There is arguably no director who is, in retrospect, more important to the film movement that became classified as film noir than German emigre Robert Siodmak. His name isn’t quite as well known as the Billy Wilders or Fritz Langs necessarily but one can contend his influence on this style is without equal.
While not his greatest achievement, The File on Thelma Jordon is yet another example of the man’s proclivities for deliciously shadowy melodrama which, while not always plausible, is more often than not incessantly intriguing.
In this particular case, we are involved with a local district attorney (Wendell Corey). He is a man who loves his wife while not being too fond of her overbearing father. In fact, Cleve conveniently stays away from home whenever the in-laws are around. It’s certainly complicated his marital relationship as of late.
One such night he stays at the office to knock a few back only to cross paths with a Ms. Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) who mistakes him for someone else as she recently inquired about protection for her paranoid aunt — a woman fearful of burglars. On the verge of a real bender, he invites her for a drink and they spend some time together. She’s just what he’s been looking for to fill the void in his life.
Meanwhile, his wife is going away with the kids for a summer at the beach house and he hates to see them leave; he really does. Maybe he knows deep down they are slowly drifting apart and his urges to see the other woman are all but insurmountable. He can’t fight it much longer. There used to be someone — an estranged one-time husband named Tony — but he’s purportedly no longer around. Cleve brushes him off and they keep seeing each other whenever possible.
But their relationship hits a dramatic turn one evening. She calls him up in the thick of night and he comes at her beck and call. They slink in the shadows as she breaks the news to him. Her aunt has been killed by an intruder; the old woman’s worst fears coming to fruition with priceless jewels being stolen from the safe.
The situation is complicated by a frantic Thelma who panicked by altering the crime scene and failing to call the police. Now the man across the road has his interest piqued and comes over to investigate. In the heat of the moment, they must hastily cover everything up as Cleve rushes out of the window and Thelma feigns sleep. It’s all part of an intense interlude coursing through the middle of the picture making the collective heart of the audience pulse with anxiety.
What follows is a murder inquest and then a trial with Ms. Jordon standing as the defendant. She’s got herself a stone-cold and exacting lawyer who could care less about her guilt or innocence. In his mind’s eye, she is innocent and that’s how he plans to win her case regardless.
Meanwhile, Cleve gets put in a very sticky and uncomfortable situation as he finds himself made the prosecuting attorney on the case. As the two sides try to legally sway the jury, the identity of a mysterious Mr. X still swirls around the case, and Cleve tries everything to throw the case in the most indirect ways possible. It’s a perilous balancing act where he will lose something regardless. Siodmak milks it for all its tension as the frenzied proceedings press on with the media jumping on it like ravenous wolves. Someone’s got to be a fall guy. Stay the course and you might be surprised in how the case resolves itself.
Wendell Corey could always be called on for steady and at times wry support but that being so, it’s refreshing to see him in a substantial leading role playing opposite a true professional. They work capably together as the story relies mostly on their two performances.
Barbara Stanwyck is great when she’s bad. Phyllis Dietrichson is the epitome of this fact, remaining one of the crowning achievements of her career. Though a lesser-known incarnation, Thelma Jordon is worthy of some notoriety in her own right.
However, the sublimeness of Stanwyck here is how she never really feels slimy or full of guile, even in the stages when the books are all but closed on her case and we get a fuller picture of who she is. The whole time we are kept constantly guessing and fluttering this way and that in indecision. More than once she surprises us.
The trick to a femme fatale like herself is never consciously deciding to be destructive. She’s doing what she personally believes to be right even if it’s due to a lapse in judgment or an impending sense of fear. I’m sure there was some greed in there too but we all harbor a little bit deep in our hearts somewhere.
So though it ends with a malaise that can only be film noir, there is some sense of rightness in the way everything goes down. It’s not to say there’s not a bite to the picture. When the file closes on Thelma Jordon two lives have been deeply affected forever with far-reaching repercussions. There’s no changing that.