Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

Director: Robert Siodmak                              Writer: Ketti Frings
Film Score: Victor Young                              Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Paul Kelly and Joan Tetzel

Robert Siodmak does Douglas Sirk? That’s certainly what it seems like for the first thirty minutes of this film. It proceeds at a leisurely pace and appears to be about nothing more than a bored family man who wants to leave his wife. But The File on Thelma Jordon is one of the most suspenseful films I’ve ever seen. It’s something of a cross between Double Indemnity and The Big Clock, but closer in substance to Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan’s rip off of Billy Wilders’s film. It was Siodmak’s final film in the genre before moving back to Germany, and he makes it a good one, especially in the way that he plays against certain cinematic expectations. The first part of the film has several night scenes, but they don’t telegraph the twisted nature of the plot until the murder happens. Then he makes use of close-ups and interesting camera placements to let the audience know that things have changed. It’s cinematic storytelling at its best, and that’s not even the best scene in the film. Siodmak had worked primarily for RKO and Universal, and so this was the first opportunity he had to work with Paramount contract player Barbara Stanwyck. The film was originally supposed to be directed by Otto Preminger but he was unavailable, most likely at work on Where the Sidewalk Ends, and so the project was given to Siodmak.

The film opens on assistant district attorney Wendell Corey pulling up to the courthouse and walking in. Police detective Paul Kelly is on the phone with Corey’s wife, Joan Tetzel. Corey, sick of his in-laws, especially his father in law, has left to get drunk. But Kelly has to go out on a case, and while Corey is in his office alone, Barbara Stanwyck shows up. She believes that Corey is actually Kelly and begins telling him about someone breaking into her aunt’s house, but soon Corey confesses and she tries to leave. By now Corey is drunk and doesn’t want to be alone, and convinces her to go to a bar with him so that they can talk. Later he gets so drunk that he kisses her and professes his love, but she dumps him off back at the courthouse and leaves. Tetzel is unhappy when he gets home, but there’s little she can do about it. When Stanwyck shows up the next day at the courthouse Corey apologizes and they part friends, and when he gets home Tetzel makes up with him as well. They’ve planned to go to the beach for vacation, but Corey wants to beg off and stay home instead of being alone in town during the week. The sense is that he doesn’t want to be alone in town with Stanwyck around. Sure enough, as soon as his wife is gone Corey goes out with Stanwyck. It get’s tricky, though, in a small town, and while he tries to be discreet the two are being watched by Richard Rober who’s been waiting at the aunt’s house. Then when Corey leaves, Rober kisses Stanwyck.

After a weekend with his family Corey picks up Stanwyck again Monday night, and that’s when she drops the bombshell: she’s married to Rober. But this is the least of the couple’s troubles, as they don’t realize they’re being tailed by someone else. Wendell Corey has always been a favorite of mine ever since seeing him in Rear Window. But this is perhaps his finest role. While the part is something of a cliché, there is nothing pedestrian about his performance and his pursuit of Barbara Stanwyck is utterly believable. Stanwyck, as expected, is tremendous as she is able to sow doubt not only in the minds of the jury on the screen, but in the audience as well. With such stellar work, it’s difficult to understand why the film has not had more of a reputation through the years. Critics have had their problems with it, but somehow the intangibles in the filmmaking process managed to make the film successful in spite of its weaknesses, something most of those critics are forced to acknowledge. If there is a negative criticism it usually comes in the form of complaints about the ending, but even that works for seasoned noir fans who understand the conventions as it contains a healthy dash of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Eschewing the dark and gritty streets of the city for the fifties post-war suburbia, The File on Thelma Jordon is not only the perfect noir for that time, but a classic for all time.

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