June 9, 2011

Dark Moon Over Miami

The Chase (1946)

A veteran comes home from a long war to a supposedly grateful nation, but instead of finding a job and a caring community, he finds himself staring longingly through the window of a diner in a cold, impersonal city, unable to afford even the cost of a good breakfast. It's an old story, and unfortunately, a very current one as well. Lost in all the heroic tales of the "good" war -- World War II -- is the fact that countless veterans struggled to find jobs in an economy that wasn't ready for them, and bore physical and psychological scars that remained with them the rest of their lives. During the war years and the following period of angst and malaise, a new kind of crime drama emerged. Heroes were replaced by anti-heroes, deduction replaced by seduction, and the world in which these dramas played out was dark, unforgiving, and festering with corruption.

The Chase's opening scene finds luckless Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) walking the grimy streets of Miami, wondering where his next meal is coming from. As he dejectedly turns away from the diner window, he stumbles into a seemingly lucky break in the form of a wallet lying on the sidewalk. After helping himself to a hearty breakfast from the wad of cash, he decides to do the right thing and return the wallet. In typical noir fashion, this small, honorable act propels him into a seething world of sociopathic gangsters, illicit love, murderous jealousy, and danger.

Chuck traces the owner's address to an ornate, gleaming white mansion in a swanky part of town. Sporting a cheap, dirty suit and a heavy five o'clock shadow, Chuck is a bit uneasy as he rings the bell. In a neat little visual twist, the grinning head of a winged cherub on the door swings up and is replaced by a an eye staring out of a peephole and a gruff voice asking "what do you want?"  The door opens and Chuck is confronted by a life-sized, sneering "cherub" in the form of assistant Gino (Peter Lorre), an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Gino plays it cagey, refusing to introduce himself. "What have you got?" he languidly asks Chuck. "You're not Mister Roman," Chuck counters. "How do you know?" "You just don't fit," Chuck says, a little of his confidence returning.

Chuck knows he's not in Kansas anymore as he cools his heels in an opulent waiting room with huge chandeliers and classical statuary. Two women emerge from an adjoining room-- one is crying and the other is consoling her companion. This is a big clue that Chuck needs to turn tail and run, but then, film-noir protagonists tend to be stubborn, unlucky, and not always the sharpest pencils in the box. Gino introduces Chuck to the master of the house (and apparently master of lucrative schemes) Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Eddie is obviously very well off, dressed in an expensive double-breasted suit and hat, with a carefully folded handkerchief in his breast pocket. He's busy with a phone call as Chuck hands him the wallet. The ensuing conversation is a second big clue that Chuck should turn and walk away:
Eddie: Where did you find it?
Chuck: I don't remember the name of the street… it was in front of a restaurant…
Eddie (warily): How much was in it?
Chuck (sheepishly): 81 dollars. I spent a dollar and a half for breakfast… there's 79.50 there now.
Eddie (pausing, not quite believing what he's hearing): How do you like that… an honest guy!
Gino: I don't! Silly law-abiding jerk!
Eddie: How do you like that? He comes all the way out here just because he found it! … You know, you ought to get a medal… Gino, go buy him a medal.
Chuck (perturbed): Thanks, I've got a medal.
The ultimate set-up for the backseat driver.
Apparently Eddie's contempt for honest men doesn't extend to veterans, and in a weak moment he offers Chuck a job as his chauffeur. Circumstances being what they are, Chuck has little choice but to accept the offer. However, the seemingly innocuous job very quickly puts him in deadly danger. The dapper pillar of Miami society decides to test Chuck his first time out. Eddie's car has been rigged with a second accelerator and brake on the floor of the back seat. With a cruel smirk, he overrides Chuck's controls and slowly presses the back-seat accelerator to the floor. As the car speeds up seemingly by itself, an alarmed Chuck reports to his boss that there seems to be something wrong, only to be reassured by a very calm Eddie: "Relax, I take care of all of that back here… just keep your hands on the wheel." Eddie is apparently both a control freak and an adrenaline junkie. The car is speeding at 100 miles an hour toward a train, as Gino pleads with his boss, "But you don't know how he drives!" Eddie brakes just in time, allowing Chuck to swerve to avoid hitting the speeding train.

This is only a small taste of the dangers that lie ahead for Chuck. Like many noir chumps, he falls for an alluring dame, only this dame is the boss' wife! Ouch! One moment he's driving the sad, beautiful Lorna Roman (Michele Morgan) to the beach to stare vacantly and longingly at the crashing waves, and the next he's fleeing to Havana (pre-Castro Cuba) on a tramp steamer with her. And the next, he's being framed for her murder, desperately explaining to the Cuban police inspector that the knife that killed her only looks like the one he purchased in an out-of-the-way curio shop.

