“Maybe I’m just a dame and didn’t know it.” Okay, okay, let’s just get that line out of the way right now so we can discuss “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1950). I recall Walter Matthau’s quoting that line during what I think was the AFI Tribute to Barbara Stanwyck back in 1987 (why don’t they ever show those things again?), to which he said something about being surprised Wendell Corey could have that affect on a woman.
We spend the first half of the film believing Miss Stanwyck is not just a dame, and the second half of the film not really sure, and the last bit of it knowing for sure, but still fascinated that that’s not all she is. The film noir master Robert Siodmak directed this interesting, if at times uneven story with interesting and off balance characters. Barbara Stanwyck plays the protective niece of the town rich lady, who comes to the police station to report attempted robberies. She mistakes assistant DA Wendell Corey for the police inspector, and begins a relationship with him that is the core of the film and the engine of the plot.
Mr. Corey begins the film drunk, resentfully unburdening himself to his pal the inspector about his overbearing father-in-law and his wife being a daddy’s girl. He suggests that his father-in-law, a retired judge, even got him his job with the DA’s office. He is trapped and humiliated by his family ties, which we need to remember if only to keep ourselves from writing off his character as a self-pitying jerk, a bad husband and father, whose neglect of his mousey wife borders on cruelty, and who flirts with the first woman he meets. His pal calls him a dog, and so far we have no reason to doubt it.
The charwoman who silently screws up her face in annoyance at Corey, who keeps her from doing her work, is Mary Gordon, a character actor in close to 300 films, many of them charwomen and landladies. Her eloquent look of disgust is priceless. She has no lines; she doesn’t need any. You many remember her from several “Sherlock Holmes” movies where she played Mrs. Hudson.
All Miss Stanwyck says is “Excuse me” in a doorway and her entrance is stunning, demonstrating her remarkable command of the screen. Her character is likeable and sassy, deflecting his flirtations in a non-judgmental and deft, even comic manner. Their first scene together, because Corey is such a cute and funny drunk, might make us think we are in the early stages of a romantic comedy, not usually how film noir starts out.
He is a playful pest, and to get rid of him, she agrees to have a drink with him, which later results in some front seat passion in her big old sedan with the wood trim and elaborate luggage rack on top, and the famous line about not knowing she was just a dame.
It’s only 1950, but we are worlds away from her Ann Mitchell character discussed last week in “Meet John Doe,” who likewise is sassy and affable and hard as nails with few illusions, willing to cheat a little to get what she wants. Ann has ideals and struggles through the course of the movie to find them again. Comparisons are usually made to the Phyllis Dietrichson character in “Double Indemnity,” but Phyllis leaves us no doubt from the very beginning of the film that she is as evil as the day is long. Her role as Thelma Jordon is really in between these two other types, but what is intriguing is that at first we really don’t know what she is. Her line delivery is cleverly ambiguous.
Wendell Corey is comparable to the Fred MacMurray character in “Double Indemnity” in that they are both as much willing accomplices as dupes in the intrigue to come, and both risk a great deal, but Corey’s character also walks a line between victim and victimizer. MacMurray is careening towards trouble from the beginning of the film, but Corey perhaps not so. He does not seem as easily taken in. Maybe because he doesn’t really know what he wants. His vacillating in his personal life makes us undecided as to whether to believe him.
But this is 1950, we are out of the 1940s, out of the era of easily identifiable good people and bad people, and this is one of the sublime aspects of film noir: everybody’s got a little of both in them.
The next morning, Miss Stanwyck parks in front of Corey’s office in her wood-paneled family car with an enormous sheep dog sharing the front seat, charming and friendly, though we recognize that she is now chasing Corey. His greeting is typical morning after hangover awkward embarrassment. With grace and good humor, she senses his discomfort and lets him off the hook, “My crystal ball was right. You’re married.” But it is said without bitterness or challenge, seemingly willing to let their kissing the night before just be one of those things.
Setting him free is what makes him her slave. His wife takes the kids to shore for the summer, and Corey takes Stanwyck out for drinks and the story of her life. She relates a pathetic job history of being a hotel hostess, with self-depreciating humor but with a tinge of sadness about always being “on the outside looking in.” Weeks pass, their affair continues, yet they continue to be the two most unhappy people in town, ducking in dark shadows to avoid being seen. When Tony shows up, a domineering man from her past, her coolness towards him does not tip us off that they may be partners in crime, only that a thug has her in his power. She confesses to Corey she was once married, which, though he is married himself, makes him shocked and jealous.
When her old aunt, with whom she has a brief homey, cute scene reading aloud to her in a very loud voice, is murdered, the plot is stepped up, and the two characters seem also to solidify rather than to unravel. Stanwyck calls Corey to the aunt’s mansion because she has found the body, and in a fast-paced and rather madcap scene, he tries to undo the damage she did by messing with the crime scene, barking at her to put back her fingerprints where she has rubbed them off. The more tampering they do with the crime scene, the more they mess it up and finally are interrupted by the butler, who sees a man (who happens to be Corey) running from the house.
Corey’s wife confronts him about having an affair, and he appears annoyed but without guilt, cold even in the face of her begging him not to leave when he is summoned by the police to the crime scene.
Stanwyck is accused of the murder. We begin to see another face of Stanwyck’s character when she begs Corey to protect her. More responsive to Stanwyck than to his wife, he pays for her defense, and by turn of events, becomes the prosecuting attorney.
Stanwyck’s own attorney is crafty and indifferent to her innocence or guilt, “I don’t want to know. That’s how I work.”
While Wendell Corey shows us an example of how to throw a trial on purpose, Miss Stanwyck refuses to tell who the unknown man was running from the house, Mr. X. They cover for each other, but Corey believes in her innocence, or at least like her attorney, he doesn’t want to know. He manipulates the jury, and but we are never sure if Stanwyck is manipulating him, so subtle is her performance.
There is an unusual procession when the jury returns from deliberation, where Stanwyck is brought from the adjacent jail to the courthouse for the verdict. She leads the way down the halls, down stairs, outside, across the street with a policewoman behind her, a couple of male cops. No handcuffs, no prison jumpsuit; she leads like a queen. The journalists and public throng the sidewalks, and finally she is joined by her attorney who escorts her, like a prince consort, into the courtroom.
Found innocent, we see her next packing in the mansion, with the thug Tony back because she has inherited auntie’s money. It is not until the very end of the film we learn for certain that she is part of a scam, but by now she has also really fallen in love with Corey, and so confesses this all to him freely when he arrives at the mansion, that he was the fall guy.
“You must have known,” she tells him, “You didn’t want to know.”
He didn’t want to know. Except for his brilliant and energetic manipulation of the trial to get her free, his main sin has been one of apathy, over the truth, over his marriage, over his career.
Stanwyck, hardly apathetic, shows us what not to do with a dashboard cigarette lighter, which apparently in the wrong hands is even more dangerous in traffic accidents than the use of cell phones. But such a shadowy, subtle film evidently is not allowed to merely end with a shadowy, subtle ending. The standard-issue deathbed confession (where, despite being in a car wreck, Miss Stanwyck looks as if she’s just been made up by Wally Westmore), brings the film down to a slushy tearjerker. Stanwyck bitterly complains of the good and the bad always struggling within her, and wonders on her hospital gurney, “You don’t suppose they could just let half of me die?”
And Corey, his career in law over, his marriage over, walks away better off than Fred MacMurray. Had her character lived, one may believe Stanwyck might have changed her life. One senses Corey’s character will not.
“The File on Thelma Jordon” will be shown this weekend on TCM, so here’s a chance to have a look if you’ve not yet seen it.