Wednesday, April 08, 2015

THE CHASE (1946)

In Miami, down-on-his-luck Chuck (Robert Cummings) finds a wallet stuffed with money on the sidewalk right in front of a diner, so he takes out a couple of bucks, buys a meal, then goes to the owner's house to return it. The owner is rich underworld figure Edward Roman (Steve Cochran, pictured) who takes a shine to this honest bum—Chuck fesses up to taking the money out—and hires him as a chauffeur for himself and for his restless wife Lorna (Michele Morgan). The car is a bit crazy: Edward can switch control of the gas and brakes to the back seat if he wants to, and he gives Chuck a scare the first time out by doing this without telling him. [Why, I wondered, is this gimmick in the film at all? All I could imagine is that it was going to be pulled out again in the third act for some important use, and it is, but it remains quite a silly device.] Lorna wants to leave her husband, and most days she has Chuck drive her down to the coast to gaze longingly at Cuba where she wants to escape. Soon the two hatch a plan: he'll make arrangements for the two to them to take a ship to Havana and they'll sneak away under cover of night. But things don't quite go as scheduled and from here on, the movie gets pretty weird. We find out that Chuck is a victim of shellshock and sometimes slips into blackouts. Chuck and Lorna get to Havana but are hunted down by Roman's slimy henchman (Peter Lorre) and she is knifed in the street and killed. Or is she?

All is worked out by the end but it's a bit of a slog getting there. I must admit that part of my problem was that the public domain print on the DVD I was watching, from St. Clair Vision, was in terrible shape with lots of splices and murky darkness with little visible detail. The DVD is shorter by four minutes than the running time indicated at IMDb and I think an important plot point or two got scrambled because of that. Still, this has some good film noir elements including the conflicted and wounded hero, the potential femme fatale, and the role of fate in the proceedings. The ambitious visual style of director Arthur Ripley is hampered by the extremely low budget of the film, but some sequences, including the knifing of Lorna and the death of another character in a wine cellar, still pack some power. One quirk that doesn't work is when a take, usually involving just one actor looking intense or confused, is held for a long time as though the film editor fell asleep. The acting is all over the map and some of these problems can be chalked up to the direction: Cummings is OK but a little lightweight for a noir hero, never coming off as tortured as his character should be; Morgan's range goes from catatonic to bored; Lorre sounds like he's just rehearsing his lines. The only actor who emerges unscathed is Steve Cochran who is very good and believably menacing as the villain. An interesting experiment in noir atmosphere which I'd like to watch again if it ever gets a restoration. [DVD]

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