Thursday, August 21, 2008

Crossing Jordon

Assistant District Attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) is drowning his sorrows in the office of investigator chum Miles Scott (Paul Kelly) late one night when he’s approached by a mysterious female (Barbara Stanwyck) pitching a story about a series of robberies that have taken place at her aunt’s estate. The woman, Thelma Jordon, falls in love with the happily-married Marshall and they proceed to have an illicit affair that suddenly goes off the tracks when she reports to Cleve that her aunt (Gertrude Hoffman) has had her safe rifled and some emeralds stolen…and that the thief has croaked Auntie in the process. Thelma has stupidly tampered with the evidence at the scene of the crime, so Cleve helps “restage” the layout…only to have his lady friend arrested and charged with murder. He manages to get the assignment of prosecuting Thelma (by cleverly getting his boss removed due to a conflict of interest) so that he can “throw the case”…but has she been playing him for a sap the entire time?

The answer, of course, is yes—and that pretty much sums up the proceedings of The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), a watered-down Double Indemnity (1944) that features good performances by the leads and expert direction by Robert Siodmak that compensates for its general seen-it-all-before. “No one is as good as Barbara Stanwyck when she’s bad,” observes Hal Erickson at, and while I enjoy Babs’ wickedness as much as the next classic movie buff in vehicles like Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946; her parasitic relationship with wimpy, weak-willed Kirk Douglas totally fascinates me in its perversity), I sometimes think she’s a much better actress when playing the victim (like in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number).

To illustrate this, right after watching Thelma Jordon, I caught Babs in Witness to Murder (1954), a Rear Window-knockoff in which she plays an interior designer who's witnessed writer/ex-Nazi George Sanders murdering a woman in his apartment. Babs tries to get police lieutenant Gary Merrill (along with his partner, Jesse White) to believe that Sanders killed his girlfriend, but Gary's not so quick to buy her story…at first, that is. Stanwyck is in her element here: she plays her usual confident, self-assured professional who’s taken charge of her life and career…but when the axis in her world goes askew because no one will even consider the possibility that Sanders is a bad, bad man (it’s George Sanders, ferchrissake—don’t these people ever go to the movies?) she must undergo a “baptism by fire” in order for the truth to emerge—including a memorable sequence set inside a Casa del Cashew facility in which her roommates are Claire Carleton (who looks like she was rode hard and put up wet) and a blues-singing Juanita Moore. Sure, everything comes out in the wash—but you sort of get the feeling that Babs is not going to ever be the same again. Roy Rowland directed this quick time-killer and while he’s certainly not in Siodmak’s league he does get help from the Master Noir Cinematographer himself, John Alton. (There are also a couple of OTR vets who have choice bit parts: Sam Edwards is a chatty drugstore soda jerk and Helen Kleeb plays the matron supervising Babs’ stay in the wacky place.)

Carl over at Noir of the Week wrote a good piece on Thelma Jordon a couple of years back and it’s worth a glance because he has a better appreciation of the film than I do:

The File on Thelma Jordon isn’t a classic on the level of The Killers or Criss Cross but it’s way too close to be gathering dust in Paramount’s vaults largely unviewed, having never been released on either VHS or DVD to the general public. Worse yet, the film used to get regular airings back in the days when AMC was a legitimate, respectable classic film vehicle but it has completely disappeared from sight in recent years. This is the lamentable shame for many excellent Paramount noirs, but Thelma Jordon just might top the list of the ones that merit mass-market rediscovery, at least among classic film connoisseurs. (Italics mine.)

Overall, Thelma Jordon’s a perfectly serviceable if not particularly outstanding noir: Babs does pretty well by the title character, and Corey gives a good performance as well. I guess the only real problem I had with the movie is that Corey simply doesn’t have the chops to put up much of a struggle when Stanwyck’s character is clearly at the outset arranging for him to take the fall (Robert Mitchum, of course, sees it coming from miles away in Out of the Past but decides to let the chips fall where they may)—but I did enjoy seeing Corey soused in the early parts of the picture only because in later years the actor sort of took the Dana Andrews route and become noticeably spiffed in some of the films he was appearing in, like The Astro-Zombies (1966), his last film. Before Jordon, Corey had worked with Babs in Number and would work with her one last time in The Furies (1950)—his best-known role is probably that of Jimmy Stewart’s detective pal in Rear Window, but I think his best performance is in a little-known but splendid noir, The Killer is Loose (1956).

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