Friday, August 23, 2013

The Chase (1946)

'The Chase' from 1946 is one of several films noirs based on Cornell Woolrich stories, in this case on his novel 'The Black Path Of Fear'. Other films noirs based on his work include 'Deadline At Dawn', 'Black Angel' and 'No Man Of Her Own'. For 'The Chase', Philip Yordan turned the novel into a screenplay. Arthur Ripley directed this movie, he did most of his work, as a director but especially as a screenwriter, in the 20s and 30s. The music was done by Michel Michelet ('Impact', 1951's 'M') and cinematography was handled by Frank Planer ('Criss Cross', 'Champion'), one of the many moviemakers who fled Germany after Hitler came to power and brought the German expressionist movement to Hollywood, which was a major influence on the look and feel of film noir in general.

The rest of this review reveals and discusses the main plot twist of this movie, because it's almost impossible to discuss this unique movie without doing so. Please keep that in mind.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings, 'Dial M For Murder', 'The Accused') is a Navy veteran in Florida who's down on his luck, out of a job and out of money. One morning he finds a wallet loaded with money lying on the pavement. After buying himself a big breakfast he returns the wallet to its owner, gangster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran, 'White Heat', Private Hell 36') who lives in a mansion together with his wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan, 'Passage To Marseille', 'The Fallen Idol') and his side-kick/business associate, the slimy Gino (Peter Lorre, 'M', 'The Maltese Falcon'). Roman appreciates Scott's honesty and hires him as his new chauffeur. Chuck also becomes Lorna's chauffeur for evening trips, usually to the seaside. Lorna is unhappy in her marriage to the violent & ruthless Eddie, and she dreams of escaping to Havana. She asks Chuck if he can help her, and he accepts, as they've slowly grown closer and closer. The next morning, he buys them tickets and in the evening they board the ship to Havana. On the boat they finally admit their feelings for each other. In Havana they end up in a busy nightclub, but it is there that Lorna dies in Chuck's arms with a knife in her back. Nobody saw who did it, and Chuck is interrogated. When Chuck explains he bought a similar, but slightly different, knife that same day, he becomes the police's only suspect, even more so when the shopkeeper confirms he bought the knife that killed Lorna. Chuck manages to escape from the police however, but when he backtracks to the shopkeeper's place later that night, Gino is there, they were on to Lorna and Chuck the entire time! Chuck's been framed for Lorna's murder, and even worse, Gino spots Chuck and kills him... And then Chuck wakes up from a feverish nightmare, it's still the afternoon after he bought the tickets to Havana, he's dizzy and nauseous and doesn't know why he's wearing a chauffeur's uniform or why he's in a room next to the mansion's garage. The whole trip to Havana was nothing but a dream, one which Chuck can't remember either. Chuck calls his Navy shrink, Commander Davidson (Jack Holt) and goes over to see him. Davidson realizes Chuck has had another bout of 'anxiety neurosis' which he suffered from during his time in the Navy and takes him to a bar to have a drink and calm down. There Chuck slowly puts together the pieces of the puzzle and makes his way to the mansion to pick up Lorna to go to Havana after all. But Roman and Gino, sitting in the same club as where Davidson and Chuck are, are made aware of Lorna & Chuck's plans by sheer coincidence and drive off to the harbor to stop them...

The plot of the movie contains the major, and highly unexpected, twist of the whole escape to Havana which culminates in the deaths of both Lorna and Chuck being nothing more than a dream sequence. It turns the movie upside-down, from a fairly straight-forward noir thriller about Chuck and Lorna trying to escape from Eddie Roman's crooked ways with them eventually ending up dead, to a weird amnesia-like noir where Chuck might or might not relive/escape the events in Havana once again. It is a weird, but very intriguing twist, but not exactly the only crazy thing about this movie. Another unique thing is Eddie Roman's car, which has a James Bond-like gadget: it has an extra set of pedals fitted in front of the backseat, so Eddie can take over and control the speed of the car. It provides for a memorable scene where Eddie tests Chuck's nerves, as well as Gino's, trying to overtake a speeding train. Yet another unusual aspect of this movie is the use of repetition, which happens not just with the whole escape to Havana plot which Chuck is set to relive again after waking up. The scene with Eddie taking over the car controls occurs again near the end of the movie, using similar camera angles to emphasize the repetition element. And when Chuck first arrives at the mansion to return Eddie's wallet, Chuck has the exact same conversation twice to the person peering through the door's spyhole, first to the servant, and then to Gino.

While Robert Cummings is better known for playing in more lighthearted movies, he does okay here, although he's a bit bland here as Chuck. Michèle Morgan doesn't convince all that much either as Lorna, she's beautiful but too much of a demure wallflower for me to see how Eddie Roman ever fell for her, nor does she come off as sultry, even though it's clear she's supposed to. Morgan was a far more successful actress in her native France than in the USA, this was the last movie she did in the USA. To her credit, she has only the slightest foreign accent in this movie.

Per usual, the villains are the more interesting, and in this case also convincing, characters of this movie. Steve Cochran as Eddie Roman is suave but ruthless and violent. The first time he makes an entrance in the movie he verbally abuses 2 women, a barber and a manicurist, and when the manicurist accidentally scratches his finger, because he moved but she didn't, he gives her a vicious slap around her face. Later on in the movie he demands some perks from a wealthy businessman, and when the man declines, Roman casually invites the man into his wine cellar where the unsuspecting man dies a gruesome death when Roman's huge and beastly dog is set loose on him. Gino is equally callous and ruthless but is much slimier, something Peter Lorre excelled at. His role is pretty small here, but he has a few good oneliners and the typical cigarette dangling from his lips, and Lorre is always a treat in noirs. The relationship between Cochran and Gino is never fully explained in the movie, but it is clear that Cochran is closer to Gino than he is to Lorna, who he sees more as property than as a real person.

The movie, despite being weird and unique in places, is also dark and pure noir. Lorna is the femme fatale here, and the plotlines are as noir as they come. Visually it's also pure noir, there are tons of looming shadows, providing an ominous atmosphere throughout the movie, especially during the dream sequence in Havana. And the use of repetition, sometimes down to using the same camera angles or dialogue as mentioned before, gives the movie an even more creepy & dreamlike atmosphere than the dream sequence already does. The camera and lighting work is well done, with a few great shots and even some nice tracking shots, especially in the nightclub in Havana.

The movie's story is really good and quite clever and the weird aspects of it make it a pretty unique movie. But while Cochran and Lorre are good and convincing, Morgan and especially Cummings are a bit too lightweight to take this movie to the next level. So it's a bit of a frustrating movie as well, because it is also clear this movie had potential to be a lot mmore, with better actors for the protagonists and maybe some more work on the camera work. It's still a good and enjoyable film noir tho, and pretty unique. After re-watching it again I started to appreciate and see the quirkiness and small clues about the dream sequence much more. Definitely one to watch if you're a noir aficionado.

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