Whoever wrote the TV blurbs for Akron’s Beacon Journal was a regular Henny Youngman. When local WAKR scheduled the 1947 crime film The Pretender in August of 1969, the listing for the 11:15 pm showing dispensed with any sort of synopsis and just quipped, “Pretend you’re interested in this murder tale.”
Such is the indignity that befell our beloved Bs. After performing their duties on the bottom half of double bills, these humble films were dusted off years later, had commercials carelessly inserted throughout them, and were assigned late-night slots on a weekday in Akron—only to have a local newspaper flunky make a joke at their expense.
It’s tempting to overcorrect for the years of irreverence and uphold the Bs as undiscovered masterpieces. To a bleary-eyed movie fanatic, yesterday’s dull and routine programmer can become today’s oneiric experience full of hidden meaning. It’s not always reverse snobbery; occasionally, that programmer is an oneiric experience full of hidden meaning. Case in point: The Pretender, an efficient 69-minute B thriller distributed by Republic Pictures directed by Billy Wilder’s lesser-known brother and peppered with regular mugs like Tom Kennedy, Charles Middleton, and Ernie Adams. This forgotten film also happens to be a nightmarish visual and aural evocation of the contracting mind of a psychopath. The photography by John Alton, in his inimitable claustrophobic style, and score by podiatrist/thereminist Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman perfectly complements the inscrutable performance by Albert Dekker (no stranger to these sorts of roles). If the sound of the theremin doesn’t remind the viewer of the theme from The Whistler, the plot certainly will. The script for The Pretender is as efficient and bleak as a funeral dirge. A corrupt investor, Kenneth Holden, hires a hitman to kill the fiancé of a wealthy woman, Claire Worthington, who he himself wants to marry because of her fortune that he manages. When Claire’s marriage falls through, she accepts Holden’s proposal. Of course, the hit is still on. The target wasn’t made specific, just Claire Worthington’s fiancé—whoever that might be. This twisted little screenplay is by Don Martin.
With a name that suggests “Sears regional manager,” maybe Don Martin was destined for obscurity. As strange as it may seem for one who works in pictures, maybe he wanted it that way. As I’ve begun research, I’ve had to concentrate unusually hard to remember that name. What was it again, Don Miller? Dan Miller? Tom Hartman? No, it’s Don Martin. Not to be confused with Mad magazine cartoonist Don Martin, our Martin was a Hollywood screenwriter for an impressive decade of B-movies starting with Lighthouse, a 1947 Frank Wisbar picture for Producers Releasing Corporation. Martin mostly worked in low-budget crime and Westerns with sojourns into economical detective pics (“The Falcon” films Devil’s Cargo and Appointment with Murder, both 1948), frugally financed horror (The Creeper for the short-lived Reliance Pictures), and pennywise jungle adventure (the 1949 Jungle Jim entry The Lost Tribe).
It was The Pretender and the equally dark news-photographer crime pic Shakedown, with Howard Duff as the reptilian lead, that made me note Martin as a potential for further research.
That research has gotten off to a slow start.
Ancestry records reveal a little bit of biographical detail for the native Philadelphian. Martin—born Morton Goldberg—was the second son to Russian Jews Fannie Wagman and Paul Goldberg, who arrived in the U.S. in 1892. Martin’s father died from tuberculosis in 1916, when he was five. After remarrying, his mother Fannie died due to an ectopic pregnancy in 1920.
Under his new name, Don Martin married Tamara Zinkoff in 1941. On the marriage certificate, Martin listed his occupation as journalist. His draft card from the previous year lists his employer as M.L. Annenberg Publications—that would be the firm created by notorious Moses Louis Annenberg. Besides owning The Philadelphia Inquirer, Annenberg published several periodicals in the 1930s germane to this topic: The Radio Guide, Screen Guide, and Official Detective. (More information about Annenberg’s empire and its pulp offshoots can be found here.) It’s not immediately clear what Martin did as a journalist, nor what publications he worked for—but there is no doubt that this experience influenced his screenwriting career. In fact, in the late 50s, Martin would write four scripts for the TV version of Official Detective.
