Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Nora Prentiss (1947)

Doctor Talbot was a respected member of the community
He lived in the same house on the same street
Year after year
Every one admired him, looked up to him
But then something happened, he did something
Directed by Vincent Sherman for Warner Bros., Nora Prentiss gets slapped with the dreaded woman’s picture label on a regular basis. As Sherman proved with other movies such as The Damned Don’t Cry and Old Acquaintance, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Nora Prentiss is a hybrid movie with two distinctly different parts. In the first half it’s a love story/melodrama with soap so sudsy we may be afraid to drown in the bathtub. Had it stayed this path, the entire movie could easily have turned into a weepie deluxe but thankfully it is spared this fate in the second half. After the one hour mark the movie finally takes a nosedive into Noir territory.

The best thing about Nora Prentiss is undoubtedly Ann Sheridan, the Oomph Girl. It was a moniker she reportedly despised but I don’t see the reason for this. Nothing wrong with a bit of oomph - or lots of it - especially when Sheridan could back it up with some acting skills on top of that.

The tale of a doctor whose obsession with a nightclub singer destroys his life plays out via flashback. The film opens with a criminal in jail waiting for trial. We don't see his face and he refuses to answer questions, but we hear him thinking about the charges as he recounts his story. 
Plot absurdities abound, the film is riddled with chunks of implausibilities the size of a meteor. That in itself doesn’t bother me at all. I have selective vision that can easily ignore these bumps in the road. The fundamental problem is that the picture is hampered by a 111 minute run time. The pace lags like a clueless party guest who has overstayed his welcome. The elements for a crackerjack Noir are all there, they’re just buried in a script that needed tightening up badly. 90 minutes would have been sufficient. This criticism aside the film has a lot to recommend it though it is never as engaging as it could be.

Oomph
Dangerous liaisons have a tendency to go bad occasionally but it would be hard to top this utter disaster. 
Stuffy and uptight San Francisco Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) is a man who seems to have it all. A good job, the perfect picket fence house, the perfect wife and two perfect kids. About his wife there is an air of mildewy respectability and perpetual reproach. She insists on a firmly regimented home life and Talbot is supposed to conduct himself properly, always. He is painfully precise in everything he does. He has a pencil-thin mustache and even that is painfully precise. 

He meets beautiful nightclub singer Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) one evening when she is slightly hurt in a car accident outside his office. He treats her in his practice - after hours. From that moment on his life will never be the same. “After hours” becomes a habit. She does something to him and his stale life. Soon his infatuation with Nora turns to full-blown obsession. Talbot intends to ask his wife for a divorce but Fate steps in. A patient dies of a heart attack in his office. Talbot sees his chance to start a new life. He fakes his own death by putting the corpse in his car, setting it on fire and driving it over a cliff. Being officially dead now Talbot can start a new life under a new name. All is fair in love and Noir. Talbot hightails it to New York with Nora telling her nothing except that he’s waiting for his divorce to go through. Talbot should have watched more Noirs. Then he may have been aware of the fact that life has a way of throwing a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans…

Nora Prentiss is an atypical Noir because Nora isn't your typical femme fatale. She is without a doubt introduced as such in the doctor’s office. Nora isn’t hurt too badly, she’s fine and starts to flirt provocatively with the good doctor the second she enters his office, lighting a cigarette, rolling down her stockings, showing off her legs and giving him come-hither looks. Her bare legs unnerve him greatly which amuses her to no end. One thing is certain, Nora is an alien life form Talbot has never encountered before. 

If this were a typical Noir we’d know exactly how this setup would play out. Nora would be a voracious man-eater who’d plot the downfall of the poor sap. But this movie doesn’t play by the book. Our assumptions about Nora’s character are completely off. It soon becomes clear that Nora is not a lethal lovely. A nightclub singer - what else? - she’s been kicked around her entire life and has had enough of it. She’s a sassy and wise-cracking dame whose knowledge of the world has come at a high price. She may be a dame with a slightly dubious past but as she states with righteous indignation: “I may not have been handled with care, but I’m not shopworn.” We believe her. This is not a girl who’s been diligently working her way to the top one sugar daddy at a time.

Only in Noir
Nora’s character is refreshingly different and surprises the viewer. Her tough dame attitude doesn't give any clue that she really has a heart of gold. There’s more to her than wisecracks. She’s actually kind and not interested in wrecking a man’s life. She’s looking for a ring on the finger. Talbot is different from all the other guys she meets - he’s shy for once and treats her nicely - and she truly falls in love with him. She has principles too. When Talbot doesn’t want to divorce his wife, she’s willing to break the affair off and leave town for a new start.
She knows how affairs usually play out. Being the other woman is always a raw deal that comes to nothing in the end, at least for the other woman.

What she unfortunately doesn’t see is that there is already a nice guy waiting in the wings for her, her boss and Talbot's romantic rival Phil Dinardo (Robert Alda). He’s another character who has more depth to him than originally indicated. He’s not Noir’s typical shifty nightclub owner with likely Mob connections, he’s sincere in his love for Nora and turns out a steadfast and loyal friend to her.

