Written by Sherman L. Lowe
Directed by Alfred Zeisler
Undercover FBI agent Richard Hendricks (Michael O’Shea) starts the film very much undercover, covered in bandages whilst resting in a hospital bed that is. He narrates into a recorder his most recent assignment, taking viewers back to when he was convened to a meeting by police commissioner Huges (Lyle Talbot) and the governor of California in preparation for a harrowing case that aims to shed light on presumed corruption within the parole board in prison. As it presently stands, an alarmingly high number of parole hearings conclude with obviously dangerous individuals being sent out into to roam the streets freely. Hendricks begins his investigation at a nearby restaurant owned by Jojo Dumont (Evelyn Ankers), who uses the establishment as a front for her dealings with the criminal underworld as well as corrupt, higher-ranking lawyers and officials. As Hendricks inches his way closer to the truth, the cast of characters involved in the plot grows, as does the risk to his life when so thoroughly outnumbered.
Political films are a dime a dozen. They are made the world over and have for many, many years. More than anything else, what tends to shift is the general reception said films receive depending on which side they take and the era during which they are produced and released. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, at least in the United States, it was fashionable to produce movies that championed the lifestyle and political system guiding the country. The term ‘docu-noir’ has been used by many to categorize movies of the period that aim to document, via fictional stories inspired by headlines, the real happenings in the criminal world and the brave men and women that challenge the evildoers. In many cases the depiction of the ‘system’ offers a positive outlook, encouraging audiences to rest their faith in the police, lawyers and politicians whose duty it is to preserve order and peace.
Parole Inc. is a different beast, insofar as it posits the idea that the system, far from being a shining beacon of justice and security, is in fact damaged. It is a porous body, and through the cracks and holes come the gangsters, the crooks, and killers with the monetary sway to dictate what the representatives can and cannot do. At a time when going against the grain was not embraced, unlike in the early 21st century, the efforts of director Alfred Zeisler, screenwriter Sherman L. Lowe and the rest of the team should be recognized. More to the point, their depiction of a few of the parole board members sees them as spineless, cowardly individuals too terrified to back down from their crooked ways as well as being too blinded by the magnificence of the financial rewards. The film essentially calls out the charlatans that masquerade as defenders of the public interest, suggesting that men like Richard Hendricks are necessary because the orthodox venues to sniff corruption out are insufficient. In that light, Parole Inc. is as grim a painting of the judicial system as can be, certainly for the 1940s.
Sadly, the actual filmmaking on hand is less than stellar, thus lessening the potency of its provocative message. The most egregious criticism anyone can argue against a film is that it is boring. Even a truly bad film has its benefits, albeit ones not always evident to discern. Boring movies, on the other hand, fail to create stimuli, making them more forgettable than the poor ones. To put it bluntly, very little that transpires in the picture is of interest or exciting, which is saying something when considering that its stars a charismatic Michael O’Shea as an FBI agent that is, on paper anyways, a hair away from being found out and very likely killed. Even the police commissioner warns Hendricks at the start of the picture that two men previously embarked on the same venture as he, only to be buried six feet under ground shortly after.
The problems do not rest with either Michael O’Shea, who brings a strong, blue-collar likeability to the role, or with Turhan Bey as Barney Rodescu, a top dog lawyer pulling the strings so that his men that perform the dirty work, such as Harry Palmer (Charles Bradstreet), are set free from prison at the earliest opportunity. Bey’s acting is a captivating mixture of aristocracy charm and villainy. Rodescu knows how to deal with dirty matters, he has the power to fix things and to get what he wants, not to mention that he is a handsome devil to boot. One might liken him to an evil version of James Bond, always impeccably dressed, smoking a cigarette, displaying supreme confidence with every act, only that in his case every decision is to disrupt order rather than to uphold it.
Alas, much of the rest of the movie fails to impress. It is, for all intents and purposes, a small budget film, which in of itself is not reason enough to bemoan a movie, but here the limitations are sorely felt. Instead of feeling as though Hendricks lives through (barely) a spine tingling, arduous adventure, things go rather swimmingly right up until the very end when a bit of bad luck puts him in a bad spot. Most of the characters he encounters are bland, lacking definition or memorable traits, least of all Jojo Dumont, played straight and without much vigor by Evelyn Ankers. Generally, the movie simply lacks an imaginative spark, that special kick that helps creative filmmakers produce an engaging romp. Parole, Inc. leaves no impact of any sort. Apart from the lackluster cast and script, the direction is pedestrian on the whole, presenting Hendricks’ episodes matter-of-factly.
It is unfortunate that a film as mediocre as Parole Inc. wastes such an interesting premise. It is one of the rare films that utilize that docu-noir framework to criticize rather than praise its subject, yet its criticism is more of a chore to get through than an invigorating experience. Michael O’Shea and Turhan Bey are both magnetic in completely different ways, presenting two fascinating opposing personalities, but it is hard to shake off the feeling that both are left stranded by almost everything else in the movie. The film is currently in the public domain, therefore wildly available for all to see, although maybe its parole sentence should be revised.