Saturday, January 17, 2015

Shockproof (1949)

Director: Douglas Sirk                                      Writers: Samuel Fuller & Helen Deutsch
Film Score: George Duning                              Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Patricia Knight, John Baragrey and Esther Minicotti

Shockproof is the last film that Sam Fuller would write before striking out on his own to begin directing independent films. The impetus was the direction of the film by Douglas Sirk, though the film’s lack of cohesion and success was probably due more to Columbia’s demand that the screenplay be rewritten by Helen Deutsch. The result is an extremely bipolar film that emphasizes both the lurid film noir aspects that were present in Fuller’s original screenplay and the sentimental rewrite by Deutsch. Cornel Wilde is the nominal lead in the picture, and had earned his film noir credentials two years earlier in Leave Her to Heaven for Fox. The other lead, Patricia Knight, had a brief career in Hollywood, and what films she did appear in were mostly due to the influence of her husband, Wilde, who married her during the shooting of this film. Her initial scenes, it must be pointed out, are quite good, and the femme fatale characterization of her in the screenplay is tremendously suspenseful during the first half of the film. While Shockproof does have its moments, it’s a dim reflection of the work that Cornel Wilde did with Gene Tierney, and with all of the edges softened by the rewrite of Fuller’s script it couldn’t help but be a disappointment.

The film begins with Patricia Knight walking through Hollywood. She buys a new dress, has her hair dyed blonde, and goes into an office building to see Cornel Wilde. It turns out he’s her parole officer, and she’s on parole for murder. Her long list of don’ts include staying away from her former lover, John Baragrey, but of course the first thing she does is meet with him and get picked up in a raid. King Donovan chooses to jump to his death rather than go back to prison and Knight wishes she had the nerve to do the same thing. Wilde’s boss wants him to send her back to prison, but he decides to give her another chance--as long as Baragrey stays away from her. To make it easier, Wilde gives Knight a job in his own home taking care of his blind mother, Esther Minicotti, but all the while Knight is working behind his back with Baragrey to get her transferred to San Francisco. It’s not until Wilde proposes to her that Knight realizes she doesn’t want to be with Baragrey anymore, but her old flame wants to use the marriage--a violation of parole--to control him through extortion by threatening to destroy his career by exposing it.

Up to that point the film has a lot of potential, but the whole thing takes a much more romantic turn for the rest of its running time. Even the dark and gritty ending, which contains the most noirish aspects of the film, is tempered by Douglas Sirk’s penchant for the romantic. But this didn’t have to spell doom for the picture. In many ways the ending is reminiscent of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, the novel rather than any of the filmed versions. While Hollywood was able to adapt Cain for the screen in the forties, they stayed miles away from his original conceptions of the protagonists in his novels, and that would have been the only way to really save this story. Fuller wasn’t the only one unhappy with the film, however, as the final scene wasn’t even shot by him. Sirk left Hollywood and headed to Europe for a year before returning to helm his better-known fifties films. The other low point in the film is the dreary score by George Duning which is more appropriate for the sappy romances that Sirk would film in the following decade than the gritty noir picture that Fuller was aiming for. These days the film is known primarily for its terrific location shooting in Los Angeles and the rich black and white photography by Charles Lawton Jr. who had shot Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai for Columbia. Shockproof, while not a success, is nevertheless an interesting piece of work from two iconic Hollywood filmmakers.

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