Thursday, June 20, 2013

Conflict (1945)

Director: Curtis Burnhardt                              Writers: Arthur T. Horman & Dwight Taylor
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                    Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Alexis Smith, Sydney Greenstreet and Rose Hobart

I like this film. Conflict is not great, but it’s clever. What starts as a fairly pedestrian domestic drama, and then a similarly prosaic murder mystery, eventually becomes something quite fascinating. Humphrey Bogart plays a husband whose wife’s nagging is getting the better of him. Alexis Smith claims that he doesn’t love her anymore and has fallen in love with her sister, Rose Hobart. That night at an anniversary party for the couple, psychiatrist Sydney Greenstreet gives a rather boorish lecture on Freudian psychological theory and the emotional basis for psychiatric “conflict.” At first it seems unrelated to the story, but ultimately it works into the plot in a very satisfying way.

One of the interesting choices in the opening of the film is the pouring rain, symbolizing the conflict between Bogart and Smith. That night, in a traffic accident, Bogart’s leg is broken. But a few weeks later he hides the fact that he can walk, and schemes to get his wife out of the house and go up to a mountain vacation spot alone. Before she goes, she stops by Greenstreet’s house and he puts a rose in her lapel while she asks him to look in on her husband. Bogart, however, has already gone ahead and blocked the mountain road. When she arrives he kills her and then pushes the car off the side of the mountain. That night, when she doesn’t arrive at the cabin, Bogart has conveniently invited one of his employees over to hear his phone conversations. Then Bogart calls the police. What happens over the next few days begins to unhinge Bogart when it begins to look like Smith is not dead.

The screenplay is based on a story by the great Robert Siodmak. The story on its own, however, is not that great. It’s like something Sherlock Holmes would do, and may very well have. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. As such, those who call this a forgotten noir film, are a little off in their assessment. It’s a murder mystery pure and simple. The production team is also something of a second-string at Warners. Curtis Burnhardt made a few interesting film, and this is certainly one of them, but never broke out to become a star director. He has a very forgettable style that usually creates a couple memorable moments but little more. The score, by Friedrich Hollaender, is also fairly forgettable. Production design is good by Warner standards but overall it’s nothing special.

Other than Bogart and Greenstreet, the acting is also fairly second-string. The story never allows the audience to be in on the investigation so we follow Bogart around the entire film as he is “haunted” by the presence of his “dead” wife. This is probably the one thing the film has going for it. But Bogart was beginning to look a little tired by the end of the war years and was bringing very little new to his roles that he hadn’t perfected by the time of Casablanca. Greenstreet is his jolly self, and at the end of the film has a brief scene in his office with Bogart that suggests he could have been a much bigger asset--acting wise--to Warners had they chosen to use him dramatically in more substantial roles. Conflict is certainly an enjoyable murder mystery that Bogart and Greenstreet fans will enjoy. Beyond that, low expectations should lead to a satisfying classic cinema experience.

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