Thursday, March 26, 2009
Ladies of the Noir - Pt 3 - Make Haste to Live (1954)
“Make Haste to Live” (1954) is our last entry in our look at a few film noir female protagonists. What makes this film interesting is it is more of a character study than just an action piece, unusual for film noir. However, this movie has a weak thread running through it partly because it never takes full advantage of exploring characterization, and partly because in those moments when action should take over, the plot wavers and pulls punches. This may be just another case of not knowing how far to push the envelope when the protagonist is a female. The 1950s is too early for Lifetime television.
The script seems to be the culprit. The direction gives us our moody shadows, our eerie setting of a lonely, windswept, isolated Southwestern town, and a man on the prowl who has just been released from prison.
Dorothy McGuire plays Crystal Benson, a woman who runs the local newspaper. She has a daughter on the verge of graduating high school, and a devoted boyfriend with a fascinating job superintending a local archeological dig in an ancient pueblo. He wants to marry her, but Miss McGuire keeps holding him off from marriage. McGuire has a deep, dark secret, and the day of reckoning has come.
This past coming back to haunt is classic film noir, where the protagonist is caught in a web of fate, but partly at fault through mistakes made. There is also a flashback sequence here, typical of noir, where we see how she got to the mess she is in today.
Before we get to the flashback, we see a nervous Miss McGuire on edge, walking through her house at night, listening anxiously for sounds of intrusion. We see her ask her friend the local sheriff, played with familiar Old West hombre charm by Edgar Buchanan, to borrow a handgun.
We see her give a sealed envelope full of money to her daughter’s boyfriend to keep in a safe and give to her daughter in case something happens to her. She gives no one reasons for what she is doing, and brushes off questions.
Then we see her sit before her reel-to-reel tape recorder and give us the answers as to why she’s done all this.
It’s an intriguing beginning to the film. The flashback is also handled well, as McGuire recounts to the tape recorder how, as a girl in Chicago, only a little older than her daughter is now and going by her real name then, which wasn’t Crystal Benson, she fell for a handsome rogue who she soon discovers is a hit man for a mob gang. Married, pregnant, and with no other family since the death of her mother, she suffers his possessiveness and physical abuse, until she finds her opportunity to escape.
She takes off on a cross-country bus ride to nowhere in particular, when she reads in the newspapers that her husband has been arrested for her murder. It seems a girlfriend he had on the side died in an accidental explosion from some stored weaponry in his house, and the authorities assumed it was McGuire who died because she knew too much. He is likely to be given the death sentence.
If this were a 1990s Lifetime TV-movie, she’d just thank her lucky stars and keep going. But it’s the 1950s, and moral ambiguity is a dicey thing for a female protagonist. Miss McGuire would love to see her husband sent to prison, but not to the electric chair for something he didn’t do. So, with the help of her pal, played by Carolyn Jones, she gets word back to the authorities that she’s alive. The death of the other woman is ruled as an accident, his charge is reduced to manslaughter, and he gets 20 years.
Now it’s 20 years later, and handsome Stephen McNally, who plays her vengeful husband, is on the loose and looking for her. McNally could have played heroes but Hollywood seemed to prefer to place him as the bad guy, at which he was equally adept. Villainy with a charming surface is sometimes more dangerous than a mere thug.
When he finds McGuire, rather than snuff her out, he takes the more subtle route by planting himself in her life, her home, and her community, telling everyone he is her long-lost brother. His method of terrorizing her is to keep right at her side, extort money from her, and ingratiate himself to her daughter, also his daughter. In effect, to take all the trappings of her life away from her and leave her without any semblance, any feeling of security. He cleverly asserts his old possessiveness.
In a way the movie is way ahead of its time as a film noir piece, using psychological terror as an expression of villainy rather than just the same old blackjack on the back of the skull.
