While perusing films that might be appropriate for #BNoirDetour, I stumbled across Wives Under Suspicion, directed by James Whale. I’d never heard of it, but the title seemed pretty noir. Also, I’ve seen very few of Whale’s productions and I love the tone and playfulness of Bride of Frankenstein, so why not give it a go. Sure, the film was released in 1938, but that’s at least potentially pre-noir.
The other element of the film that made me curious was the familiarity of the female lead’s name “Gail Patrick.” A quick trip to IMDb reminded me that I knew her work from two films: My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937). In both pictures, the beautiful brunette plays the antagonist of a more sympathetic blonde: the entitled, scheming sister (opposite Carole Lombard) in the former and a hardened gold-digger (opposite Ginger Rogers) in the latter. (I also learned that before Hollywood, Patrick was the 21-year-old Dean of women students at her alma mater Howard College, and she briefly studied law at the University of Alabama.)
Contemplating her beauty and talent for playing bad women, I began to ponder: Did Hollywood ever cast Patrick as a noir femme fatale? She seems to perfectly suited for it.
As I watched three films over the course of an afternoon (hooray for a day off work), I learned the answer is yes, but not in Wives Under Suspicion. The title makes sense but misleads in this tale of an overambitious district attorney and his neglected (if wealthy) wife. Warren William chews the scenery with aplomb as a character who determinedly prosecutes cases, always going for the death penalty. We’re told he used to be less obsessive, but now he gets positive joy out of sending murderers to the electric chair, so much so that he pursues the death penalty even when he catches hold of an unassuming, middle-aged professor who murdered his wife in a fit of jealousy (he was very sorry and barely remembered it, so it was played as sympathetic, as “temporary insanity” in the film; thank you 1930s). And this when he had promised his stuck-at-home wife a nice long vacation!
Gail Patrick plays his beautiful clothes horse of an upper-class wife neatly, though it’s a relatively thankless role. I groaned when she takes her husband back in the end. All it took for for the D.A.’s total change of heart was recognizing that he might have murdered his own wife in jealousy over a misperception (time spent with a male friend of the couple) — hence the film’s title.
More endearing in the supporting cast is Cecil Cunningham as “Sharpy,” the D.A.’s assistant. She’s obedient but unsympathetic to his excesses and delivers many a quip with a delicious bite. Also worthy of note is Lilian Yarbo as the family maid, “Creola.” While the role reveals typical Hollywood racism in that she is quite stupid, the character gets more lines and personality than such roles usually provide. It may be hard to laugh at the white-written self-effacing humor she spouts, but she has more lines than Cunningham and almost as much screen time as Patrick! (Typical is the scene in which she is listening to the radio while sipping a coke in her room as a way of improving her mind. While the humor is offensive, that we actually enter her room, full of pictures and other personal items, is quite unusual, as is the fact that Creola is the one who gets to tell her mistress that her husband has compromised on the death penalty for the professor, showing his reformation.)
The next film I screened was the earlier Murder with Pictures (1936). Its title has a similar noir ring, and it features Lew Ayres, an actor whose early work I love, especially in George Cukor’s Holiday (1938). The story here is a rather convoluted pursuit of a murderer that involves a gangster and a mysterious woman (Gail Patrick) who may or may not be his accomplice/moll. She is sophisticated and cool early in the film, offering hints of the femme fatale that I knew she could play. She and Ayres are surprisingly good together, with him as a newspaper photographer turned sleuth, full of the kind of wisecracks and trickery we’d come to see — if with less humor — in 1940’s private detectives. The happy ending of the film shows Patrick’s character to be innocent. Thus, I was again deprived of my goal to see the actress in high evil mode.
As with Wives Under Suspicion, the supporting cast also caught my eye, particularly the darkly handsome Onslow Stevens as the gangster. (I plan to investigate more of his film career soon.) Also on display is Joyce Compton as Ayres’ greedy former fiancée. She looked familiar, with her trademark platinum bangs, so I looked her up, only to discover she played Dixie Belle Lee (the “Gone with the Wind” girl) in The Awful Truth!
Finally, and after some effort (thank you rarefilmm.com), I screened 1942’s Quiet Please, Murder. The era is right for noir, as is the male lead: George Sanders. At last, success!
Despite misleading publicity materials (such as the poster above), Patrick plays not a victim but Sanders’ partner in crime. Sanders plays Jim Fleg, a forger who steals rare manuscripts and forges them, selling multiple copies and keeping the original for himself. Patrick, as Myra Blandy, acts as the legitimate-seeming broker, finding suckers and splitting the profit with Sanders. Although the actual plot — involving Nazi buyers and a shootout in the public library (hence the terrible title) — is definitely B material, Patrick’s Myra is a superbly icy femme fatale. She lies with a smile to absolutely everyone, including both her partner and Hal McByrne, the private detective she pays to protect her and claims to fall in love with — played with charm by Richard Denning of Mr. and Mrs. North (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) fame.
In an unusual early moment, Fleg admits to being a pathological criminal and includes Myra as a fellow spirit. “I belong to a strange breed. We find pleasure in fear and pain,” he states. “It’s a form of self-punishment.” With this in mind, we follow the paths of Fleg and especially Myra, watching to see if they will escape their fate, and whether they truly wish to.
To me, the most troubling facet of the film is its ending. I’m fine knowing Fleg will likely be executed for his crimes; after all, he’ll get the best test of all for his criminal masochism theory. And Hal does escape the clutches of Myra, which is as it should be, given that she’s earned prison time and would no doubt double-cross him again the first chance she got. But it’s unsatisfying for lovers of the femme fatale figure that Myra betrays herself by giving in to petty feelings of jealousy over Hal’s acquaintanceship with a young librarian whose boyfriend is at war overseas. I’ll forego spoiling the ending of the film, but suffice it to say it’s more chilling than I expected.
This ended my afternoon excursion and my quest for a Gail Patrick femme fatale. I’m happy to know she got the opportunity to use her looks, voice, and acting chops to play at least one, though I’d watch her in a dozen more.