Impact (1949)

Impact_1949_poster.jpg“In this world, you turn the other cheek and get hit by a lug wrench.”

Impact is literally bookended by a dictionary that is opened and then closed with a concise description of the titular phrase to frame our narrative. It couldn’t be more uninspired but the word “impact” gives us some reason to hope the movie within those covers will offer some thrills.  We must brace ourselves.

The story follows Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) the world’s most perfect industrialist and husband. He can overturn deadlocked board meetings with his stunning entrances and continually rains down affection on his wife looking forward to a weekend away in Tahoe together.

Of course, his wife (Helen Walker) has other ideas. She plays the docile and lovey-dovey wife but really she’s up to something. We see it all too quickly. Mrs. Williams is looking to get rid of her husband with the help of her boyfriend and her hubby isn’t any the wiser. He’s a sitting duck.

The script penned by Jay Dratler relies on the fact that though he gets left for dead at the side of the road, it’s a botched attempt and while disoriented, Mr. Williams is still alive.

The film is mostly encumbered by its length as it starts to sag in the middle so that even Ella Raines’ entry about halfway through the picture isn’t enough to salvage the wreckage. She shows up in all places as a mechanic in a small Idaho town and business hasn’t been good lately.

Once again Mr. fix-it Walter Williams is there to save the day. Conveniently, he keeps his past a secret. He’s happy with this simple life away from the drama that’s happening back home. Here he can go to church on Sundays and have lazy strolls out in nature. One frenzied sequence involves the volunteer fire department stirring into action which Walter readily joins.

Back home a Lt. Quincy (Charles Coburn) is making a routine going over of the case and Mrs. Williams is making arrangements of her own unaware of the unfortunate turns her plans took.

The film would have done well to have a leaner line of action because it comes out of the mayhem feeling like 2 or 3 separate movies. There are the delightful noir bits of an unfaithful wife trying to work with her lover to end her husband a la The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Then, there’s an ensuing court case where Williams finds the murder rap turned on him. Again, not unlike the high stakes scenario in the former film.

But in the middle, bisecting the picture in half is a warm slice of Middle America by way of Idaho with its palpable geniality acting as an oasis. It could have used with some shaving down. Otherwise, we have some great location footage of San Francisco and the Sausalito area circa 1949. The performances are fine though neither Donlevy or Raines particularly pop.

Anna May Wong essentially plays the movie from the sidelines as a maid until she’s absolutely necessary to save the story; it’s a major pity she was not utilized better. Helen Walker, however, gives a deliciously malicious performance as the wife who never denies loving another man and yet looks to get out of her fix to save her pretty little neck. It’s individuals such as herself that make film-noir a veritable breeding ground for truly degenerate reflections of humankind. However, Impact could have been so much more potent.

3/5 Stars

Shanghai Express (1932)

shanghaiex2The same year as Grand Hotel there came another film, that while still boasting an ensemble cast felt far more intimate. In its day it was christened “Grand Hotel on wheels” and its narrative does unravel aboard a train. However, Josef von Sternberg’s film opens with a faceless atmosphere spilling over with the bustling commotion of a railway station. It takes a few moments to lock onto the characters we will be making the journey with, but we won’t soon forget them.

The always reputable Eugene Palette, perpetually gambling his way to Shanghai. The invalid opium dealer is rather an annoying fellow, and the man of faith appears conventionally narrow-minded, although he does make a turn for the better. Warner Oland takes on a more menacing iteration of his Charlie Chan character, while Anna May Wong gets a well-deserved role as a fellow passenger who shares a room with the famed Shanghai Lilly, the fastest lady in the East. Yes, Marlene Dietrich is Lilly, a woman of notorious reputation, but she also carries a distant, wistful love affair in her memories. The train to Shanghai brings all that hurtling back in the form of Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brooks).

All this is set against the backdrop of a Chinese nation fraught with unrest. When the engine isn’t impeded by a stray cow or chicken, Chinese soldiers board it to apprehend an enemy agent. But that’s just the beginning. The rebels retaliate by holding up the train as well and questioning all the passengers on their financial and political capital. It’s a tense sequence of events that has no simple resolution.

shanghaiex1It is in these moments that are two female heroines must act. Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) so that she might defend the honor of herself and her country. Lilly so that she might express the great, expansive depths of the love she still holds for “Doc.”

Shanghai Express exhibits a simplistic view of religious faith as well love, but perhaps that’s actually one of its strengths. It suggests that faith and love go hand and hand whether it be Christianity or romantic relationships. It’s true that there’s no greater act of love than someone laying down their life or putting their life on the line for friends. There’s nothing overly melodramatic here, but everyone ends up where they are supposed to and justice is dealt. It’s an eventful, passionate, perilous train ride indeed.

Ironically enough, this is a film for the masses that completely disregards their class in favor of the first class club car. Except you could make the argument that they rather preferred the sumptuous extravagance of the upper classes to their own Depression-filled lives. Movies most certainly were the grandest of escapes from reality. Shanghai Express undoubtedly quenched their desire. At the same time, it’s simultaneously a story of exotic intrigue and human drama that blends the prodigal and the personal in high fashion.

To its credit, the film makes comment on Warner Oland’s complete lack of ability to look Asian, although he does fall into some other stereotypical potholes. Also, it acknowledges the preconceived expectations of Asian women that Anna May Wong resoundingly rebuts with her performance. She represents everything pushing back against the Yellow Face of Oland’s numerous portrayals. The effort by Asians to get more complex, multidimensional, and sympathetic. The path is still yet to be fully paved, and representation in media for any class or race is never going to be fully realized. We can never expect it to be perfect or overly politically correct. Because humanity is inherently broken and always and forever incorrect.

You can certainly say that Marlene Dietrich unequivocally overshadowed the career of her longtime lover and collaborator Joseph von Sternberg, but Shanghai Express belongs to both of them. He as her director. She as his muse. Despite, its meager running time, it’s a fine achievement and an enduring Pre-Code classic. 

4/5 Stars