Identity Unknown (1945)

US / 71 minutes / bw / Republic Dir: Walter Colmes Scr: Richard Weil Story: Robert Newman Cine: Ernest Miller Cast: Richard Arlen, Cheryl Walker, Roger Pryor, Bobby Driscoll, Lola Lane, Ian Keith, John Forrest, Sara Padden (i.e., Sarah Padden), Forrest Taylor, Frank Marlowe.

Aboard a hospital ship returning to the US during WWII, a recuperating but still amnesic soldier (Arlen) is told by military doctor Major Williams (Keith) that he’s the survivor of four heroes who defended an isolated farmhouse against swarms of Nazis: Paul “Mac” MacGregor of Bridgeton, Connecticut, Joseph Loring of Chester, West Virginia, Carl Granowski of Chicago, and Peter Anderson of Knoxville, Iowa. Pro tem, the soldier decides to take the name Johnny March, from the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”, which another soldier on board keeps playing wistfully on the harmonica.

Back in the US, as Johnny’s en route to military hospital, his train pauses at Bridgeton; impulsively he leaps off and locates the home of Mac MacGregor, the first person on his list. Soon Mac’s briefly married widow Sally (Walker) is realizing that perhaps Johnny represents a new chance of a happy life; when she discovers he’s not really the old Army buddy of her husband, as he claimed, she prepares to commit suicide—a fate from which Johnny saves her. By now in love, the pair recognize that they have no future unless Johnny ascertains that, as Loring, Granowski or Anderson, he’s free to be with her.

There proves to be a need of sorts for him in each of those other three families, but also that he’s none of the missing men. Only after Sally has joined him in Iowa and he’s been arrested for desertion does it emerge that, equally a war hero, he’s Charles Aldridge, the pilot (and history professor) who almost died as he tried to relieve the beleaguered quartet. He is also, as we’re told in the final moments, an embodiment of all those who’ve sacrificed their lives to protect their families.

The amnesiac’s dilemma is what gives this its noir interest; obviously, though, its prime concern is to be a wartime propaganda vehicle. Arlen’s a somehow rather anonymous lead; Driscoll, as the orphaned Toddy Loring, desperate to believe the visiting soldier is his returned daddy, inspires memories of Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on Little Nell; there’s a surprisingly effective supporting contribution from Marlowe as Frankie Sirocco, the lecherous bookie boss of Carl Granowski’s wastrel kid brother Joe (Forrest), and a bit part for Lane as floozy-with-a-heart-of-gold Wanda.

Walker, whose looks and affect suggest she ought really to be a femme fatale—or at the very least a gold-digger—manages to pull off the role of romantic lead quite well; among her other roles was that of Phyllis Hamilton in the MICHAEL SHAYNE movie MURDER IS MY BUSINESS (1946) and its two successors. Her secondary career was as a stand-in for actresses including Veronica Lake and Claudette Colbert, while in later life (such as there was of it; she died at age 53) she promoted McCarthyist politics.

The script has some clever moments—as when, while Johnny half-dozes on the train, the train wheels seem to be whispering to him the names of the four men he might possibly be—but also some clunkers: “I guess the Andersons were pretty cut up when they heard about the death of their son, weren’t they?” Well, yes, that’s a pretty good guess. And, in a curious plotting error, we discover the Army has told all four families the men are dead even though the belief is that one of the four is still alive.

On Amazon.com: Identity Unknown

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6 thoughts on “Identity Unknown (1945)

  1. Just watched it , nice little film . Unusual to see a returned soldier with amnesia not turn out to be involved in the rackets , wanted for murder etc . Noir touches , montages and general air of mystery .

    • Karl, you are a genius. The day before yesterday I was writing notes for eventual inclusion on this site about Phonecall from a Stranger, and wanted to refer to this movie as a much more noirish riff on a similar theme. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember its title, stars, anything; just to confuse me further, I thought I’d written about it for the Encyclopedia rather than for Noirish. And now, thanks to the near-unbelievable coincidence of your comment, I have my answer! Many thanks!

  2. Pingback: Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) | Noirish

  3. Pingback: Ticket to a Crime (1934) | Noirish

  4. Pingback: Film notes: Identity Unknown (1945) directed by Walter Colmes – A Crime is Afoot

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