, especially one who was the companion of an older man. It is generally taken to derive from the Yiddish gendzel, a little goose, from German Gänslein, a gosling.

        A plausible story of the way the word changed sense was set out by Erle Stanley Gardner in an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1965. He claimed it was the fault of Dashiell Hammett. Together with Gardner, Raymond Chandler and others, he was a contributor to the old Black Mask pulp magazine edited by Joseph Shaw that featured naturalistic crime stories. But Shaw was dead against including vulgarisms and blue-pencilled some of Hammett’s underworld usages. To retaliate, as Gardner told the story, Hammett laid a trap for Shaw. In his next story he included the term gooseberry lay. Shaw pounced on this and rejected it, though it wasn’t a rude term at all but tramps’ slang for stealing washing off clotheslines to sell. But Hammett also included gunsel in the story, which Shaw left in, thinking it meant “gunman”.

        The significant appearance of the word was in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, serialised in Black Mask in 1929 and published as a novel the following year: “‘Another thing,’ Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: ‘Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him.” The word was spoken by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the 1941 film of the book and so became much more widely known. If you read Hammett’s description of the boy, you’ll realise that he was subtly making the point that he actually was gay, but if you hadn’t been tuned into that you might miss it.”


  1. I think it’s a bit of a shame to use “gunsel” this way. The word is from Yiddish genzel, German Gänsl, Gänslein, meaning little goose. The original sense of gunsel, as set forth in the OED, was A (naïve) youth; a tramp’s young companion, male lover; a homosexual youth. Which sort of fits Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, and his implied relationship with Gutman, although he’s also a tough guy with a gun.

    1. he’s also a tough guy with a gun

      Not really, in both the book and the film, he’s a pathetic would be tough guy and Spade mocks his pretensions mercilessly.

        1. Yes, and that was in Hammet’s mind a reason to hate them even more. IIRC, when Joel Cairo enters Spade’s office for the first time, Spade thinks “This guy is a fruit”. In the movie, Lorre improvised a bit with his walking stick to convey that his character was gay (If his wearing Gardenia was not enough of a tipoff).

          1. I’ve read all of Hammett’s novels, all of which I admire. In the present discussion, it’s perhaps unfortunate that while I’ve read The Maltese Falcon at least twice, I’ve seen the movie probably three or four times since I last read the novel, so my memory of the details of the book is bound to be obscured by the memory of the film. Anyway, I do recall how much more explicit the queerness of Cairo especially, but also of Wilmer and Gutman, is in the book. I am, alas, largely ignorant of the biography of Hammett. Is there a lot of evidence that Hammett hated gay people, if you leave aside the testimony of The Maltese Falcon? Literary evidence of that kind is notoriously, and obviously, unreliable.

          2. @Herschel: As with most things, it can be judged only in the context of the historical period. He was writing in a time where legal and social punishment of gay people was normative. Whether he was any more judgmental than his contemporaries, I doubt — he was, like all of thus, a creature of his era.

          3. Keith: Then I think you need to back off from your statement that was in Hammet’s mind a reason to hate them even more. If you’re merely assuming the default anti-gay spirit of the times, it seems to me you shouldn’t be imputing any hatred specifically to Hammett, or claiming to know what was in his mind.

          4. @Herschel: I don’t see that as following. That it was in other people’s minds too (e.g., his readers, who didn’t exactly boycott him) doesn’t mean it wasn’t also in Hammett’s.

      1. Well yes, but he does kill people and set ships on fire and such. Obviously he’s not nearly as tough as Sam Spade or as he thinks he is. As to your characterization of a gunsel as a catamite, above, that’s an interestingly derived word also, from Ganymede.

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