Saturday, July 4, 2015

Stubs - They Won't Believe Me

They Won’t Believe Me (1947) Starring: Robert Young, Susan Hayward, Jane Greer. Rita Johnson, Tom Powers Directed by Irving Pachel. Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer. Produced by Joan Harrison. U.S.A. 95 minutes. Black and White. Film Noir, Drama

Robert Young is best remembered for his roles on TV as Jim Anderson, the patriarch of Father Knows Best (1954-60), and as the kindly Dr. Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-76). But before that he was a movie star, appearing in more than 100 films from 1931 to 1952. Under contract to MGM at the beginning of his career, he appeared mostly in “B” pictures or programmers, few of which are talked about much anymore. During that time, he did appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) on loan to Gaumont and in Mortal Storm (1940), one of the first anti-Nazi films.

After the end of his tenure at MGM, Young worked at various studios, including RKO, where he made such films as The Enchanted Cottage (1945), Crossfire (1947) and our film, They Won’t Believe Me. While in my review of Pitfall (1948), I commented how similar Jane Wyatt’s role as Sue in that film was to Margaret in Father Knows Best, in They Won’t Believe Me, Young plays Larry Ballentine, who is just the opposite of the warm family man Jim Anderson was in that series.

When the film opens Ballentine is on trial for murder. After admitting how convincing the prosecution’s witnesses have been, his attorney (Frank Ferguson) puts Larry on the stand to tell his side of the story. And in typical film noir fashion, the story is told as a flashback.

The film starts, where else, but a court of law.

Of course, the story starts months if not years before the actual events of the crime, back to a time when married Larry was meeting Janice Bell (Jane Greer) on Saturday afternoons. While they are talking fishing boats, they found they shared a passion for fishing at a previous cocktail party, they discover that they are really very much in love.

Larry (Robert Young) recounts his own story to the jury
at the direction of his defense attorney (Frank Ferguson).

This comes to light when Larry buys Janice a new cigarette case, since hers is broken, but has to cough it up to his wife, Greta (Rita Johnson), when he walks into their Fifth Anniversary celebration already in progress. When no one expects him to have a present for his wife, he presents her with the gold cigarette case he had intended for Janice.

When Janice later sees Greta with it, she realizes how jealous she is and wants to break things off. She has accepted a transfer to the Montreal office of the news organization she writes for, but Larry begs her not to go. He tells her that things between him and Janice have been bad for too long. With his wife supposed to be away, Larry packs a suitcase with the thought of meeting Janice on the train to Canada and their new life together.

Janice (Jane Greer) realizes that she has feelings for Larry and tries to end their relationship.

But Greta intercepts the ticket when it’s delivered, even paying for it. She helps him pack; not wanting her soon to be ex’s clothes to get too wrinkled. While she’s helping him, she tells him that she had intended to surprise him with other news: she had rented them a house in Los Angeles and bought him a half interest in a brokerage firm, so that he could be a partner. Greta tells him that she wants to save their marriage, but the final decision is up to him.

Greta (Rita Johnson) calls Larry's bluff and even helps him pack for his trip to join Janice in Montreal.

Next we see Larry, he’s on a train, but it is with Greta rather than Janice, having taken the money over love.

After about six months at the brokerage firm, Larry has taken notice of a very comely employee, Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward), but at first he does nothing. One day, Larry is about to be reprimanded by his business partner, Trenton (Tom Powers), for his inattention to the needs of one the firms’ bigger clients, when Verna brings in the letter, which she had written, that Larry had sent to the client with the sort of advice Trenton had wanted him to provide.

Verna (Susan Hayward) saves Larry's job by her quick thinking.

When he asks why, Verna said she’d overheard Trenton and the client and had rushed the letter to him that day and did it to be nice. Verna, who is rumored to be romantically linked to Trenton, overtly flirts with Larry, but he had first resists. She tells him that she can repay him with a ride home some night after work and he agrees to when Trenton is too busy to accommodate.

One night after work, Verna is waiting in Larry’s car, wanting that ride home that night. She tells him that she lives near where he does and when they get to her apartment, she invites him for a drink. After one martini, Larry says he should be getting home to his wife, but when he calls home, the maid tells him that his wife is out at a social event, which Verna admits to knowing about.

Dinner out that night leads to more, with Larry even running into Janice, who has transferred to the West Coast office. Larry had never told her what happened that night months ago, but she had learned from Greta about their reconciliation.

Late nights become early mornings, until one day when Larry gets home, Greta is sitting up waiting for him. She tells him that she’s sold back his share of the brokerage firm and that she’s bought a ranch and is moving there. Larry can either start over with his tramp girlfriend or go with her. Once again, given the choice between love and money, Larry chooses money.

Greta buys a remote ranch for her and Larry to live in.

The ranch is remote and Greta has made sure to have the phone line removed. They are alone with no crew to manage the ranch. After months of this, Larry grows bored. When Greta suggests building a guest house for one of her relatives, Larry jumps at the chance to go to Los Angeles to talk to an architect he knows there. He runs off to the nearest phone, at the general store, to make calls. One is to Verna, who is not thrilled to hear from him. But he gives her a time and place to meet, not knowing if she’ll show.

On a rare trip to Los Angeles, Larry tries to reconcile with Verna.

