They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

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We open in a courtroom and with a flashback but what’s stunning is that the man relating the information is on the witness stand and also the defendant in a murder trial. So much hangs in the balance of the perspective he’s about to disclose and that’s how the picture nabs us. Often there’s no import to the use of voiceover. It’s only a stylistic choice or a bit of lazy storytelling utilized without a great deal of forethought. This testimony actually matters.

The man in question is one Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). His Saturday afternoons most recently have been spent in the company of his “Skipper” Janice Bell (Jane Greer) and their relationship is full of good humor. You can see it on their faces that they enjoy each other’s company tremendously. But he has a wife of 5 years. It’s the old story. He’s only realizing now when another woman comes into the picture that he never really loved Helen (Rita Johnson), marrying her instead for her healthy endowment. She’s quite rich.

We can discern already a tale of adultery is in the works as Larry plans to break the news to his wife and leave with Janice for Montreal though the other woman wants no part of being a homewrecker. Still, Helen loves him dearly and tries to do everything to salvage their marriage so Larry relents and vows to stay with her. He ditches Janice without even a word of goodbye.

But he’s a man with a pathological problem and although his wife has set him up with a cushy job, he’s already up to his philandering ways again. One day his alluring secretary (Susan Hayward) saves his neck with the boss and starts to flirt with him. It begins again. Secluded cafes. Hidden spots — a game of “hide and seek with fate” as Larry so aptly puts it. He’s hardly phased by Virna’s admission to being a gold digger and while Helen vows never to divorce him, he plans to clean out their joint checking account and run off with Virna.

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Up to this point, They Won’t Believe Me is an engaging albeit straightforward tale of infidelity but then it goes wildly out of control as Larry’s life careens off the tracks. He leaves his wife a note with no forwarding address as he goes off with his latest gal toward fateful consequences. Later, he winds up meeting an understandably aloof Janice again in Jamaica of all places. He is clearing his head. It’s unclear how she got there. But it’s yet another prime example, to evoke Detour (1945), of how so often fate can put the finger on you. There’s no chance of getting away from it.

There’s also the sense this is a picture and a version of film noir that is akin to the common everyday circumstances of James M. Cain’s crime novels. But this is spun in such a way where we still have empathy for our perpetrator. The same can hardly be said of Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

However, the moral ambiguity is still very much apparent to the final moment when an explosive action twists up the narrative threads in such a way that’s meant to evoke some form of cognitive dissonance. How are we suppose to respond to it all?

Because the film’s title is almost beside the point. It’s one of those lurid melodramatic billboard toppers meant to make you look up and take notice. But as per usual, it doesn’t actually get to the core themes of the film nor does it really matter. Whether or not he is believed is an arbitrary issue. Larry might as well have been a killer. This is the quintessential role (aside from The Mortal Storm) if you are looking for something to subvert your view of Robert Young as the world’s perfect father. Here he’s the perfect cad.

They Won’t Believe Me also deserves note for its producer Joan Harrison who began as Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary and eventual co-screenwriter before she became one of the pioneering female producers in Hollywood and a great one at that.

This picture can be added to an illustrious list of noirs including The Phantom Lady (1943) and Ride The Pink Horse (1947). Perhaps her influence is most obviously felt in the fact that our female characters have a rather refreshing resonance. Though they might be unfairly used and manipulated there’s a certain traction to the roles that give them an extra dimension often lacking in other works. Each performance adds something of value to the picture.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: The reissued version of They Won’t Believe Me put out in 1957 was cut down to 80 minutes. 

The Big Steal (1949)

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Granted you have star power but it’s easy to assume that The Big Steal will be a no name picture. A minor triumph at best. Not so! This film fares far better than countless of its bigger competitors.

It proves to be a winking romp full of bedroom brawls, car chases, and twists and turns every which way that send us whipping through Mexico. Equally important to the pace of the action is the levity of the script from Daniel Mainwaring (under a pseudonym) that gives our stars something to do and they do it effortlessly.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (partnered again after the undisputed classic Out of the Past) meet as the two obvious foreigners in a sea of locals as Mitchum is getting accosted by a street vendor to buy a parrot. He’s one of those foreigners coming off as a buffoon navigating other cultures and the languages that go with them. Though I can’t ride him too hard as one of those blundering Americans myself. Still, his Spanish is mediocre at best and she is aghast at his cultural insensitivity. So right there you have the needed romantic tension and things only get better going forward.

Because their association doesn’t end there. Of course, it doesn’t. Duke Halladay is out to nab the man named Fiske (Patric Knowles) who absconded with some of his hard earned cash and Joan had a similar job pulled on her — the man of questionable integrity also just happened to be her boyfriend.

The unlikely partnership is formed after Mitchum leaps for the running board of the other man’s fleeing vehicle and winds up dragging Greer in front of the Inspector General to explain the public disturbance.

The Inspector General (Ramon Novarro) happens to be a budding pupil in English as his second in command (Don Alvarado) attended the University of California which while being convenient for the story also manages to make our Mexican characters into actual individuals who are endowed with an animated quality all their own.

If the main chase is our leading couple trying to track down Fiske, who gives them the slip on multiple occasions then the scenario simply gets more convoluted as Duke’s superior (William Bendix) is tailing him. They have some unfinished business to attend to because Blake believes the other man took part in a theft of his own. Thus, The Big Steal is just that. Even the soft-spoken John Qualen (probably best remembered for Casablanca) gets in on the party and flaunts a bit of a villainous side.

