Saturday, June 20, 2015

Stubs – Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss (1947) Starring: Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith, Bruce Bennett, Robert Alda, Rosemary DeCamp. Directed by Vincent Sherman. Screenplay by N. Richard Nash. Produced by William Jacobs. Run Time: 111. Black and White. U.S. Film Noir, Drama

One of the characteristics of film noir is that protagonist tend to make decisions that don’t seem to be in their own best interests. How often have you seen a film where the main character chooses to run when simply telling the police the truth would have gotten them off the hook? Sometimes their actions are explained away by a shady past or they’re trying to protect someone else. Often it’s “no one will believe me” if I come forward. And one problem or lie leads to another and another and pretty soon nothing can be salvaged.

Such is the case with Nora Prentiss, which marked Ann Sheridan’s return to the screen after 18 months. We’ve looked at earlier films in her career: San Quentin (1937), Indianapolis Speedway (1939), It All CameTrue (1940) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) as her star was rising at her home studio, Warner Bros. But her relationship there wasn’t always peaches and cream. In fact, Nora Prentiss sees her near the end of her tenure there. There were disagreements about scripts and Sheridan was suspended for turning down roles, including the starring role in Mildred Pierce (1945). She would be dropped by the studio a year later.

Actress Ann Sheridan was once known as the
 "Oomph Girl", but fell out of favor at Warner Bros.

Known as a woman’s director, Vincent Sherman started his Hollywood career as an actor in William Wyler's Counsellor at Law (1933). His directorial debut is one of the oddest films Humphrey Bogart ever made, the horror film The Return of Doctor X (1939); not an auspicious start. Sherman is perhaps best known for the three films he made with Joan Crawford, The Damned Don't Cry! (1950), Harriet Craig (1950), and Goodbye, My Fancy (1951).

The film opens with a wanted criminal being brought in to stand trial for murder. We don't see his face and he refuses to answer questions, but we hear him thinking about the charges as he recounts his story.

A man is brought to jail to stand trial for murder. He only speaks to us, the viewer.

Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) heads a functional family: wife Lucy (Rosemary DeCamp), a son, Gregory (Robert Arthur) and a daughter, Bonita “Bunny” (Wanda Hendrix). Lucy, the daughter of a doctor, believes in keeping to schedules and in self-discipline. Talbot sees Bonita try to buck the trend and being squashed by Lucy for it.

A punctual man, whom others seem to set their clocks by, Talbot starts to rethink his life and decides to take the scenic route to work, arriving an uncustomary twenty-minutes late. His life would never be the same after that.

Talbot’s partner in his practice, Dr. Joel Merriman (Bruce Bennett) has left a patient for him to examine, Walter Bailey (John Ridgely). A lonely man, living at the YMCA, Bailey suffers from a heart ailment, never really defined, but incurable nevertheless.

When Merriman does arrive, Talbot lectures him about being available for his patients, to which he counters that he can’t live like Talbot, it would be too dull. Still at work after hours, Talbot responds to a traffic accident across the street from his office. Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) stepped out in front of a truck and while she’s not injured very badly, is still unconscious. Talbot has her taken to his office where he can examine her.

Dr. Talbot (Kent Smith) examines Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) after she was hit by a truck outside his office.

Nora is a nightclub singer, who has seen Talbot come and go. She’s one of the people that set their clocks by his actions. She’s flirtatious and carefree, the opposite of the stuffy Talbot. Her only injury is a bruise over her knee. Talbot gives her a cigarette and a shot of liquor, you know medicinal stuff, and then walks her home after the police officer (Clifton Young) on the scene has gotten her statement.

When he gets back home, he wants to be with Lucy instead of going out that night, but they have a commitment to keep. He asks her to change her weekend plans, to go with him to the mountains instead of her sisters, but she turns him down. He has a paper for a medical conference to write after all.

Back in the office on a Saturday night, Talbot tries to work on his paper, but is interrupted by Nora, who stops by. Her boss has asked her to come into work and she wants the doctor’s clearance.

