Monday, September 21, 2009

Shock (20th Century-Fox, 1946)

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

The movie Charles and I watched last night was also a 20th Century-Fox production and also a film noir involving the medical community, though this time the doctor was the villain: Shock, a quite powerful 1946 “B” directed by Alfred Werker (usually a Fox hack but with some quite interesting movies under his belt, especially The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second and best of the 14-film cycle with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce; apparently stories of crime and suspense turned him on more than other kinds of scripts), with a script by Eugene Ling (with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley) based on a story by Albert DeMond.

Shock opens in a hotel in San Francisco, and first introduces us to Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw), the wife of a former POW who’s already been on an emotional roller-coaster ride. First she heard that her husband, naval lieutenant Paul Stewart (Frank Latimore), was dead, and after she’d spent two years working through the grief process and finally accepting her loss, she was then told that her husband was alive after all. She insists on being allowed to stay in that particular hotel, even though her reservation was not received, because that’s the one at which her husband is expecting to meet her and there’s no way she can get word to him if she ends up staying anywhere else. The sympathetic manager finally is able to find her a room, but warns her it’s for one night only. She falls asleep on the couch in the suite, and has a simply but powerfully staged dream in which she hears Paul knocking outside but the door recedes as she approaches it, and even when she gets to the door she realizes that the knob has grown so large she can’t open it. (Somehow this crudely but effectively produced dream sequence seems far more credible than the elaborate Dali-designed dream in Spellbound.)

When she wakes up, she goes on the balcony for some air — and she witnesses an argument in the next room between a man named Richard and a woman, his wife, named Margaret. He demands a divorce so he can marry someone else, she says she’ll only grant it if she can go public with the details of the affair, then he gets angry and grabs a statuette off the table and clubs her to death with it. Witnessing this murder renders Our Heroine totally catatonic, and when her husband finally does arrive the next morning (his plane was 12 hours late) he summons the hotel doctor (Selmer Jackson), who announces that a case of catatonic shock is totally beyond his medical expertise, but as it happens there’s a fabulously successful and well-regarded psychiatrist named Dr. Richard Cross (Vincent Price, top-billed) staying in the same hotel. Once we hear the man’s first name we know where this is going, but director Werker nonetheless keeps the suspense building for about four minutes of screen time before Dr. Cross walks in — and is, of course, the person both we and the heroine have just seen killing his wife.

He offers to take Janet to his sanitarium outside of town, and when the husband wants to accompany them he persuades him to remain behind for at least a day. When they get to the sanitarium we learn that the woman Dr. Cross wanted to leave his wife for is one of his nurses, Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari in a chillingly effective femme fatale role); we also find out that the murder of Mrs. Cross was not the impulsive crime of passion we were led to believe it was, but was carefully calculated and premeditated by Elaine, who seems to have the kind of psychological and sexual hold over the doctor that Mrs. Macbeth had over her husband. The rest of the film is built around the suspense of whether Janet will come to enough to recognize Dr. Cross as the murderer whose crime she witnessed, and whether she’ll be allowed to live long enough for that to happen — Elaine is after Dr. Cross to kill Janet and make it look like a medical accident, but Dr. Cross is reluctant; in an interesting quirk of this script, he’s been willing to knock off his wife at Elaine’s behest but draws back at violating the Hippocratic oath and murdering someone he’s supposed to be treating.

Normally one would expect a movie called Shock with Vincent Price as its star to be a horror film; this one isn’t, though it does draw on a bit of the horror iconography, notably the driving rainstorm in which the sanitarium is shown during a night sequence — and it’s an innovative enough film in its creative deployment of movie clichés that its ending is a genuine and legitimate surprise. Shock has its failings — notably an overwrought musical score by David Buttolph that out-Steiners Max Steiner in mimicking (“mickey-mousing”) every action on screen — but overall it’s a quite good movie that deserves to be far better known than it is, and Vincent Price in particular is at least as effective in his portrayal of self-doubting weakness and evil as he would be in his more florid crazed-villain performances in his later horror films.