Take One False Step (1949): Starring William Powell, Shelley Winters, Marsha Hunt, Dorothy Hart, James Gleason, Felix Bressart, Art Baker, Sheldon Leonard. Directed by Chester Erskine. Screenplay by Irwin Shaw and Chester Erskine. Produced by Chester Erskine and Jack Hively. Black and White U.S. Run Time: 94. Film Noir, Comedy
Film Noir comes in all flavors. While we have the notion that every hero is Humphrey Bogart or Burt Lancaster, some are William Powell. And with Powell, you get a different hero than you do with Bogart or Lancaster. Perhaps best known as Nick Charles in the very popular Thin Man franchise of films, Powell’s forte is light-hearted comedy. So, it should not come as no surprise that Take One False Step is a lighter comedic Film Noir.
Take One False Step was Chester Erskine’s film follow-up to All My Sons (1948). Following the success of that film, Universal was probably happy to give him leeway in his next film. Perhaps not feeling as comfortable with straight out drama, he chose to fall back on comedy, a genre that he had success in prior with such films as The Egg and I (1947), which he also directed and co-wrote.
This film was screened at the recent 17th Annual Festival of Film Noir at the Egyptian theater by host Eddie Muller, the President of Film Noir Foundation. While he told the audience that the film contained a lot of shots of Los Angeles in the late 1940’s, most of the action actually takes place up in the Bay Area, in and around San Francisco and Berkeley. Filming, which ran from January 5 to February 8, 1949, actually mostly took place at Universal Studios. It originally opened on June 3, 1949, in Los Angeles.
The film’s opening credits help set the tone, as they are intercut with a montage of shots showing people’s legs and feet about to make wrong steps. It’s clear from the get-go that this film is not going to be dark.
Well-known educator Andrew “Andy” Gentling (William Powell) is visiting Los Angeles to raise funds for a new university. In a bar, he used to frequent he runs into a former girlfriend he knew during the war, Catherine Sykes (Shelley Winters). It’s not necessarily by mistake either as she has read he was going to be in town. While Andy is happy to see her, he’s now married and tries to discourage her from flirting with him.
|Andy Gentling (William Powell) in Los Angeles on business |
runs into a former girlfriend, Catherine Sykes (Shelley Winters).
He leaves her and goes back to his hotel room to meet with his two colleagues, Professors Morris Avrum (Felix Bressart) and Henry Pritchard (Art Baker) to map out their strategy for their big meeting in the morning with their hoped-for benefactor. Soon after his colleagues say good-night, Catherine calls.
She invites him to a party she’s throwing, and while Andrew s reluctant to go, she cajoles him into accepting. But before leaving, Andy telephones his wife Helen (Dorothy Hart) in New York and invites her to fly to Los Angeles to be with him.
When Andy gets to the party, he turns out to be Catherine's only guest, but they are not alone. Their l mutual friend Martha Wier (Marsha Hunt), in whose home Catherine is entertaining, appears. Like Catherine, Martha met Andy during the war. She explains to Andy that Catherine has become morose and self-destructive even since she married Arnold Sykes (Jess Barker).
|Andy turns out to be the only guest at Catherine's party, is |
throwing at old friend Martha Wier's (Marsha Hunt) house.
Catherine insists on Andy taking her for a drive, so he takes her home, but she refuses to get out of his car. Claiming that Andy and a man named Freddie Blair are the only two men she’s ever loved, Catherine tries to kiss Andy. This flusters Andy, who jerks the car forward. Stopping suddenly, Andy causes Catherine to hit her head on the windshield, cutting her head. After Andy gives Catherine his scarf to apply to her cut, he leaves the car and waits for her to get out. Returning back to the car, he sees her standing outside her house before driving off.
|Andy gives Catherine a ride back to her house.|
The next day, Andy and his two colleagues met with A. K. Arnspiger (Paul Harvey), the millionaire they hope will fund their university. During the meeting, Andy’s attention is diverted by a newspaper on Arnspiger’s desk. The headline story is about Catherine’s disappearance and presumed murder. Andy is visibly rattled by the story, in which his bloodied scarf is identified as a piece of evidence. His reaction causes the conservative Arnspiger to reconsider his investment, so Andy excuses himself.
|Andy with Professors Morris Avrum (Felix Bressart) and Henry Pritchard|
(Art Baker) try to persuade millionaire A. K. Arnspiger (Paul Harvey) to back their university.