Nora is a lonely woman whose rosy dreams of stardom in the big city didn’t pan out. Now she’s stuck in a concrete jungle that is indifferent to the plight of its inhabitants. The line ”It's a big city and there's nobody to know whether you're alive or dead, and very few people who care" is spoken by doomed heart patient Bailey. It’ll prove true for him and everybody else. Faceless anonymity and hostile isolation characterize the urban jungle. Crowds of people can barely hide the loneliness of the city dwellers. The jungle simply swallows them all up.

Though the movie is called Nora Prentiss, it is actually Dr. Talbot who is the main protagonist. This is his story. If Nora rejects the femme fatale label, Talbot behaves absolutely true to type. If ever a sucker went down Loser’s Lane, it’s Talbot. Nora’s flirting should have been Talbot’s cue to get her out of his practice. But in Noir warning signs go unheeded, red flags are there to be ignored. When trouble comes knocking at the door, the Noir hero embraces it whole-heartedly.
Talbot is a sap who loses everything over an obsession with a woman. He’s a man with a debilitating midlife crisis from which there is no way out. He wants to give up everything to be with Nora and not surprisingly, giving up everything leaves him with nothing in the end. 

There’s just one problem. The movie suffers from a dire lack of a strong lead. Dull-as-dishwater Kent Smith is just as damnably dull as his name implies. He is by no means a bad or incompetent actor - in fact he’s anything but -  he simply lacks screen presence and charisma which makes the heated romance between him and Nora feel more like a lukewarm glass of milk before bedtime.
A different actor could have elevated this role to something more. Smith can’t make the movie his own. As a romantic hero he doesn’t cut it. It’s very hard to see what a girl like Nora would see in this guy. Yes, opposites attract but that’s a lot of opposite here.

Nora Prentiss shows us the dangers of routine. Talbot leads a mind-numbingly boring and monotonous existence. His daily schedule never varies. Nora says she sets her clock by his comings and goings. For about 16 years he’s shown up for work at his doctor’s office at 9 am in the morning, treats his patients and then heads home at six o'clock to a suburban dream, or nightmare. In the bit of free time he has, he visits the same friends and has to listen to his killjoy of a wife Lucy berating him for being five minutes late for breakfast. Lucy is the type of wife that’s simply itching to be cheated on. Only once do we see a different woman beneath the facade. Lucy covers up for Richard who completely forgot his daughter’s 16th birthday because he was out carousing with Nora. There must have been a time when Lucy was not the regimental drill sergeant. Unfortunately that time is long gone.

A theme we find in many Noirs is that domesticity leads to restlessness and dissatisfaction. The amour fou is set in direct contrast to the domestic life, aka marriage, which is portrayed as so stultifying and repressive that even crime looks attractive to those trapped in it. The state of marriage in Noir often seems absolutely horrific; at best a kind of stupefied boredom, at worst a seething, barely controlled mutual loathing.

Until Fate steps in. It’s a moment that occurs in Noir with startling regularity. A guy meets an attractive woman by chance or fate and his life goes down the drain. The second Nora steps into his office, Talbot’s fate is practically sealed. A mild-mannered uptight guy like him is really no match for a tough dame. He would be easy pickings for any femme fatale.

It must be stressed however that his downfall comes not from her wiles but from Talbot's own bad decisions. Nora doesn’t need to wreck his home, he does that all by himself. He’s in self-destruct mode and it’s been a long time coming. The magnitude of his stupidity seems to know no bounds. 

Once in NY with Nora, Talbot’s behavior gets ever more erratic. He barely wants to venture out of his hotel room. He can’t run the risk of being recognized by former acquaintances. He becomes a paranoid recluse. He acts exactly like what he has become: a fugitive from justice. On top of that, he’s increasingly jealous and unjustly suspects Nora of cheating on him with Phil Dinardo. Soaking himself in booze, unshaven and unkempt he looks like a wild man. He’s on the road to nowhere, he just hasn’t taken it in yet.
The hotel room scenes have an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Talbot is literally and figuratively closed in. He’s entrapped by his crime, his lies and his suspicions. A prisoner of his own bad choices. At this time it’s very hard to feel any kind of sympathy with Talbot. He gets himself into the muck deeper and deeper for purely selfish reasons.

There’s an interesting doppelgänger motive going on. The first time at Nora’s nightclub Talbot doesn’t use his real name but goes by the alias of "Robert Thompson” instead. Talbot can make himself believe that it’s not the good doctor who’s going off the straight and narrow but a different man - an alter ego - who has nothing to do with Talbot. Later the death of his patient provides him with a completely new alternate identity. He literally buries the past to rise like Phoenix from the Ashes as a new man.
A double - a dark alter ego - lurks just beneath the surface of the most ordinary individuals. Righteous and stable paragons of duty and responsibility are seamlessly but believably transformed into completely different people, all suggesting that anyone, in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything (Pushover, Decoy, Pitfall). In Noir having an upright character just means that the protagonist has never encountered temptation, the temptation that would reveal how unreliable his noble principles were all along.

