Friday, September 19, 2008

Target #31: They Won't Believe Me (1947, Irving Pichel)

Directed by: Irving Pichel
Written by: Gordon McDonell (story), Jonathan Latimer (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Young, Susan Hayward, Jane Greer, Rita Johnson, Tom Powers, George Tyne, Frank Ferguson

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details follow!!!

Love, sex or money? This is the fatal question faced by Larry Ballentine, a compulsively adulterous husband with dollar signs where he ought to have a heart. Irving Pichel's They Won't Believe Me (1947) is a wonderful little-known film noir, a sardonic dissection of the mechanics of Fate, and a stark profile of a wretchedly corrupt, amoral and ultimately doomed personality. The film, which characterises the noir style down to the letter, is similar in tone to Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), as a sympathetic but morally-suspect man is drawn, not-altogether-reluctantly, into a destructive web of deceit and murder, though not entirely through the lure of a beautiful woman; Ballentine frequently digs his own grave here. Played with lazy cocksureness by Robert Young – a vague combination of Robert Mitchum and Ray Milland – our main protagonist may not have committed homicide, but he was still guilty of so much more. The story is told in flashback, as Ballentine, the accused in a murder trial, recounts his side of the incident, a last-ditch attempt to save his own neck.

There are three women in this story. Greta (Rita Johnson) is Ballentine's husband, an upright and charismatic businesswoman from a wealthy family, who knows both how her husband operates, and how she can control him with the promise of money. Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward), Ballentine's mistress, is a slick and crafty money-grabber. The couple, at least initially, have no delusions about their relationship: Verna is in it for his money, and he's in it for the sex (this theme, owing to the Production Code, is dealt with tastefully). Hayward plays the role to feisty perfection, and such was her cloaked malevolence that I half-expected her to crop up at the film's end, having somehow faked her own death, stolen Ballentine's money and skipped off to South America. Janice Bell (Jane Greer) is the polar converse of Hayward's femme fatale, perhaps the closest thing to love in Ballentine's life – their relationship, characterised by a mutual love of boating, apparently, seems genuinely platonic, a mutual understanding that our male hero promptly severs with his unquenchable thirst for wealth.I was surprised, given its relative obscurity nowadays, at just how strong a film They Won't Believe Me turned out to be. The main and supporting characters are played flawlessly, their traits and motivations explored with more than sufficient depth to justify their later actions, though one still wonders if Verna's apparent sincerity prior to the road accident is, indeed, genuine. As he recounts his tale to the murder jury, Ballentine frequently makes fatalistic allusions towards the inescapably of Fate – here personified in a crippled palomino horse. By the time he's finished telling his incredible story, which may or may not be true {Hitchcock pulled this false-flashback trick several years later, though I won't reveal the details}, we're left with a very raw taste in our mouths. We can sympathise to an extent with Ballentine's extraordinary run of bad luck, but much of his behaviour, even if one excludes the accusation of murder, is so utterly contemptible that he doesn't deserve to live. Yet, from the moment Ballentine catches a bullet in the back, we already know what the jury's verdict had been.

Currently my #6 film from 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
4) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
5) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *
6) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel) *
7) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
8) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)
9) Song of the Thin Man (Edward Buzzell)
10) The Senator Was Indiscreet (George S. Kaufman)

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