Day 13 of Noirvember: Cop-Out on Noir Street
No – it’s not the name of a rare noir that you somehow overlooked. It’s that rare phenomenon – a film noir with an unsatisfying – dare we say, “cop-out” – ending. I can’t think of many noirs that fit this category, but three come to mind immediately. I’m taking a closer look at these three today – and be forewarned, spoilers will be abundant!
The first case in point is The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), starring one of my favorite performers, George Sanders, along with Geraldine Fitzgerald and Ella Raines. Set in the small New Hampshire town of Corinth, this story focuses on the lives of Harry Quincy (Sanders), a mild-mannered, unassuming factory worker, and his two sisters, the possessive and subtly domineering Lettie (Fitzgerald) and the slightly neurotic Hester (Moyna McGill). Harry enjoys a pleasant, if dull, life with his sisters, but when he falls in love with Deborah Brown (Raines), a fashion consultant from New York City, Lettie only barely manages to mask her displeasure. Harry and Deborah decide to marry and move to New York, but Lettie feigns a heart attack, forcing Harry to choose between his sister and his would-be bride. Harry insists on caring for his sister, but when Deborah leaves town, Harry is devastated to not only learn that Deborah plans to marry the owner of the town mill, but that Lettie purposely faked her illness. Angered by her interference, Harry puts poison in a cup of cocoa that Lettie is to drink, but Hester drinks it instead, and dies. Lettie is accused of murdering her sister, and Harry allows her to be convicted and sentenced to death for the crime. Nice noir, huh? Not so fast – before the film’s end, we learn that Deborah didn’t get married after all, and Hester isn’t dead. Turns out the whole thing was a dream!
Next up on our “cop-out” hit parade is Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), starring Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster. Until the last five minutes – heck, I’ll cut it even closer – the last THREE minutes – of this film, it was well on its way to becoming one of my favorite noirs. But then those last three minutes happened. In this feature, Burt Lancaster stars as Bill Saunders, whose luckless existence in post-war London spirals downhill when he accidentally kills a bartender in a local pub. Bill begins to turn his life around, however, after seeking sanctuary in the apartment of a young woman, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Bound by their mutual loneliness, Bill and Jane grow closer over time, but Bill’s bliss is shattered when he is blackmailed by Harry Carter (Robert Newton), a pub patron who knows of the circumstances surrounding the bartender’s death. When the oily blackmailer pays a visit to Jane, she stabs him with a pair of scissors; although the wound is not fatal, Carter later dies during a scuffle with Bill. Planning to flee the country with Jane, Bill is dismayed when she insists that the two turn themselves in to authorities. And I’m even more dismayed when Bill agrees!! “If we go back and stick together,” he says, “maybe somebody will give us a break.”
Give ME a break!!!
And that brings us to cop out numero uno: Woman in the Window (1945). Edward G. Robinson stars as college professor Richard Wanley, who is pleasantly surprised one evening after leaving his men’s club when he meets a beautiful young woman whose portrait he’d admired in a nearby gallery window. Wanley accompanies the woman, Alice (Joan Bennett), to her home for a nightcap, but the encounter turns sour when Alice’s boyfriend enters the apartment and Wanley stabs him with a pair of scissors during a struggle. (What is it with these movies and scissors. Does nobody carry a gat anymore?) After disposing of the body, Wanley learns that the dead man was a prominent financier, and the couple find themselves being blackmailed by his bodyguard, Heidt (Dan Duryea). After a failed attempt to poison Heidt, Wanley prepares to commit suicide, but the blackmailer is later killed in a gun battle with police, who assume he is the financier’s killer. Alice telephones Wanley to inform him of the police’s findings, but he has swallowed poison and is prevented in his weakened state from answering the call.
Great ending, am I right?
I am wrong.
In the film’s final reel, Wanley is awakened by an employee at his men’s club and it is revealed that the entire incident – nay, the entire MOVIE – was merely a dream. And to add insult to injury, in a scene reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, Wanley leaves the club to find that the financier from his dream is the coat attendant, and the blackmailer, Heidt, works as the doorman.
Saints preserve us. And, also, ugh.
So there you have it – a celebration of Noirvember that’s filled with films that fill me with frustration! But up until those lousy, cop-out endings, I have to admit that they’re darned good!!
Join me tomorrow for Day 14 of Noirvember!