Guilty Bystander is based on the 1949 book of the same title by Wade Miller (a pseudonym for two authors, Bill Miller and Robert Wade), in which they introduced the character of police detective Max Thursday, a private detective who subsequently appeared in five more novels. Guilty Bystander is a strangely compelling, very atmospheric film noir. The movie is not quite entirely satisfying, but its offbeat casting and the odd, meandering story (which is largely seen through the hung-over haze of its main character) can hold the interest of casual viewers, and it makes superb visual and dramatic use of actual New York locations, including the inside of a subway tunnel. Zachary Scott is perfect as the alcoholic, tormented Max Thursday, offering a performance several layers deeper than his work as Fielding Carlisle in Flamingo Road during the prior year -- he not only looks completely dissipated, but he seems like he is really tearing himself apart inside. Faye Emerson deglamorized her look for the part of Thursday's ex-spouse, and is utterly convincing as a somewhat attractive housewife and single mother. Mary Boland overacts somewhat in the role of Smitty, the rooming house owner who is closer to the plot than Thursday guesses. J. Edward Bromberg, in what was his final performance, gives a memorably convincing turn as a vicious gangster with a heart condition; and Sam Levene is spot-on perfect as Thursday's ex-boss, Capt. Mark Tonetti. Among the supporting players are several faces that would become more familiar in the next ten to 15 years, including Kay Medford as a woman of easy virtue and big ambitions, and Harry Landers as a strong-arm man. The camera work, even in the daylight shots, is harsh and shadowy, in keeping with the way that the panicked, struggling alcoholic Thursday sees things, and many of the exterior shots have the look of newsreel footage, giving it startling verisimilitude -- the violence, when it comes, is always shown at odd angles that don't reveal more to us than Thursday is able to perceive in whatever state he is in at a particular moment.
by Bruce Eder review