Thursday, January 05, 2006


This Fritz Lang movie has been released on DVD as part of a film noir boxed set, but I think it will disappoint true noir aficionados; aside from the fact that much of the action takes place at night, this isn't noir, but a romantic triangle melodrama with good performances and some awfully purple dialogue which comes off like second-rate Tennessee Williams. Barbara Stanwyck is Mae, a woman who returns to her hometown, a California fishing village, having been beaten down by the big city; she was mistress to a rich, married man and was left penniless when he died. She moves in with her hunky younger brother (Keith Andes) and, apparently ready to settle for protective domesticity, starts dating big lug fisherman Paul Douglas, not terribly smart or handsome, but a considerate, salt-of-the-earth guy anyway. However, she soon finds herself attracted to Douglas' buddy, Robert Ryan, a restless type who works as a projectionist at the local theater. Ryan can be charming, except when he drinks, but he is also a cynical and deeply unhappy man stuck in a bad marriage to a traveling burlesque dancer. Stanwyck eventually marries Douglas and they have a baby; a year later, Ryan, divorced, re-enters Stanwyck's placid and boring life, tempting her into a steamy affair. She decides to leave with Ryan, but Douglas won't let her take their child. After Douglas and Ryan come to blows, Stanwyck ultimately decides to stick it out with Douglas and domesticity.

Stanwyck is the reason to watch this; she gives a solid performance, making her character sympathetic and multi-layered. Despite the various twists and turns Mae takes, Stanwyck, in the current vernacular, always "keeps it real." I can't quite say the same for Ryan, though in his defense, the character as written too often feels like just a character rather than a real person. The best scene in the movie is when a hungover Ryan lustily grapples with an emotionally vulnerable Stanwyck at the kitchen sink; you can feel their frustrations, their doubt, and their heat. Douglas is good at conveying the sensitive side of the lug; you can see why Stanwyck likes him (even if you're never convinced that she loves him). There is a vaguely parallel subplot, involving Andes and his girlfriend, Marilyn Monroe, that isn't developed very deeply, but it's nice to see two gorgeous people kiss and bicker occasionally. Andes is nice looking and good in his limited role, and it's too bad he never achieved full leading man stardom. J. Carroll Naish has a small but pivotal role as Douglas' nasty uncle. The opening, a panorama of shots of the sea and a near-documentary look at the fishing boats and the canning works, feels a lot like the opening of John Sayles' LIMBO. [TCM]

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