Later that night, he shows up at the club and watches her sing. The club owner, Phil Dinardo (Robert Alda), is hovering around Nora, attentive but hands off. She introduces Talbot to him as an out of town friend, named Mr. Thompson. When Nora is about to return to the stage for her next number, a bracelet she’s wearing comes off and Talbot offers to hold it for her. He stays until the club closes, even though Nora has told him she’s not interested in an affair, and he drives her home. At her door, she lets Talbot kiss her good-night.

It is when he gets home that Talbot realizes he still has her bracelet and offers to bring it to her the next morning, Sunday. And, if she has no plans, how about going for a drive with him? She says okay and they end up at his cabin in the mountains, where he had wanted to go with Lucy. After cleaning the cabin all afternoon, Talbot plays piano while Nora lounges by a roaring fire. When she tells him that Phil is going to New York to open a new nightclub and wants her to go with him, Talbot doesn’t want her to leave. She confesses she doesn’t want to go. But before things come to fruition between her and Talbot, Nora asks to be taken home.

Nora and Lyle talk at his mountain cabin. Things start to heat up between them.

Despite her misgivings, she and Talbot start an affair. And try as he might, everyone seems to notice a change in his behavior. He is at work late every night, often times not returning until early morning, when he used to be home at seven every night. He’s late for work to the point even Merriman says something.

Things between Talbot and Nora get to the point where he needs to make a decision or lose her. Determined to tell his wife he wants a divorce, Talbot leaves Nora and goes back home. But it is Bonita’s 16th birthday party, which he has forgotten. Lucy, suddenly the loving wife, has bought him a gift to give Bonita and with a house full of partygoers, including Merriman, the moment is not right to announce he’s leaving.

Upset that Talbot is not breaking off his marriage, Nora packs to leave for New York. Talbot tries to stop her, but doesn’t even try to explain the situation to her about the night before. He goes back to the office, and starts to write a letter to Lucy explaining things, you know coward stuff. As he writes about the bonds in the office safe, he goes to retrieve them. They are in there with his life insurance, which conveniently has his age, height and weight prominently displayed. But Talbot can’t finish the letter.

Not sure what to do, Talbot’s thought are interrupted when Walter Bailey bangs on the office door. His heart is acting up and he needs help. Talbot goes to get a syringe of something, but Bailey collapses. The injection does no good and Bailey is lying dead on the floor of Talbot’s office. He sits down at his desk to call the police, when he notices that Bailey is the same age, height and weight as himself. That’s when the idea to fake his own death comes to him.

Putting his ring and other accessories on Bailey, he drives him to a cliff and, after setting the car on fire with alcohol, pushes it over the edge. He manages to make it back to meet Nora before she gets to the train.
His death is ruled an accident, but the circumstances bother Merriman. After hearing from Lucy that money had been withdrawn from their checking account, he goes into Talbot’s office and finds the charred remains of the letter he’d written to Lucy. He sees the word "desperate" and after finding a broken statue, goes to the police with his theory that Talbot must have been blackmailed and then killed with blunt force.

Dr. Merriman (Bruce Bennett), Talbot's business partner, thinks
there's more to his death than the accident its been labelled.

Meanwhile, in New York, Talbot lives as Thompson and in a hotel room across from Nora’s. Apparently the $6500 he’s taken from the bank before he left is enough for them to have separate accommodations. Talbot has told Nora that he’s waiting for his divorce to come through, all the time looking at the San Francisco papers about updates on himself. When he sees that the police are investigating his murder, he becomes even more cautious.

He lets Nora talk him into going to Phil’s New York club, but when he sees a doctor he met in San Francisco, he panics. Finally he confesses to Nora that there is no divorce and that he’s faked his own death. While this would seem like a time to break things off, Nora stays with him. She talks Phil into giving her a job, which he is only more than happy to do.

Nora goes back to her job as a singer, this time in Phil Dinardo's NewYork night club.

But she spends too much time at the club for Talbot. Jealous, he even slaps Nora, but still she stays with him. And so does jealousy. One night he goes down to the club. Phil has given Nora an expensive bracelet as a thank you and she’s about to return it when Talbot bursts in. In his rage, he attacks Phil and is about to kill him when Nora stops him. Hearing the disturbance, the police have been called and Talbot must flee before they get there.

