Friday, July 19, 2013

The File on Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordan

This is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon being run my friend, Aubyn, over at The Girl with the White Parasol. There are a LOT of writers blogging about Stanwyck this week, covering almost all of her major films and most of her minor ones, so check it out.

It's almost inevitable that Thelma Jordan, the femme fatale in the eponymous The File on Thelma Jordan (1950, directed by Robert Siodmak) must be compared to Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson. Both characters seduce a patsy in order to get away with murder. Both are played by the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck. The comparison is even useful to a point, in so far as it demonstrates the depth of Stanwyck's greatness as an actress because although they are both locked into similar narratives, Thelma Jordon and Phyllis Dietrichson are fundamentally different characters.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story in The File on Thelma Jordan finds sad sack prosecutor Cleve Mitchell drinking away the night as he hides from a troubled marriage. In walks Thelma Jordan, looking for Cleve's superior. She wants to report a prowler around her aunt's house, though in reality, she has ulterior motives. She takes a shine to Cleve, takes him to a bar, keeps him from driving drunk. They become lovers. Thelma has designs on her aunt's emeralds, so when her aunt turns up dead, Thelma is suspect number one.Cleve contrives to meddle with her prosecution, first by hiring Thelma's lawyer, then by arranging to have his boss disqualified so he can try the case. Unfortunately for Cleve, Thelma's thuggish ex, Tony, is lurking in the background, as is an investigator who smells something fishy in Thelma's ultimate acquittal...

By the time this film was made, director Robert Siodmak was beginning to chafe under the yoke of film noir. This was his next to last film in the idiom. Two years later, he would become one of the first European expatriates to return to Europe. I think you can see a certain bone-weariness on the part of the director in this film's lugubrious opening act. This is a film that takes some sitting through before it reveals its pleasures, and it's never as outright expressionistic as Siodmak's signature work in The Killers or The Spiral Staircase. The visuals in this part of the film are generally flat. Reportorial, even. This ambivalence spreads a bit to the film's central relationship between Thelma and Cleve, though some of this comes from the fact that Cleve is drunk for most of the film's first half hour. This strains the credibility a bit at the outset: what does Thelma see in Cleve? The rest of the film reveals that she sees a patsy. Wendell Corey was good at sad sacks, so this role was ideal for him. He's almost too successful.

The scenes of Cleve's home life are more successful than the main plot. This film is an early melodrama in which the post-war life of home and family is seen as a kind of trap a la Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray. This is a bit more subdued than either of those filmmakers, but the payoff is equally bitter. At the end of the film, once all is said and done, Cleve is exiled from house and home and a middle class life and he walks off into an uncertain future. He doesn't tumble all the way to the bottom, as some film noir heroes do--Cleve's moral transgressions are relatively mild, after all--but it's a steep fall none the less in the parlance of the dawning affluence of 1950s America, one that conflates economic and social annihilation with personal annihilation.

The film' comes alive in the second half, once the central crime has been committed and the cat and mouse game begins. The courtroom scenes find Siodmak dusting off his dormant visual flair, though these are entirely too brief. There's a profoundly weird scene near the end, in which the murmuring of Thelma's fellow inmates sounds like some kind of ghostly chorus as she's led to the courtroom for the verdict. The end of the movie deserves to be discovered on its own, but its a bravura piece of filmmaking. This may have been a mercenary job for Siodmak, but he was a consummate professional.

For some reason, this film reminds me a bit of Ayn Rand's play, The Night of January 16th, in which the author puts one of her amoral supermen--in this case, a superwoman--on trial for murder. The conceit of the play was that it would select its jury from the members of the audience. It had two endings that depended on the verdict. The ending that exonerates its heroine is a vindication of the exceptionalism of the wealthy and the self-interested. She's a LOT like Phyllis Dietrichson and Thelma Jordan, actually. Stanwyck, a lifelong conservative, was an admirer of Rand, so she undoubtedly knew the play. I wonder if it informed her choices to take on roles like this, or, indeed, if it informed the way she played them. Certainly, there's not another major star who took on so many morally repugnant characters, from her pre-Code films onward, all of whom are unapologetic radical individualists of one kind or another.

It's in the ending of the film that the difference between Thelma Jordan and Phyllis Dietrichson is most strongly manifested. Phyllis never loves Walter Neff. She's such a monster that she's likely incapable of love. Thelma, by contrast, falls for Cleve and it's her undoing. She gets away with everything in a way that Phyllis does not, but she can't let go of her feelings for Cleve once Tony comes to collect her. It destroys her. And Stanwyck sells it. Her final scene is a stark contrast to the imperious woman at the beginning of the film, which is quite a transformation. The transformation from the reptillian Phyllis Dietrichson is even more remarkable. There's a wink toward this in the photograph of Thelma's wilder days, in which she's done up in the same kind of blond hair as Phyllis. By 1950, Stanwyck was 46 and shading her career toward character parts. Certainly, fifties fashions have the unfortunate effect of rendering her more matronly than seductive. She's still handsome (she remained handsome until her death), but she's not the same kind of man trap one finds in her films even five years earlier. Not that it matters, of course, because the steel in her spine and the force of her personality more than make-up for this. Cleve is weak. Thelma is strong. Cleve's wife is weak (and under the thumb of Cleve's in-laws). He's attracted to Thelma's strength. This is entirely consistent with both his character and Stanwyck's performance. An even starker contrast can be seen between this film and the other three films Stanwyck made in 1950. In No Man of Her Own, her character is weak and gets caught in a similar noir riptide. It places her opposite stronger characters in John Lund and Jane Cowl. In The Furies, she replicates both her character arc from The File on Thelma Jordan, and her co-star, Wendell Corey. In this configuration, she's another strong character opposite a weak one. In To Please A Lady, she's a strong character facing off against another strong character in Clark Gable's race car driver. In that film, she allows herself to be seduced by that strength. Stanwyck's portfolio from this year alone is demonstrative of her range, and she moves from strength to strength, though the full breadth of her range would never be tested again during the rest of her career. There are no comedies on her resume after the early 1940s, which is a shame.

The File on Thelma Jordan is too good a film to justify its neglect, especially given the relative rise of Robert Siodmak's critical reputation as a film noir stylist over the years. Stanwyck (wrongly) isn't one of the iconic movie stars in the way Bette Davis or Marylin Monroe are, so too many of her films are languishing. This shouldn't be one of those, but it was never on VHS and it only came out on DVD in 2013. Before that, you had to settle for dupes on the grey market or hope to catch it at a film noir festival. It has only infrequently been shown on television over the years. Still, it's available if you want it. I found it on YouTube:


Laura said...

I recently saw The Spiral Staircase for the first time and was definitely taken with it. Siodmak intrigues me, though he certainly strikes me as the type who could easily make a misstep in style if he isn't careful.

This movie sounds like a treat. I'm all for a strong, mysterious female character who has more depth than the usual one-note, treacherous femme fatale. I mean, those types are fun, but it's nice when a character can surprise us.

Wonderful tribute to Stanwyck!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I think a lot of the things that are wrong with Siodmak's lesser movies were out of his control. Perils of working as a studio director, I guess. Certainly, it's not his fault that he was saddled with Lon Chaney, Jr. for Son of Dracula. That movie is otherwise really good.

The Spiral Staircase is one of my favorite movies, actually. I love, love, love Dorothy Maguire in that film.

Silver Screenings said...

I've seen part of this movie, and I never knew the name. Thanks to you, I can keep an eye out and watch it from beginning to end. :)

Even though I haven't seen most of this film, I liked your careful analysis.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Silver,

Thanks for stopping by. Nice blog you have over at your place.

And glad I could be of help.

Caftan Woman said...

The ending packs such a punch that you can overlook any lag time during "The File on Thelma Jordan". Heck, we can overlook anything if they give us Stanwyck.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, CW.

Not just Stanwyck, but Stanwyck at her peak. She's really the reason to see this movie.

Aubyn said...

I remember watching this one coming fresh off the high of great Siodmack classics like The Killers, Criss Cross, and The Spiral Staircase. Unfortunately, the version I saw was in rather shaky condition and as you point out, the movie doesn't have the bravura visuals of other Siodmacks. Still, even if I didn't fall in love with Thelma, I had a good time and most of it is due to Stanwyck, who does a masterful job at filling in the blanks with a rather ambiguous character. Thelma's an interesting halfway point between the white-hot sensuality of a Phylllis Dietrichson and the dignified older women that Stanwyck would go on to play. I don't find Wendell Corey nearly as sympathetic an actor as Fred MacMurray but it doesn't hurt the film too much.

I hope your great review will encourage more people to check this one out. It's a minor pleasure but well worth a look. Thanks for joining the blogathon, Vulnavia!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I wouldn't have missed it for the world.