Some of the finer moments are the lighter ones. There’s the ongoing patter of the dialogue firing off between Mitchum and Greer which couldn’t be better and it comes from the days where a guy could call a dame “Chaquita” and it’d stick. But the beauty of their relationship is Greer with that quizzical look of hers can dish it right back in Mitchum’s direction.

Likewise, during a winding car chase, the same character can quite seriously exclaim “Watch out for the cow” only to turn right around and create a livestock blockade of his own. Or because we are in rural Mexico cars can get stuck behind a caravan of hay wagons ambling along leisurely. They have no respect for the drama at stake. On another note, I’m flabbergasted that the cars involved survived at all with the dubious amount of off-roading they managed. I guess in the 1940s they built things to last.

There’s one hilarious roadblock in particular where Jane Greer uses her Spanish and Mitchum’s obliviousness to tell a local road worker (Pascual Garcia Pena) that they are madly in love and running away from her disapproving father. They must get through at all costs and it just so happens that Captain Blake is right behind him and receives a fine welcoming committee.

But the key is that the film ends not on the downward plunge but on the upswing as our two lovebirds observe the local mating rituals and give it their own twist. What a great picture and sure, it’s no Out of the Past but no one needs it to be. We already have one of those and The Big Steal is a leisure ride of its own making.

Set this against a backdrop beyond the Mexico border, a spliced together version of on location atmospherics and studio shots, and you are blessed with the wonderful patchwork of authenticity and artificiality that old Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s.

What’s more fascinating is that The Big Steal at least in this form might never have been. Robert Mitchum was hot off his notorious jailtime term because of marijuana possession, an event that undoubtedly solidified his reputation as an antihero. Meanwhile, not too happy with Jane Greer, RKO studio head and temperamental mogul Howard Hughes gave her this role out of spite.

How could a picture this small be any good with a leading man saddled with bad publicity? I cannot speak to contemporary audiences but today The Big Steal plays quite well. We have our stars and screenwriter to thank as well as a young up and coming director named Don Siegel who started out as a montage man and transitioned into B-pictures.

What makes him a wonderful worksmith is how he always seems to have a pulse on the action and he turns situations into truly dynamic entertainment even when it’s on a small scale. He didn’t need a big budget to still make a rip-roaring good time. The Big Steal is a stellar testament to what the Classic Hollywood studios were capable of with meager means. It’s an absorbing effort.

4/5 Stars

Out of the Past (1947) – Film-Noir

13659-outofthepastStarring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, this classic has every element of a good film noir.   Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) makes his living in a small town working at a gas station. He has an honest living and a girl. However, soon his past catches up with him when a man from his former life comes to see him, and he must explain it all to his innocent girlfriend.

Once he was a private investigator, who got mixed up with a powerful man named Whit (Douglas). He wanted some money found, but most importantly he wanted a deadly girl brought back to him. Pretty soon Jeff’s searching leads him down to Mexico. He has a chance meeting with the beautiful woman (Greer), and he understands why Whit wanted her back.

However, Kathie is not eager to go back, and they are attracted to each other. She and Jeff agree to run off together to San Francisco — away from the searching of Whit. They are nearly found out, but they get away. San Francisco is not a nice place, but they make do, until the day where Jeff is spotted by his old partner. He must split up with Kathie and they set a rendezvous. Only there is a hitch in the plan that Jeff did not foresee. He tries to deal with it in his own way, but Kathie takes more drastic measures. She left him there and went out of his life, or so Jeff thought. He had tried to forget his past dealings, and yet they creep back into his life. With a murder pinned on him, Bailey can do nothing but go along with Whit and Kathie. Soon he becomes embroiled in more treachery and backstabbing, which all has to do with the manipulative femme fatale.

With one last entreaty, she urges him to flee with her since they both have dark pasts. In the end, Kathie’s fanciful plan to escape is foiled by Bailey and it soon turns fatal. One last time she tried to control the situation, but this final time Jeff, or at least fate, got the best of her. After his violent death, Jeff’s girl wishes to know once and for all if he was running off with Kathie. A mute boy (Dickie Moore), who knew Jeff well lies so that the girl can continue her life. Because in Jeff’s case the past came back to haunt him. The kid goes back to the station, but not before looking up at Bailey’s name on the sign, because he did what Jeff would have wanted.

With its dialogue, extended flashback, voice over, and femme fatales played by Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming, there are not many noir experiences better than this one. Obviously, the chiaroscuro cinematography is a major aspect of this film. Except for the shots in Bridgeport, it seems like every scene is veiled in shadow whether it takes place in Acapulco or San Fran, at day, night, inside, or out. Shadows are perpetual and they seem to reflect not only these characters but also the story. They are not easy to figure and none of them can ever be fully trusted.

Mitchum is perfect in the role of Jeff Bailey, thanks to his demeanor, his fitting voice, and the constant attire of a trench coat and fedora, with a cigarette clenched in his teeth. He is a man who looks like a saint compared to his acquaintances, and yet he is a man who can show a complex set of traits ranging from avarice, cruelty, love, and sometimes heroism. Kirk Douglas is great in his role as the crooked Whit, who acts the nice guy only to be cruel at heart. Every character from the henchman Joe, to the mute boy, the accomplice Meta  Carson, and even the loyal taxi driver are all memorable in the scenes they show up in. Jane Greer stands out, however, because she is one of the most notorious femme fatales in any noir. I think she toys with the audience as much as she does with Jeff. We find ourselves starting to believe her, then we have our doubts, and then we go on believing her again. It is a fine performance.

5/5 Stars

“She can’t be all bad. No one is.”
“She comes the closest.”
~ Ann and Jeff talking about Kathie