Michael F. Keaney is the author of two authoritative books about film noir: Film Noir Guide and British Film Noir Guide; both are finally available on amazon.com in paperback form. Mike also happens to live about three miles from me! I wrote a short blog entry one day about all the bowling references in film noir, and he contributed this. It's his unfinished and unedited draft entry for an encyclopedia about film noir things, references, hangouts, characters, etc. He said it was a monstrous research effort and consequently never finished it. But we may benefit from his awesome Bowling Noir expertise. By the way, that's Ida Lupino from Road House (1948) in the images, of course. - Wes Clark
By Michael F. Keaney
"Mr. McAllister. He's all the time dropping stuff and everything. I think it's his bowling ball." - Rickie Dane about upstairs neighbor (Crime in the Streets)
"Pretty average union guys, good bowlers." Ed Brannell describing Bill Gibson and Fred McAfee (The Big Operator)
"Now we'll try to throw a curve. That ought to be easy for you." Pete Morgan teaching Lily Stevens how to bowl (Road House).
Lightning Louie: "So who told you to ask me?"
Candy: "The pin boy in the bowling alley." (Pickup on South Street)
Before becoming an "all-American" recreational sport, bowling had a somewhat noirish history. After first being introduced by Dutch Colonists in the 17th century, the game eventually attracted the attention of gamblers, who saw its money-making potential and began to infest the game, prompting Connecticut to ban 9-pin bowling in 1841 with other states soon following suit. (Bowling lore has it that in order to get around these laws, inventive enthusiasts merely added another pin, thus giving birth to the game of 10-pin bowling as we know it today.)
Up until World War II, the bowling alley had a reputation similar to that of the pool hall: an adjunct to the local saloon, attracting heavy-drinking, chain-smoking tough guys and sharks itching to separate the unwary from their dough. This dark image stuck until the 1950s when the American public began to embrace bowling as a family activity, thanks in part to the invention of the automatic pin-setter in 1950 and the popularity of television shows like "Bowling for Dollars." It comes as no real surprise, therefore, that bowling gets a passing mention or that bowling alleys make at least a few brief appearances in a handful of films noirs. These alleys serve as hang-outs for thieves, killers, ex-cons, kidnappers, juvenile delinquents, and racists (Try and Get Me, Shakedown, Red Light, The Human Jungle, Stakeout on Dope Street, Nobody Lives Forever, Storm Warning); places where noir characters find diversion from the pressures of daily life (Tension, Pushover); final refuges of normalcy before impending personal tragedy (Follow Me Quietly Crime in the Streets); spider webs that ensnare the unwary and the temporarily innocent (Try and Get Me, The Man in the Vault); wrong choices that lead to the noir protagonist's downfall (Pushover, Criss Cross, Try and Get Me); or places of sexual conquest (Road House).
Road House is the only noir in which the bowling alley is a vital setting. Jefty's Road House in the small town of Elton is a combination lounge, bowling alley (only thirty cents a line), and pool parlor owned by the psychopathic Jefty Robbins. Jefty and his business manager, Pete Morgan, were pin boys when Jefty's father owned the joint. Direct from Chicago on a six-week stint, singer and piano player Lily Stevens, appears nightly in the aptly named The Spare Room lounge for a cool two fifty a week. She turns out to be so good that even the most rabid bowlers temporarily abandon their games to catch her act, doubling business at the bar. The beautiful singer eventually causes friction between the romantically inclined Jefty and his manager, Pete Morgan, who seems more concerned with her budget-breaking salary than her good looks or talent. After Lily hints that she wants to learn how to bowl, Jefty forces his reluctant manager to be her instructor. She shows up for her first lesson wearing a provocative, tight-fitting blouse and throws several gutter balls (one of them into an adjoining alley). When Pete ignores her flirtations, she casually bowls a strike, demonstrating that her ineptitude had been a cagey put-on. The romance eventually catches fire but, because of Jefty's psychotic jealousy, the town of Elton will have to do without a bowling alley for a while.
Bowling alleys are minor plot devices in the following noirs:
Angel Face: Former ambulance driver Frank Jessup can't make it to the hospital bowling tournament because he is out with his new lady friend, the psychotic Diane Tremayne. His buddy Bill, however, rolls a 245 in the second game and eventually ends up winning Frank's former steady, Mary Wilton, on the rebound. Frank never bowls another game with his team.
Crime in the Streets: On his way home from bowling, Mr. McAllister is jumped by members of a teen gang called the Hornets, who are determined to kill him for turning in one of their buddies to the cops and for slapping gang leader Frankie Dane.
Criss Cross: The after-dinner conversation at the Thompson household turns to the evening's social activities. An elderly dinner guest invites Steve Thompson, to go bowling with him. "No," Steve replies, "I'm no bowler, Pop." What Steve turns out to be is a first-class patsy who, if he had known what fate had in store for him, may have chosen to roll a few lines at the neighborhood alley that night instead of heading for the local hot-spot to look up his scheming ex-wife, Anna.
