Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Chase (Nero Productions/United Artists, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched the other movie on that particular episode of the Dark Crimes boxed set: The Chase, a 1946 film noir which, more than most, highlights the Weimar-era German origins of the style: the producer is Seymour Nebenzal (best known for the handful of films he produced in Germany, including M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Threepenny Opera, with Fritz Lang and G. W. Pabst as his directors in the brief opening between the advent of sound and the advent of Hitler); the associate producer is Eugene Frenke (who produced the German version of The Brothers Karamazov that brought Anna Sten to Sam Goldwyn’s attention, and was Sten’s husband during her unhappy Hollywood stint); and the cinematographer is Franz Planer, another German expat who left when the Nazis took power.

The director is Arthur Ripley, who started in the early silent days at a short-lived studio called Kalem and was Harry Langdon’s writer and assistant through the late 1920’s, became a director in the 1930’s and in the 1940’s hooked up with Nebenzal for some really dark and quirky movies: Prisoner of Japan, Voice in the Wind and this one. After doing some uncredited work (along with German expat Douglas Sirk) on Nebenzal’s remake of Siren of Atlantis — a film he’d originally produced in Germany in the early 1930’s with Pabst as director — Ripley spent the 1950’s directing for television and returned to features only once for what became, ironically, his best-known credit: the Robert Mitchum vehicle Thunder Road (1958).

The story source for The Chase was a novel called The Black Path of Fear by literary noir’s most discombobulated author, Cornell Woolrich, who hasn’t achieved the posthumous réclame of his Black Mask colleagues Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain, probably because he wasn’t as good as them either as plotter (some of Woolrich’s plots are so convoluted and unbelievable Chandler seems like a model of good, ordered storytelling by comparison) or as a prose stylist. What Woolrich was good at was coming up with stories whose hallucinatory power more than made up for their intrinsic impossibility — this, mind you, is the guy who came up with the plot for Fear in the Night (1947), in which a man is hypnotized into committing a murder and then made to believe it was only something he dreamed. Some genuinely great movies were made of Woolrich’s hauntingly bizarre plots — notably Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), Farrow’s The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) and the best-known Woolrich adaptation of all, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) — though by adding the female character played by Grace Kelly Hitchcock and his screenwriter, John Michael Hayes, made the story if anything even more psychologically obsessive and quirky than Woolrich had.

The Chase isn’t quite up to their level but it’s a fascinating film, notable for one of the most audacious plot reversals ever pulled on screen as well as one of the most openly sadistic villains in the noir cycle. For all the aura of corruption and evil that surrounds noir as a genre, surprisingly few of the villains (especially the male ones) in noir movies are downright psychopathic (most are rationally, though evilly, motivated criminals); The Chase is definitely an exception. It starts on a Miami street on which Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-and-out war veteran reduced to homelessness, desperately gazes into the window of a cheap restaurant at which he can’t afford to eat — until he finds a wallet someone left behind on the street. He takes the wallet, uses $1.50 to order himself a meal, then sees an identification card revealing the name and address of the owner and decides to go return it.

The owner is Edward Roman (Steve Cochran at his oiliest) and he lives in a large house with a personal assistant and bodyguard, Gino (Peter Lorre — star of the Nebenzal/Lang M and yet another connection between this film and the post-Hitler German diaspora). Roman is involved in a number of unsavory businesses Philip Yordan’s adaptation of Woolrich’s story keeps relatively vague, but his unscrupulousness is shown when he invites over a competitor, Emmerich Johnson (beautifully played by sometime-actor, sometime-director Lloyd Corrigan), whom he eliminates by inviting Johnson to visit his wine cellar and sample a bottle of priceless Napoleon brandy. Anyone who’d ever read Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” (which is where Woolrich probably appropriated this plot gimmick from) could guess what was coming, but Johnson cluelessly takes the sucker bait and Roman locks him in the wine cellar and, being considerably less patient than the protagonist of Poe’s story, sics a vicious dog on him and, once the dog has had its way with him, retrieves Johnson’s body and dumps it at sea so it will be assumed he committed suicide.

Roman offers Scott a job as his chauffeur — leaving a sinister implication about what happened to his last one — and puts him to a bizarre test: he has Scott drive him and Gino in a car specially equipped with a duplicate set of accelerator and brake pedals in the back seat, which when turned on override the standard pair under the steering wheel and give Roman, not the driver, control of how fast the car moves (though not in which direction it goes). Both Charles and I recalled that cars used in driver training have duplicate sets of controls, one for the driving student and one for the instructor so the instructor can take over the controls and avert an accident if a particularly incompetent student appears headed for one — but those include steering wheels and are located on what’s normally the front passenger seat, not in the back. Roman uses his trick device without telling Scott of its existence and Scott panics when he realizes that control over the car’s speed has been taken away from him — and Roman nearly runs the car into a train and slams on his brake pedal just in time to avoid the crash.

Roman’s wife Lorna (Michele Morgan, top-billed) is not surprisingly restive about being married to this crazy man who treats her as just another possession — “bought and paid for,” she complains in a journal entry Roman seizes from her — and she offers $1,000 to Scott to get her out of the house and over to Cuba, from which they plan to flee to South America and hopefully escape Roman’s grasp. They make their getaway but Lorna is murdered on a Havana street by a knife-wielding assailant, and Scott soon realizes he’s being set up to take the fall and some sinister power is murdering anyone who could help him prove he didn’t kill Lorna. Then the scene returns to Roman’s home, where Scott is getting up from bed (according to the synopsis in The Film Noir Encyclopedia he’s recovering from malarial fever, though that’s only hinted at in the actual movie, mostly in his sweaty appearance as he comes to) and Lorna appears on the scene, still alive: the entire sequence in Havana was nothing more than Scott’s fever-fueled dream! An authority figure, Commander Davidson (Jack Holt) — who’s either Scott’s doctor, a cop, or both — comes on the scene and Scott, who’s forgotten about his and Lorna’s planned escape to Havana, sees the boat tickets on him and comes to. He and Lorna set off for the boat and Roman and Gino give chase — and Roman again uses his separate pedals to try to outrun a passing train with his car, only this time, with Gino driving, he loses and the train takes out the principal villains while the leads make their getaway.

Despite the plot, which treads on the thin edge of silliness without quite going over, The Chase is a marvelous movie, partly because of the dreamlike aspect of Woolrich’s plotting, partly because of the magnificently sick characterization of Steve Cochran’s villain (even for a Steve Cochran character, he’s pretty kinky!) and partly because of the symbolism-drenched direction of Ripley — who stages a clandestine meeting at the beach between Scott and Lorna with so many lap dissolves at times it looks as if their car is underwater. The Chase is a movie that hangs on the thin edge between reality and dream and deliberately confuses the two — in some ways the most “realistic”-seeming scenes are the ones that are later revealed as the dream of the hero — and despite the crudities (a function of the limited independent budget Nebenzal had to work with) it works and even the relative weakness of Robert Cummings as an actor fits the character; a stronger, ballsier noir protagonist like Bogart, Powell, Mitchum or Ladd might have seemed too decisive, too much in control for a role as a piece of human flotsam all too easily manipulated by the stronger egos (not only Roman but his wife as well) around him.