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Tag Archives: James Westerfield

Undercurrent (Nov. 28, 1946)

Undercurrent
Undercurrent (1946)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ’em exactly like they used to.

Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.

So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”

Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.

Hepburn and Taylor in the shadow of Mitchum

Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.

When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”

True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”

Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.

I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.

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The Chase (Nov. 16, 1946)

Arthur D. Ripley’s The Chase is based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1944 novel The Black Path of Fear, which was adapted as a screenplay by Philip Yordan.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a sailor who was decorated during World War II, is now bedraggled and broke in Miami. While staring longingly through the window of a lunch counter at a griddle full of bacon and flapjacks, he finds a lost wallet full of $20 bills. He decides to return it to its owner, Edward Roman, whose I.D. says that he lives on Hermosa Drive, but not before he “borrows” a buck and a half to buy himself breakfast.

Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) turns out to be a smooth-talking criminal who lives in a palatial home with his creepy right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre) and his beautiful wife Lorna (French actress Michèle Morgan), whom he keeps a virtual prisoner. Roman is sinister right from the get-go, slapping a woman (Shirley O’Hara) who pokes him while manicuring his fingernails before he talks to Scott.

Gino and his boss seem amused by Scott’s honesty. (He even owns up to the 12 bits he liberated.) Roman asks Scott why he brought the wallet back. “Now that I’m here I wonder myself,” Scott says. “I guess I’m just a sucker.”

Roman gives “Scotty” — as he calls him — a job as a driver. Scott doesn’t like or trust either Roman or Gino, but he can’t say no to paying work. Things get weird right away. Roman has a contraption in the back seat that allows him to control the accelerator, speeding the car up to more than 100 m.p.h. to see how Scott handles himself. (My wife probably wishes all cars I drove came equipped with this feature.)

One night, Roman entertains a prominent ship owner named Emmerrich Johnson (Lloyd Corrigan), an overdressed fat man who spends most of his time laughing nervously … he can never quite tell if Roman’s joking or not. Unfortunately for Johnson, he doesn’t see the depths of Roman’s villainy and sadism. He’s never joking.

After Johnson refuses to commit to sell Roman the two ships he wants to buy, Gino takes Johnson on a tour of Roman’s wine cellar. While Johnson is excitedly fussing over a bottle of 1815 Napoleon brandy, Gino slips away and locks Johnson in the wine cellar with Roman’s vicious dog. When Johnson is attacked he drops the bottle of brandy on the floor and it runs out along the floor in a convincing approximation of blood. It’s an old cinematic trick, but a good one.

Meanwhile, Scott and Mrs. Roman are busy falling for each other. After one of their many trips to the beach, where she looks out over the water longingly as he stands behind her, waiting with the car, Lorna offers him $1,000 to take her to Havana. She thinks she can trust him, and she can’t make it on her own. He mulls it over for a little while but quickly gives in, booking passage for two on the S.S. Cuba.

They make it to Havana, but their plan to continue on to South America hits a snag, and Scott finds himself on the run, accused of murder.

Things get really weird an hour into the picture, when Scott wakes up in a room with a bottle of pills on the night table and no memory of what happened to him over the course of the past few days.

I haven’t read The Black Path of Fear, but I have read other novels by Woolrich, and blackouts, amnesia, and lost periods of time were recurring themes in his work. Like a lot of Woolrich’s booze-soaked prose, The Chase starts out as a fairly standard thriller, but by the end it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. In a better film, like Detour (1945), this could be counted as a real achievement. With The Chase, however, the confusion between dreams and reality seems more the result of slapdash filmmaking than anything else.

Cummings has a pleasant way about him, and is believable as an earnest, soft-spoken Everyman. Morgan is beautiful, but the script doesn’t give her a lot to do. Cochran and Lorre are the real gems in this film. Every scene in which they appear is full of menace. Each man has a calm exterior, but there’s always violence roiling below the surface.

If you’re looking for tight plotting or a clever climax, you won’t find it here, but The Chase has just enough oddball charm to recommend it to noir enthusiasts.