Friday, July 12, 2013

The Truth About Murder (RKO, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Truth About Murder, a 1946 RKO “B” directed by Lew Landers that’s long been one of my quirky favorites, mainly because there’s a nice shot early on of a hot young beefcake model wearing nothing but a swimsuit (you usually don’t get that much flesh from either gender in a film that old!) and it’s also a comedy-thriller featuring Morgan Conway as a D.A. in an unnamed city (it’s pretty obviously New York, but our only indication of that is a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge under the opening credits and another appearance of a copy of that same photo on Conway’s office wall) and Bonita Granville as the recent law-school graduate he hired as an assistant prosecutor but refused to give her any actual cases to prosecute. The two are dating and D.A. Lester Ashton (Conway) makes it clear to Christine Allen (Granville) that he has utterly no interest in helping her get started on a career; he wants her married to him, in the kitchen, and pregnant. It’s thanks to this plot element that reviewer “blanche-2” said the film is badly dated, but it’s also dated in that already by 1946 the emerging film noir genre (which RKO had done a lot to help into existence with at least two key films, 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor and 1944’s Murder, My Sweet) had pretty much wiped out the market for this sort of Thin Man-esque comedy-thriller. The title stems from the fact that rather than give “Chris” (the androgynous name by which Granville’s character is referred to and addressed throughout) any cases to prosecute, Ashton has put her in charge of working the office’s polygraph equipment, a rather crude device which involves wrapping two rubber tubes around the subject — one of which is loose-fitting enough (it’s supposed to measure the subject’s breathing patterns) one gets the impression its maker has invented a combination lie detector and reducing-belt machine. (“If you’re telling lies you’re going to come out of this machine 10 pounds lighter!”) Frustrated at her lack of professional progress in Ashton’s office, Chris quits her job and seeks out the other person who wanted to employ her as soon as she got her law degree, civil attorney Bill Crane (Edward Norris) — only Crane has taken a resounding belly-flop off the wagon and is regularly drinking himself into stupors over the way his wife Marsha (June Clayworth) is throwing herself at just about every other man in the dramatis personae, including Hank (Michael St. Angel) — the hunky swimsuit model whom she encountered professionally because she’s an advertising photographer and he’s one of her models (when we saw him in swim trunks he was shooting an ad for sunscreen with his wife Peggy, played by Rita Corday); her boss/client Paul Marvin (Don Douglas); and gangster Johnny Lacka (Gerald Mohr), whose bookie joint she patronizes just to have an excuse to get close to him.

There’s a nice line in which Paul watches Marsha Crane photographing Hank and Peggy and says, “They look like they’re falling out of love” — and indeed in any modern movie in which a male model showed such total disinterest in his attractive young female colleague, we’d assume it was because he was Gay — but the film is actually 63 minutes’ worth of pleasant if rather predictable entertainment, in which Charles guessed the murderer early on and I didn’t only because I couldn’t believe the writing committee (Lawrence Kimble, Hilda Gordon and Eric Taylor) were going to make it that obvious. The gimmick is that Marsha Crane is knocked off about 15 minutes in — just after the writers have spent most of the previous running time giving her so many acquaintances with motives for wanting her dead (including most of the men in her life and their significant others) it’s obvious they’re setting her up to be victim number one — just as Ashton and Chris were showing up at the Cranes’ apartment to take them out to dinner in hopes that Ashton could get the Cranes to reconcile, therefore Crane wouldn’t need a partner in his firm and Chris would go back to him. When they arrive there Crane is stinking drunk thanks to a letter Marsha wrote Paul, which Paul showed him, saying that she’d like to leave Bill for him but she didn’t want to abandon him in his current condition — which made Paul angry enough to knock her off (aw, c’mon, was it really that much of a spoiler?) and then, later, kill Peggy by firing his gun at her through a window because he thought Peggy was about to expose him. There’s also a scene in which Chris recovers the gun with which Marsha was shot in the developing tank in the darkroom in the Cranes’ apartment (an adjunct to the studio where Marsha shot her photos), only her assistant Jonesy (Tom Noonan) discovers her and there’s some cute by-play between them over the gun.

It all ends pretty much the way you expect it to — I was hoping for a Black Angel-ish ending in which Bill Crane would have been the murderer of his wife but would have been so drunk when he committed the crime that, sober, he would have no memory of it; and when Crane was exonerated it would have been nice if the writers had paired him and Chris together, so that horribly male-chauvinist Ashton would be left in the cold and she’d be with a man with whom she could have a professional and personal partnership (sort of like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at the end of His Girl Friday). Instead there’s a parallel to the opening scene (Chris testing the lie detector on Ashton and asking him questions about their relationship) in which Chris puts Paul under the polygraph and suddenly realizes from the answers she’s getting that he is the murderer, and she’s all alone with him — until Ashton and the cops arrive just as Paul is about to kill her, they save her life and she agrees to give up her career and marry him. (Barf.) This sort of sexist ending was de rigueur in movies in 1946, a year after the war was over, when Hollywood was taking up the cause of telling American women that the age of Rosie the Riveter was over and now that the menfolk were back home from combat, the women needed to step aside from the workforce and be good little housewives and mothers (ironically echoing what the Nazis had said their idea of women’s roles should be: Kinder, Küche, Kirche — “children, kitchen, church”). Just how George Seaton was able to buck the trend in his marvelous film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim and pair Betty Grable and Dick Haymes as professional and personal partners in a 1946 movie remains a mystery to me! The Truth About Murder is a standard-issue 1946 RKO “B” about an attorney who’s accused of murdering his philandering wife, but it’s efficiently done and there’s even one marvelous noir composition in what is otherwise a pretty flatly photographed film: when Chris enters the apartment of the murder victim and she’s seen in dark shadows and dim light behind partitions, gratings and whatnot.