An ex-private eye (Robert Mitchum) tells his new girlfriend (Virginia Huston) about his previous adventures trailing the moll (Jane Greer) of a gangster (Kirk Douglas) to Mexico, and falling in love with her before being double-crossed — but soon he’s caught up in new webs of intrigue, double-crossings, and murder.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “exceptional ‘B’ movie” by director Jacques Tourneur has “come to be regarded as the picture that best exemplifies film noir,” given that it possesses “tainted characters; entangled relationships; events determined by chance; large sums of money; murder; a tough, morally ambiguous hero with a gun in his trench coat, a dark hat on his head, and a cigarette in his mouth; a lying, cheating, chameleon-like femme fatale… who leads an essentially decent guy down a wayward path; and, ultimately, betrayal, frame-ups, and fall guys”. Indeed, the pulpy, intelligent script (by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his novel Build My Gallows High) is so densely plotted that, as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times warned in his review, the film’s action “is likely to leave the napping or unmathematical customer far behind” — i.e., you need to be awake and paying attention, or risk not quite keeping up.
Yet this is a movie that truly merits one’s full attention, given that there’s so much here to enjoy and appreciate — including atmospheric direction by Tourneur, who has the film taking “place mostly at night”, with “darkness… used metaphorically to express… malignant evil spread[ing] from character to character”; Nicholas Musucara’s truly “outstanding cinematography”, which often relies on “single-source lighting to place spooky shadows on the faces of his characters and across entire sets”; and “solid performances” by Mitchum, Greer, and all members of their estimable supporting cast. In his lengthier review of the film for his Cult Movies book, Peary writes that while Humphrey Bogart was the studio’s first choice to play the lead role, Mitchum is ultimately “a better choice than Bogart”, given that his “reserved style is more in keeping with the way Tourneur directs his actors”, and the fact that he is young enough to play someone who is “unprepared for the likes of Kathie [Greer] and welcomes her with open arms”. Meanwhile, gorgeous Greer emerges here as one of cinema’s most memorable femme fatales — it’s truly a shame her career didn’t go further.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
- Jane Greer as Kathie Moffatt (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
- Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
- Fine supporting performances throughout
- Nick Musuraca’s stunningly noir-ish cinematography
- Good use of on-location settings
- Daniel Mainwaring’s delightfully intelligent yet pulpy screenplay: “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.”
Yes, as a definitive noir classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the best pictures of the year in his Alternate Oscars.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)