Back at his hotel room, Martha shows up and persuades Andy not to go to the police until he’s done a little investigating first before the police connect him to her. She tells him about a diary that Catherine kept and advises him to retrieve it from Catherine's closet, while she keeps Sykes busy out of the house.
|Martha persuades Andy not to go to the police until he's done some investigation on his own.|
By chance, Andy discovers that Catherine left her purse in his rental car and uses her keys to gain entrance into her house. But even though Sykes is away, his dog, a German Shepherd, is still there and attacks Andy. He manages to lock the dog in the den before heading for the closet in the bedroom.
|This lobby card depicts the scene in which a German Shepherd |
attacks Andy when he breaks into someone else's house.
Meanwhile, the police investigating the case, Captain Gledhill (James Gleason) and his assistant, Pacciano (Sheldon Leonard) show up to search the house. Andy hides in Catherine's closet while the detectives search the house. Andy overhears the detectives discuss Sykes's gambling connections as well as their plan to tail Martha.
When they’re alerted to Sykes's imminent return, the police hastily depart. Andy is not so lucky and he is attacked by the now-loose dog. In his struggle, Andy is bitten before he can defend himself, striking the dog with a heavy object in order to make his escape.
Returning home, Sykes finds his injured dog and assumes that Freddie, with whom he had stolen money from the syndicate is responsible and calls the police.
Meanwhile, Andy and Martha go through Catherine’s diary and find Freddie's San Francisco phone number. Deciding that Freddie is involved in Catherine's disappearance. Andy decides to go to San Francisco the next day. But before he leaves, he runs into his colleagues. They still need him to help with Arnspiger and quickly make plans for Andy to give a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, which they’ll have Arnspiger attend.
Meanwhile, Gledhill tells the press that the dog that bit the intruder has rabies and that the man he’s bitten is in dire need of care or else he will die. Andy hears this on the radio while he’s driving north. He stops at elderly Dr. Montgomery Thatcher’s (Houseley Stevenson) office hoping to get care.
Hoping to avoid detection, Andy lies about the circumstances of his bite, but he grows impatient. The doctor asks a lot of questions and balks at his plans to take him to the hospital and to call the police, all part of the protocol for a potentially rabid dog bite. Andy flees just ahead of the doctor connecting him to the police reports.
Not far away, Andy encounters a police roadblock, but with the help of Horace (Tommy Ivo) who gives the police bad information for a nickel bribe, Andy manages to avoid being found out. After arriving at his hotel, Andy calls Freddie, who agrees to speak with him but only on condition that they meet on a street corner later that night.
Dr. Markheim (Howard Freeman), an influential physician, arrives at Andy’s hotel room. He notices the bandage on Andy’s hand, but Andy won’t let him examine it. Markheim is the one who has made the arrangements for Andy’s lecture that night in Berkeley. He brags about how his influence and Andy puts it to the test, asking him to find out the address for Freddie’s phone number. One quick call to a contact on the police and he has it.
|Dr. Markheim (Howard Freeman) makes a house call to Andy's hotel room in San Francisco.|
When Andy arrives at the address, he sees a bruised Sykes leaving and offers him a ride. But they don’t get too far before Sykes suspects Andy has been sent by the syndicate and his panic leads to Andy crashing his car into a roadside tree. Sykes escapes, but Andy is left unconscious; note this is years before seatbelts.
Everyone shows up for Andy’s lecture in Berkeley, including Dr. Markheim, professors Avrum and Pritchard, Arnspiger and Helen, who has come with Martha from Los Angeles. Gledhill and Pacciano, who are following Martha are also there, but there is no Andy. Another speaker is called upon to lecture until Andy arrives about an hour and a half late. Despite having kept the audience waiting, they are receptive to Andy’s lecture.
