This was on my list merely from name recognition and because I like to throw a noir into the mix every so often, and while it didn't wow, it supplied enough interesting stuff to make it pretty notable. The guys on the little documentary on the disc talk about how it's not great, but all of the supporting characters are played by great actors giving vivid performances. True, but it also has an interesting use of first-person camera, a lot of great period San Francisco location footage, and fascinating subtexts about identity and pervasive suspicion. It's one of those films that is much more than the sum of its parts.
We open outside of San Quentin, where our man character, Vincent Parry, has just escaped from. He rolls down a hill, and gets a ride from a passing motorist. The driver starts asking a number of questions--Hey, those are strange pants. If you've been walking in the muck, why aren't your shoes muddy?--until the escapee punches him and drives him off the road. He is changing in the brush when Lauren Bacall as as Irene Jansen pulls up and offers a ride. She heard that someone escaped, and specifically ran out in her car to rescue the escapee before the police get him. I guess she has some sort of prisoner fetish? Maybe I should try this tactic. She spirits him across the Golden Gate bridge and to her faboo art deco apartment, a real, famous building in San Francisco.
By now you've noticed that virtually everything up until now has been first-person camera (i.e. the screen is showing what the character sees) which completely doomed another noir I just recently watched, Lady in the Lake. It doesn't exactly work here, but where it differs is that there is actually a narrative reason for it, which we'll discover later, and we have much better actors, who are able to respond to the camera as if it were a person, in stark contrast to the hideous performance of Audrey Trotter in the other film. Turns out Lady in the Lake was released just a year prior to this one, and for all we know was the influence on the technique here. This film also intersperses third-person camera, just keeping Parry in shadow during those shots.
Anyway, Parry is left alone for a while at Irene's apartment, and snoops through her stuff, where he finds that her father was wrongly convicted, and executed, for killing her stepmother. Parry was convicted, he says wrongly, for killing his wife, so that's why she has an interest in the case. A woman stops by and knocks on the door, Agnes Moorehead as Madge Rapf. Parry also knows her--in fact, we later find out, it was her testimony that put him in jail. He doesn't let her in, but she hears music, and assumes Irene is with a man. After Irene returns with new clothes for Parry, he thanks her and says his goodbyes.
He gets in a cab, and the driver starts yakking away, and, we learn, knows instantly that Parry is the escaped convict. After the suspicious guy in the car, and now this guy, we're starting to get the pictures of this film's strange recurring theme about inquisitive, suspicious people who seem to see through Parry, despite what change of costume--of face--he makes. Because, you see, the cab driver is also a supporter of prisoners, and knows a plastic surgeon who can give Parry a new face. A-HA, you say! THAT'S why we're having all this first-person camera, and, you bet, we'll start seeing Humphrey Bogart once he gets his new face. And how right you are, my good fellow.
After a sojourn at a friend's house, Parry goes to the surgeon, played by the fabulously-named Housely Stevenson. He says that he will change a few things here or there, and will essentially make Parry look ten years older. Fans of Oedipal theory will note that Irene's father was in the same position as Parry, who she is obviously going to fall in love with, and now Parry is going to be made to look OLDER. MMMMMM-Hm. Parry has a bunch of visions and hallucinations while under sedation--always fun.
SPOILERS > > >
When he's done, his whole head is bandaged, and we finally drop the first-person camera, and just in time, as it was getting very tedious. He goes back to his friend's to find--he's dead! (Please note the wonderful glass floor.) And Parry is framed for it. And he's been up all night, his head is completely bandaged, and he can't speak for a week, and has to sleep flat on his back with his arms tied so he can't scratch his face--and he has nowhere to go! And, it need hardly be mentioned, the police are on his tail. So the only place to go is back to Irene's, and this is the point at which I started to really like this movie, because we have a long sequence where Parry is climbing the numerous hills to her apartment, and you really get the sense that he is falling down dead with exhaustion. Also by now we've noticed that we are getting a LOT of 1947 San Francisco location footage, especially out in the residential neighborhoods--which is fascinating, as it shows the city as a still under-construction town of shacks and small wooden buildings. I would think that anyone who lived in San Francisco would want to rent this movie for its historical footage alone.
So he gets back to Irene's, and she takes him in. But guess who's parked outside? The guy who initially gave Parry a lift outside of the prison! What is he doing there? He gets some sleep--then Madge comes over, insisting that she stay! She really is quite a wicked, evil pain in the ass, and is an extremely fun character. Irene's current boyfriend, Bob, comes over as well, but Irene can never really get excited over him because of her Oedipal fascination with father figures who may or may not have killed their wives.
< < < SPOILERS END
That's where I'm going to stop the spoilers, but we still have much to talk about. One of the things I found most notable about this film is its subtext about guilt and suspicion. Basically, there are quite a few scenes in which Parry changes his clothes, or even his face, yet no matter what he does, people regard him with extreme suspicion. It doesn't necessarily go anywhere concrete, but it does give the film a worldview and atmosphere that is interesting in itself. In this way its like one of those Jacques Tourneur classics, in that it has a lot of fascinating thematic material that doesn't necessarily hang together, but just adds so much to the gestalt. Basically the guy can't get free, no matter what he does, and because of this, the movie successfully sustains viewer uncertainty over whether he is guilty or not, right til the end.
Speaking of the end, there are some shockers there, including one that proves you never really do know what's behind that curtain. My researches have come to nothing, but somehow I expect the ending of the film does not match that of the novel. But it still works. One way, and it would have been one of those noirs about the inescapability of fate, regardless of whether that's right or wrong. Another way, and it's about how even the most ingenious plans came down to pure chance. By the way, that's James Cagney on the bus at the end. And apparently there is a note in the streetcar we see Parry in even today, saying "Humphrey Bogart rode this car."
So is it the absolute best movie? No, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it's one of many people's favorites, because it has so much additional stuff going on, is truly romantic and suspenseful, has good performances and fascinating locations, and a pervasive, unnerving worldview.
I think so, especially if you're a Bogart or Noir fan.