It’s interesting to note that Nora knows nothing of how far Talbot was willing to go to keep her. Nora finally makes him tell her why he acts so furtively. When he does she decides to stay with him anyway. This is no love and run. She really cares for him, for whatever reason.

Towards the end we have the twist that lands the picture firmly in Twilight Zone territory. On the run from the cops, Talbot crashes his car, it bursts into flames and he gets plastic surgery that makes him unrecognizable. Finally he thinks he can lead a normal life. But there’s no escape from doom.
His fingerprints are found on the can of gasoline which he used to set his car on fire. And those prints now belong to “Robert Thompson”, his alter ego, who has been arrested in NY for attacking Dinardo. Talbot is arrested and tried for his own murder! Talk about Poetic Injustice.

The ending is what makes this film worthwhile to me even if it is bizarre and farfetched. Talbot stoically goes to trial and is sentenced to death never uttering a word in his defense. When Nora wants to speak up he insists that she keep quiet about his real identity. The last meeting between Nora and Talbot is a whopper. It is here that Smith really shines. Talbot tells Nora in prison: 
”I’m no good to possibly anybody…I could never prove my innocence. They would never believe me…Besides, I am guilty of killing a man. I killed Richard Talbot. ”
We finally do feel sympathy with him. He knows he can't run away from himself. The past will always haunt him. There simply couldn’t be a life for him after the trial even if he was acquitted. 

At last he thinks of his family again. He wants to spare them the disgrace of his crimes and let them - and the public - keep him in mind the way they knew him, as a kind and decent man. If he came back from the dead he would only ruin his family’s lives.

I am not sure if the ending was Code-imposed but it is harsh even by Noir standards. Dying in the electric chair is Talbot’s punishment for his transgressions. Living with what has happened to her lover and not being able to speak up is Nora’s. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. It is as Noir as it gets, bleak and devastating.
Nora: “You can’t ask me to go on living remembering I could have saved you and I didn’t."
Talbot: “If I could die remembering that, you can live remembering it.”
Nora Prentiss is a diamond in the rough that could have been a real gem, had the producers cut about 20 minutes out of it.

17 comments:

  1. I find it easy to forgive the shortcomings of the movie because of those facets you pointed out so expertly; the unexpected in the characters, the NYC segments, the so tragic ending. As you say, it is there that Smith shines, and it is that I always think of whenever I see him.

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    1. Smith was also in Cat People, a movie I still haven't seen to my shame. I will definitively check this out. The ending really saves this movie. I'm trying to think of another Noir that had such a bleak ending. Can't.

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    2. Perhaps Scarlet Street equals it in bleakness.

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    3. Yes, of course. How could I forget?

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    4. You didn't forget. You didn't want to remember. It's too much!

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    5. True, it's seriously depressing. Usually I watch those movies with a drink or two. It helps.

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  2. Margot, I've said it before and I will say it again. What a pleasure it is to read your write-up of NORA PRENTISS. Okay, let's not slap it with the dreaded woman's picture label, let's call it a Noir woman's picture turned upside down and inside out into a Noir fallen man's picture. Talk about a deterrent to a dirty weekend, or any other dirty day, this movie is it in spades.

    Keep on disparaging the plot holes and full speed ahead.

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    1. Walter, thanks. I actually like 40s woman's pictures/melodramas. Especially someone like Joan Crawford could make them incredibly entertaining even if they were overheated. Now today's chick flicks is something I won't go near.

      You're right that this movie is the ultimate deterrent against a dirty weekend. Stay on the straight and narrow, peeps, or you'll be executed for your own murder!

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  3. Margot, I like the 1940's woman's pictures/melodramas, also. Joan Crawford is the champion, as far as I'm concerned. Joan gave us her all and she never forgot her fans. I think Joan's hardscrabble early years had bearing on everything she did throughout her life and it showed in her movie roles. I can see her face today, in disgust, concerning the so-called chick flicks.

    Concerning Dr. Talbot's bleak Noir ending, I'm hard pressed to think of a worse one. Although, if you want to have an apocalyptic ending, there is KISS ME DEADLY(1955). That is a good question to be put to all Noir connoisseurs.

    I think that you will enjoy CAT PEOPLE(1942). Keep giving us your good writing.

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    1. You're right that Joan's early years had a bearing on her roles. Her films fit her like a glove because they used elements of its star’s life story. The poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks makes good. There you have a Joan Crawford movie.

      Kiss Me Deadly certainly has a bleak ending. I remember watching it the first time as a kid and didn't quite realize what's happening at the end. I was really shocked when I found out.

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  4. Love this one, where did you get the images, I saw a crappy YouTube print years ago.

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    1. Amazon has the Warner Archive Collection DVD which is manufactured on demand. It's a good print but those DVDs have no extras. I took screenshots.

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  5. Before I saw this film, many years ago, I (unfairly) thought Ann Sheridan had limited acting abilities. Boy, did this movie change my mind! Like you said, she's the best thing about this film.

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    1. I always liked Ann Sheridan. Definitively underrated.

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  6. I'd like to reblog Nora Prentiss.

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