Afterward, he quickly leaves to keep his appointment with Freddie; just moments before Pacciano gets word that the bloody scarf has been identified as Andy’s.
Andy makes his rendezvous with Freddie, but is once again taken for someone sent by the syndicate, Freddie tries to bribe Andy into letting him go. But when Andy asks about Catherine, Freddie is no longer afraid and starts to beat Andy up. But the police have been following Andy and soon show up on the scene. Freddie makes a run for it and gets caught on some train tracks where he is hit and killed by a train. Meanwhile, Andy manages to escape unnoticed.
Returning to Freddie’s house, he breaks in. In an upstairs bedroom, he finds Catherine very much alive, well and packing to go away with Freddie. When asked for an explanation, she tells Andy that the night she disappeared, Freddie, who had stolen Sykes’ share of the syndicate’s money, drag her away with him. As a way of getting back at Freddie, Sykes called the police and reported Catherine had been the victim of foul play.
|Andy finds Catherine alive and well in Freddie's house.|
While they’re driving back, Catherine makes another play for Andy. When he refuses to run away with her, she jumps out of the car and threatens to throw herself over a seaside cliff. Just as she is about to go over, Andy grabs her. At that moment, Gledhill and Pacciano drive up and see Catherine is safe in Andy’s arms.
Cleared, Andy starts to hurry to a hospital to get treatment, when Gledhill reveals that the rabies story was only a hoax.
The film ends with Andy laying the cornerstone for the new university, with his wife Helen looking on. But also in the crowd is a still affectionate Catherine who comes up on stage. As he backs away, Andy is about to take a false step into a batch of cement.
No real walk on the dark side here and not a totally satisfying film if you’re looking for a typical film noir We definitely have a femme fatale, Catherine, though she is a really damaged character. Married to one man, having an affair with another and putting the moves on a third. Still, she manages to manipulate Andy, though not with the results she had wanted, which itself is typical for how a lot of film noirs end up.
For the subject matter and tone of Take One False Step, William Powell is definitely the right choice. He rarely disappoints in any movie I’ve seen him in. Powell’s Hollywood career dates back to a silent Sherlock Holmes (1922). Powell’s first break came opposite Emil Jennings in The Last Command (1928). That film led to his first starring role as amateur detective Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case (1929) opposite Louise Brooks. While he played Vance in a series of films, he’s best known as Nick Charles in a series of Thin Man films at MGM, opposite Myrna Loy, with stops along the way as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Godfrey in My Man Godfrey (1936). His last film was the memorable Lt. Doc opposite Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts (1955).
Take One False Step comes towards the end of his career but it is obvious that he still has a screen presence. Still likable and watchable as an actor, he always seems ready to slip into Nick Charles, Andy just needs a few drinks to get there.
Shelley Winters may be best remembered as the heavyset actress she was in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), but she broke into films as the blonde bombshell type. After several films, in which she went uncredited, including Red River (1948), Winters began getting much-deserved credit in films such as Larceny (1948) and Winchester ’73 (1950). But Shelley was more than just a pretty face, which she proved in A Place in the Sun (1951), for which she was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy.
Take One False Step finds her somewhere in between serious actress and blonde bombshell. Catherine is not an easy character to play. She is depressed, alcoholic and generally lost. She sees Andy as the last steady man she loved and can’t get over the fact that their lives have gone in different directions. She might not want to get left behind, but she has been.
The other small roles are left in the capable hands of character actors like James Gleason, Sheldon Leonard, and Houseley Stevenson. While they’re all good in their roles, they are no really enough to save the film.
Generally, the film suffers from an over convoluted plot without much of a payoff. Reviews of the film at the time were not necessarily overflowing with adulation. Bosley Crowther, the film critic at The New York Times at the time, referred to the film as a “curiously mixed-up mystery picture” and worst of all “drab”. Not would be considered great word of mouth.
While Take One False Step might not satisfy your Film Noir hunger, it is not really a bad film. Not great, but maybe the passing of time has made it appear less drab than Crowther thought. If you’re a fan of William Powell’s then you will definitely want to see this film. But this isn’t the first film you should see if you want to learn what Film Noir is all about.
Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.
Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.