People may quibble about what qualifies a movie to be classified as film noir, but no one would argue about this movie. It’s classic noir.
Shortly after the film opens, we’re taken into a long flashback where we are filled on characters and events. Eventually, we’re back in the present where the movie remains until the surprising ending.
Robert Mitchum is a world-weary, ex-detective living a quiet life in a nice small town when suddenly his past catches up with him and he’s pulled back into the dark, underbelly of the criminal world. “How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.”
This role was made for Mitchum and he pulls it off beautifully. There’s a very striking scene, after the flashback has ended, that finds Mitchum standing in front of very large wrought iron gates that will lead him into “who-knows-what” while his sweet, innocent girlfriend is driving away.
His nemesis is played by the smoothly sinister Kirk Douglas in his second film ever. Douglas smiles, Mitchum does not, but they both smoke, and smoke, and smoke, sometimes with each other, and sometimes at each other. At one point, Douglas offers Mitchum a cigarette and in response, Mitchum lifts his hand holding a cigarette and says “smokin’ ”. I found that really funny.
The two of them are wonderful together and play off each other very effectively.
“Let’s go down to the bar where we can cool off and try to impress each other.”
One of the femme fatales is the lovely Jane Greer, and you will never know when to believe her throughout the entire movie. (“You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.” [Greer]).
The always-stunning Rhonda Fleming has a small role as a less than dedicated secretary, and Virginia Houston is the faithful girl-next-door.
Richard Webb (of Captain Midnight fame) is the good, home-town guy trying to do right by everyone. Steve Brodie is Mitchum’s partner, ex-partner, and then blackmailer wanna-be (“I wish it was nicer to see you.” [Mitchum]). Paul Valentine aptly plays a Douglas henchman.
Noted radio announcer, Ken Niles, has a brief, ill-fated part, and Dickie Moore is a deaf mute and a loyal Mitchum friend. He reads lips and communicates with Mitchum via sign language. (Moore was a well-known child/juvenile actor, still alive today and still married to actress, Jane Powell.)
There are three character actors to watch for in their very minor roles. Mary Field is the diner owner (over 150 movie roles), Eunice Leonard, known as “the beautiful maid” is the lovely woman questioned in the club, and John Kellogg (131 movie and TV parts) plays Lou Baylord.
The screenplay was based on a novel by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring) and Homes is also credited as the screenwriter. Frank Fenton and James Cain are uncredited writers and which of these men really wrote this clever, hard-boiled dialogue is unknown to me. The banter/patter runs non-stop and the entire movie is filled with witty, quotable quotes.
“Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!” “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”
“It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it.”
“Well, if you’ll drop this junior league patter, we may get this conversation down where it belongs.”
The trenchcoat-clad Mitchum is smart enough to know when he’s walking into a trap, but also thinks he’s smart enough to outsmart everyone else. The plot twists and turns while bodies continue to pile up (once in a while I was reminded of “The Maltese Falcon”). Double-crosses abound but nothing more of the plot will be revealed because that would take away the fun.
Cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, and as you can see in this film, he was known as the “Master of Lighting” at RKO. The black and white photography is superb and the use of light and shadows is masterful, indeed. The gritty atmosphere is enhanced by some shooting on location in California and Nevada.
Music was composed and directed by Roy Webb and C. Bakaleinikoff, respectively, two talented RKO veterans. The music is subtle but adds to the tension and suspense.
The director, Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People” 1942, cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca), keeps the action tight and quick, and the dialogue quicker.
The title of the novel is used once by Mitchum when he senses he might have been outplayed: “Build my gallows high, baby.”
The final scene with Dickie Moore is ambiguous to some but perfectly clear to me.
“Oh Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago.” “There’s time.”