This has got to be one of the strangest films I have seen in a long time. Not in the sense of arty weird or pointless but because an otherwise straight forward plot takes a very odd turn and makes the whole thing rather strange if not incomprehensible.
I am of course a bit ahead of myself, but I need to make clear from the outset that I did not “get” this movie and therefore may be prone to misjudging it.
Joan Bennett is Lucia Harper, a middle class house wife (in an age where this means a maid, but no loose cash) running a house with a teenage daughter, a younger son and a chatterbox of a father in law. Her husband is away on business and we never see him throughout the movie so she is in charge of affairs at home. The pressing matter is that her daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) is seeing a no-good entity called Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), far too old and far too seedy for Lucia’s taste. He looks him up in L.A. and asks him to stay away from her daughter. When he asks how much it would be worth for her it is pretty clear what he is up to.
Later that evening Bea meets Ted in their boathouse and comes, though reluctant, to the same conclusion and in her effort to get away from Ted she knock him over and he falls down killing himself. It is an accident, but in film noir there are no accidents. Instead Lucia must get rid of the body so Bea will not be charged with murder.
Just as they seem to be in the clear a man shows up by the name of Martin Donnelly (James Mason). He is in possession of a stack of lovely letters Bea wrote Ted Darby, which would incriminate her if handed over to the police. Apparently Darby owed 5000$ to Donnelly and his partner and he is now trying to get them from Lucia instead in return for the letters.
So far so good. A nice and tidy blackmail story about normal, regular people getting accidentally involved with the seedier parts of society. The standard formula would have the blackmailer and the victim standing off in a cat and mouse game until eventually, usually with the help of a detective or the police, the victim gets the upper hand. But this is not a standard story. Something really weird happens. Although Donnelly scares the wits out of Lucia Harper and although he is such a tough guy he falls in love with her. For some odd reason he sympathizes with her and turns from antagonizing her to in the end helping her out.
I do not understand it. Lucia is doing absolutely nothing to lead him on, she in not dressing up and luring him or anything. In fact she does all in her power to get rid of him. She is brave in the sense that she stands as protection for her family against this intruder, but she is also deeply scared of him and clearly out of her depth. Her frantic scrambling to raise 5000$ says it all. So why on earth is he falling for her? Is it some Lima or Stockholm syndrome? I have no idea. The Book warned me of this and still I did not see it coming. The book also suggests that Lucia is manipulating Donnelly, but I do not see that either.
My guess is that Max Ophüls, the director, wanted to see what happened if the bad guy turned into a good guy, vanquished by love. The problem is that, to me at least, it seems to happen forced and out of the blue. Yes, yes, I know, love is a mysterious, uncontrollable force bla bla bla, but really? What exactly happened there?
The interesting thing of course is that this change of events throws the entire story into a different direction. Lucia is as confused as I am and do not know what to make of this guy. We also get Donnelly’s partner on the stage to become the new bad guy. And Donnelly seems to be most confused of all trapped between the two of them.
I am not entirely sure I liked this film. For that I am probably still too confused. Maybe later when the fog clears I will appreciate it more, but at this point it is just clouding my judgment. The best thing about the film (except from the fact that it does not follow template storylines) is the filming itself. It is the kind of movie, like most noir, that could only work in black and white. The house and family is always filmed in bright light, but whenever Ted Darby, Donnelly or the threat from either appears the light tones down and we gets shadows and gloom. James Mason is always wearing dark cloth and Lucie wears bright until she decides to raise the money, then her cloths turn dark as well. It is with the gloom threatening the innocent life that the movie is most successful.
Joan Bennett was better in “Secret Beyond the Door” (and excellent back in 32 in “Me and My Gal”). In 1949 she was 39 years old, but acted as if she was supposed to be 10 years older. It does not look that convincing. You know like when people turn their voices in the way they think their parents sound.
James Mason is better, but then again he is good in even horrible films. This is the first American film I see him in and he does seem to have some trouble shedding his British background, but they just say he is Irish and then that is okay (though I rarely heard a person as ENGLISH English as James Mason…). His problem is to convince us that he has fallen in love with Lucie and unfortunately that is just an insurmountably tall task.
Definitely an odd movie and interesting too. Good?… We will have to see about that.