*. Screenplay by Charles Bennett, the long-time Hitchcock collaborator. It makes you wonder how much of Hitch was Hitch and how much Bennett (a point I might have raised in my notes on Night of the Demon). There are so many Hitchcockian elements in this film, which even borrows the familiar set-up of an innocent fugitive couple on the run from the authorities and the dominant tone of comic suspense.
*. How to make Robert Mitchum seem even dopier and more lumbering than usual? Have him suffering the progressive effects of a concussion. I’m not sure it makes sense, but they took the qualities they had in their star and ran with them. They also take the conventional soft malleability of the noir hero, who is putty in the hands of the femme fatale, to a new extreme, as Jeff finally collapses to the floor like a slug at Margo’s feet.
*. But . . . Dr. Robert Mitchum? I don’t buy it. You can’t change your trench coat for a lab coat that easily.
*. Mitchum’s present absence allows Faith Domergue’s Margo to take over. This is, of course, something that any good femme fatale is always itching to do anyway, and the role again plays to her strengths as she seems slightly off-kilter from the start. She is too bold and manic in her maneuverings.
*. She’s also an outlier as a femme fatale in that her psychopathy is the result of a mental illness. She can be both cold and calculating and then clingy and helpless the next moment, and leave us feeling unsure how much of her behaviour is an act.
*. I kept wondering when she was going to try and get rid of Jeff during their escape, and I’m still not sure if (a) she didn’t want to, or (b) she just hadn’t found the right opportunity. In the honeymoon suite scene you get an uneasy feeling something bad is about to happen when Jeff goes to get a cold towel for his head (we know what happened the last time he did that), but then later she flies into a rage at his mention of Julie’s name. Is she jealous? Does she really love Jeff?
*. On a related point, I was never sure what Margo’s plan was. She has some money salted away in Mexico (or so she says), but then what? Is Jeff going to start practicing medicine down there? Is this a worthwhile question, or do we just shrug and say “she’s crazy, she doesn’t know what she’s doing”?
*. Digging a little deeper: who is the guy who brings Margo in at the beginning? I originally assumed he was one of Lannington’s flunkies, but it’s left totally unexplained, as is Margo’s attempted suicide. At the end of the movie Jeff will say to her “You tried to kill yourself over the other one, didn’t you?” which I assume is referring to this character, but it’s not clear.
*. Yes, it’s typical of noir plots that they don’t bear much looking into. To take another example, why does Margo agree to (or arrange to) meet Jeff at Pogo Pete’s when she says she has to leave a couple of minutes after meeting him because she’s told her husband she was only running out to the drug store (in her mink and evening dress)? You could say she’s acting out like this because she’s crazy, but I don’t find that convincing. I think it’s indicative of Bennett’s Hitchcockian disregard for plausibility.
*. I’ve pointed this out before, but it’s worth repeating: when you see a woman driving in a noir, with the man in the passenger seat, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to end well. They’re taking someone for a ride. Of course Jeff really shouldn’t be driving here because of his injury, but anything’s better than letting Margo take the wheel.
*. The cat being locked up with the corpse may be a nod to Poe, but I initially wondered why it would start yowling after only a day of being left alone in a mansion that size. I missed the line when the cat is first introduced, explaining that it doesn’t live in that house.
*. Claude Rains is always fun to watch and I only wish there were more of him here. Sadly, his part is left an undeveloped throwaway. Lannington isn’t a character but just a role, someone to show up, play his part in the plot, and then make his exit.
*. Mid-century service etiquette: when Margo picks up her plane tickets and thanks the woman at the counter, the reply is “Surely.” Does anyone say that any more?
*. The opening shot of the Golden Gate Bridge threw me. I don’t usually think of San Francisco as a noir town. But then, this movie has nothing at all to do with San Francisco and it seems as though they locate San Fran awfully close to the Mexican border.
*. What are we to make of Margo’s charge that nobody pities her? She says that Lannington pitied her “and look what happened to him.” Is that what she found unendurable about him? He doesn’t seem like a very sympathetic type.
*. How did the bewhiskered police of Postville get Margo’s picture? It’s said to be a “telephoto” picture, but did a technology exist for sending picture by telephone in 1950? Surprisingly, the answer is “Yes.” As early as 1924 AT&T had developed a system of sending photos through a telephone line. Another example of the kinds of things you can learn from old movies.
*. Why is Jeff so upset at the thought that Margo was putting away her husband’s money? She’s already said she married him for his money, and that she hates him. What’s so surprising about her setting up a personal account under her maiden name?
*. John Farrow’s use of long takes is indeed impressive, especially with that final scene in the hotel room. But he has another style point that plays awkward, even within that scene. He keeps arranging two shots with both actors facing toward the camera. This is hard to arrange so that it seems natural, and indeed there’s one moment in Pogo Pete’s where it’s jarring when we realize that Jeff and Margo aren’t even looking at each other. It seems like a continuity error in the editing.
*. That habit also underlies the lack of chemistry between the leads. They aren’t going to spend a lot of time looking deeply into each other’s eyes. And again we’re left to wonder at the ambiguity in their relationship. Jeff seems to finally realize that he never loved Margo, and I think we can understand him as subconsciously seeing in her a patient, someone he can take care of. But what are we to make of her final statement to the police: “Accomplice? Do you think he could kill a man?” Does she despise him for his weakness? Or is she trying to clear him, knowing that she is dying? Or perhaps she has bipolar feelings, running to extremes. She does try to kill him twice in the final ten minutes, after all.
*. I especially like the rogues’ gallery of sleazy predators, each kitted out in their distinctive tacky wardrobes: Honest Hal in his blinding checked jacket, shirt and tie; the pawnbroker Klauber in his vest and aggressive cigar; and Milo De Long (the guy who runs the Guadalupe Follies) in his suspenders and pin-stripes. They are all sharks and Jeff is “hot,” which means there’s blood in the water. They help dramatize just how helpless Jeff is in such a world.
*. There are a lot of little things that are done well here, but the big things let it down. Mitchum and Domergue don’t have any spark, and it’s just no fun watching Mitchum drag himself through the entire chase part of the film as he’s succumbing to progressive physical deterioration. I never had the sense that he was in a race against time so much as simply winding down, waiting for the rescue of a tidy ending.