She’s late, but she does show. An admitted gold-digger, Verna is only interested in money. Larry is adamant though about running away with her and as a show of good faith writes a check out his joint account with Greta for $25,000, which he give to Verna to cash. The plan is to cash the check the following Monday and then catch the Reno bus which will travel through town.

On the appointed day, Larry leaves a note for Greta and then goes to meet Verna at the General Store where the bus stops. When she doesn’t get off the bus, Larry starts to panic. But there were two buses that day and she caught the second. One more surprise for Larry, she did not cash the check, a sign that she loves him and not the money. Larry tears it up. Verna has also bought a cheap ring so they can say they’re married.

Along the way, Larry decides to go for a swim. Reluctant and wanting to get on with their plans, Verna at first refuses, but then goes along. They turn out to have a good time, but don’t leave for Reno until it's night.

Larry and Verna go for a swim on their way to Reno.

Their happiness is short-lived however, as a truck headed in the opposite direction blows a tire and then swerves into their lane. In the wreck, their car flips over and catches fire. The truckers fine Larry, who has been thrown from the car, but it is too late for Verna.

When Larry recovers consciousness in the hospital, he hears people speak of the woman who was burned beyond recognition. The wedding ring makes them believe she is his wife, Greta, and Larry does not correct the mistake.

Now with Greta supposed to already be dead, Larry returns to the ranch house with a gun and the intention of killing her and collecting the money. He researches the house, but he can’t find her. He goes to her favorite place on the ranch, a hidden cove at the bottom of a waterfall. At the top of the cliff, he finds the note he’d written her and her lifeless body down below. Since she is already dead, Larry dumps her lifeless body in the river.

Larry takes a tour of South America and the Caribbean to try to cheer himself up, but he is still depressed when he arrives in Jamaica. There, he runs into Janice. Free from commitments, he persuades her into reconciliation and they return together to Los Angeles.

It is not until he sees Trenton go into her apartment and eavesdrops through the open window that he finds out Janice had not forgiven him. In fact, she’s working with Trenton, who has become concerned about Verna's disappearance.

With enough evidence, Trenton calls the police. Lieutenant Carr (George Tyne) obtains a search warrant and the police go to the ranch. There they come across Greta's body in the river, but assume that it is Verna.

A witness, the owner of the General Store (Don Beddoe), remembers Larry and Verna driving away together, which was the last time anyone saw her. With the theory that she was blackmailing Larry over the affair and he thus killed her, Larry is arrested for Verna’s murder.

While the jury is out deliberating, Janice, who is back in love with him, visits Larry in jail. He tells her that listening to his own story, he realizes the lives he’s destroyed and that he has already passed judgment on himself.

Back in court, Larry tries to read the eyes of the jurors and figures that things will go against him. Just before the jury's verdict is read, he makes a rush to an open window, with the idea of jumping to his death. But one of the officers in the court shoots and kills him before he makes it out.

Trying to bring the court back into order, the judge instructs the bailiff to finish reading the verdict to make things official. Surprise, he’s not guilty.

There are elements of They Won’t Believe Me that seem to be tried and true for the genre. For example, if the ending sounds familiar it’s because it seems an awful lot like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with the couple swimming, their last happy moments together before a fatal car wreck and the man being not guilty of the crime he's charged with, etc. A similar flashback was also done in Nora Prentiss (1947) and again he wasn’t guilty of that murder either. The twist here was that Larry was believed despite the convoluted story he told. It should come as no surprise to anyone that it was a Los Angeles jury that found him not guilty.

While I’ve read several reviews saying that Robert Young managed to make Larry likable, I would have to disagree. He is spineless throughout most of the film. His decision to commit suicide is often called the coward’s way out and that’s what he is. Somehow, he manages to attract two gorgeous women to fall in love with him, but he is too afraid to go through with actually leaving his wife. He always goes back to her, not out of love, but out of greed and fear.

When he does actually plan to kill Greta, not only is she already assumed dead, she already is dead, having kiled herself. The only other action Larry takes is to kill himself and once again he fails to do that.

There is not much to like about Larry, which says something positive about Young’s performance. Larry should not be a likable guy for the way he lives and Young brings that out.

I like Verna’s character and Susan Hayward’s portrayal very much. Beautiful and talented, Hayward would receive an Academy Awards nomination, not for this film, but for another part she played in 1947, Angie Evans, in Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman. The first of five nominations, she would finally win Best Actress for her performance as Barbara Graham in I Want to Live (1958).

Jane Greer seems to play a similar role as she did in Out of the Past (1947); sultry, she is a woman to die for in both films. In this film, though, she’s got a little more going for her. Just when you doubt Janice’s character, for falling back in with Larry, you learn that she’s out to get him. And isn’t that really what a femme fatale should do? It’s a little disappointing that she would actually fall back in love with him, but that’s more a weakness of the story than Greer’s acting.

I have had the opportunity to see They Won’t Believe Me, twice. The first time was when I was the teaching assistant to Rick Jewell’s class about RKO at USC and most recently on TCM’s Summer of Darkness.

My appreciation of the film has increased in the XX years in between viewings (XX means don’t ask). This is a must see, not so much because of it is such a great film noir, but because it does show a range in acting for Robert Young that you might not think was there. While I might not like his character, he is still very watchable in the role, sort of like Zachary Scott in Danger Signal and Mildred Pierce. You don’t have to like the male lead to like the movie.

Not the best film noir, it is still one worth watching and I would recommend it if you have never seen it.

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

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