Director: King Vidor
The thing that might leap out at you watching Lightning Strikes Twice (1951) is that the film was written by a woman, based on a novel by a woman. So while it's absolutely a grimy, desert noir, it's also not focused on a Dana Andrews floating into town and getting in over his head - it's Ruth Roman. And the male characters of the film are certainly important, but they're not the show that you're here to see.* This movie has terrific - I mean great - female characters who don't feel like they got knocked out of the "mother", "housewife", "nightclub girl" mold you may realize you've gotten too used to.
Roman has been sent to West Texas to recuperate after a standard respiratory illness, and she's a stage actress who was tired of being murdered "8 timer per week" as Desdemona in Othello. Arriving in a small town before finding her way to her destination, the Tumble Moon Dude Ranch, she meets a savvy older woman, Myra Nolan, who takes a shine to her and sends her in her car to the ranch. Along the way she meets "Trev", who she knows was just acquitted of the brutal murder of his wife.
She, of course, finds him dreamy and mysterious. And maybe dangerous.
At the dude ranch, the story begins to unpack and Roman starts digging into the mystery of the murder as she thinks nothing adds up.
It's a wildly twisted story with a complete set of red-herrings and terrific performances from everyone, especially Mercedes McCambridge, who - as Muller mentions - feels entirely like an actor giving a modern performance in a 1951 film directed by someone who made his career in the silents. But special shout out to Kathryn Givney who plays the very complicated Myra Nolan. And, of course, my guy Zachary Scott, who doesn't get enough screentime and plays Zachary Scott.
Roman's character and Trev get married, and on their wedding night the neighbors - which the movie strives to be inclusive and thoughtful in the inclusion of Latino characters - will not leave. Like, y'all... let these two people have a wedding night. It should not be in a murder mystery that the thing that stresses me out the most is a jolly group of friends over staying their welcome, but here we are.
Sure, you'll think "these two people barely know each other. Why are they in love? This seems terrible." But that's the story.
There's a ton more to dig into here with racial representation, religion in West Texas in 1950, gender roles, etc... but I'll leave that for a future viewing.
Full disclosure - Ruth Roman would have made a terrific 1950's Lois Lane. I am pretty sure I've mentioned that before, but it's true. Good golly.
*Jamie may argue that she was fine with seeing plenty of Richard Todd