Mr. McNally has, in his search for his runaway wife, done meticulous research on her. He has perceived correctly that she has told no one, not her daughter, nor her beau, about her past. Before his arrival on the scene, her excuse for this secretiveness would be of course to keep herself and her daughter safe. But now that the game is up and he’s found them, why not tell her boyfriend, her daughter, her pal the sheriff? Why not scream to the rooftops that this smooth-talking man who calls himself her brother is really her ex-con husband who keeps threatening to kill her?
Here is where the film, after an orderly start, seems to unravel. There is more that could be explored about Miss McGuire’s character that could keep the suspense in this story, that could provide logical impetus for her behavior. Instead, the film does not reach far enough into characterization, and seems to shy away from too much terrorizing of Dorothy McGuire.
There is a line in the flashback sequence that is simple but very evocative. McGuire returns to her deceased mother’s rented room to claim her mother’s things after the funeral, and her pal Carolyn Jones suggests McGuire leave the sad job to her.
McGuire refuses help, wanting instead to handle the disposition of her mother’s few belongings herself. She replies regretfully, “She had six kids, and I’m the only one of them that lived.”
It’s a line that does nothing to advance the plot, but it’s a great little trigger as to the kind of hard life McGuire has led, and the kind of person she is, with a sense of honor and a sense of perspective. Later on in the film we could use more of this kind of exploration, these kinds of hints as to what is happening with the character.
For instance, McGuire adopts the name “Crystal Benson” when she arrives in this remote Southwestern town to begin her life over. Why Crystal? Why not something less glamorous like Mary Jones or Jane Smith? How did she, a girl with barely a high school diploma and no work experience, come to become editor and publisher of a small town newspaper? How did she earn enough money in this depressed little town to own a two-story Victorian house? Where did the furnishings come from? Those antique portraits on the walls we see in the background as McGuire steps cautiously through her house at night, fearful of sounds -- who are they? Did she make up fake ancestors with fake names for her daughter’s benefit?
Her daughter, about to graduate from high school is played by Mary Murphy. She is a pleasant, restless, somewhat self-absorbed and empty-headed young woman just drifting along with a nice boyfriend who bores her. When she is told this visiting Stephen McNally is her uncle, she never questions this. Most teens would be annoyed that a secret had been kept from them. They would at least express surprise.
The daughter’s boyfriend, a likeable lug played by Ron Hagerthy, has a warm relationship with McGuire. How interesting that McGuire would trust this young man with her life savings in an envelope and not her own boyfriend, a man with greater sense and maturity, and resources at his disposal to help her.
Her boyfriend, played by John Howard, who you might remember as the stuffy George Kittredge in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), is also a likable chap, clearly devoted to McGuire. His role is like the typical supportive girlfriend/spouse in film noir where he doesn’t have much to do; he just rounds out the life of the protagonist.
The cat-and-mouse game she plays with McNally, which also involves a local murder pinned on an innocent man, comes to head when she tricks him into following her into the nearby pueblo ruins, where there is a bottomless pit.
There just aren’t enough movies with bottomless pits in them. I really like bottomless pits and sidewalk elevators. (See this post from last April.)
The ending, however, falls flat as the writers and producers resort to a kind of accident removing McGuire’s problem once and for all. She has an opportunity to kill her husband in self defense, but this is 1950s film noir with a female protagonist. Killing in self defense is still killing, still a repugnant act, at least if the protagonist is female. Though there may be perceived justice in the act, it still stains the virtue of the heroine. If McGuire’s role were being played by Gary Cooper, he would have killed seven or eight people by now and not lost his hero status.
Sinless, she runs back to the arms of her boyfriend, whom she is now presumably free to marry, and to her daughter. We may wonder if she ever tells them the truth about her past. We may wonder if she ever plays for them, or destroys, the tape recording she made telling of her past. It would have been a stronger movie if she had to confess or at least unburden herself to somebody other than us. Dorothy McGuire plays the role with her customary sensitivity and intelligence, and with her talent could have taken the character to a more edgy level, if only the script had not pulled punches.
McGuire never has to face her mistakes, not really. She just has to outrun them until the movie is over.