Monday, March 23, 2009

Ladies of the Noir - Pt 2 - Shadow on the Wall (1950)


“Shadow on the Wall” (1950) is one of the more unusual examples of film noir in that the hero, the villain, and the victim are all played by females in an era and a genre when a gritty story of intrigue and adventure was mostly told through a male protagonist.

The male protagonist in this story is played by Zachary Scott in a lesser role, but at the same time a very pivotal role. Though he spends a good part of the movie in jail waiting for judgment, he is not relegated to being inconsequential. He is very much a key player, but his fate depends upon the actions of the females.

Scott is married for the second time to a two-timing woman we get rid of early in the film. Or, I should say, Ann Sothern gets rid of her. Miss Sothern’s role here is a bit different than her role in “The Blue Gardenia”. There she was typically wisecracking, but here she is more subdued and goes through an interesting transformation. Ann Sothern, with affable if brutal honesty, never thought of herself as a good actress and said as much, but this film gives her a bit more to do than be flippant. She makes a convincing baddie.

Here Miss Sothern is the less glamorous sister of Zachary Scott’s two-timing wife. She begins the film as a likable sister-in-law, and a bit anxious to keep her suave fiancé’s attention. Too late. Her fiancé is having an affair with Mr. Scott’s two-timing wife. Miss Sothern is crushed, once again the victim of her more beautiful sister’s popularity and lack of integrity.

Zachary Scott has just returned home from a trip, and he discovers his wife’s infidelity. Initially stunned, he decides to hold off confronting her until all the guilty parties and injured parties can be together in the same room. In the meantime, he listens to his wife’s lies about where she was all afternoon, and maintains self control even while steam is coming from his ears. He has some souvenirs from the war given to him by a friend he visited. There is a gun among them, which clues us into a future scene of violence.

Barbara Billingsley, The Beaver’s mom, has a brief role as Olga, their maid. I don’t really see her as an “Olga”, but it’s always nice to have the ever-chipper Miss Billingsley drop by.


Young Gigi Perreau plays Scott’s little girl by his first marriage. We see that he has an affectionate relationship with the engaging child. There is a cute scene where she brings in the neighbor boy to watch her father shave, because her pal doesn’t have a daddy and being a boy, he needs to know how to shave. Mr. Scott agreeably conducts a shaving demonstration for the kids.

Because we see that Scott is a nice guy, likes kids, takes over the chore of bathing his daughter, keeps his cool about his two-timing wife, and looks good in a sleeveless undershirt, we form a strong impression of his decency, his intelligence, and his virility early in the film. This is important, because he soon gets hauled off to prison and we could easily forget about him if he were a more dishwater character. But when the action gets going with the trio of females, we never forget about Scott.

It’s kind of like when we watch an old melodrama where the hero and the villain are slugging it out, and somewhere there’s a girl tied up to railroad tracks and the train is coming. We may be watching the fistfight, but in the back of our minds is the girl. And the train. So it is with Mr. Scott. And the electric chair.

There is a confrontation between husband and wife about the infidelity. There is some pushing, the gun gets used, and the husband gets clunked on the head. When he comes to, his wife had been shot dead. He believes he did it, though he does not remember.

The child enters the room as this happens, and when her father is taken to jail, she is remanded to a hospital to treat her psychological trauma. The child has emotionally closed down, and it is up to the doctor, played by Nancy Davis, to help her face the terror she has experienced.


Nancy Davis, the future First Lady as the wife of Ronald Regan, plays her role with an attitude of unemotional professionalism that seems appropriate and rather refreshing. It was, of course, typical for Hollywood heroines to be self-sacrificing and emotional, but here she plays a heroine who really is neither. She is passionate only for the detail of science, and helps the little girl because that is her job, and not for her a particularly womanly crusade. In her play therapy with the child, she is kindly and gentle, but not really motherly. There is always a professional objectivity which is realistic.

Her purpose is only to unlock the girl’s reticence to face her trauma, and to help her to heal emotionally. It is only by accident well on into the film that Miss Davis begins to suspect there is more to the child’s trauma than just witnessing a tragic killing. It occurs to Davis that what the child saw was not her father kill her stepmother, but that somebody else did it. Now Davis must ferret out the truth, not only to help heal the girl, but to save Zachary Scott from the electric chair.

The audience has already been in on the facts of the murder long before Miss Davis figures it out, so we get to watch with anticipation the murky evidence being untangled. We also get to watch the irresistibly fiendish transformation of Ann Sothern.

She begins as the frustrated, bitter younger sister, deeply hurt by her fiancé’s infidelity. We learn, through flashbacks as is typical in film noir, that she burst in on her sister while Scott was still out cold from being clunked on the head, and she shot her sister. It was done all in an unplanned, frantic moment during an argument, and Sothern immediately regrets the deed. Overwhelmed with guilt, she writes a confession.

But she can’t bring herself to go through with confessing. The vision of herself in the electric chair is too strong for her to save the innocent Zachary Scott. She saves her own skin instead. She just walks away and says nothing.

