US / 83 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Henry Levin Pr: Helen Deutsch, Virginia Van Upp Scr: Louella MacFarlane, Allen Rivkin, Devery Freeman Story: Lenore Coffee Cine: Joseph Walker Cast: Rosalind Russell, Melvyn Douglas, Sid Caesar, Betsy Blair, Nina Foch, Charles Cane, Harry Von Zell, Bruce Harper (i.e., Coulter Irwin), Arthur Space, Richard Benedict, Frank Orth, Victoria Horne, Hugh Beaumont, Doreen McCann.
Although sometimes listed as a film noir, The Guilt of Janet Ames is really a philosophical piece ruminating on guilt, morality, the selfishness of grief, redemption; there are some noirish tropes if you care to look for them, but then you could also find parallels with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) dir Frank Capra if you were desperate enough. (You might, for example, point to the fact that both are Christmas movies, even though they have a completely different feel.)
But before making any such claims it’s worth noting that The Guilt of Janet Ames is upfront and center concerning the inspiration it owes to George du Maurier’s 1891 novel Peter Ibbetson and in particular the 1915 play based upon it by John N. Raphael. (In addition we should note a 1931 opera done by Deems Taylor and Constance Collier and a 1939 radio adaptation with Orson Welles and Helen Hayes. Of most interest to this site is the 1935 movie adaptation dir Henry Hathaway, starring Gary Cooper and Ann Harding; I’ve added it to my viewing list.) In the novel, Peter is in prison for murder, although in fact he was defending himself from the wrath of the husband of his married lover, Mary. Though separated by barred windows and stone walls, the lovers discover they can enter each other’s dreams.
Two years ago, on December 22, Janet “Jan” Ames (Russell) received an official phonecall to tell her that her husband David died during the Battle of Bulge when he threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of the other five men sharing his foxhole. Now, on the second anniversary of that fateful call, she’s taken it into her head to track down the five men to find out whether they deserve her husband’s sacrifice, in the full expectation she’ll discover they aren’t.
Crossing a street while in something like a fugue state, she’s knocked over by a vehicle and rushed to hospital. There the cops discover the list of five names she’s been carrying and recognize one of them: Smithfield “Smitty” Cobb (Douglas), once a top-flight journalist but now a renowned lush. Someone summons him from his habitual haunt, Danny’s Bar, and he soon works out who Janet is.
Janet’s injuries are apparently minor, but she’s now suffering from hysterical paralysis of her lower limbs and is confined to a wheelchair. Diagnosing her bitterness as the cause, Smitty offers to take her, through use of spoken word pictures, to meet the men whom she’s been so ready to condemn.
- Joe Burton (Benedict), she learns, is the friendliest bar bouncer you could hope to find, who talks the patrons out of folly and is much in love with his girl, chanteuse Katie (Blair).
- She doesn’t meet Eddie Pearson during her “astral visit,” but she does meet his wife Susie (Foch), living with him in the desert where he’s doing important scientific research.
- Francis “Frank” Merino (Beaumont) proves to be a constant gardener, a single parent raising his adored daughter Emmy (McCann).
- Sammy Weaver (Caesar) is an up-and-coming stage comedian, and Janet recognizes how gifted he is as he delivers one of his routines for her.
- And the fifth man, as she by now realizes, is Smitty himself, with whom she’s beginning to fall in love—a sentiment he returns.
Each of the four mental expeditions she makes under Smitty’s guidance brings with it some sort of life lesson for her, and she has to face some unpalatable truths: that she never really loved David, that through her habitual bossiness, pragmatism, lack of introspection and habit of rushing to judgment, she inhibited his hopes. It’s no spoiler to tell you that her facing and accepting these truths cures her paralysis.
Yet there are other, even uglier truths to come out this evening, because Smitty has been hiding from the world—and, through resorting to the bottle, from himself—a far greater guilt. It’s only once he manages to match her courage that he too can rid himself of his disability and the pair can be free to love each other.
There’s quite a lot of plot missing from the above summary, but that should be enough to give an idea of what the movie’s about.
The “waking dreams” that constitute Janet’s visits to other people’s lives are imaginatively staged, sometimes in a stripped-down stylized manner, sometimes adopting semi-abstract visuals—as during her trip to Barney’s bar, where Joe and Katie work, and whose crowded clientele find representation only as shadows:
The comedy routine we get from the character Sammy Weaver has a laudably ambitious sense of the surreal to it that I’m sure I’d appreciate more if I could stand Sid Caesar’s stage persona. Meanwhile, Janet’s indignant impatience with what she regards as other people’s stupidly unrealistic aspirations is slyly matched by her attending nurse (a great little performance from Horne), who tries sensibly to chide her out of her notion that she’s been experiencing anything more than dreams.
All in all, then, this is an impressive production, often surprisingly powerful, one that declines for the most part to default to feel-good solutions to the various human problems it raises. Similarly, in terms of its staging, there’s the feeling that, at every point where there was a choice between an easy option and a better option, the makers chose the latter. This oddly disguises—at least it did for this viewer, until I thought about it later—the fact that the movie’s essentially a two-hander: there are plenty of other actors on view beyond the leading pair, but almost all of them have little more than cameo roles. (A special mention, though, of Frank Orth as Danny, the barman with a conscience.) The two carry the burden of the movie with the kind of skill you’d expect: Rosalind Russell is splendid as the strident Janet while Melvyn Douglas reminds us of quite how masterful an actor he was.
So, not a film noir, but definitely a denizen of that hinterland of film noir this site was designed to address.
14 thoughts on “The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947)”
“there are some noirish tropes if you care to look for them, but then you could also find parallels with It’s a Wonderful Life”
It’s a Wonderful Life is at the centre of Suspects, David Thomson’s wonderful creation of a noir family tree, though,
Y’know, I’ve never read the Thomson novel, and really ought to. Thanks for the tip.
I have come across somewhere else, though (can’t remember where), a discussion of IAWL from the viewpoint of its noirishness, and it was this that was at the back of my mind when I made the remark.
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Excellent review. You’ve convinced me that I need to give this one another chance. I watched it just a few months ago when the Noir Archive Vol. 1 set came out and I believe my criticism of the film was mostly based on the idea that I was expecting a traditional film noir. David Bordwell also discussed the film in his book Reinventing Hollywood, which also gives me cause to reexamine this one.
Golly, yes, I’d forgotten that. You really didn’t like it, did you? 🙂 Fingers crossed you’ll enjoy it more on a revisit.
I was pretty harsh, wasn’t I? I definitely owe it a revisit.
Thanks for doing all these reviews on these great classic films! So many seem to have forgotten them nowadays.
Thanks for the kind words, Ethan! Much appreciated.
Have you checked out Paul Batters’s site Silver Screen Classics?
I have not but now I will!
Russell clearly took her work very seriously and there is something really fascinating about these films she made in the late 1940s over which she exerted a lot fo control. Sounds great – hope to track it down soon. 🙂
John, this is really an extraordinary piece of writing from you. Even for your high standards. I especially connect with it too as I have seen the film and consider it exceptional. Terrific cast and well filmed and written. When you say THIS in conclusion: “So, not a film noir, but definitely a denizen of that hinterland of film noir this site was designed to address” you seem to perfectly frame the parameters of this site too.
As so often you have sent me off intrigued to seek out the film you’ve featured!
I hope you enjoy it when you see it, Thom! Some critics are less impressed by it than I was.