One other curious note: in the book Eye on Science Fiction, historian Tom Weaver interviews Robert M. Fresco, writer of the 1950s monster movies Tarantula, The Monolith Monsters, and The Alligator People. Regarding Communism in Hollywood, Fresco has this story to tell:
I had a friend named Don Martin, who was a jobbing screenwriter—not brilliant, but he wrote and wrote, he used to write Republic movies and Columbia B movies. And he had the same name as a radio writer named Don Martin, who had been named as a Red. The Don Martin I knew was completely apolitical. The other Don Martin was not a Red. My Don Martin—forget the other Don Martin, he was ruined. My Don Martin didn’t work for seven years.
This brings up so many questions. Which seven year period was Martin out of work? Was Fresco mistaken about Martin’s politics? There is a very critical eye towards consumerism and the financial world in not only The Pretender and Shakedown, but also in Hot Cars as we’ll soon see. While the scripts are not Commie agitprop, they don’t come off as apolitical. Is Fresco talking about the Don Martin who ran a broadcasting school in Hollywood?
Maybe adding to the Dons confusion is the accusatory character named Don Martin in the Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (“It’s Charlie. He’s the one!”).
I’ve yet to find a photograph of Morton Goldberg a.k.a. Don Martin, which doesn’t help my biographical sketch at all. Initially one might imagine the writer of such rugged titles as Arrow in the Dust, Double Jeopardy, Triple Threat, and The Storm Rider to have a little hair on his chest, perhaps a little hair on his upper lip. This initial assumption may be very wrong. Regardless, a writer should be judged by his work not his appearance. As for Don Martin, behind that steak ‘n’ potato name is a writer whose lean scripts are bursting with ideas.
In Charles Willeford’s 1960 novel The Woman Chaser, a used car salesman in Los Angeles decides to become a filmmaker and through sheer will power transitions his life to make the ultimate clear-eyed assessment of the American dream. The fictitious film is titled The Man Who Got Away and it’s about a truck driver pushed to the limit to make enough money. On a particularly grueling long haul, he runs over a little girl. One moment he is an honest worker, the next a wanted killer. The problem is the finished film—with his vision perfectly realized—is an unmarketable 63 minutes long. The director is faced with two choices, pad it to give it a traditional 90-minute runtime or cut it down further to fit an hour TV spot with commercials.
As I watched Hot Cars, I thought about Willeford’s book (and The Man Who Got Away). This 1956 film about an honest salesman who must compromise his morals and sell stolen cars to support his family—his son, who oddly is never seen, requires some kind of expensive surgery. The Los Angeles used car lots with the pavement radiating heat are wonderfully captured. It’s authentic; the film ends with the note, “The producers of “Hot Cars” wish to thank Big John’s Used Car Lot and Johnny O’Toole’s Used Car Lot in Culver City, California, for their help in making this picture possible.” There are no salesman sweltering in Santa Claus outfits like in Willeford’s book, but it feels like there could be.
Then there is the running time. Hot Cars clocks in at a cool 60 minutes. As an indie, it may not have been as beholden to studio norms. I like to think that Charles Willeford saw this odd duck of a film sometime in the four years between its release to the publication to The Woman Chaser.
That scant running time glides by like a tuned up mid-century car. Joi Lansing and her bullet bra, cocktails, Les Baxter’s swaggering score, and a surfeit of smarmy salesmen in suits. With appropriate garishness, the film climaxes with a fight aboard a rollercoaster. Like The Pretender, it’s about subterfuge—the former film about the muddled identity of a person, the latter about the obscured identity of automobiles. Undoubtedly, this film has something to say about the free market—the ways in which a worker can be corrupted by the pursuit of money, the use of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants for dirty work, the consequences of the commodification of healthcare, etc.—but that doesn’t stop it from being a joy ride.
It's the type of film some bourbon-slugging, all-American with a name like Don Martin might enjoy.