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Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Chase (1946)

They're doing a Martin Scorsese season at the National Film Theatre and in what seems to be becoming a tradition with living directors, they asked him to curate some of his favourite films. This explains why the above little-seen and little-known dreamy film noir was programmed. Boasting a recently restored print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, I can just about understand why it was one of Scorsese's selection; it is an interesting example of a B-movie noir, succeeding in maximising its small budget, but it is a little short of being a perfect gem foreshadowing David Lynch as the programme would have it.

Robert Cummings plays a down-on-his-luck ex-GI who is taken on as wealthy hoodlum's (Steve Cochran's) chauffeur when he returns the latter's lost wallet, in tact short of $1.50 which he has used to pay for a much-needed meal -- we are in 1946 remember. Cummings despite his two starring roles in Hitchcock movies is miles away here from his usual feather-light, happy-go-lucky leading man. Cochran, in one of his first leads, is too hairy and hunky to morph into the starring lead he later became before his early death, but he makes a fine, hissible villain as the heavy who wants to control everything, from business to his trophy wife (Michele Morgan) to even his chauffeur-driven limo with its dual controls that he can manipulate from the back seat. We know he's a bad egg when in his introductory scene we see him socking a manicurist whose hand has slipped and nicked his finger. His henchman Gino is wonderfully played by the ever-watchable Peter Lorre, who can portray nuances of emotion by the slightest twitch of his face, and the pair are formidable symbiotic rogues.

Morgan after her early successes in France went to Hollywood, not so much to escape the war but to capitalise on her reputation. Her first role there "Joan of Paris" was relatively well-received but she had already lost other career-making leads, such as Ilsa in "Casablanca" because of her poor English. When subsequent films tanked she went back to France where her career regenerated and she won the first best actress award at Cannes for 1948's "Pastoral Symphony". In "The Chase" she is little more than a stunning blonde given an assortment of flashy gowns to model. After a series of midnight drives where she stares longingly out to sea, she manages to persuade Cummings to run off to Cuba with her. On arrival in Havana their first evening takes a nightmarish turn, ending with her murder and his flight from the authorities.

So far so good until two-thirds the way through we discover that Havana 'was all a dream'. It seems that Cummings is a recovering shell-shocked veteran given to lapses of memory. However he knows he has promised to do something, somewhere that evening, and miraculously regains his sanity in time for a happy ending with Morgan -- the script in the meantime contriving to kill off any threat in a spectacular way. I think I agree with the contemporary review of the movie in Variety which describes the film 'taut as sprung steel' for most of its running time then 'slackening limply into the commonplace'.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel -- the writer was an endless font for classic film noirs --  the movie delivers his dark pessimistic view of the world with some style. However I wouldn't go as far as Guy Maddin, who lauded the picture as illustrating the extraordinary potential of film as dreams, a series of unconnected elements morphing into a wonderful whole.
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