Monday, September 2, 2013

The 13th Letter (1951)

'The 13th Letter' is a noir-ish mystery movie directed by Otto Preminger, whose noir output includes classics like 'Laura' and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends'. Like the French movie 'Le Corbeau' from 1943 it is based on the story 'Le Corbeau' ('The Raven') by Louis Chavance, which was turned into a screenplay for this version by Howard Koch. Cinematography was handled by esteemed cinematographer Joseph LaShelle who also worked with Preminger on 'Laura' and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends'. The music was scored by Alex North who would also do 'A Streetcar Named Desire' the same year and 'Spartacus' later on, so he was no slouch either.

Dr. Pearson (Michael Rennie, 'Dangerous Crossing') is a clock-collecting doctor who now works in a small community hospital in the Quebec province of Canada, which is run by Dr. Laurent (Charles Boyer, 'Gaslight', 'Algiers'). Pearson was once a successful doctor in London but after issues in his marriage, resulting in his wife's suicide, gave up his practice and ended up in Quebec. Because of this tragedy he's become an even more professional and distant doctor, not allowing himself to get too close or attached to anybody else. But some of the local women have taken an interest in him anyhow. Denise (Linda Darnell, 'Fallen Angel', 'Hangover Square') is a young woman who's feigning various illnesses to have Dr. Pearson pay her visits, even though she has a real medical issue that she's hiding from him. And also Cora (Constance Smith, 'Impulse', 'Man In The Attic'), Dr. Laurent's much younger wife, seems interested, to the annoyance of her sister Marie (Judith Evelyn, 'Rear Window'). Marie is not the only who seems upset with Dr. Pearson however, as mysterious letters arrive in the small community, all signed with the image of a feather. They urge for Dr. Pearson to leave town, threatening to expose the secrets of the various people in the town otherwise. Pearson stays calm and doesn't think much of it, until a patient in the hospital also receives such a letter, which claims he has incurable cancer, and commits suicide because of it. The community becomes more paranoid and torn and Marie is seen as a likely suspect and locked up, but more letters appear still...

The tagline of the movie's poster is about as deceiving as it gets, 'A strange kind of killer is loose in this town!'. The writer of the poison letters is not a killer, in fact for the majority of the movie, libel is about the worse offense happening in this movie. The man with the hat from the poster doesn't make an appearance in the movie either. And to make matters worse, despite clearly being the main charactor of the movie, Michael Rennie is billed third on the poster, and fourth even on the opening credits of the movie. I can only assume 20th Century Fox felt Linda Darnell and Charles Boyer and even Constance Smith were bigger names than Michael Rennie and would attract more people to the cinema.

Michael Rennie does a decent job as the male lead, he seems a natural at playing the professional but kind doctor who keeps his composure at all times (he plays almost the exact same role in 'Dangerous Crossing'). It doesn't give him much room for showing emotion however, making his performance decent but also unremarkable. And to be honest, the same can be said for the other performances as well, decent but unremarkable. Linda Darnell normally has no problem playing the attractive girl seducing whoever she fancies, but she's pretty timid here, also because she's not a sultry femme fatale here. I liked Constance Smith the best here, although her on-screen time is fairly limited she has the most interesting character and material to work with.

The movie does not really go into noir territories until very late into the movie when Pearson has pieced together all the clues. It is preceeded however by a few memorable lines by Dr. Laurent, which explain the role of ambiguity in film noir fairly well:
You believe that people are either good or bad, yet good and evil change places like light and shadow. How can we be sure where the one ends and the other begins, on which we're on at a given moment?

Like in Preminger's classic noir 'Laura', there's a portrait painting of a female character here. But I wish more had been done with this in the movie in terms of noir-ness and darkness, especially visually. There is a sense of claustrophobia here, not just due to the small community, but also due to the small rooms and people generally standing close to each other. But a lot more could have, and should have, been done with this lighting wise I feel, to really bring threat and urgency to the power of the letters and the potential severity of the situation. There is almost no tension and sense of urgency in this movie, and the movie suffers as a result. As a mystery, the movie sort of works, but the author of the letters won't come as a surprise either. Unfortunately at the end of the day, nothing really pops out here, Preminger and LaShelle did a good job here, but not a remarkable one.

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