Here is one of those forgotten gems, though I hear it has a cult following. Sign me up. It’s from a story by Cornell Woolrich, and it’s based on the old fable of the boy who cried wolf. Little Tommy (Tommy Driscoll) is a fabulist, always making up stories to tell his friends. Some of them get him in trouble. Then on a hot and sultry night he decides to sleep out on the fire escape. He moves up from the fourth to the fifth floor, and is awakened by a struggle. Through a small gap in the window (if it’s so hot, why isn’t the window wide open? Never mind) he sees a couple killing a sailor who they have attempted to drug and rob. He escapes unnoticed, but then he tries to tell his parents what he’s seen. They’re having none of it. They are good parents, they cut him a lot of slack, but who can blame them? The couple upstairs seem normal and upstanding. He goes to the cops, who humor him and even visit the apartment, but they see nothing. Then the couple gets wind of his quest, and decide they have to kill him.
The movie is mostly shot on location in a seamier section of New York City. The building is a tenement, with a condemned building next door. The final flight goes through this structure, which is crumbling under the weight of the child and his pursuers. The tension mounts enormously, and the resolution is satisfactory.
This is very much a noir film, full of shadows and dark places, and taking place in a working-class setting. There are good people, and two very bad ones, living among the normal folks. Attention must be paid to poor little Bobby Driscoll. He is very good here, as he was in his Disney films (So Dear to My Heart, Song of the South, and Treasure Island), much better than most child actors of his day. The worst part of it is the dialogue they were writing for children in those days, and he can’t be held accountable for that. His facial expressions and body language are very good. And his career stunk. After this he got parts on TV for a decade, then went to jail for drugs. When he got out, no one would hire him, and his life ended in an almost anonymous death in a building much like the ones we see here. He’s buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere, unmarked.