This action changes the course of the film and changes the course of her life. Lying and deception start to come easier to her now, now that it is a matter of her personal survival. Murder starts to come easier, too.

When she gets wind of Dr. Nancy Davis working with little Gigi Perreau to restore her memory of the murder, Miss Sothern panics. She makes two rather dramatic and spine tingling attempts on the child’s life, both unsuccessful.

One of these involves manipulating a contraption in the hospital where the girl is put to bed in a water bath to relax her, and she is tied into it. Step-auntie Sothern attempts to drown her. The scene where the code red is called and all the medical staff rush to revive the unconscious child is one of those instances we often see in old movies about medical practices that bludgeons our belief. Nurses run from everywhere, and hot water bottles are produced. Hot water bottles? Remember to keep a hot water bottle in your first aid kits. Good for everything from reviving a drowning victim, to heart attack, stroke, snake bite, and iron deficiency.

The key to reviving the child’s memory lies in a doll, a figure of an Indian which reminds Gigi of a shadow she saw on the wall at the moment of her stepmother’s murder. We see, at the very last moment of the film, that the shadow is Ann Sothern in her feathered hat and trench coat, which is duplicated for us in the film’s final moments. This occurs just as Gigi is about to be turned over to evil Step-Auntie’s guardianship, when she will no doubt be murdered. We ache to see the little girl turn around and see it and be reminded, and when at last she does, and her emotional logjam is cleared, and we cheer in utter relief. Ann Sothern falls apart. It’s a scene chock full of movie-watching goodness.

When the newly freed Zachary Scott picks up his child from the custody of Nancy Davis, we see that there is none of the typical succumbing by the writers to have Davis and Scott fall in love. This, too, is refreshing, if only because it is logical. Scott looks at Davis with obvious gratitude and respect, but if there is to be an eventual romance between them, we do not suffer it being pasted as an afterthought to the end of the film.

That Davis is the hero of the film is really only due to her meticulous scientist’s review of data. She never turns into crime-solving Nancy Drew. She is as surprised as anybody that her office notes might reveal a mystery.

Gigi Perreau is the victim, but in a very strong role that she plays well. She is at turns rigid, terrified, thoughtful, and introspective and plays the victim of emotional trauma as well as any adult.

Ann Sothern is the villain, but she slides into that role gradually by turns and subterfuge, and shows that almost anybody could be capable of doing the most heinous deeds in order to survive.

It’s also fun that since film noir is a genre of shadows, here we have a film where a particular shadow is the solution to the crime.

8 comments:

Rupert Alistair said...

Although I've heard of this film for years I only recently saw on Turner Classic Movies. Being a big Ann Sothern fan, I thought it was great. As you said in your post, she wasn't the typical Bette Davis in The Letter baddie, but her gradual involvement made it all the more intriguing. Nice post.
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Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Rupert, and welcome. I agree Ann Sothern's gradual transformation is what made her role in this film especially interesting. That she didn't start out bad, but became that way through circumstance and choices made was intriguing.

Thom said...

Never heard of this one before. Ann Sothern as a baddie? Shadows and water bottles? Almost everybody's dirty at one point and things resolve themselves in happily unexpected ways? I've got to see this. You did it again, Jacqueline.

The description of the girl's psychological treatment and of Davis as the rational, emotionless doctor make that sequence seem a bit reminiscent of Snakepit (1948). Any connection among the writers or producers? btw, very funny description of the code red in the hospital. What the heck are hot water bottles ever used for anyway?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I'm not sure if there's any staff connection with "Snakepit", though that would be interesting to look up. "Snakepit" is a bit loftier, I think, and "Shadow" is really more pulp dime novel fiction. I have no idea what was going on with the hot water bottles. I guess it's an image that triggers our understanding of illness. Like the image of a bag of ice plopped on top of someone's head for a headache. Does that do any good?

Thom said...

I've never tried it, but it seems like it would give one a headache. How about when we see the image of an old rag wrapped around the head of someone with a toothache? What does that do, really? At least that looks funny!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You know, I was thinking of that toothache thing, too, where you see someone wrap a kerchief or something around his head. I have no idea what that is all about, but it's one of those images that when we see it, we understand the meaning.

carol smyth said...

I was 10 years old when I saw this movie and I never forgot that scary shadow on the wall - I remember most of the scenes described here and I've love to see it again. I'm now a grandma of 10 -- and I still love the old black and white films I saw as a child - back then, we also got more for our money when we went to the show - 2 movies, a cartoon, newsreel, and a serial that we couldn't wait to see the next Saturday. We enjoyed all this at the Montclare Theatre on Grand Ave. on the N/W side of Chicago so many, many years ago. I miss those wonderful Saturdays. Carol Smyth

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Carol, and thank you so much for sharing those fun memories of going to the movies at the Montclare Theatre. Congratulations on being a grandma of 10, and I hope some of the grandkids like to watch old movies, too. I can imagine this particular movie must have been pretty scary to watch when you were ten years old. Thanks again.