Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Life At Stake (1954)

'A Life At Stake' seems to have been the love-child of its producer Hank McCune. He came up with the idea for the movie, which was then turned into a screenplay by Russ Bender, who worked primarily as an actor and did only a handful of screenplays. This might explain why the movie never really takes off and has cardboard characters. McCune also co-wrote a song used in the movie, together with Les Baxter who also handled the musical score. The movie was directed by Paul Guilfoyle who was an actor and as a director worked primarily on TV series and directed only 3 feature-length movies. The cinematography was handled by Ted Allan, this was his first of 3 movies working as a DoP.

The story: Edward Shaw (Keith Andes) is a struggling architect with a suspicious disposition after he lost his life savings in a bad business venture. So when he's asked about a partnership in a new company by Doris Hillman (Angela Lansbury), he's reluctant. She seems to be nothing more than the bored wife of a wealthy businessman who does nothing more than sit by the pool. It also doesn't help that she asks him to get a hefty life insurance, something her husband Gus Hillman (Douglass Dumbrille) insists upon, as he's putting up the starting capital for their company, a cool half million. But he's broke so he accepts. Naturally, as this is a noir, Shaw and Doris have a secret affair. But when Madge (Claudia Barrett), Doris' sister, tells him about Doris' first husband, who died under suspicious circumstances, and when Edward almost has a fatal accident seemingly caused by Doris' recklessness, he is convinced Doris and her husband are out to kill him and collect the $175,000 insurance money. But how can he find out whether their intentions are good or evil?

'A Life At Stake' was the 1st noir that Angela Lansbury starred in. Yes, she does have a small role in 1944's noir 'Gaslight' but she was not the star/main actress of that movie. The other noir she starred in, 1956's 'Please Murder Me' opposite Raymond Burr, is also far from a classic noir, but it's far more bearable than this movie. Lansbury just wasn't cut out to play the seductive femme fatale part. She doesn't have the looks or charisma to come off as a sultry, sensual woman. Lansbury's a fine actress, but the one-dimensional character she's given doesn't give her a lot to work with. Even so, Lansbury is the one small speck of light in this movie.

I had never heard of Keith Andes before watching this movie, and he's pretty unremarkable here, so it might be for good reason. Whether that is due to the bad script and cardboard characters as mentioned before or to his lack of acting chops, I don't know. But he's pretty mediocre here. The other main actors here will also not be remembered for their part in this movie.

All in all, the movie is fairly boring and just plods along, and offers nothing exciting visually either. By the time the finale is reached things do pick up a bit, but all emotional investment and engagement has long been thrown out of the window by then (or in this movie's case, out of a door which is conveniently placed right at a mountain ledge without a balustrade). A forgettable noir, which is only remembered, if that, because of Angela Lansbury's involvement and her future career.


  1. I caught this on Youtube, and while I agree with most of what you've written, your comments on Lansbury are pretty "unremarkable." You write that she possesses neither the "looks or charisma" to play the lead. Uh, hello? Barbara Stanwyck was a great beauty? No, she was not, yet she is astonishing in "Double Indemnity." Lansbury was technically far more attractive, and possessed a gorgeous body. There is nothing wrong in her casting or performance. The problem is Andes, the script, the horrible actor who plays her obnoxious sister (it is completely unbelievable that the sexy, edgy Andes would fall for such a twit). Everything is wrong here EXCEPT Lansbury. I also disagree that this even qualifies as film noir. Most of the scenes are in broad daylight, and there isn't any sense of noir really at all. Bizarre that every single "crime drama" made before 1960 is automatically a "film noir." Yes, the film is pretty bad, but so is much of your commentary. Sorry. It's the truth.

    1. I appreciate your comment and candor. We'll just have to agree to disagree on Lansbury as a femme fatale in this movie ;)