Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Company She Keeps (RKO, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Company She Keeps is a 1950 film noir of sorts from RKO which begins with “bad girl” Mildred Lynch (Jane Greer) going before a parole board two years into her five-year (indeterminate) sentence for receiving stolen property and cashing bad checks — crimes she blames on the boyfriends she was seeing at the time. The four women members of the parole board outvote the one man (who thinks Mildred is using her sexual wiles to get him to let her out) and give her her “ticket of leave” — that rather old-fashioned phrase is actually used in the film’s dialogue (the writer is Ketti Frings), but warn her that technically she’s still in prison and has to stay in the boarding house where they arranged for her to live, work at the job they set up for her (as a nurse’s aide in a hospital), abstain from alcohol and avoid serious entanglements with men.

Taking the name “Diane Stuart,” she tries her best to conceal her identity as a parolee but is “outed” by one of her co-workers, hard-as-nails Tilly Thompson (Fay Baker). Diane’s parole officer is Joan Wilburn (Lizabeth Scott, top-billed), and the two women clash immediately. Their relationship goes from bad to worse when Diane gets a crush on Joan’s boyfriend, newspaper columnist Larry Collins (Dennis O’Keefe, older and puffier than he was in his days as a comedian in the mid-1940’s), and worse still when Larry reciprocates Diane’s attentions, goes on some rather quirky dates with her (their first night out together he takes her to a midget car racing — RKO had just done a short on midget car racing so they had a lot of stock footage of it — and later they go to a planetarium, which prompted Charles to joke, “At least no one gets shot”) and ultimately asks her to marry him — which requires the approval of the parole officer who just happens to be her rival for Larry’s affections.

It’s one of those movies that’s quite entertaining and engaging as it stands but could have been even better — what it needed was a screenplay that delved deeper into the quirky issues raised by the story, a more sensitive and truly noir director than John Cromwell (Anthony Mann would probably have been a good choice then), and above all a stronger actress in the role of the parole officer. Lizabeth Scott’s long-term stardom is one of those inexplicable mysteries Hollywood throws up — how did someone with such limited talent as an actress get to be a star for so long and do major films with legendary performers like Humphrey Bogart and Elvis Presley? — and the film really suffers from the lack of an actress strong enough to be the steel to Jane Greer’s flint (someone like Joan Crawford or, my favorite from the period and a star who seemingly could have improved almost any film, Barbara Stanwyck).

As it is, what rings truest about the film is the inner conflict Greer enacts so well — her tough-as-nails attitude, forged in her years as an itinerant criminal after her family threw her out when she was 11 and then honed to almost diamond hardness by her years in prison, vs. her sufficient intelligence and sensitivity to realize that the hardness that was essential for her survival in prison is actually hurting her chances for success “outside.” The best scenes in the movie are the two in which Diane née Mildred is tempted to go back to a life of crime — when she’s about to go on her first date with Larry and wants a coat, and is tempted to shoplift one; and at the end, when she’s petitioned a judge to restore her civil rights and the judge, despite Joan’s pleadings, seems to be against her; she grabs a chance to flee the building and only when she runs into Larry outside (he gets into the same cab) does she let him talk her into returning and facing the judge’s decision, whatever it is — and the film is “stolen” out from under Lizabeth Scott’s tiny nose by Greer and also by Fay Baker, whose unrepentant crook (she’s using her hospital job to steal drugs and give them to her boyfriend for sale on the street) not only makes a nice contrast to the one who’s trying to reform but also creates the kind of sparks in her conflicts with the heroine that the antagonism between Diane and Joan does not.

It’s not all that clear just what attracts Larry to Diane and why he gives up good old respectable Joan for this ill-fated woman from prison — once again, better writing and direction could have done much to clear this up and made this a deeper, richer film than the one we have, in which the bitterness a person in Joan’s position must have felt about losing a man to one of her charges is soft-pedaled (Lizabeth Scott probably couldn’t have played it anyway) and the three inexplicably seem to end up as friends, with Joan risking her own job to go to bat for Diane. One striking bit of cross-promotion between Howard Hughes’ enterprises occurs in this film: the Hughes-owned RKO produced it and, in a scene at an airport, the plane we see is clearly marked with the logo and insignia of another Hughes property (at the time), TWA.