Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Noir Watch: The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)

Watched:  05/15/2023
Format:  TCM
Viewing:  First
Director:  Robert Siodmak

What's not to like?  A Hal B. Wallis production, directed by Robert Siodmak, shot by George Barnes and starring Stanwyck.  No notes.  Well done.

The movie was written by a pair of women, one on story (Marty Holland) and one on script (Ketti Frings), who understand the assignment and put together characters in trouble before the action even starts.  

Wendell Corey plays an Assistant DA, an up-and-comer, whose wife has slotted him as caretaker and figurehead but who has made him a stranger in his own home by refusing to hear him on anything, but in the sweetest and dimmest way, all wrapped up with good intentions.   Meanwhile, Stanwyck - at the end of her rope - has moved in with her elderly aunt as a companion.  The two meet under boozy circumstances, and soon strike up an affair.


In 1950 if two characters struck up an affair, there's a 90% chance they'll be dead or in jail or both by the end of the film.  This is Breen Office-time, and by policy, sins in movies needed to be punished.  

As a rule, I don't try to outguess movies anymore.  I take them at face value and try to understand not what I think the movie is, but what I think the movie-makers are trying to do - and *then* I'll loop back to what I think on top of it, because, and I know the internet will hate this: what I think about a movie is secondary.  Probably tertiary.

But.  Knowing the movie was made when it was and under what rules, it does limit possible avenues for the narrative.  

Corey discovers Stanwyck was married already, but the two are so in love, they plan to run off, seek divorces and marry.  But the night in question, Stanwyck's aunt gets spooked by noises in the house and then is killed by a burglar - in what is an amazing sequence film students would do well to review.  It's just wonderfully shot, leaving a trail of clues for the unpacking while aesthetically top notch.

Stanwyck calls Corey to come now, and - afraid her ex has stolen the jewels and she'll be implicated, makes a mess of the crime scene, and Corey just stands there, amazed at how she's basically set herself up to wind up in jail despite her innocence.


And here's the rub.  This is fundamentally a good movie, but you also know immediately - because of the movie punishment gods - that Stanwyck did kill her aunt and this is all a cover up.  If she's willing to cheat on her nowhere-in-sight abusive husband, she's also clearly capable of murder.  Thanks, Hayes Code!  

In the noiriest of noir moves, she gets Corey to prosecute her in court.  Corey is never suspected of any involvement despite evidence *someone* was there.

It's Stanwyck, so it's all utterly buyable and believable - from her seemingly innocent ensnarement of Corey to the slow unravelling of the plan.

Look, I genuinely liked the movie.  Everyone in it does a great job, including Corey's boss, the upright lawman.  If you aren't clocking what *has* to happen to satisfy the needs of censorship, this could have gone a lot of ways.  Stanwyck is appealing and terrific as ever, Corey shows why he was a thing until he wasn't, and Siodmak manages to put together a terrific film.  

Once you get over that, the unveiling and dealing with the consequences is solid stuff and Stanwyck gets some scenes that make for quality melodrama.  She's just a woman caught up in circumstances in some ways, but she also *did* shoot her aunt, so... a bit of a heel!  It's a great role and one that let's a female character be (a) a sort of femme fatale and (b) very, very smart except when she isn't.  

I admit that I also liked that they really did set up Corey to be a bit sympathetic in his dissatisfaction.  A perfectly lovely, sweet wife who can't begin to empathize with her husband and dismisses his expressed feelings as irrelevant.  Of course Corey is being a bit selfish, and of course he pays for his indiscretions, but you can also see how someone could start hating their homelife even when the one at home isn't a monster, just vapid.  Excellent nuance there.

Anyway, all around, I liked it.  I wish I'd watched it with Jamie instead of by myself.  I think she would have liked it, but I'll just watch it again some time.

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