Cause For Alarm! (1951) Starring: Loretta Young, Barry Sullivan, Bruce Cowling. Directed by Tay Garnett. Screenplay by Mel Dinelli, Tom Lewis. Based on a short story by Larry Marcus. Produced by Tom Lewis. Run Time: 75 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Film Noir, Drama
I have made no secret of the fact that I like film noirs. Their dark plots of murder and conspiracy played out in the shadows have always fascinated me. But not all film noirs take place in the shadows of a cityscape. Case in point, Cause For Alarm! from MGM in 1951. Instead of unfolding at night in some back alley, Cause For Alarm! takes place during the day on a suburban Los Angeles street, showing suspense can happen anywhere and at any time.
But Cause For Alarm! which Ellen (Loretta Young) narrates, begins long before that fateful afternoon back when Ellen and her husband George (Barry Sullivan) met. Like many young couples at the time, they met during World War II. Ellen was dating George’s friend, Lieutenant Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling), at the time, but Ranney, a young military doctor, had little time for her. When George, a pilot, met Ellen, the two fell in love and got married.
|Before she meets George, Ellen (Loretta Young) is dating Lr. Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling), a doctor.|
Hollywood movies would lead you to believe that they’d live happily ever after, but sadly, that is not always the case. By the time of our movie, George is ill, bedridden with heart problems, and Ellen spends most of her time taking care of him. But George is suspicious of Ellen and thinks she’s having an affair with his doctor, and her ex-boyfriend, Ranney. George thinks his old buddy is not doing all he can and is in fact, conspiring with Ellen to kill him.
|George (Barry Sullivan) suffers a heart attack and is bedridden.|
The couple is childless, something that Ellen wishes they could change. She finds a surrogate child in a neighborhood boy, Billy (Bradley Mora), who dresses like movie cowboy Hopalong Cassidy and rides the range of his suburban street on his tricycle. Ellen gives him some cookies and he gives her a toy television and asks her to give it to George.
But unbeknownst to Ellen, George is writing a letter to the district attorney outlining how Ellen and Ranney are trying to kill him.
When George suffers an attack, he begs Ellen to call another doctor (yes, doctors used to make house calls), but George has mistreated all of them to the point that only Ranney will come and so Ellen calls him. Ranney dismisses George’s concerns and suggests that perhaps he should seek psychiatric help.
When they're alone, Ranney tells Ellen that George should go to a hospital to prevent his depression from worsening. But Ellen worries that George will be violent if she doesn’t attend to him personally. She promises to talk to George.
After speaking again to Billy outside, Ellen is startled to see George standing at the window. She rushes upstairs, but he denies that he’s even gotten out of bed and accuses her of being in love with Ranney and wanting him dead. Ellen is naturally hurt by her husband’s accusations, but puts it down to his illness making him distrustful. When she goes downstairs to make him lunch, George continues his letter to the DA, adding details to further implicate Ellen.
After lunch, George gives Ellen the letter and asks her to mail it for him. Ellen thinks the thick letter contains insurance papers he’s worked on for his office. Ellen gives the letter to their mailman, Mr. Carston (Irving Bacon). He tells Ellen that he’s just seen George at the window and she hurries upstairs, again, and asks George to stop risking his health and to stay in bed. But George insists the mailman is mistaken.
George then tells Ellen a disturbing story about how as a child he beat a neighbor boy with a rake after the boy tried to touch one of his toys. When his mother made him apologize and give the boy his toy, George deliberately broke it rather than let the boy have it. This story, an obvious allegory for what George will do about Ellen and Ranney, frightens her.
George tells her that the letter she sent was actually to the DA and reveals some of the incriminating information he put in it, such as her re-ordering a prescription too soon. He leaves out that it was because he’d deliberately spilled it the day before. He then threatens to kill her, revealing a gun that he has hidden under the blankets. As she pleads with him, George suffers a heart attack and dies, with the gun still in his grip.
|Weak George pulls a gun on Ellen and threatens to kill her.|
Ellen is stunned by the sudden turn of events and considers George’s death to be “one of those awful dreams.” When the pharmacist calls inquiring about the prescription, Ellen doesn’t tell him that George has died. She is now in full panic mode.
