Monday, April 9, 2007

"The Locket" 1946

Laraine Day sheds her goody two-shoes image with her surprisingly effective performance as a kleptomaniac with murder as a sideline, and Robert Mitchum plays the argumentative and difficult painter who first falls in love with her. It’s a far better movie than its status as an unknown would indicate.

Day is Nancy, secretary to the wealthy Mr. Bonner (Ricardo Cortez). He encourages her to take drawing lessons and she meets Norman Clyde (Mitchum), a portrait painter down on his luck. They fall in love but Norman begins to doubt her character when he discovers that’s she glommed onto another woman’s diamond bracelet at a party.

Nancy speeds through Clyde, who suspects that she may have committed a murder in order to appropriate more jewels, and when they separate she meets psychiatrist Harry Blair (Brian Aherne). They stay together for the duration of WW II, but her old habit of carrying off the jewelry of other women leads to divorce.

These stories, as well as one Nancy tells about her childhood and the reason she’s become addicted to diamond theft, are presented by way of flashbacks. Willis tells one to Nancy’s latest conquest on the day of their wedding. Imbedded in his tale is Clyde’s story, and that one includes Nancy’s relating of her youthful adventure. In other words, it’s a flashback inside a flashback inside a flashback.

Following the thread of the narratives is never difficult, but the feeling that somebody along the line must be lying just can’t be shaken off. It’s an odd narrative structure to say the least, but it works. The original script is by Sheridan Gibney and the picture is directed by one of the many minor league Hitchcocks that proliferated during the 1940s, John Brahm—but Brahm is one of the most notable ones. “The Locket” comes at the end of his most fertile period, having just completed “The Lodger” in 1944 and “Hangover Square” a year later.

Gibney, who contributed to the screenplays of films as varied as “The Story of Louis Pasteur” and “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” comes up with some nice dialogue, the kind of sharp cynicism Mitchum was so good at selling, although in this film much of it is given to Day. I especially liked the moment when Clyde is pestering Nancy to send back the bracelet she stole. When she indicates that she’s willing, he says questioningly, “Your conscience is bothering you?” and she flashes back, “No, your conscience is bothering me.

”Seeing Mitchum play the good guy, a fella so tormented by his love for a psychotic woman that he can’t adjust to living without her, is a little odd. He was fine in the white hat but when we see him so completely the victim of someone else’s evil, it comes as a shock.

The biggest shock of all is Laraine Day. It’s not that what she does is so terribly different than her usual girl next door characterizations, it’s that she is so convincing when Nancy slides from cheerful lying to angry plotting. At times it is impossible to tell whether or not Nancy believes what she’s saying. As she walks down the aisle with her new husband to be, and her past life comes rushing to meet her, it seems that she must have been deceiving herself as completely as she had been the victimized men in her life.

The supporting cast, including Gene Raymond, Henry Stephenson, Reginald Denny and Lillian Fontaine, mother of Olivia DeHaviland and Joan Fontaine, is just fine.

Saying that “The Locket” plays out as if it could have been written by Robert Bloch is about the finest compliment one can pay to any film in the psycho-noir subgenre. You’ll have to be in the right place at the right time to see it, but if it’s running on TV at three o’clock some morning, it’s well worth setting the VCR to catch.

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