Jean Negulesco’s Deep Valley doesn’t really qualify as a film noir, although it has some hallmarks of the noir style. Instead, it seems as if Negulesco is drawing from an earlier German artistic movement — Sturm und Drang.
The high emotions of the film are expressed physically — often through the turbulence of the natural world. Ida Lupino plays a simple country girl named Libby Saul who lives in a broken-down old farmhouse deep in the California wilderness with her parents, Cliff Saul (Henry Hull) and Ellie Saul (Fay Bainter). One night, long ago, Libby’s father beat her mother, and her mother has never forgiven him or spoken to him again. Libby speaks with a stutter, and it is implied that it is directly related to the traumatic memory of seeing her father hit her mother.
The rift between Libby’s parents is absolute. Mrs. Saul never leaves her upstairs bedroom, and relies on Libby to wait on her. Mr. Saul never goes upstairs, and roams the ramshackle property in a perpetual foul mood.
Libby has no friends, and is isolated from the world. Her father is cruel to her and her mother, who is an invalid by choice, lives in a fantasy world and has never let go of the idea that she is an aristocratic lady. Libby’s only solace is her dog, Joe, and the woods that surround the Sauls’ property. Her only happy moments are when she is roaming the forest with Joe and communicating with nature and wild animals.
One day, she discovers a crew of prisoners working on a chain gang along the ocean, excavating and dynamiting the coastline in preparation for a highway. This destruction and remaking of the natural world will bring a steady flow of people past the Sauls’ farm, and radically change Libby’s life.
But her life is changed almost immediately when she spots a dark, handsome convict named Barry Burnette (Dane Clark) working on the line.
Naturally, fate contrives to bring them together.
During a dark and stormy night, a landslide destroys the toolshed in which Barry and a couple of other prisoners are locked up. Libby finds Barry in the woods and helps him stay hidden from the posses that are searching for him, as well as from the good-natured but black-hearted Sheriff Akers (Willard Robertson) and the blandly handsome engineer running the highway project, Jeff Barker (Wayne Morris), who has an eye for Libby.
Libby and Barry’s romance begins in an idyllic fashion, but the weight of doom slowly crushes it. It’s not just because he’s an escaped convict. He’s also a violent hothead — never towards Libby or someone who hasn’t provoked him, but when faced with a problem, his first instinct is to lash out and break through, with no thought of what he’ll do next.
But Barry is always a likable character. Dane Clark’s performance is soulful and tortured, and his big eyes and open countenance make him sympathetic, even when he’s crouching in the second floor of a barn with a scythe, ready to kill whoever comes up the ladder.
We root for Barry and Libby, even though we know their love is impossible. As the film progresses, the shots become increasingly full of shadows and menace, and Barry and Libby are forced into smaller and smaller spaces, symbolizing the world closing in on them.
Deep Valley is based on a novel by Dan Totheroh. The screenplay is by Salka Viertel and Stephen Morehouse Avery, with uncredited assistance from William Faulkner.