Monday, March 7, 2011
Strange Bargain - 1949
It’s not the first time we have suburban America as a scene of the crime and a haven for criminals, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) is a great example of this. “Strange Bargain” doesn’t have the eeriness, or the humor of “Shadow”, but it’s not meant to copy Hitchcock; it’s meant to cash in on a powerful new tide in movie making of the day.
Martha Scott tells Jeffrey Lynn he should ask the boss for a raise. When he screws up the nerve and does, he gets fired.
Here is a footnote to the character and a signpost to the era: “I’ve been with the firm 12 years. I guess I expected to spend the rest of my life here.” It’s a sentence both pitiable and enviable, from our economic perspective.
“The More the Merrier.” He also played an officious snob, but less comical, in “The Enchanted Cottage” which we reviewed here. Gaines was just as good at drama as he was at comedy, but his role is small in this film.
Mr. Gaines’ plan, as laid out to his horror-stricken employee Jeffrey Lynn, is to kill himself for his insurance money. That will get his family out of debt and provide for his widow and high-school aged son. Gaines asked Lynn’s help to make his suicide look like murder, so the insurance company will pay off. He offers Lynn $10,000 to do this.
Here we have the film noir element of a man caught in a web of deceit and treachery which he did not devise, but to which he consented, and he must try and backpedal his way out. Except, he just gets deeper and deeper.
Meanwhile, the boy kneels in front of his dad’s chair, reading the back side of his dad’s newspaper. I remember doing that. Young Michael is fascinated by murder and delights in the thought of the police giving the murderer, “a one-way ticket to the gas chamber.”
We are not-too-subtly set up from the beginning of the movie that Lynn is falling into the no-way-out of most noir films, but gradually the film turns a different direction and becomes a traditional mystery. This occurs from clues we are allowed to discover partly through Harry Morgan’s interviews with everybody who is associated with the deceased, and party through Jeffery Lynn’s own open and sympathetic personality that makes everybody come to him with their concerns.
We discover hidden motives, and lies, and most importantly…and most surprisingly…we discover it wasn’t suicide. The boss really was murdered.
We slide back into the realm of traditional noir with the traditional flashback telling the solution.
But the solution didn’t stick, evidently. Some of you “Murder She Wrote” fans will remember the episode from 1987 called “The Days Dwindle Down” where Jessica Fletcher solves a continuation of this case. Among the notable guest stars in this episode were Jeffrey Lynn, Martha Scott, and Harry Morgan reprising their roles from 38 years previously. Like true film noir, the flashbacks, and the trouble, never ends.