Sunday, December 30, 2012


Ah, subversion! The title of this fairly obscure Universal feature portends a breezy December entertainment. Even the DVD packaging of the British DVD release presents its two stars Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly cuddling and smiling as though they've just finished singing "Gotta dance!" But this is, in fact, a Robert Siodmak film noir, one of his very best, and one of the most subversive films Hollywood has ever foisted on an unexpecting but horseshoe-lucky public. It's got a kick like a mule.

Every time I see a Siodmak film, it's like I can hear him telling me, "You don't usually see characters like this in movies, but you need to know they exist." Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, this one opens with an inversion of the "tragic telegram" scene you usually get in war pictures. This time, it's an engaged US lieutenant, Charles Mason (Dean Harens), preparing to go on Christmas leave to visit his girl in San Francisco, who receives a telegram from the lady in question telling him not to bother -- she's married another man during his absence. Angered to the point of being murderous, he boards the plane but Fate has other plans. A storm forces his plane down for a temporary stay in New Orleans and there, in a bar on Christmas Eve, he meets a pushy reporter (Richard Whorf) who takes him to the Maison LaFitte, one of those places that 1940s cinema couldn't come right out and call a joint of ill repute, but the reporter arranges for a pretty girl to come over to his table and cheer him up. Things again don't go quite as expected; the girl, Jackie (Durbin), pleads with him to escort her to a Midnight Mass, where she breaks down in tears. He offers to take her home, she asks if they might get a bite to eat first, and in an all-night dive where she's accustomed to wiling away the hours and probably looking for lonely men, she confides her story to the soldier. You can consider all of this the preamble, the frame around the real story Siodmak wants to tell, but probably couldn't tell at the time except in the step-removed form of a story within the story.

Jackie confesses that she's actually Abigail Martin, the wife of a serial killer sentenced to hang and currently in prison. It's in the extended flashbacks that we meet Gene Kelly, playing Robert Manette -- a fresh-faced, boyish, mother-fixated serial killer 15 years before Anthony Perkins rebranded such characters in his own indelible image. Because it's 2012, we've seen characters like this before, but unless some other important title is slipping my mind, audiences of 1945 had not. On the other hand, by 1945, American movie theaters had more than their usual share of fresh-faced, boyish young men in the audience who had been asked to kill on behalf of their motherland, sitting next to young women who, I'm sure, had to deal with those facts in their own ways upon their homecomings.

But the character new to drama in this film is Mrs. Manette, the mother, played with a glacial patrician quality by Gale Sondergaard, made to look somewhat older than she was, who protects her son, helps to cover his tracks, and steps forward as possibly cinema's first homicidal enabler. It's a role she hopes to pass on to Robert's new wife, and when he comes home late one night with blood on his pants, and charms his way out of the doghouse with his new missus, our heart sinks as Durbin smiles and says, in full recognition but without consciousness, "You devil..."

One of the best films I saw this year, possibly the best.

Viewed on DVD-R. 

No comments:

Post a Comment