Saturday, June 15, 2019
Noir Watch: Nora Prentiss (1947)
format: Noir Alley on TCM
Eddie Muller intro'd this movie by discussing how this film was marketed and considered "a woman's picture", and from what I've gathered about Women's Pictures of the mid-20th Century, I can see why that label got dropped on it. But had he not mentioned this in the opening, I'd have seen this as soft-boiled noir and maybe mentioned women's films in passing. Bear in mind, one of my favorite movies if Mildred Pierce, which one can see as equal parts Women's Picture and Film Noir, so that's not taking a particular stance, it just changes the formula a bit.
Nora Prentiss (1947) follows Dr. Richard Talbot (played by Kent Smith), a button-down physician with two square-as-hell kids, a nice house in SF, a bustling practice and a wife who is taking way too much delight in becoming a matronly bore. He's already getting edgy about the rut he's in when, one evening, a young woman is struck by a truck outside his office and he brings her up to check on her. Ann Sheridan plays the titular Nora Prentiss, a lounge singer with a wicked way with a line and not much working out in her life.
Tip of the hat to the filmmakers as this odd-couple actually do sort of make sense - she can go for a guy who isn't much like the usual nightclub patrons and she's everything his wife is not. Nora is also very much *not* a femme fatale. Attracted to Talbot, sure. Knows she's up to something she shouldn't be... yeah. But rather than a temptress, the two seem unable to ignore that this *does* work for them.
If it's a Woman's Picture, it's that "the other woman" isn't ever cast in a negative light, and she doesn't trap the good doctor, put him in a spot, etc... If it's noir, it's that Talbot - in his desperation to be with Prentiss, makes some fateful and incredibly poor decisions that upend his life, specifically so that he might have a shot with Ann Sheridan (and who could blame him, really?).
Because this isn't a film of high crime or insurance investigators up to no good thanks to how a woman looks with a cigarette and an ankle bracelet, and that Prentiss is more a real character than a concept, the film plays more like a melodrama than the usual noir faire. And that's great! Our doctor may be a bit of a simp, and you may want to smack him at intervals throughout the film, but it's still a terrifically engaging movie.
The finale is actually oddly moving, and a curious twist for noir. But it's also a wildly original conclusion to a movie and if you've seen it, I'd like to high-five some time over this movie.
I don't know what to say about Ann Sheridan - that she's not in more pictures I've seen and that she's not better remembered is a crime. She's got a heck of a way with snappy line delivery, but she's got range.
Kent Smith, maybe less range, but as the nebbishy - kinda unwittingly handsome nerd here - is pretty terrific. Muller described it as a career best, and I'm going with it.
The movie also features Robert Alda - father to Alan Alda, and Clifton Young, a player in many films of the era and a former Littler Rascal.
Director Vincent Sherman has no shortage of credits, but I admit to having not seen much of his work. I've had The Damned Don't Cry on my hit list for a while, and he does well here with his actors. But the MVP of the behind-the-camera staff is the always good James Wong Howe, who does more with a shot and lighting than you or I would come up with on our best day (actual DP's reading this are either agreeing with or furious. Well, I won't take it back.).
If you're looking to trick someone into a noir who normally isn't into that sort of thing, and a tale of doomed romance and the fates wreaking havoc... this one ain't bad.