It's a Film Noir, in case you were wondering. Roger Ebert has apparently called it one of the greatest Noirs and it was chosen in 1991 to go in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. No, I hadn't heard of it either. It's adapted by Daniel Mainwaring under the name of Geoffrey Homes from his own novel, Build My Gallows High, which I think sounds like a much cooler title.
What's more, unlike many films of this era, you'll have heard of some of its stars. They're Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, in what I was surprised to learn was only his second movie. He's already into his thirties, is playing the bad guy and looks pretty much the finished article. Interestingly he plays him quite lightly, giving him plenty of charm when he's not actually threatening someone. He's good at that too, though. Yikes. I wouldn't argue with him. Meanwhile Mitchum is playing the lead and makes a perfect fit with Film Noir, even if his line delivery is occasionally a bit too laconic for my tastes. He's got the size, the attitude and those lazy eyes. I also love the way he hits people. He's a strong protagonist, but you wouldn't really call him the hero.
I hadn't heard of Jane Greer, the female lead, but she's got a juicy role that any actress would kill to play today. You know they talk about femme fatales in Noir? Despite keeping you wondering for a while, this one's a doozy. "She can't be all bad; no one is." "She comes the closest." Is she merely a liar, or is she a fickle creature who believes what she says while she says it? You'll have to watch a whole lot of movies to find a character, either male or female, who carries around quite so much danger and unpredictability. Admittedly for quite a while she doesn't seem to be anywhere near as black as I'm painting her, but give her time. It'll come out. She has layers. It's particularly fun to watch her keep trying her old tricks even when it's obvious that she's evil and lying through her teeth, especially since there's always a question mark about how Mitchum will react.
The other characters include plenty of the usual types. There are other women, including one (Rhonda Fleming) whose bust struck me as being a secondary focus of her first scene. Apparently she was famous for her beauty even among Hollywood stars and once unintentionally confounded a cameraman who as a joke deliberately tried to shoot her badly. He couldn't do it. No matter how poorly he shot her scenes, she always looked gorgeous in them.
As for the plot, it's one of those slightly spiky stories that you couldn't quite imagine Hollywood making today. I found the first half-hour actually uncomfortable to watch. Douglas hires Mitchum for a job, but Mitchum starts ignoring his orders and before long is actually lying to him. This is not going to end well. This is underlined further by the film actually starting years later when Mitchum's gone to ground running a small-town gas station and Douglas's henchman has at last found him. At first I assumed this was going to go like David Cronenberg's A History of Violence
and that everyone would turn out to be a gangster. Well, not quite. The job's all told to us in flashback, as Mitchum makes a few belated explanations to his girlfriend. Sure enough, the final upshot is trouble. However after a while the story took new turns and I was able to relax into the film, mostly because the truth had come out and Mitchum's troubles were at last in the open instead of lying in wait for him. Don't think things get simpler, though. One contemporary critic said that:
"If only we had some way of knowing what's going on in the last half of this film, we might get more pleasure from it. As it is, the challenge is worth a try."
This is useful because it's always good to hear the moron's point of view. Ignore him. What's happening later in the film is that Mitchum's spotted trouble coming and is taking preventative steps, which means a bit of cat-and-mouse among the various players. That's slightly unusual for a movie. Hollywood's usual mode of operation is to spring a trap on its hero, then follow it up with an info-dump to explain what we just saw. This is a bit different. The trap isn't particularly complicated, but to keep abreast of it, you'll have to be capable of following explanations along the lines of "X was planning to do Y, which didn't happen".
What's more, the story contains surprises. We all know that Film Noir is happy to kill off any or all of its protagonists, so you can't make the cosy modern assumption that our heroes are going to get out okay. It's a well-constructed story, but by dumbed-down modern standards it's been built in a slightly unusual shape. Nothing revolutionary, mind you. It's not Citizen Kane or anything like that. It's just that the modern McKee method tends to produce stories that have a clear view of the finish line and never stop moving forward, whereas this one's happy to take what look like side-steps from time to time. Mind you, having said that, there's always enough to keep the plot boiling with the Greer character around.
I should also mention that I underestimated the ending. I'm not talking about the twists. They're great, but there's a point at the end where one character asks a huge question of another. The answer isn't what she (and we) wanted to hear, but if you think about it, you'll realise that the speaker might have been lying. Maybe that was the answer his listener needed, even if she didn't know it.
Wikipedia says that this film is considered a Film Noir classic because of its "convoluted, dreamlike storyline" (eh?) and "chiaroscuro cinematography". I'll take their word for it. I suspect that rewatching this film will be a completely different experience, but on this first viewing it struck me as one of those films that are impressive rather than fun. It doesn't really have a hero, although I'm splitting hairs here and there's no question that Mitchum is the leading man. In its own hard-boiled way, it's about classical drama rather than escapist adventure. It takes its time about laying its cards on the table, but they're damn good cards once they're down there.