You can’t leave your past behind!
vt Beyond Reasonable Doubt; vt Guilty Woman
US / 62 minutes / bw / John Sutherland Productions, Pathe, Eagle–Lion Dir: Sherman Scott (i.e., Sam Newfield) Pr: John Sutherland Scr: Al Martin Story: Frank Burt, Robert Libott Cine: Jack Greenhalgh Cast: Marjorie Lord, Robert Shayne, Pierre Watkin, James Seay, Ruthe Brady, Claire Whitney, Mary Gordon, Chester Clute, Dorothy Granger, Charles Williams, Emmett Vogan.
A cracker of a minor film noir that seems to have passed under just about everybody’s radar—mine included, until now.
Jenny Hadley (Lord) used to be in partnership with Floyd Durant (Shayne) in a blackmailing racket: she’d get into compromising positions with married men (like Comstock in Chicago who “fell so hard for her he wouldn’t even go to the police”) while Floyd did the rest. As you’d expect, it wasn’t just in their extortioning game that Jenny and Floyd were partnered.
Marjorie Lord as the very respectable Mrs. Crane . . . but in reality
a femme fatale.
Now, though, Jenny has left her life of crime—and Floyd—behind, and has become ultra-respectable Mrs. Gina Crane, wife of the much older lawyer Clinton Crane (Watkin), who’s the pundits’ favorite to triumph in the upcoming state gubernatorial race.
When Clinton wins his primary, Gina (as we’ll call her for convenience) reminds him of his promise to buy her a mink coat. While various coats are being modeled for her by Barbara Arnold (Brady) at the furriery of Edna Emmerson (Whitney), Gina once more encounters Floyd, whom she’d thought was long out of her life but who is now working as Edna’s assistant manager.
Clinton (Pierre Watkin) and Gina Crane (Marjorie Lord) watch the mink coat being modeled.
Even though he’s already engaged to Barbara and even though Gina is of course married to stuffy Clinton, Floyd is keen to revive their relationship.
Floyd: “Are you in love with your husband?”
Gina: “He’s been so good to me.”
Gina resists for fully ten seconds—maybe twelve—before her passions get the better of her and she falls into Floyd’s studly arms.
Floyd (Robert Shayne) sweet-talks Barbara (Ruthe Brady).
That night when she gets home she blames her lateness on some or other charity obligation, an excuse that satisfies Clinton, who’s clearly besotted with her—although whether he’s as in love with her as she thinks he is is perhaps a little moot:
Clinton: “You know, it flatters a man’s ego to be married to a woman much younger than himself.”
Whatever the truth of that, Gina reckons she can have her cake and eat it too:
Gina: “Clinton believes what he wants to. He’s in love with me.”
Floyd: “And you’re in love with the idea of being the wife of the governor?”
Gina: “Of course. I’ll have everything. Security. Position. Power. Everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Well, everything she ever wanted includes, we gather, clandestine naughtiness with Floyd. So much for the reformed character—the obedient, demure little Mrs. Politician—we’ve believed her to have become.
The sweet Mrs. Crane? When she thinks we’re not looking, Gina (Marjorie Lord) lets the claws come sliding out.
But almost immediately Floyd makes it plain to her that his interest in her is not so much romantic as mercenary: for a mere $15,000 he’ll clear out of her life and mention nothing of the blackmail photo of her and a mark they took years ago in Milwaukee, a copy of which he just happens to have retained.
Obviously Floyd is setting himself on the path to meet the fate all blackmailers earn who’re stupid enough to blackmail femmes fatales. And, sure enough, it’s not that long before he’s lying dead on the floor of his apartment, stabbed in the back with his very own paperknife.
The trouble is that Barbara, Floyd’s dress-modeling fiancée, was in the apartment moments before Gina’s arrival, very loudly busting up with him because she finally realized Edna Emmerson was right: Floyd can’t keep his gun in his pocket. Barbara even handled the paperknife, leaving her fingerprints all over the handle. She did, though, catch a brief glimpse of a mystery woman who called at the apartment just as she left—as did a shortsighted neighbor, Fred Marlow (Clute).
The cops arrest Barbara for the murder. Edna, who’s been the young woman’s mentor, asks her old friend Clinton to represent the accused, but Clinton, egged on by Gina, rejects the request, instead proposing his campaign manager, another lawyer, Mark Emery (Seay), for the job.
Mark Emery (James Seay) persuades Barbara that really he’s on her side.
In court things look gloomy for Barbara—worse than she can know, because a jury member, and eventually foreman, is none other than the missing “mystery woman”: Gina! And Gina is determined to see Barbara found guilty and sent to the chair . . .
In court, the innocent Barbara (Ruthe Brady) expects the worst from . . .
. . . Emmett Vogan as remorseless DA Flanagan.
If there could be any reason not to think of The Strange Mrs. Crane as a film noir it might be because of the splendidly executed twist at the end, a twist that caught me completely by surprise even though it had been fairly and openly clued, beforehand. That said, I can think of plenty of other films noirs in good standing that have similar culminating twists that restore optimism for the future where, moments before, all had seemed headed for a nihilistic conclusion.
On the witness stand, Fred Marlow (Chester Clute) yet again has the impression he sees the “mystery woman.”
I have the odd trivial quibble with the movie. For example, it’s important to details of the plot that Gina for no apparent reason habitually uses the stairs at Floyd’s apartment building rather than the elevator, like everyone else. (Perhaps she’s auditioning for a Dr. Scholl’s ad?) Again, there’s a tremendous leap of logic from Mark Emery, as Barbara’s defense attorney, when he immediately assumes that the “mystery woman”—whom Barbara and Fred glimpsed but in whom no one else believes, especially not DA Flanagan (Vogan)—must have been Jenny Hadley, Floyd’s old partner-in-crime. As more than one of the other characters observes in passing, Floyd’s scumbaggery was such that the “mystery woman” could have been just about anyone female and capable of an occasionally upright stance.
It’s the turn of Edna Emmerson (Claire Whitney) to testify.
But these are small carps about a movie that it’s very easy to love. Aside from the excellently controlled pacing, aside from the tautness of the plot in the movie’s short running time, there’s the performance of Marjorie Lord as the central femme fatale, Jenny/Gina. We spend perhaps as much as the first quarter of the movie lured as surely as any chump Jenny/Gina might have suckered during her crime career into believing that, whatever her past might contain, she’s now a reformed character, a sincerely loving wife. Then, as we see her persuaded to renew her relationship with Floyd and betray the trust of husband Clinton, our feelings sour a little: on the other hand, he’s a politician and a lawyer and he seems to regard her as a bit of a trophy wife, so, okay, we can give her the benefit of the doubt. Even when she kills Floyd we can persuade ourselves that this was her only escape from the destruction of the life she’s built for herself—besides, blackmailers deserve whatever they get.
Nora (Mary Gordon), the Cranes’ Scottish housekeeper.
Where Jenny/Gina loses any loyalty we might have accumulated is when she not only is sanguine about Barbara going to the chair for a murder of which the model is completely innocent but actually pulls every string she possibly can pull to make sure this second murder is committed. Lord handles this progressive transformation of our perceptions of her character really quite masterfully. This is one of the great femme fatale performances.
And all wrapped up in what was probably, on release, a C-feature.