Double Indemnity: Even potential killers need a break from the psychological pressure of their noir schemes. Walter Neff, concerned about hints from Phyllis Dietrichson that she'd like to see her middle-aged husband involved in a fatal accident, unwinds at the local bowling alley, informing the viewer that "I didn't want to go back to the office, so I dropped by a bowling alley at Third and Western and rolled a few lines. Get my mind thinking about something else for a while." Bowling doesn't help Walter get the beautiful Mrs. Dietrichson off his mind, as evidenced by his 2-10 split.
Fixed Bayonets: Pinned down by the enemy in the snow-steeped mountains of Korea, American GIs bowl using snowballs and, for pins, their bullets. Pvt. Walowicz dreams of opening a bowling alley with his buddy, Whitey, when they are discharged. "All I want to do is roll a couple of lines.... There's nothing like the thrill of a good, clean strike," Walowicz says.
Follow Me Quietly: Joe Overbeck returns home on his bowling night to find that his wife has been strangled.
The Human Jungle: Mobster Leonard Ustick sponsors a woman's bowling team and supplies them with shirts advertising his Ustick Loan Company, a front for his illegal activities.
Man in the Vault: While solo bowling, locksmith Tommy Dancer meets small-time gangster Willis Trent. Trent buddies up to him, betting $10 that Tommy can't throw three strikes in the last frame. After paying off his bet, Trent then lures the naive bowler to his home, where he hires him to open a locked box as a test of his skills and eventually forces him to do a special "key job" on a bank safety deposit box containing $250,000 belonging to a rival gangster. Tommy reluctantly breaks into the box but hides the dough he finds there in a locker at Art Linkletter's La Cienega Lanes. When he tries to retrieve the money in the middle of the night from the pitch black bowling alley, he is shot at by a hood who had tailed him there. Tommy escapes by throwing a well-aimed bowling pin at the burglar alarm, setting it off.
Nobody Lives Forever: Doc Ganson and his goons kidnap Gladys Halvorsen and hold her in a night watchman's shack on the pier. In on the kidnapping, the night watchman plans to signal an accomplice at an all-night bowling alley by telephoning and reserving a lane there.
Pushover: Lona McLane makes Detective Paul Sheridan an interesting offer: she'll run off with him if he will help her relieve her bank robber lover of the two hundred grand from his last job. Paul, smitten with Mona and the prospect of wealth, mopes around his apartment struggling with his conscience and forgets that it is his regular bowling night. His partner, Detective Rick McAllister, calls him from the alley to chastise him.
Red Light: Some cons go looking for dames when they're released from the joint but not Nick Cherney, a jailbird who'd rather toss a few at the Casino Alleys on Market Street, where he impresses a janitor by bowling two strikes in a row. "Talk about luck," says the janitor. "You must have been living right lately." "Where I've been, they won't let you live any other way," Nick replies. Hoping for a third strike, Nick is interrupted in mid-approach by his former boss, Johnny Torno, who correctly suspects that Nick was involved in the recent murder of his brother, Father Jess Torno. Johnny invites him into the men's room, where he decks the ex-con with a right cross to the chin.
Shakedown: Colton's Bowling Alley is more than just a place for beer guzzling buddies out on the town. It is a front for the hoodlum Harry Colton and his boys, who operate out of the rear office. While the lanes are shown onscreen for only a few seconds (when newspaper photographer Jack Early makes his first blackmailing visit) the attentive viewer will detect in later scenes the crash of falling pins in the distance, symbolic perhaps of Harry's and Jack's imminent downfalls.
Stakeout on Dope Street: Three young men pawn a briefcase they found and use the four dollars to go bowling at the Redondo Recreation Center. Later they realize they can buy the bowling alley if they want to because the cosmetics jar they removed from the briefcase contains two pounds of uncut heroin.
Storm Warning: New York fashion model Marsha Mitchell arrives in the small southern town of Rocky Point to visit her newlywed sister, Lucy Rice. While walking to the Recreation Center, a local bowling alley/bar where Lucy works as a waitress, Marsha witnesses the shooting of a jailhouse prisoner by men wearing white hoods. At the Center, against the almost deafening backdrop of bowling balls smashing their targets, Lucy tells Marsha that the murdered man was an investigative reporter who had been jailed on trumped-up drunk driving charges because he was working on an exposé of the Klan. Marsha later learns that the Recreation Center is a hang-out for KKK members and their supporters, evidently big bowling aficionados, who hold a boisterous celebration there after a jury decides that the reporter was killed by "assailant or assailants unknown."
Tension: After his wife leaves him for a well-to-do businessman, pharmacist Warren Quimby tries to forget his troubles by solo bowling at the Culver City Recreation Center.
Try and Get Me: Unemployed Howard Tyler stops by the local alley for a short beer and finds himself admiring the bowling form of a sociopathic armed robber by the name of Jerry Slocum. When Jerry befriends him and offers him a job as his getaway driver, the desperate family man accepts, sealing his fate.