Terry Morse | Smashing the Money Ring | Tear Gas Squad

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Terry Morse

Terry Morse had a long career in Hollywood as a film editor, from the 1920's to the 1960's. Periodically, he would break out and start a short-lived career as a director. He directed around fifteen films all told. None is well known today.

Some common subjects in the films of Terry Morse:


Smashing the Money Ring

Smashing the Money Ring (1939) is the third of four Brass Bancroft B-movies, starring Ronald Reagan as a Secret Service agent. It is the only one directed by Morse. The heroes attack counterfeiters, one of the main jobs of the real life US Secret Service.

The way Steve Parker refuses to defend himself against the slugging charge in court, recalls the premise of Morse's previous On Trial.

Semi-documentary

Smashing the Money Ring is far from resembling the post-war semi-documentary crime films, in any systematic way. Yet it does give us an inside look at a prison. This look is detailed, and includes many facets of prison life.

The prison anticipates the modern film The Shawshank Redemption. Both have prison libraries, run by an older man. Both have spiffily uniformed squads of guards, with the guard captain as one of the film's characters.

The hero's undercover role also anticipates later semi-documentary crime films.

Camera Movement

Morse likes to employ camera movement in Smashing the Money Ring. It is especially common in opening shots of scenes. These show characters maneuvering their way through crowds of people, as the camera follows them. Some of the movements have back-and-forth qualities, as the characters move first in one direction, then another.

Uniforms and Group Appearance

Mild SPOILERS ahead:

Smashing the Money Ring is fluid in depicting identity and uniforms. Many of the characters change their clothing and their apparent identities. Good guys go undercover as convicts. Guard uniforms are put on and off. Men move back and forth between tuxedos and suits. Such fluidity will return in Morse's Tear Gas Squad.

Smashing the Money Ring is full of spectacular men's clothes, by costume designer Milo Anderson. The prison guard uniforms are unusually spiffy and dressy. Hero Ronald Reagan looks great in the tee shirt he wears, while undercover as a convict. Donald Douglas wears a stylish tuxedo.


Tear Gas Squad

Tear Gas Squad (1940) is the utterly misleading title of a little film about the police. The film opens and closes with gangland action, but mainly this is a musical comedy about aspiring policeman Dennis Morgan. The songs in this film are worked into the plot "realistically": they all consist of Morgan's character singing to his friends, professionally, or as part of a police choir. Nobody just bursts into song in the full film musical tradition.

An Early Kind of Semi-documentary

I tend to think of semi-documentary pictures as starting with Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945). But there was an earlier tradition of semi-docs, many of which were made a Warner Brothers in the late 1930's and early 1940's These were not basically crime thrillers, like the later works. Instead, they tended to concentrate on the training of young recruits. Wings of the Navy (1939) depicts aspiring Naval aviators learning their craft at Pensacola in Florida; it is intermixed with much real life footage of airplanes, training flights, and aerial sequences. The whole film is like a documentary about Pensacola, but starring fictional characters. There are no crime elements in this film at all, but it is a genuine "semi-documentary". The later, film noir semi-docs, will also often feature elaborate scenes of recruits being trained and inducted into government institutions, although these are usually crime-fighting units like the FBI or the Secret Service.

Tear Gas Squad is more or less in this Warner Brothers tradition. Much of the film is about the training and initial work of new police recruit Morgan. The training scenes are quite elaborate, and give a complete picture of the training of New York City policemen. They have less location footage than Wings of the Navy or The House on 92nd Street, however. The tone is largely comic, as well, unlike the usually grim semi-docs. The whole film reminds one of Code Two (1953), the LAPD training film directed by Fred Wilcox. For that matter, there are scenes here that anticipate Top Gun (1986), especially at the end when the hero reconciles with his rival after saving his life. The two men have similar personalities in both films: the hero is a smart aleck who has trouble obeying orders, while the rival is a stickler for procedure.

All three of the films Tear Gas Squad, Code Two, Top Gun make a huge deal out of the heroes' uniforms. Milo Anderson was the costume designer in Tear Gas Squad. He specialized in making Warner Brothers' male stars look classy. He did most of Errol Flynn's costume dramas, for example. He also worked with Dennis Morgan. He was responsible for Morgan's posh white tie and tails outfit in Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), for instance. Here he has gone absolutely to town on the police uniforms worn by Dennis Morgan and John Payne.

Editing

Director Terry Morse had a long career as a film editor.

Tear Gas Squad shows a fairly conventional editing style. A long shot master set-up will establish a scene, showing all the participants and their spatial relationships. Then Morse will cut into a series of medium-to-close shots of the characters. These close-ups will forcefully convey the emotions of the people involved, as well as their physical appearance. Morse will alternate among the characters. He might show character A, then B then C, then back to B, then A, then C again, and so on. A typical scene might cut five or six times to each character. There is much rapid alternation among the shots; this cross cutting is Morse's main way of adding movement to a scene. There is a propulsive or dynamic quality to these many alternations among the characters. Once Morse has settled on a camera set-up for a character, he sticks to it throughout a scene. For example, all the shots of A above will be from precisely the same point of view and angle. Similarly, all of B's will be from another, fixed angle. Morse will often include two or more people in one of these medium shot series. For example, a series of shots might always show characters D and E.

Morse does not use this editing effect to convey conflict among his characters. Unlike many directors, he does not typically show fighting among everybody. Instead, the idea is to convey that each character is in a private world. One character might be full of romantic bliss, another of apprehension, another of skepticism. Each character's emotional state will be the subject of a series of close-ups of them.

Camera Movement

Morse occasionally uses camera movement as well: