This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Otto Preminger was one of the film noir directors who really pushed the envelope in terms of the sort of content they would include in their movies, offering an important alternative to the bowlderised, homogenised, unthreatening fare demanded by the MPAA Production Code’s de facto censorship. In recognition of his accomplishments, the BFI have put out a slim blu-ray set of some of his greatest works. Two of these are noir classics; one is a weird little misstep held together only by the strength of one of the actors’ performances.
Eric Stanton (played by Hollywood legend and regular Preminger collaborator Dana Andrews) is an utter sleazeball – a short con artist who we first meet as he makes an unplanned stop on his trip from LA to San Francisco at the small seaside town of Walton. There he spots the work of two con artists of a different stripe – Professor Madley (John Carradine), a spiritualist medium and charlatan, and his assistant – and Stanton manages to use his smooth-talking ways to turn around their flagging ticket sales and ensure that the local auditorium is packed for their show. In the meantime, he’s started to fall for Stella (Linda Darnell), a local waitress who it’s heavily implied is working on the side as a prostitute.
Having heard tell during the seance of local heiress Clara Mills (Anne Revere) holding onto some $12,000 in bearer bonds, and infatuated with Stella – in a nasty, stalkery, grabby, boundary-violating sort of way (which to my eye the film acknowledges as being not cool) – Stanton hits on a plan: charm Clara’s sister June (Alice Faye), get close to her, grab those bonds, and skip town with Stella. Stella doesn’t quite agree to go along with this so much as she fails to overtly and unambiguously reject it; she’s more annoyed with the way Stanton insists on her not doing any sex work whilst he’s working the con – or the way he marries June as part of the scam.
Stanton and Stella argue – with Carol overhearing – and then Stella shows up dead. Stanton’s a natural fit for the crime, and local snoop Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), a retired New York cop, knows it all too well. But if Stanton wasn’t responsible, who is? And can he persuade anyone of his innocence when he’s been such a colossal arse to everyone?