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. 

Sleep My Love (1948)

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It’s an alarming cold open. Allison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up on a train to Boston with a gun in her purse and no recollection of how she got there. It drives her into a fit of hysterics that riles up the whole train, though a fellow passenger (Queenie Smith) attempts to steady her nerves. We can’t blame her much since she’s been through quite the ordeal. Still, Courtland spends the entire picture trying to figure out what’s happening as does the audience.

Her concerned husband is played by Don Ameche that suave and charismatic heartthrob. It’s easy to see how he could be absolutely charming in comedy fare (ie. Midnight). Here he’s not so enjoyable. Perhaps in attempting drama, he comes off as too flat. There’s not enough definition there to be compelling. He’s just another handsome face.

Meanwhile, Allison’s evenings are haunted by a specter of a man (George Colouris) who keeps her under psychological duress with broader implications that tie him to a sultry and sulking siren and an entire plot to discredit Allison’s sanity through hypnosis and mind games. If it sounds ludicrous it is but Hollywood was mesmerized by the powers of such forces in the post-war years.

Because you see, she conveniently is the holder of a large inheritance and it seems like a lot of people want a piece of the pie and they’ve gone to great lengths to get it. Hazel Brooks continues in the same mode as Body and Soul (1947) providing the film’s femme fatale, Daphne, sizzling with avarice.

Most people are probably not accustomed to Douglas Sirk and film noir together but this movie proves it to be so, unfolding as an eery paranoia-filled drama that is very much brethren with Hitchcock thrillers like Suspicion (1941) or even Notorious (1946) along with George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944). And some of the broad aspects of psychological conspiracy are akin to I am Julia Ross (1945). However, Sleep My Love does enough to carve out its own unique path even if it’s not as prominent as these earlier titles.

Because Claudette Colbert far from going it alone finds a formidable ally in Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings), a friend of one of Courtland’s old acquaintances the bubbly Barby (Rita Johnson). Elcott becomes quite the sleuth and a character of tremendous integrity who seems a far better fit for our leading lady than her actual husband. He’s also falling for her.

A high water mark of the film is an extended wedding sequence that is surprisingly fascinating. First off, it’s rather remarkable because it shows a wedding between a Chinese-American couple (Keye Luke and Marya Marco) and it plays it straight and true without any stereotypical sentiment. It feels like a real wedding and an authentic portrayal of this union without the necessity of needless bigotry to sully the moment.

The evening festivities prove equally joyous for our stars who form a quality bond and what feels like it could have been an unfortunate aside becomes one of the film’s most diverting sequences choosing to forego dime a dozen drama for a bit of depth.

In subsequent scenes, Keye Luke, Bruce’s “brother” from his extended time in China becomes his right-hand man as he tries to get to the bottom of Mrs. Courtland’s curious situation that turns perilous very, very quickly. It blows up in the end with a domino effect of dramatic trip wires that set off all sorts of outcomes that came hurtling to their conclusions as quickly as they began. It’s over the top certainly but no less a gripping finale if the film is given leeway in the areas of realism.

If this film is not what we would come to think of in Douglas Sirk there’s no doubt that it feels less dated than most, anthropologically speaking, coming from an intellectual man who seems to carry an open-minded and forward-thinking approach.

Likewise, the intense interest in the human psyche might have matured in the years since, but there’s little doubt that it still holds a prominent place in our modern world with its ceaseless intricacies. One could say psychological complexity is one of the reasons movies still get made today. That and a craving for romance.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Clock (1948)

TheBigClock.jpgWith its rather dreary title aside, The Big Clock is actually an enjoyable thriller that works like well-oiled clockwork. It’s true that oftentimes the most relatable noir heroes are not the hardboiled detectives, although they might be tougher and grittier, it’s the hapless everymen who we can more easily empathize with. Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum are great but sometimes it’s equally enjoyable to have someone who doesn’t quite fit the elusive parameters that we unwittingly draw up for film-noir. Ray Milland is a handsome actor and he was at home in both screwball comedies (Easy Living) and biting drama (The Lost Weekend). He’s not quite what you would describe as a prototypical noir hero.

In some fascinating way, The Big Clock falls somewhere in the middle of those two reference points and to explain the very reasons it becomes necessary to start from the beginning. In fact, our story opens in a cold open that’s foreboding, shadowy and tense. The reasons being we don’t quite know yet and that’s how we get to know George Stroud (Milland), a workaholic chief editor of a crime magazine. He’s got a lovely wife (Margaret O’Sullivan) and a kid but, really, he’s married to his vocation. He’s never even been on a proper honeymoon.

And the reason for all this is Mr. Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) the newspaper magnate with the vice-like grip and enigmatic way about him. He’s very practical in how he shows his displeasure (docking pay and firing employees at will) and it also allows him to exercise complete control in all facets of his business. That and the fact that his life is constantly on schedule, perfectly epitomized by the giant clock that has become the emblematic tourist attraction of his empire.

It’s a fascinating reflection of modern times circa 1940s Hollywood with international communication, journalists, and media conglomerates helping the world to function on a national level with mass media. Oddly enough, the story hardly conjures up Citizen Kane but instead the crime-filled frames of While the City Sleeps.

This film functions on two layers due to the fact that someone has been murdered. The blame is being pinned on a phantom man who looks strikingly like our hero, but simultaneously, the evil lurks close at hand. And things begin to fall into place. Strout is called upon to close in this criminal but only he knows that the man they are trying to capture is him. It’s complicated by the fact that, conveniently, he’s also the only one who knows for sure of his own innocence. After all, he would have known if he murdered someone. Here lies the tension as the film comes full circle back to its beginning – back to its climactic moments. Now we comprehend what’s at stake.

But what sets The Big Clock apart is the satisfaction in every little human interaction. The many characterizations are surprisingly lively and are at times fit more for a comedy than the darkened hallways of film-noir. Rita Johnson takes well as a bit of a femme fatale while Laughton pulls off his role with a certain sphinxlike iciness. Meanwhile, Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester delivers a scene-stealing performance as an eccentric artist who finds herself at the center of this entire investigation because of one of her very outlandish (and incriminating) paintings. And as every noir needs a thug, a menacing, mute Harry Morgan carries the mantle as is necessary–thank goodness he got promoted to M*A*S*H in due time. Everyone else, from the bartender to the elevator girl, to bar regulars all have wonderful moments to shine and show some personality that fills out the frames of the narrative.

Furthermore, John Seitz’s photography is on point, his camera roving with the necessary precision making for dynamic sequences while also developing the perfect tonalities of light and dark within the corridors of the mega news conglomerate. Director John Farrow is not all that well-remembered, but either way, The Big Clock stands tall as a quality film-noir that still somehow finds ways to be invariably funny. It’s a rare but still greatly welcomed combination.

4/5 Stars