Holiday Classics: “Cover Up” (1949)

Small towns make ideal settings for all manner of stories. They’re the perfect picturesque location for light-hearted holiday affair, with charming homes and storefronts all aglow. They’re also the perfect spot to situate a murder mystery, the friendly facades and the fact that everyone knows everyone giving way to suspicion and doubt. The 1949 noir film “Cover Up,” helmed by Alfred E. Green (an efficient director whose career started with two-reelers in the mid-1910s and lasted until 1954) is an effective blend of both these genres.

Barbara Britton and Dennis O’Keefe as Anita and Sam Donovan in “Cover Up”

“Cover Up” opens on a light note. Insurance investigator Sam Donovan (Dennis O’Keefe) has arrived in a small Midwestern town during the holidays. He meets a pretty woman on the train (Anita, played by Barbara Britton) and helps her carry her bundle of Christmas packages. But it turns out that Sam is there to investigate the supposed suicide of a client, Roger Phillips, whose insurance policy contained a double indemnity clause that would pay out extra money in the event that Phillips was murdered— which the actual evidence appears to point to. Is it weird that an insurance man would be so bent on proving the town’s uncooperative sheriff (Larry Best, played by the great William Bendix) wrong, resulting in his company having to dish out more dough? Kind of, but O’Keefe sells Donovan’s interest with his tough delivery and hard-boiled demeanor. It’s a persona that the actor, who made uncredited appearances in over 100 films throughout the 1930s before becoming a mainstay in light musical comedy fare, had recently honed in noir films such as Anthony Mann’s “T-Men” and “Raw Deal.”

William Bendix as Sheriff Larry Best in “Cover Up”

O’Keefe had another stake in “Cover Up” behind the scenes. With Jerome Odlum, he co-wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Jonathan Rix. When producer Ted Nasser fiddled with the script just prior to the start of shooting, moving the story’s setting to spring and removing all references to the Christmas holiday. Nasser believed the Christmas backdrop wasn’t appropriate for such a sordid tale, but O’Keefe refused to move forward with the project unless the changes were revoked. They were, and the result makes “Cover Up” an even more fascinating project than it already was. Donovan quickly realizes that the dead man was despised by the entire town (the bus driver at the start of the film is practically grinning when he informs Anita of Phillips’ passing), and the dark secrets that emerge from all these townsfolk with their friendly facades (the scenes where we get to hang around Anita’s family are legitimately charming) create a great friction with the holiday setting. A tree lighting ceremony, usually such a joyous community gathering, turns into a hotbed of whispers as some devastating news comes to light. But there’s a reverence shown for tradition too; away from home for the holidays, Green still makes time to show Donovan placing presents under a Christmas tree.

Ultimately, “Cover Up,” like many of the best noir films, dismantles the post-war idealism that many Americans liked to parade. Further hammering home the point, the suicide (or murder) weapon turns out to be a German Luger, which means it must have belonged to someone who served. Even in small town America, even during the most cheerful season, the dark side of humanity can’t hide forever.

“Cover Up” is streaming for free on Tubi. Runtime: 83 minutes.

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