And now for something completely different…
One of the things I like the most about films from the Warner Archive is that there is such a variety of films available, from pre-codes (which we will be getting into next month for sure), to comedies, to melodramas, and historical dramas. The first two films of my watch-a-thon were definitely comedies but for my third film we are going to the complete other side of the spectrum for a film noir from Otto Preminger.
One night in Beverly Hills a call goes out to the local ambulance company. Two drivers are dispatched to the estate of Catherine and Charles Tremayne, but by the time that they arrive the patient is already being treated by the doctor. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) has suffered the effects of gas inhalation from the fireplace in her room. She insists that someone has tried to murder her, but her husband Charles (Herbert Marshall) and the doctor dismiss the idea. When the key to the gas shut off is found in the back of the fireplace by driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) the suggestion that Catherine might have tried to commit suicide is brought up. Charles dismisses that as well and Frank is told that he is no longer needed. On his way out of the house Frank comes across the beautiful Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), daughter to Charles and stepdaughter to Catherine. Frank tells Diane that her stepmother is going to be fine and Diane becomes hysterical. Frank slaps her to stop her hysterics, and Diane slaps him in return. When Frank explains it wasn’t anything personal, Diane apologizes but later follows Frank after he gets off of work. Frank goes to a local diner to call his girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman), but gets no answer. His disappointment is soon forgotten, however, when Diane appears and offers to go to dinner with him and later dancing.
Over dinner and drinks, Diane tells Frank about how her father used to be a famous novelist but he has not written a thing since marrying Catherine. She then asks Frank about himself and Mary, and soon learns that Frank is a former race car driver who has aspirations of owning his own garage in the future. As for Mary, Frank relates that she is a hospital receptionist with blonde hair and blue eyes, and has been saving money to help Frank open his garage. The next day Diane invites the unsuspecting Mary to lunch. Under the guise of offering to help lend Frank money for his garage, Diane lets Mary know that she and Frank spent the previous evening together. Mary quickly catches on to Diane’s true intentions and rejects her offer, but does admit that her faith in Frank has been shaken. She has more reason to doubt Frank when, later that day, he lies again about his activities the night before. Mary reveals that she had lunch with Diane and knows everything about their date, and then agrees to go out with Frank’s partner Bill instead of him. Diane meanwhile has convinced her family that they need a chauffeur and, during a moonlit drive and some kissing, convinces Frank that he should take the job to help fund his garage.
Working at the Tremayne household is going well for Frank, especially when Diane tells him that Catherine has agreed to consider funding his garage. Frank goes to present his business plan to Catherine who, while suspicious of Diane’s motives, agrees to talk to her lawyer about the garage. However, when she calls his office she finds that her attorney is out-of-town and won’t be back for at least a week. Later that day, during a secret meeting, Diane shows Frank the crumpled papers of his business proposal that she claims to have found in Catherine’s wastebasket. Diane complains to Frank that Catherine is doing everything she can just to hurt her. She claims that Catherine uses Diane’s love for her father, who is weak-willed and bad with money, as a way to control her. Frank tells Diane not to worry too much about the garage plans but Diane won’t hear of it. Later that night Diane comes into Frank’s apartment over the garage and claims to have just survived an attempt on her life. She tells Frank that Catherine snuck into her room and opened the gas, just like what had happened before. But if she thinks that Frank is going to be a push over, Diane is in for a surprise. Frank refuses to believe her story and orders her back to her room to consider what she is really trying to do. He says he knows that Diane hates her stepmother but she needs to stop and reconsider her actions before she does anything rash. Stunned, Diane agrees and leaves the apartment. The next day Frank visits Mary and tells her that he is quitting the job with the Tremaynes. Upon his return to the estate he begins to pack his suitcase when Diane finds him. She shows him her own packed suitcase and begs him not to leave her, to take her with him. Frank finally relents, after admitting that he is in love with Diane, and agrees to wait a few more days before leaving but only if Diane takes the time to seriously think over their situation.
The next day Catherine is searching the house for Frank when she instead finds Diane. Frank has gone into town and won’t be back for several hours, and Catherine needs to go to a bridge tournament. Resolving to drive herself, Catherine borrows Diane’s car (at her insistence) and prepares to leave when she is approached by Charles. Charles asks his wife to drop him off in town on her way out and she agrees. She puts the car into drive and presses down on the gas, but the car lurches backwards and speeds off a cliff and down into a ravine. Her father and step-mother lying dead below, Diane calmly plays the piano inside. Following some investigation Diane is arrested under suspicion of murder, but she isn’t the only one. Frank is also arrested and is to be tried along with Diane in the murder of the Tremaynes.
This is a movie that I had caught several times but always halfway through. Finally seeing the whole story made me realize what an underrated noir this is. While it isn’t on the same level as a film like OUT OF THE PAST, this is still an intriguing and well told story. There are definite tones of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN here, the woman who wants to have love all to herself, which was made about seven years prior. There are differences of course, including Diane’s remorse about involving Frank in her crimes and her devastation at the death of her father and Catherine. The real fun of this movie is to watch it while asking the question, is Diane just crazy the whole time or is there something more? If you go into it with this question in mind then the whole film takes on a much more complex tone.
Otto Preminger made one of my other favorite noirs, the terrific LAURA, and you can the similarities between the films. The way he uses conversation to move the plot along, the way that the small moments have just as much impact as the large, really make this a unique film. The production was not without problems however. This was Jean Simmon’s last picture while under contract with Howard Hughes. In an attempt to dissuade Hughes from using her in the film, thereby running out her contract, Simmons cut her hair as she knew Hughes preferred long hair. Hughes responded by casting her in this film and forcing her to wear a wig throughout production, he also promised Preminger a bonus if he completed filming before Simmons’ contract was up. Preminger did just that and collected his bonus. Another story tells of how Mitchum grew frustrated by Preminger’s repeated re-takes which required him to slap Simmons repeatedly. Finally, Mitchum slapped Preminger and asked if that was how he wanted it. Preminger was furious and demanded that Hughes replace Mitchum, which Hughes obviously refused to do.
While this is not one of the best noirs, I think it is much more underrated than it deserves to be. The story isn’t new but the character of Diane is much more complicated than I think she first appears. Frank Jessup is a terrific character as well, because he is not a willing patsy to Diane’s scheming. In fact, contrary to the men in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, Frank is well aware of Diane’s games and schemes. He knows her true intentions and has no desire to put up with them, something he tells her to her face. It is the fact that he knows what she is and what she is capable of but still loves her that makes this noir so tragic.
Even now I find myself thinking about parts of this film and coming to new realizations about the characters and their motivations. Any film that can provoke that sort of thought is definitely worthwhile.