Jumping into a car, he drives fast and erratically, drawing the attention of another police car and the chase is on. Losing control of the car, Talbot crashes and the car catches on fire. Phil forgives the fight and the destruction of his car. Nora visits Talbot in the hospital and is there when the bandages come off. He is disfigured, but somewhat relieved that he doesn’t look like his old self. On the day he is released, two New York detectives take him downtown for questioning about his involvement in the Talbot murder.

Nora visits Talbot in the hospital after his accident.

While their suspicions are circumstantial, having to do with his bank account of $6000, his finger prints match those lifted off the can of alcohol found at the Talbot murder scene. Rather than explain what had happened, Talbot lets himself be arrested, extradited to California and offers no defense at his trial for murdering himself. Nora, who has come back as well, sits in the gallery, but never speaks to his attorney about what she knows is 
the truth.

Though there are no witnesses, Talbot is convicted and sentenced to death. The first time we see Nora speak to him is after the conviction and begs him to tell the truth. He tells her that this is the best way to resolve things. He can’t go back to his old life as a doctor and it would shame his family to learn he’s still alive. No thought is given to Nora or her feelings. He makes her promise not to tell anyone the truth and she leaves.

Talbot makes Nora promise not to tell anyone the truth about his identity.

Outside, Dinardo is waiting. In the final shot of the film, we see him hurrying to catch up to Nora as she walks into the shadowy night.

In reading about the film, it is considered a hit, though I don’t have any idea how it fared at the box-office. However, the film was not a critical success at the time of its release, being described in Variety as “an overlong melodrama.”

My first time to see Nora Prentiss was as the primetime kick off film for TCM’s 2015 Summer of Darkness and frankly I was greatly disappointed, after seeing it, that it was selected for the honor. While this film has many of the elements of film noir, I have to agree with Variety’s assessment.

Yes, the decisions Talbot makes lead him further and further down the road to ruin, but his decisions come more from his own cowardice than from Nora Prentiss. She loves him, but he lies to her about everything when the truth was called for. Breaking up with your wife on your daughter’s sweet sixteen is the wrong time, but he didn’t tell Nora that simple fact. Faking your own death to be with someone is really bad, but he only did it because he was too much of a coward to face his wife. And then he’s too much of a coward to tell Nora once they’re in New York. And at the end of the film, he’s too much of a coward to face his wife with the truth, so he would rather literally die to avoid the awkward situation.

Nora’s not much better. She has the power to save him, but she doesn’t. It would have been much better if she had something to gain by letting Talbot get convicted of killing himself. That’s what a true femme fatale would have on the line. Instead, Nora comes off as a smart-talking beauty who gets in over her head with a married man and tries to make the best of the situation. She is unappreciated, used and ultimately unimportant to Talbot, who at the end of the film is thinking more about his wife and children than he is of Nora. She has been a mistake in his life all along.

The ending smells of the Production Code. Since Talbot and Nora have carried on an extra-marital affair, someone has to be punished. Bad enough that Talbot is burned, but the only way to really make things right is to let yourself be put to death as the result of a miscarriage of justice. Nora is thrown to the curb, since that’s where these kinds of women belong, but she still can be saved by the love of a good man, Phil Dinardo.

The character of Phil Dinardo is certainly against type. Robert Alda, the father of actor Alan Alda, of M*A*S*H fame, plays one of the nicest night club owners ever to be portrayed in a film noir if not on celluloid. He seems to have no underworld connections, is obviously in love with Nora, but never forces himself on her; and to top it off, he forgives Talbot for trying to kill him and wrecking his car. At the end, he is waiting patiently on his own for Nora and no doubt will help her cope getting over Talbot with backrubs and cups of soothing tea. What a great guy and somehow so milquetoast at the same time.

The film has the look of a film noir, with cinematography by James Wong Howe (great final shot), but it needs more. The film is more melodramatic, boarding on the designation Woman’s Picture, but even then it’s not really a “weepy” either. Perhaps they were going for some genre fusion here, but it doesn’t work.

I always try to go into every movie wanting to like it. I was very intrigued by the premise, but disappointed by the execution. Nora Prentiss is not the film to use to introduce anyone to the genre. It represents just how far its characteristic can be stretched to include anything that is “dark”, but it really never delivers the goods one expects from good film noir.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

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