“Chocolate milk ain’t bitter!”
“This is, it’s nasty and it’s bitter!”
The setup is the standard noir melodrama of a wrongly accused man fingered for murder who must find the proof of his own guilt, but from there, things take several interesting and original turns.
First, the accused man, David Starrling (Zachary Scott) spends nearly the entire film in prison, not only unable to defend himself, but through a twist of events unsure that he is even innocent of the crime of killing his wife, Celia (Katherine Miller). In the moments leading up to the event, while confronting his wife on her unfaithfulness to him, he is holding a gun that he had brought home as a souvenir from the war. Just as he gets close to her, she knocks him unconscious with the first object she can get her hands on, and when he awakes, he finds her dead, and the gun fired.
The second departure from noir norms is the real killer, whose identity is known to the audience from the beginning, rather than a central mystery as is more typical. This is Starrling’s sister-in-law Dell - played by Ann Sothern, cast against type in a role quite removed from the Maisie-type characters she usually performed. While her motive is clearly jealousy - her fiancee Crane Weymouth (Tom Helmouth) is the man with whom Celia was seen together - whether she intended to actually pull the trigger is something left somewhat ambiguous by the film. Was the trigger pulled accidentally in her excitement? Or did she really intend in that moment to kill the sister who had done her wrong? Either way, the deed is done, and she flees the scene of the crime, leaving David to take the blame, with all evidence pointing to him, including the prints on the gun, as she wore gloves when she picked it up and put it in her pocket.
The third element making this tale different from the usual is the one witness who holds the key to exonerating David- his young daughter Susan (Gigi Pereau), who witnessed the death of her stepmother, but is sent to a child psychiatric unit due to the shock of what she has seen, and will not tell anyone who is responsible.
The child psychiatrist working to help Susan overcome her tragic experience is Doctor Caroline Canford (Nancy Davis - better known now by her married name Reagan). She has many methods at her disposal to help draw the truth out of Susan, including especially the use of play therapy. She has doll houses made that recreate the various rooms in the Starrling house where the murder took place, and has dolls to represent the family members, coaxing Susan to recreate the events that are trapped in her mind.
Meanwhile, with David in prison, Susan’s Aunt Dell has guardianship of the girl. When Dr. Canford reveals to Dell that Susan has witnessed the murder, she has a very different reaction than David has when he is informed. Dell suddenly sees that one bad choice leads to another, and that to protect herself from being caught for the first murder, she will have to act to silence the truth from being revealed by Susan.
The way her moral struggle is depicted creates some sympathy for the character, even when she does the most despicable things in her attempts to keep her guilt a secret. Initially, she writes a confession, and nearly mails it to the police, to keep David from being punished for her sins. But fear is the stronger emotion than guilt and a desire to protect an innocent man, and she tears up the confession, tossing it into the storm drains in the street.
The fears she has are most effectively depicted in a scene at the hair salon, when a panic attack ensues when she briefly imagines the hair dryer to be the head-piece of an electric chair being lowered onto her. This moment of terror seems to be the decision point for Dell. Henceforth, her efforts to stop Susan’s progress escalate, from interrupting a play session that is getting to close to the truth, to a failed attempt to get Susan to drink some poisoned chocolate milk, to actually slipping into the hospital at night while Susan is undergoing water-bed treatment and untying the knots that keep the girl afloat while she sleeps suspended in the warm flowing water. Even the filmmakers are hesitant to actually show this event, but merely show the loosened knot, and the ominous sound of running water in a darkened hallway, followed by the frenzied efforts of the hospital staff to resuscitate the nearly-drowned child.
Through all this, Sothern’s character is never depicted so much as an evil character, but as one driven by self-preservation to desperate and evil actions. Dell’s sense of guilt and panic is frequently underlined, as she disposes of evidence in the harbor, and redoubles her alarm and dread when she learns from Dr. Canford that the drowning attempt has failed.
Finally though, her efforts are her undoing. When she gains custody and insists the child be brought to her home in Connecticut, it is her distinctive shadow on the wall (title reference!) as she waits at the top of the stairs to greet the child that awakens the memories that convict her, and caught at last, she tearfully confesses what she has done.
The film has plenty of stylistic flourishes, including a couple of nightmare sequences that are reminiscent of Hitchcockian dreams, sort of a Spellbound for children. The script is well-structured and ties together all the various elements in effective and artful ways. Simple things like the humorously-named “Cupid,” an Indian doll given to Susan by her doting father in the beginning, become essential plot points that take on darker meanings and serve to propel the story to its final conclusions.
The cast is all satisfactory in their roles. John McIntire has a decent appearance as Pike Ludwell, the family lawyer. Davis is excellently believable as the eminently competent doctor. and Perreau is quite fine as the shock-stricken child who has lost all sense of childhood vivaciousness, and reduced to a passive zombie who responds emotionlessly to questions from the adults around her, “Ok,” or “If you want me to.”
One telling exchange is when she visits her father in prison (an early attempt to awaken her repressed memories), and he tells he to be obedient to Dr. Caroline, calling her “Aunt Caroline.”
“Is she my aunt?” she asks oddly.
“She’s a new one, and a very nice one.” he says. “Goodbye, Susan.”
“Bye, David.” she responds, the disconnect with her father poignant and mournful, a far cry from the greetings they had first exchanged in the film’s opening, and happily renewed at the tale’s end.
Not everything about the film is believable, and the themes of child endangerment can be quite off-putting at points, the drama is generally engaging and the action interesting. Though not a top-tier noir, Shadow on the Wall has much to recommend it, and is well worth a viewing.
** out of 5