Fritz Lang/ 1944/ USA/ 99 mins
Available on Blu-Ray from 20 May 2019
Fritz Lang’s 1944 noir is notable for its rather playful approach to the genre with Edward G Robinson portraying Richard Wanley, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, who accidentally gets embroiled in a murder. Richard is introduced lecturing in front of a blackboard upon which a sequence of Freudian terms are displayed. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay is keen to establish the themes of paranoia, arrogance and guilt and the first frame feels like a proto-TED talk. It is no co-incidence that Johnson is also credited as producer as such heavy-handed exposition may have been problematic for other auteurs.
The first act involves Richard catching up with his two buddies in amongst the leather and privilege of their club whilst his family are out of town. Raymond Massey as District Attorney Lalor is in attendance along with the bawdy Dr Barkstane played by Edward Breon who revels in describing the varied distractions available to single men about town.
After listening slightly awkwardly but with quiet fascination Richard dismisses the possibility of such adventure due to their advancing years. He leaves early (as is his practice) and encounters a portrait of a comely lady in a window before some Lang sleight of hand involving reflection and substitution manifests Joan Bennett, Alice Reed, on the pavement.
After reversing the classic pick up line – Alice asks if the prof wants to see her etchings – he willingly agrees to embark on a transgressive adventure with just the right amount of disinterest for a married man in search of accidental thrills. This fantastical ambience even extends as far as Alice’s wardrobe which for this first act is a see-through blouse to amplify the dream-like quality of the encounter.
When Alice and Richard’s broadly innocent chatting is interrupted a self-defence scenario develops which culminates with the disposal of a body and covering of one’s tracks. The added complication is that the official in charge of the murder investigation is Richard’s friend the District Attorney.
In the second act Richard undergoes several excruciating moments where he almost incriminates himself through lack of familiarity with criminality and his proximity to the investigation. Lalor briefly considers his friend could be involved before dismissing the notion as unlikely and so he wriggles off the hook once again. Meanwhile Alice is being blackmailed by the serpentine Dan Duryea as the slimy ex-cop turned hired muscle named Heidt who seeks to inveigle his lank self into Alice’s predicament.
This early film noir has been partially forgotten and it lacks the heft of Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon and the kineticism of later genre fare. It is memorable however for the tonal curiosity of the ending which lightens the preceding events and blindsides a modern viewer in a pleasingly playful manner.