Danger Signal (1945) Starring: Faye Emerson, Zachary Scott, Dick Erdman, Rosemary DeCamp, Bruce Bennett, Mona Freeman. Directed by Robert Flory. Screenplay by Adele Commandini and Graham Baker. Based on the novel "Danger Signal" by Phyllis Bottome (Boston, 1939). Produced by William Jacobs. U.S.A. 78 minutes. Black and White. Film Noir, Drama
Following the success of Mildred Pierce (1945), Warner Bros. wanted to make a bigger star out of Zachary Scott, who played Monte Beragon, Mildred’s second husband and her daughter’s Veda’s lover. Mildred had only been the Texan’s fourth film after a short career on Broadway. The vehicle they found for him, Phyllis Bottome’s novel, Danger Signal. was originally optioned by Paramount for Patricia Monson with Henry Hathaway set to directing, but the project didn’t go anywhere. Reports were that "the idea failed to jell into a screenplay.” Warner Bros. later optioned the novel for Bette Davis and assigned John Wexley to write the screenplay. But that is not the star or script that made it to production.
|Zachary Scott was making a name for himself in Hollywood after Mildred Pierce.|
Faye Emerson is not a name many are familiar with now. She had a rather short career in Hollywood and is perhaps best known as appearing opposite Zachary Scott in three films, his first, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), this one and Guilty Bystander (1950). But at the time of filming Danger Signal, she was engaged and later married to Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. They met through Howard Hughes in 1943 and even though Roosevelt was married at the time, Hughes encouraged the relationship.
According to co-star Rosemary DeCamp, the relationship caused delays in the production of Danger Signal, which started in late March, 1945. “Every time [Elliott] flew over the sound stage we all had to turn out and wave, falling behind day after day. Then they - Faye and Elliott - went to Arizona for their wedding, adding another four days to the schedule. When filming resumed, our fabulous cinematographer, Jimmy Wong Howe, said he couldn't repair the honeymoon damage and Faye's face had to have a rest. Finally, we had almost caught up when President Roosevelt died, and Faye went off to Washington." Despite the delays, the film wrapped in mid-May.
The film opens with a landlady banging on the door to one of her tenant’s rooms. A couple she had thought was married isn’t and she has the newspaper headline to prove it. But inside, Alice Turner lies dead. There is a man inside the room, Ronnie Marsh (Zachary Scott) who manages to escape by jumping from a window just before another tenant knocks down the door.
The police notify Alice’s husband, Thomas (John Ridgely), that her death has been ruled a suicide, but despite the note in her handwriting, he still believes its murder.
Meanwhile, Ronnie escapes to Los Angeles where he manages to rent a room in the Fenchurch house with mother (Mary Servoss) and her eldest daughter, Hilda (Faye Emerson). The youngest daughter, Anne (Mona Hoffman), is away convalescing. Ronnie is a would-be writer and spends most of his time in his room or in the Fenchurch house.
|Scott's character Ronnie, moves in with the Fenchurch's, mother |
(Mary Servoss) and eldest daughter, Hilda (Faye Emerson)
Hilda is a stenographer for hire and has attracted the attention of Dr. Andrew Lang (Bruce Bennett). He uses her services to type up his speeches, etc. and wants to ask her out. But Ronnie has beaten him to the punch.
|One of her clients, Dr. Lang (Bruce Bennett), wants to ask her out, but loses his nerve.|
Ronnie and Hilda go away for a weekend, which Hilda pays for. While they’re gone, Ronnie presents her with the wedding ring he’d removed from Alice’s dead hand, but tells her that it belonged to his mother. He tells Hilda that he wants to marry her once he’s sold some stories and the two are now engaged, though he asks her not to tell anyone.
Soon afterwards, Anne returns home. The teenage girl is prettier than her sister and Ronnie is immediately interested. He becomes more so when she tells him that her rich Uncle has left her $25,000. But Anne knows Hilda is in love with Ronnie, which he acknowledges, but adds that he doesn’t feel the same way about her.
|Ronnie is attracted to the younger, prettier and richer Anne (Mona|
Hoffman), who returns home while he's engaged to Hilda.
While they try to date in secret, Hilda does become suspicious that Ronnie isn’t who he says he is. She goes into his room while he is out dancing with Anne and finds a gun. Ronnie, of course, dismisses her concerns. He even tricks her into writing a suicide note, saying he needs help with a story idea.
Things don’t completely click in until she learns from Anne’s old boyfriend, Bunke Taylor (Dick Erdman) that Anne and Ronnie have been dating regularly and that Ronnie has been paying for the dates with the money he’s been making from selling his stories. Furious, Hilda orders Ronnie to leave, but he says if he goes, he’ll take Anne with him.
Hilda turns to one of her clients, psychiatrist Dr. Jane Silla (Rosemary DeCamp) for help. She agrees to meet with him and determine if he’s dangerous or not; she meets him and determines the former is true. She offers to let Hilda use her beach house to get away for a while.
|When in need, Hilda turns to a client, Dr. Jane Silla (Rosemary DeCamp).|
One evening while she’s helping Dr. Lang in his lab, Hilda discovers a vile of deadly botulism bacillus and steals it. Pretending to be Dr. Silla and using a telegram, Hilda invites Ronnie to the doctor’s beach house for dinner. Ronnie leaves immediately. Even though Hilda has brought him to the secluded house under false pretenses, he stays for dinner.
|While Dr. Lang is distracted, Hilda steals a vile of botulism bacillus.|
Meanwhile, Dr. Lang tells his colleague, Dr. Silla, that one of his test tubes of botulism is missing. Dr. Silla puts two and two together and they rush to the beach house to stop Hilda.
After dinner, Hilda tells Ronnie that she’s poisoned him and he becomes upset. It is only after the doctors arrive that is it revealed that Hilda did not open the test tube. Determined to go back to town, Ronnie leaves. It is on the Cliffside road on the way back to the bus that Ronnie is intercepted by Alice’s husband, Thomas, who has never stopped looking for her killer. Ronnie, a coward, runs but accidentally falls to his death over the cliffs.
The film ends with things back on track. Anne has reconciled with Bunke, who has since joined the Navy. Dr. Lang comes over to invite Hilda to a concert, but when she says she has work to do for him, he takes her out.
Again, this movie was presented as part of TCM’s Summer of Darkness series. And once again, I’m not really sure I would consider it to be a good example of the genre they are supposedly highlighting. The film is more melodramatic than noir-ish.
Danger Signal comes across as a sort of Mildred Pierce-lite. While the story is very different, there are still similar elements that drive the story and they revolve around Ronnie. Zachary Scott, who played the two-timing Monte so well in his previous film, is called upon to channel that character here. Instead of mother – daughter it is sisters. And like Monte, Ronnie has no problems with being a kept man, whether it’s letting Hilda pay for things or it’s Anne’s inheritance.
Once again, the film looks good. Perhaps TCM is really trying to feature the work of James Wong Howe, but there is more to film noir than looks alone. There is a substance that needs to be there in the story and characters. It’s not enough to throw ingredients into a cinematic mixing bowl and bake a film noir.
In the case of Danger Signal, it falls flat. Contemporary critic Bosley Crowther, at The New York Times, panned the film and called it a "diluted little melodrama", so my disappointment is nothing new.