Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shockproof (Columbia, 1948, rel. 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles Shockproof, a 1948 film noir made at Columbia and directed by Douglas Sirk, who had been signed to a Columbia contract in 1942 but didn’t do any work at all for them for five years. During that time Sirk established a reputation making quirky independent films for producers Seymour Nebenzal, Hunt Stromberg and Edward Small — Hitler’s Madman, Summer Storm, A Scandal in Paris and Lured — before hitting the big time, more or less, with Sleep No More (a Mary Pickford production), a Gaslight knockoff with Claudette Colbert as the innocent young woman and Don Ameche as the sinister husband who’s trying to drive her crazy and ultimately knock her off.

Columbia’s president Harry Cohn, whose tenure as a studio head alternated between brilliant decisions (like giving Frank Capra his big break as a director and Rita Hayworth hers as a star) and idiotic mistakes (like firing Marilyn Monroe after her first six-month option in 1948), decided he’d finally give Sirk a Columbia assignment and made him do Slightly French, a screwball comedy (in 1947, when that genre was pretty well dead) in which Don Ameche plays a fired film director who tries to get his job back by passing off Dorothy Lamour as a Frenchwoman. (“I have no feeling for this picture at all,” Sirk told Jon Halliday in their book-length interview.) For Sirk’s next (and, as it turned out, last) Columbia film, Cohn offered him The Lovers, a story by Samuel Fuller (who hadn’t yet directed himself) about convicted murderess Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight), who’s paroled into the custody of tough parole officer Griffin “Griff” Marat (Cornel Wilde, top-billed — a weird role for him reflecting how hard a time Cohn had casting him after his breakthrough as Chopin in A Song to Remember).

Marsh remains in love with gambler Harry Wesson (John Baragrey), who waited for her during her five-year prison stretch after she committed murder in the first place to protect him (the details of her previous crime are left powerfully unstated), but Marat declares him an “undesirable person” and insists that her parole will be revoked if she ever sees him. After she washes out on one job Marat has set up for her, Marat hires her as a maid in his home and caregiver for his blind mother (Esther Minciotti), and ultimately proximity works its magic and Marat falls in love with her himself. Wesson, whom she’s still seeing on the sly (they meet in a public library and are photographed speaking furtively to each other across the bookshelves in a shot Sirk seems to have ripped off the famous meeting between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in a supermarket in Double Indemnity), encourages her to vamp Marat and get him to marry her, which will immediately violate her parole restriction — she’s forbidden to marry anyone as a condition of parole — and get him in trouble.

Eventually Marat proposes marriage to Jenny, and she accepts — not as part of Wesson’s plot but because she’s now genuinely in love with him — and when she visits Wesson and he calls Marat threatening to blackmail him over the marriage, she shoots him. She and Marat escape, and there are quite a few powerful scenes showing them on the run and in particular underscoring the irony of how a man who’s always lived on the right side of the law makes a singularly inept fugitive. Meanwhile, their case becomes the subject of a barrage of newspaper stories, referring to them as “The Lovers” and underscoring the irony of a parolee wanted for murder and fleeing in the company of her parole officer/lover. Samuel Fuller planned to end the movie with a shoot-out between Marat and the police, in which either or both of the lovers would be killed (his comments to Halliday are ambiguous); but the producer, Helen Deutsch, pulled rank on both her director and writer and rewrote the script herself to create a “happy” ending: Marat and Jenny give themselves up, Wesson turns out to have been merely wounded (not killed), and they visit him in the hospital and he forgives them, decides not to press charges and blesses their union.

For all the compromising in the script (Sirk complained to Halliday that Deutsch’s revisions of the script leached out of the movie everything that had interested him and made him want to do it), the unbelievability of the ending and the woodenness of Cornel Wilde (who’s believable in the beginning as the representative of law and order but isn’t a good enough actor to make his transition to love-driven fugitive from justice believable), Shockproof comes off as a finely honed noir with some fascinating aspects, notably the Hitchcockian hero-heroine-villain love triangle and the fact that the villain seems more personable and even, in a way, more honorable than the hero. There’s an anticipation of The Magnificent Obsession in the use of a blind character and also a premonition of Fuller’s own directorial efforts in the use of the media and the contrast between the version of the story given in the newspapers and the “real” one we in the audience see (indeed, one could readily imagine Shockproof being made today with the fugitives’ story being dredged up, after they thought it had been forgotten, by being staged on America’s Most Wanted).

Wilde really isn’t a noir actor — the part cries out for someone more ambiguous, like Dick Powell — but Patricia Knight (then Mrs. Cornel Wilde) is, giving a unique spin on the femme fatale who vamps her man not because she’s evil and wants to destroy him for her own benefit but because she’s traumatized and genuinely torn. While I couldn’t help imagining what Shockproof might have been with the young Marilyn Monroe in the role (had Harry Cohn realized what he had in her, it’s entirely possible he would have cast her as boldly and creatively as he did Kim Novak later and she would have developed quite a different image from the dumb-blonde type she got stuck in at Fox), Knight’s performance is chillingly effective and should have led her to a major career — and John Baragrey also comes off as an unjustly forgotten actor, playing a character who’s been careful to avoid anything out-and-out illegal and, despite Marat’s conviction that it’s only a matter of time before he will break the law and involve Jenny in a situation that will lead her back to prison, Harry has a distinct code of honor which Baragrey communicates vividly.

As one of those good movies that could have been even better, Shockproof is worth watching but also a bit frustrating; afterwards Sirk briefly worked on a third Columbia project, Lulu Belle (another stupid comedy), then got Cohn to cancel his contract and left for Europe for about a year, did the comeback film The First Legion with Charles Boyer on his return and then signed with Universal-International and eventually made the big movies on which his reputation rests.