Worried that everything she has done will seem incriminating to the DA, she leaves her husband’s dead body on the bed and hurries off to catch the mailman. She manages to catch up to the gregarious Carston, still making his deliveries. She tells him that she had mistakenly given him a letter to mail that was not yet finished and begs for him to give it back. Initially, Carston is willing to do so until she lets it slip that her husband had written the letter. In that case, Carston is compelled to give the letter back to George personally. When she pointedly refuses that offer, he tells her that only the supervisor in the downtown office can give it to her.
|Ellen cannot convince postman Carston (Irving Bacon) to give her back the letter.|
When Ellen returns to the house, George's indulgent aunt, Clara Edwards (Margalo Gillmore), is already inside, having unlocked the door with a key that she found with a neighbor's, Mrs. Warren (Georgia Backus), help. Ellen is extremely agitated and Clara only agrees to leave without seeing George after Ellen tells her that her visits upset him.
Ellen then changes clothes so she can be presentable at the post office and decides to get the gun out of George's hand. It is stiff and she has to pull it out, discharging a bullet, which gets Billy’s attention. As she is about to leave, Mr. Russell (Don Haggerty), a public notary, arrives and tries to force his way in to see George. He tells Ellen that George had demanded he come see him that day, no matter what his wife said. But Russell does finally leave and Ellen now fears that he will be another witness against her.
In her hurry to get to the main post office, Ellen nearly runs over Billy, who rides his tricycle daredevil like behind her car, which Mrs. Warren observes. (The woman is always outside in her garden.)
At the main post office, the superintendent (Art Baker) says he can give her the letter back, but policies about forms and other types of scrutiny which would require George's signature upset Ellen so much that she is forced to leave empty-handed. When she arrives home, Ellen remembers that Ranney was supposed to stop by again and calls his office to stop him. But because he is out making house calls, his office can’t get a hold of him and he arrives almost immediately.
Ellen tries to make him to leave by saying that another doctor has already been there, but he guesses that George is dead. After Ellen breaks down and tells him everything, Ranney finds the gun and the bullet hole in the floor. He then tries to calm Ellen down and tell her that George's mind was going. When the front door bell rings, Ellen fears that it is the police, but it is only Carston. He has come to return the letter, admonishing her that there was postage due on the thick letter and it could not be delivered.
Ellen cries hysterically after Carston leaves and is comforted by Ranney, who burns the letter. Calm now, Ellen hopes that someday she can forget what has happened.
Even though the film has some great film noir credentials; it is helmed by Tay Garnett, the director of The Post Man Always Rights Twice (1946), and co-stars Barry Sullivan, one of the leads from the excellent Tension (1949), there are real problems with the movie.
Unfortunately, they seem to lie with the main character around which the movie revolves. To begin with, she is not a very sympathetic character. True she is haggard and bullied by George while he is alive, but she is more concerned about a letter than the fact George has just died. She doesn’t behave like a rational person would. No doubt an autopsy would clear her of murder and the prescription issue could be explained away. The fact that she leaves her husband’s dead body hunched over and tries to lie her way into getting back a letter seems like odd behavior to me and seems more suspicious than simply calling the authorities.
As far as getting the letter back, she seems to be her own worst enemy as she messes two chances to get it back. Carston catches her in a lie and her behavior ruins any chance the superintendent will cooperate with her.
When Cause for Alarm! opened, Loretta Young was nearing the end of her film career. She’d been in movies since the age of four, when she appeared, uncredited, in the now lost, The Primerose Ring (1917). She would also appear four years later, again uncredited, in The Sheik (1921). She is perhaps best known for her Academy Award winning role as Katrin ‘Katy’ Holstrum in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) and as Julia Brougham in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). After retiring from films in 1953, she went on to star in her own TV Series, The Loretta Young Show, which ran for eight seasons on NBC.
Cause for Alarm! lost money during its initial theatrical run which indicates that the story didn’t connect with audiences back then either. Even though the film received decent reviews, the film, which was made in 14 days at the cost of $635,000, recorded a loss of $174,000. MGM must have thought so little of the film that they let the copyright expire and the film fell into public domain.
While I will give the creative team credit of Cause for Alarm! for trying to make a different type of film noir, ultimately, they failed to tell a good story, which is a movie’s job one.