Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film noir dreamscape is a frustrating, haunting mystery of identity.
Taylor goes to the bank but is met with suspicion by its employees. After another dead-end in a men’s steam room, he finds himself pursued through a swanky basement nightclub and cornered in the dressing room of singer Christy Smith (Nancy Guild). Later, following a kidnapping and beating by thugs employed by the mysterious thief and occultist Anzelmo (Fritz Kortner), a creaky plot contrivance leaves him dazed and injured at Smith’s door. She nurses him back to health, falling in love with him in the process.
Together the two pursue fringe-like clues to Taylor’s identity and the whereabouts of the vanished Cravat, despite the machinations of Anzelmo and a tawdry con woman (Margo Woode) who may or may not have known Taylor in his previous life. Eager to help the vulnerable Taylor, Smith enlists the help of her boss and potential suitor (Richard Conte), who in turn brings in a homicide lieutenant (Lloyd Nolan) who’s a lot smarter than he lets on. The lieutenant tells Taylor that his “friend” Cravat was in possession of stolen Nazi funds when he disappeared three years previous – the same time Taylor joined the service. Taylor and the lieutenant both begin to suspect him of Cravat’s murder, escalating the desperation in uncovering Taylor’s true identity. (The solution ultimately bears a strong resemblance to a similar revelation in Alan Parker’s 1984 horror noir Angel Heart.)
Mankiewicz shrewdly bends the noir aesthetic towards establishing a vague and mysterious air around even the simplest locations, giving the film a dreamlike quality that eerily conveys Taylor’s growing paranoia and self-loathing. But the complicated and rambling plot is freighted with diversions and vignettes that, while dramatically effective, don’t always serve to move the story forward. One scene in particular, in which Taylor confronts the daughter of a potential witness to Cravat’s crimes, is achingly acted and beautifully shot but nevertheless slows the movie’s momentum to a crawl. And the film is dialogue-heavy to a fault, with characters reeling off whole paragraphs even in the most mundane conversations. Conversely, the script has an annoying habit of never having characters answer a direct question with candor, lengthening the time needed to bring facts to light while working too hard to sustain suspense.
More troubling, at least regarding the script – adapted from Marvin Borowsky’s story by Mankiewicz and several others, including legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg and equally legendary British author/playwright W. Somerset Maugham – are the voids that leave vital information unanswered. Because the film is chiefly Taylor’s journey, the story most often takes pains to establish each step along his way. Yet how he came into possession of the search-igniting claim ticket is left unexplained, while the rapid growth of Smith’s affections is left underdeveloped and somewhat superfluous as a result. Such details feel important in retrospect, and unfortunately a second viewing doesn’t fill in their sizeable blanks.
Despite those failings the cast is hardworking, committed, and effective. Hodiak, sweating bullets throughout, conveys his character’s mounting panic while still retaining a sense of determination and composure – an ideal example of the relentlessness common to noir protagonists. Making her debut appearance with wardrobe and makeup apparently crafted to make her resemble Lauren Bacall as much as possible, Guild is sweet and convincing despite some corny dialogue of the “Can’t you see I’m nuts for the guy?” variety. (She and Kortner reteamed the following year in another noir, The Brasher Doubloon, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window.)
Richard Conte, still several years from headlining Jules Dassin’s masterful Thieves’ Highway, is underused as a foil and friend to Taylor’s respective romance and quest, appearing in only a few scenes. Finally, Woode’s radar blip of a career is puzzling given her sweet/predatory smile and crackling screen sexuality. Her character’s affected sophistication, communicated chiefly through sprinkling French expressions into her come-hither game with Taylor, gives the film both edge and a strange sense of resonant sadness. Nobody is who they seem to be somewhere in the night, but nobody is who they want to be, either.
- Michael Kabel