In The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, founding noir critic Foster Hirsch opines that good noir is ruined when it becomes political and tries to bear a specific social message. Darkness, anxiety, corruption, crime, and inexorable fate are noir’s territory, and when pictures attempt to teach a lesson rather than more broadly plumbing the underside of the American Dream, they falter or fail outright. Some films overcome the burden, such as No Way Out (1950), which meshes crime with racial tensions and comes out a rather unique social message noir, especially thanks to the acting chops of Sydney Poitier, Richard Widmark, and Linda Darnell. For a more typical example: I love Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), but I’d love it even more without the Cold War crap. By comparison with these films, Allotment Wives (1945), a B picture from Monogram released in a strong year for early noir, offers a textbook example of the validity of Hirsch’s claim — of what not to do with noir.
There are facets of Allotment Wives that I do like. For one, I’m a Kay Francis fan. I find her irresistable to watch. I love her crescent eyes and thick dark hair, the way she moves and her elegance in gowns that hug her lovely slender figure. The woman is an utter clotheshorse, and Allotment Wives features some gorgeous costumes for its women, courtesy of costume designer Lorraine MacLean and Francis’s gown creator Odette Myrtil. (I believe there is even a hat designer for Francis’s headware named on screen but not on IMDb.)
Sadly, ladies wear is the only technical praise I can offer this picture. It lacks style, noir or otherwise. William Nigh — perhaps best known for the Mr. Wong films starring Boris Karloff in yellowface — offers lackluster direction, and just-adequate cinematography is provided by Harry Neumann, prolific director of photography for many a Western and such low-grade fare as the Mickey Spillane picture My Gun is Quick (1957) and his final film, Wasp Woman (1959).
Francis is actually the producer of the picture as well as its star. Her career was sadly flagging by the 1940s after prolific stardom in the 30s. I hate that she is barely remembered today compared to fellow celebrities of the era. The actress does give her best efforts to the role of Sheila Seymour, a wealthy, calculating syndicate boss. The rather thin and superficial plot involves a scheme to post young women at Sheila’s well-funded “canteen” for servicemen. These women seduce the soldiers, marry them, and receive allotments from their pay — from which Sheila takes a healthy cut, no doubt. The funds are particularly ample because each woman marries as many men as she can. To explain this crime, the film begins with a stiff voiceover decrying this plague on the nation, adding to the lack of subtlety and detail in this ever-so B movie. After the intro, we meet our “hero,” Colonel Pete Martin (Paul Kelly), who is sent undercover as a journalist to discover the identity of the leader and bust up the allotment wives ring. The dialogue is stiff and Kelly lacks either the toughness or the charisma I’d like to have seen in this main male character and Francis’s foil. He’s far more compelling in his much smaller role in Crossfire (1947) as “The Man” opposite Gloria Grahame‘s Ginny, for example.
The film attempts to deepen Sheila’s character through inclusion of her 16-year-old daughter, Connie (Teala Loring), whom Sheila has sent away to boarding school. She doesn’t want Connie to know what she does to earn the big bucks. The film adds melodrama to the mix when it drags out the idea of inherited personality traits. Even though she’s been kept out of sight, Connie, we find, is running away from school to drink with soldiers and sailors without telling them her age. Apparently, that’s just what Sheila did when young, and it plagues her.
As Pete gets closer to solving the case, we learn that Sheila’s ultimate wish is to save her daughter from her own fate. Rather unconvincingly shifting from hard-boiled gangster-meets-femme fatale to self-sacrificing mother, Sheila gets the protective Deacon Sam (Selmer Jackson) to promise that if she dies, he will lie to Connie and tell her she’s adopted. That this would have any impact on Connie’s behavior seems preposterous to me, but it is the focus of the final moments of the film when Pete and his government boss agree that no one should ever tell Connie the truth. Before those last moments, however, we see Sheila shot while standing on her elegant staircase. Tragedy turns to unintentional absurdity when her final line is “Good shot” before she falls, draped over the staircase.
Before concluding, I do want to note one other character who lent the film, and Sheila’s character, a bit of complication. Whitey Colton (Otto Kruger) is Sheila’s right-hand man. He clearly loves her, and she kisses him once, but he is clearly not her partner, nor is he treated as such. Sheila barks orders and rarely takes his advice. She agrees that he has never failed her, but he also never attempts to gain power over her. It’s an unusual role, and their relationship is the closest thing to compelling in the picture, in my opinion. He’s the crook with a heart of gold (a role more usually given to young women), and Sheila does appreciate him, as much as her pride and need for power allow. It’s not a passionate relationship, mostly father/daughter, and yet it’s not as simple as that, which I like.
While I can’t ultimately recommend the film as serious noir, it’s also not as campy as it should be to truly enjoy as parody, Nonetheless, it’s Kay Francis‘s swan song, and for me it was worth seeing for that.