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Nov 10, 2014

Noirvember: DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946) and BACKFIRE (1950)


The role of women in Film Noir is one of the elements that make this genre so special. In a large number of Film Noir pictures, women are clearly smarter than the men and in complete control of the narrative. Men are weak who give in to their desires often committing heinous acts just so they can be with the woman who is otherwise forbidden unless they get rid of (in most cases that means murdering) the thing or person that stands between them. These women are comfortable in their skin and know how to get what they want while the men are often lost and easily manipulated. In some cases the men are fully aware that they are being used like Robert Mitchum in Angel Face who points out to Fatale Jean Simmons that she has murderous thoughts, yet hooks up with her anyway. It's fascinating to watch women take the dominant role in these pictures as they drive the narrative, sometimes without having to do anything more than just exist.

Lola Lane as Edna along with one of the many possible suspects in 'Deadline at Dawn'
This past week I watched a pair of Noirs where women have all the power and drive the narrative in very unique ways and with minimal screen time. The first is Deadline at Dawn (1946, Directed by Harold Clurman). The woman in question is Edna played by Lola Lane. Her control over this picture comes from beyond the grave. That's right, the main driving force of this picture is found dead in her apartment within the first 10 minutes. We have one scene where she is alive, and we can tell she's bad news just by the way she carries herself within her apartment. She's dressed in sexy lingerie, carries a drink and is approached by an individual for a large amount of money that she discovers is missing from her purse. She surmises that a young sailor (Bill Williams) made off with the dough but don't worry, the cops will find him soon enough.

Susan Hayward is ultimately charmed by the 'Aw Shucks' Bill Williams
Meanwhile Williams wakes up after blacking out (he can't hold his liquor) at a nearby newsstand. Williams is as clean cut as you can get, fresh-faced with a neatly pressed Naval uniform and dutifully carries his radio wherever he goes. He won't even lie to Susan Hayward's mother about how her daughter is doing when she politely asks him too. Lying is bad you know. He finds the wad of cash in his pocket and is overcome with guilt. We discover that he was 'lured' to Edna's apartment under the guise of "fixing her radio". She made a move on him, but he was disgusted by her and after fixing the radio, makes off with the money when she stiffs him and passes out from her excessive alcohol consumption. It's really the only way that a woman like Edna can get her hooks into the clean cut Williams. He doesn't succumb to her hitting on him at the restaurant so she lures the kid up to her apartment to fix the radio (which it ends up, actually did need fixing).  He's also too 'innocent' to realize that he's being taken up to a cougar's den. So when Williams later tries to return the money and finds Edna dead, he assumes that automatically makes him the prime suspect - and he's right. There is also a slight percentage of him that fears he may have carried out the murder during his drunken blackout. That definitely would not please his mortician father from Poughkeepsie which is his primary concern, even more so than going to jail.

Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas give up their night to help Bill Williams
Edna has her hand in a lot of rotten pots. We discover that she's involved in plenty of rackets. She's presumably a prostitution 'Madame' as well as extorts and blackmails men with whom she has had affairs. What's even bolder is that she carries out all these illicit activities while living right across the street from a police station. This creates a lot of red herrings for Williams to wade through before he has to catch a bus at 6am the next morning in order to report for duty in Norfolk, Virginia. Thankfully he gets some help from a cynical and very tired dance hall girl (Susan Hayward) and a kindly, father-figure cab driver (Paul Lukas) who both agree to spend all night to help this kid clear himself of murder. They're awfully generous to do so because honestly the last thing I can think of agreeing to is to help a person I just met be cleared of a murder that it appears he committed - not to mention stay up all night to do so. The filmmakers are smart though by making it clearly obvious to the audience that the kid has had nothing to do with the crime, putting us on his side immediately and wanting these strangers to help him out.

Edna's psychotic brother played by Joseph Calleia
We learn more about Edna when she's dead than we ever could have had she been alive. Characters from her past come out of the woodwork to keep Williams, Hayward and Lukas on their toes as they try to solve her murder. Her brother is a psychotic, a volcano just waiting to erupt violence on whomever is responsible for his sister's death (and he is convinced it is Williams). There is an interesting moment when a drunken man - revealed to be a star baseball player - shows up completely plastered and screams up to her in the middle of the street begging to let him up. Of course she's dead so this just causes more grief for our protagonists. It becomes even more dicey when the police discovering who he is come up to the apartment to get the man a drink. I mean here this guy is, in the middle of the night while people are trying to sleep, soused out of his mind and screaming at the top of his lungs. So what do the police do? Why try to get him another drink of course because he's a star baseball player and he gets the red carpet treatment while earlier we saw them send a man away who was merely looking for a place to sleep. Even dead, Edna continues to draw attention and activity to her apartment making it rough for our protagonists to solve the mystery. She definitely isn't about to make it easy for them that is for sure.

In Backfire (1950, directed by Vincent Sherman), Viveca Lindfors doesn't have to die or really do anything to drive all the men crazy. She does enough damage as it is just by existing.

Viveca Lindfors in 'Backfire'
Gordon McCrae is Bob Corey, a soldier recovering from a series of operations at a military hospital following World War II. He and his fellow war veteran friend Edmund O'Brien have a grand plan to buy and operate a ranch once he is released. Given that they spent months cramped up inside a tank, a ranch would offer them clean air and open freedom. O'Brien visits him every day, but then suddenly stops coming. After being administered a sedative, McCrae is visited by Lindfors who tells him that O'Brien has been in an accident and that his spine is shattered. O'Brien has asked her to help him commit suicide, but she refuses. McCrae tells her to wait for him as he will be released soon and she appears relieved. He tells her to leave her address but she leaves the pad blank. The next morning, nobody believes him about this mysterious woman or his worry about O'Brien especially when he receives a telegram that hints that O'Brien is okay (a ruse from Nurse Virginia Mayo to calm him down). McCrae is released and picked up by the police. He is shocked to discover that O'Brien is wanted for murder and even though the police tell him not to, starts investigating with help from his nurse (Virigina Mayo - the two have fallen in love) to first find O'Brien and then clear his name.

Is she a dream? Nope, Viveca Lindfors is very real in 'Backfire'
As the case progresses, it becomes evident that everything - O'Brien's accident and disappearance as well as a series of murders - are linked to Lindfors. However it is not like she has really done anything to inspire all this chaos. She is elegant and refined with a lovely accent and men - including O'Brien and a gambler he has been working for - just automatically fall madly in love with her. It is that love that drives at least one of those men to carry out several heinous acts - including multiple murders - in the name of love. Is it love though or pure obsession? When the killer is finally revealed (and I won't say who it is) he is so driven mad with his need to possess Lindfors that he can't even think straight.

Viveca Lindfors enchants Edmund O'Brien
In both these pictures, confident and strong women -one bad, one good - are at the center of everything that drives the action. Edna may be bad to the bone and that's what gets her killed, yet her influence carries over beyond the grave and nearly sends poor Bill Williams up the river for a murder he didn't commit. Viveca Lindfors' beauty and refinement is enough to drive men to kill to be with her. This is a woman who doesn't even have to do anything to drive men out of their minds. Now that's power.