Monday, March 7, 2011

Strange Bargain - 1949

“Strange Bargain” (1949) is film noir stepping out of the shadows and into the living room. It’s a great example of what happens when middle America adopts a new fad, tames it, and makes it into something quick, convenient, easily digestible, and appropriate for family audiences. Noir as mainstream entertainment.

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.

No back alleys, no dames or molls, no whackos or mobs, or lonely car trips on deserted highways, here. Oh sure, we’re in Los Angeles, but not that Los Angeles. The movie begins innocuously with a paperboy riding his bike down a cozy suburban street, flinging the newspaper at a smiling Jeffrey Lynn, the master of the house on his sunny front porch. It looks like Andy Hardy’s neighborhood. All is right with the world. Not for long.

We quickly meet Mr. Lynn’s family at breakfast: the supportive homemaker wife played by Martha Scott who never gets to sit down and eat, the precocious son who wants a new bike but can’t have one because Pop doesn’t make enough money and they’re behind the bills.

The boy is played by Michael Chapin, whose know-it-all chatter gets on one’s nerves after about 30 seconds. Younger daughter, played by Arlene Gray, who never made a movie after this, is easier on the ears, and she gives her annoying big brother some fantastic glares.

Martha Scott tells Jeffrey Lynn he should ask the boss for a raise. When he screws up the nerve and does, he gets fired.

Jeffrey Lynn, so even tempered in this role, comes off as an extremely passive character, but there are moments when his quiet reactions are quite moving. The first is when he asks for the raise, fingering the telephone cords on the two phones on his boss’s desk nervously, and then, sitting in a chair to hear the bad news, his shocked expression and low, hoarse “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.

But the horrors are not over this day for our Mr. Lynn. The boss takes him for drinks after work, and we see that he did not intend to fire Mr. Lynn out of animosity or poor job performance. The company is broke. The boss is broke. But, he has a plan to help them both. The boss is played by Richard Gaines, who we last saw as the hysterical boor Mr. Pendergast in “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.

He dies.

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.

Of course, Lynn refuses, but later that evening the boss calls him at home, tells him the plan is going into action. Jeffrey Lynn rushes over to the boss’s mansion to try to talk him out of it. Too late. Body on the floor. He has no choice now. He must make it look like murder or the widow and son will be left with nothing.

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.

Where we part company with more edgy film noir movies is the constant reminder Jeffery Lynn is not a stranger in a strange land; he is on home turf. He is as rooted to his suburban community as the tree in his front yard. He is not alienated from society; he is society. I like the mention of his kids going to the neighbors’, who have a TV, to watch wrestler and early TV superstar Gorgeous George. It’s also a cute bit when the daughter, lying on the living room rug, playing with her movie star trading cards, “I traded Cary Grant to Mary for a Dick Powell and Jane Greer. Gee, I hope I didn’t make a mistake.”

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.”

His wife and his know-it-all boy play a Greek chorus, innocently haunting Lynn about how terrible the event is, and how the famous police detective will hunt down suspects and find the truth. (Later she passes a kinder judgment on her husband, “You’re a man and men are always making mistakes.” And then to soften the blow, adds, “Even women make them, sometimes.” Quite a concession on her part; that’s not something we women usually let on.)

Jeffrey Lynn’s expression of horror has long since turned to one of sickening dread. It’s a race to see if he can keep from falling completely apart before the end of the movie. Every sound, every passing headlight makes him flinch. The cat jumping off a shelf just about gives him a heart attack. Grimly, he wipes the blood off his hat brim, his steering wheel, his hands.

The famed, dogged police detective is played by Harry Morgan, and in a coincidence that has to make anybody smile, is named Lt. Webb.

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.

He becomes a surrogate father figure to the boss’s son, who has a piece of information he withheld from the police. The widow wants Lynn to run the firm, even though he is only an assistant bookkeeper because she distrusts the boss’s business partner. The business partner also latches on to Mr. Lynn and offers him a promotion.

We discover hidden motives, and lies, and most importantly…and most surprisingly…we discover it wasn’t suicide. The boss really was murdered.

Jeffery Lynn, despite his passive demeanor, is a noble, staunch Samaritan in his sympathy and his unwillingness to finger any of the usual suspects. He worries about everybody, even though he is suspect number one.

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.


ClassicBecky said...

I have not seen this one, Jacqueline, but it sounds worth searching for. I've always been fond of Jeffrey Lynn. When my Mom was a little girl, he was quite young, and she had a mad crush on him. He was a doll, sweet and gentle, but also able to play very dark , although he wasn't given much chance to do so. Although Selznick did not agree, I always thought Lynn would have made a good Ashley Wilkes in GWTW. I found Leslie Howard to be kind of cold and seemingly indifferent to his part.

Your review has intrigued me and I want to see what happens! Good one!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Becky, thanks so much. I agree that Jeffrey Lynn was very appealing in his film roles, and I would have loved to have seen him as Ashley Wilkes. I understand he was a front runner for the role.

The Lady Eve said...

Well, now I'm fascinated...I haven't seen either this film or the "Murder, She Wrote" episode you referenced - and I like the sound the film in particular but the link between the two is intriguing. Will be looking to see if I can find "Strange Bargain" - I'm thinking the TV episode will eventually surface since the series was so popular.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Lady Eve. Yes, the link between the movie and using the same people again for a TV show episode decades later is fun. I can't remember any publicity about the episode when it ran, though I watched the show pretty regularly. I'd love to dig up some old interviews.

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