Monday, November 7, 2016

The Chase (1946)

"You loved her, so you killed her... that's understandable."

This film is sort of an oddity.  Face it, if you've seen Arthur Ripley's filmography leading up to this, you wouldn't immediately pick him to direct this brooding, nightmarish (literally) thriller.  He was, prior to this, more closely associated with short comedy, having started with Mack Sennett, writing a number of Capra-directed Harry Langdon stories, as well as directing for a number of talkie shorts, including a couple of earl W.C. Fields shorts.

The story itself is certainly replete with Noir credentialed names.  It is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, whose works also inspired such memorable film noir titles as Black Angel, Fall Guy, The Guilty, Fear in the Night, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, The Window, No Man of Her Own, Deadline at Dawn, Obsession, and, most famously, Hitchcock's Rear Window.
The screenplay was crafted by Philip Yordan, the scribe behind The Big Combo, Panic in the Streets, House of Strangers, Detective Story, No Way Out, Edge of Doom, Reign of Terror (also starring Robert Cummings), and No Way Out.

Robert Cummings is our disillusioned, damaged veteran antihero, Chuck Scott.  We meet him in the opening scene, down on his luck in downtown Miami, and gazing longingly through a restaurant window while a cook prepared pancakes and bacon.  The scene betrays director Ripley's silent film comedy roots, and efficiently sets up the character and his situation with a light comic touch and without any spoken words. A scene like this in other hands might have been needlessly verbose.

As he is about to leave the window in dismay, he discovers a wallet with a tidy sum of money just waiting at his feet. He eats breakfast with some of the money, then tracks down the rightful owner like a good scout.  Life may have brought him low, but he still retains hi youthful sense of honor.

Eddie Roman (Steve Cochrane), the rightful owner, it turns out, has no such compunction or sense of honor.  When we meet him, he is alternating between making untoward suggestions about his lady barber's reasons for choosing her profession, and berating, then slugging the manicurist (Shirley OHara, who the year prior had been Athena in Tarzan and the Amazons) for nicking his finger when he moved. The man is, simply, a brute. Sure, he's tender enough with his pet attack dog, but anyone else is fair game for his impulsive outbursts of temper.

He displays a carelessness toward risks, gambling with his own life and the lives of other with little concern for the consequences.  And like George MacReady's character in Gilda, there is in his interactions with others a kind of alpha-beta dominance contest.  At one point, a friendly exchange of drinks with a business rival (Mr. Johnson, played by Lloyd Corrigan) ends with a killing in wine cellar by the aforementioned attack dog.

Roman surrounds himself with similarly unstable and unsavory characters, like the laconic Gino (a nervously deadpanned Peter Lorre), his slovenly would-be butler Job, (James Westerfield, eternal cast as louts and thugs, in everything from gangster films to westerns), and Fats, a character who is only mentioned once twice, is seen twice and speaks once in the film. (that is probably appropriate, given the strange choice of casting Jack Benny's jovial announcer Don Wilson in the role).

Chuck Scott unassumingly stumbles into this world with no notion of what he's getting himself into, though in his first meeting with Eddie Roman, he is not a complete naive, but has a jaded side as well.  When Roman scoffs at him for coming all the way from town on foot to return the wallet, sneering, "someone give this guy a medal," Scott retorts, "I got a medal."  The low value he places on that bit of ribbon and metal is clear in his tone.

Roman recognizes that cynicism in the reply, and decides maybe he has a use for someone like this in his little organization.  He has his chauffeur fired and gives the job to Scott, who after some weak protests about taking someone else's job, agrees.  He needs the money. Little does he know the troubles that come along with the job.

The first of these he discovers rather quickly, when, on his first drive with the boss, he is given an unusual driver's test...and I don't mean parallel parking.  Roman's car has been set up with a second set of pedals and an override switch in the back seat.  It's never really clear what value this has outside of testing the driver's nerves, but it proves quite effective at that.  Roman has the timing down exactly for this road, and floors the gas, much to Scott's surprise.  But he holds up under the pressure, even with a train coming full steam ahead over he tracks that cross the road ahead.

The second problem that comes with the job is discovered more gradually-  as Scott gets to know Roman's wife (French-born actress Michele Morgan) while taking her on her daily drive to a secret spot she has in an out-of-the-way stretch of road that leads down to a broken down old dock that looks out over the stormy seas.  Here, Franz Planer's camera captures a beautiful shot that encapsulates the essence of her character: a troubled woman gazes out at the roaring sea of agitated waves that reflect the anguish within her own mind and heart.   We see her as Scott sees her, and like him, we are drawn in and want to see her safely away from the dangerous man she's married.

She longs to escape to Havana, and as she and Scott grow closer, they hatch a plan to go there together on the sly.  But when the day comes when their plans are to be executed, everything begin to go horribly wrong.

Don't worry though-  Will Hay's censorship office won't let it get to bad for them; it turns out their entire trip to Havana, with all the awful things that follow them there, all turn out to be a bad dream brought on by Scott's "anxiety neurosis," a side effect of some trauma he encountered during the war.
That's too bad, because some of the best and most dramatic sequences take place during this extended dream scene.  There is a murder, for which Scott is implicated, and he is then pursued by Havana's police, led by Lieutenant Acosta (Alexis Minotis).  There are all sorts of great plot twists in this nightmare. A treacherous asian pawnbroker (Nina Koshetz), a missing photographer with evidence that could identify the real killer, pursuit through a quarantined apartment, and the deadly efficiency of Peter Lorre's staging of this frame-up are all part of the titular chase.

But then Scott wakes up. The boat hasn't left, he's overslept his appointment with Mrs. Roman, and he has the realization that "it's happening again."  He calls his psychiatrist, arranges a visit, and gets his mind straightened out, and rescues the girl for real, and the bad guys pay the piper as justice and the Hays Office demand.

Despite being a bit of a cop out, this dream is better integrated and incorporated into the noir atmosphere of the film than similar plots in films like The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, or The Woman in the Window.  Even though it serves to satisfy Hays codes that required that depictions of law enforcement be strictly rosy, with no wrongly accused ever getting punished, but all guilty persons be shown to getting their due ends, this particular dream still maintains the feeling of post-war cynicism, by how it depicts the causes of the dream as the results of some kind of PTSD.

Gone is the hopeful optimism of the troop-supporting wartime cinema.  Now we begin to see the aftereffects and the precious costs of that war on the ones who fought it.  This is a common theme in noir, and one that would be more thoroughly explored later, but this film makes a fine start on the subject. And dream or no dream, this film leads the viewer on a merry chase through some very dark and frightening places.

*** out of 5

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