The Chase is based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, The Black Path of Fear (Doubleday, 1944). Woolrich was an odd duck-- a near-recluse who lived most of his life with his mother and rarely ventured outside of New York City. Yet this sheltered man wrote dozens of dark, wildly imaginative novels and short stories that helped launch the film-noir wave of the '40s and '50s. Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) is the best-known Woolrich adaptation (originally published as "It Had to be Murder"). An IMDb search on Woolrich's name demonstrates his extraordinary influence-- nearly 160 films and TV shows based on his work. In his essay "Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich," David Schmid cites Woolrich as one of the signal founders of the genre:
Although his work is not as widely read as that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich almost single-handedly invented the noir genre--creating a dark, psychologically menacing world--and producing some of the greatest works of pure suspense fiction ever written. … Woolrich's heroes [are] victimized and damaged by forces of evil that are often abstract, nameless, and all-powerful. Woolrich's plots and techniques reflect a worldview far more bleak and pessimistic than that of most other hard-boiled writers, and his ability to evoke the dilemmas of those unfortunates caught in his world is his most signal contribution to the genre. ("American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 226. Gale, 2000.)
Lorna wonders if she can ever truly escape
from her psychopathic husband.
The Chase takes some liberties with the source material. The book starts off with Mrs. Roman's murder (Eve in the book), while the film leisurely works up to it, immersing the viewer in the pathos and near-hopelessness of the illicit love affair before setting the chase and the murder in motion. Lorna is a beautiful, ethereal vision in her expensive evening dress and long, flowing hair, yet living for three years with a sociopath has left her cold and bloodless, almost zombie-like. Her only joy is to stand on the shore, watching the crashing waves and wondering what it's like beyond. "What's out there, straight ahead?" she asks Chuck, the new chauffeur.
Chuck: "Havana I think."
Lorna: "Have you ever been there?"
Chuck: "Yes, I was a long time ago."
Lorna: "What was it like?"
Chuck: "Oh, for me it was cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, cheap friends… all places are alike when you're broke you know."
The next thing you know, she's offering him $1000 to take her there-- and their fate together seems to be sealed. Having almost immediately fallen in love with her, Chuck begs off the financial part of the deal. They flee to Havana, but realize it can only be a brief way station. They plan to go to South America to get as far away as possible from the implacable Eddie. Stranded in the heart of the chaotic city with little time left before their ship sails, she asks Chuck, "How much time do we have left?", and it's not quite clear if she means how much time before the boat leaves, or how much time before her psycho husband catches up with them.

The Chase employs a very different narrative structure, and springs a plot "cheat" about two thirds of the way through that is risky for a B movie aimed at a fairly broad audience. It ultimately wraps things up a little too neatly for film-noir, especially for something based on Cornell Woolrich's dark, pessimistic visions. Still, it rewards the open-minded viewer with fascinating characters, biting, hard-boiled dialog, and haunting imagery.

Eddie (Cochran) and Gino (Lorre) make a deliciously evil pair. They act like a couple who've been together just a little too long-- mercurial Eddie alternates between bored and disinterested one minute and homicidal the next, while dour Gino grumbles and second-guesses his boss at every opportunity. A scene in which the black-hearted pair, nattily attired in white dinner jackets, have some cruel fun at the expense of a clueless business rival is priceless (see the clip below). Steve and Peter specialized in meaty, villainous roles, and their combined film-noir resume includes some of the great classics: Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, Lorre), The Maltese Falcon (1941, Lorre), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944, Lorre), White Heat (1949, Cochran), and The Damned Don't Cry (1950, Cochran).

Doomed love in the shadows.
Michele Morgan / Lorna Roman is achingly beautiful, and almost unreal-- like a too-perfect robot. Three years of marriage to a manipulative, controlling psychopath has practically drained her of any emotion. We don't often see characters this beautiful and this pitiable. Cinematographer Franz Planer saves his best stuff for Lorna: standing silhouetted on the shore, longingly staring at the waves; looking apprehensively out of the porthole of the Havana-bound ship, shadows creeping up and down the side; embracing Chuck in a hansom cab, her face glowing in soft, white light, his obscured in deep shadow.

Cummings, better known for light comedy and the folksy The Bob Cummings Show of the late '50s - early '60s, is nonetheless effective as the down-on-his luck everyman thrust by fate into the arms of a sad, angelic beauty. His everyman image also appealed to Alfred Hitchcock, who featured him in two of his better mystery-thrillers, Saboteur (1942) and Dial M for Murder (1954).

With the economy still sputtering and more and more politicians, business executives and entertainers acting like Eddie and Gino, it seems like we're all living in a noir world. But while the Eddies and Ginos of the world may be bat-sh*t crazy, they also make for great entertainment. So don't despair-- sit back and enjoy the show!

The Chase is available online at the Internet Archive, and on DVD from Alpha Video.

Crime boss Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) and henchman Gino (Peter Lorre) practice their own special art of persuasion on a rival businessman:


  1. hey brian, interesting site, i'm sure to be stopping by if only for the fun b-movie noir reviews, but who knows i may get suckered in by a dame and start watching b-movie sci-fi too.

    i just heard of cornell woolrich yesterday actually, have you read much of his stuff? got a book you would recommend to start with? how about a movie adaptation (non hitchcock) to start with if i can't find the chase? god knows i do love to watch peter lorre as the bad guy, ever see him in M? creepy!

  2. Other very good adaptations of Woolrich stories/novels are: Phantom Lady (1944; the film belongs to Ella Raines and Elisha Cook Jr.); Black Angel (1946; great performances by Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre); Fear in the Night (1947; dark, creepy, and starring a very young DeForest Kelley); Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948; Edward G. Robinson-- what else is there to say?)

    If you haven't read anything of Woolrich's before, I'd start out with his short stories and novellas: Rear Window and Four Short Novels; The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich; and Angels of Darkness (this one has a great introductory essay by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison).

  3. Fantastic write-up of a film I hold very dear. It's such an off-kilter, dreamlike quality, and it's really the perfect role for Cummings.

    The other Woolrich adaptations you recommend are all enjoyable (Fear in the Night is ludicrous, but fun). I would add Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), Nightmare (1956), No Man of Her Own (1950), The Window (1949), I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948), and Deadline at Dawn (1946). Really, the only subpar Woolrich adaptation I've seen is 1942's Street of Chance.

  4. Hah! I'm usually a fan of movies based on Woolrich, but I wouldn't defend Mrs. Winterborn for anything (like No Man of Her Own, it's based on I Married a Dead Man). I don't really like The Bride Wore Black, either. It's sadly obscure, but Hitchcock's adaptation of Woolrich's "3 O'Clock" is possibly the best pure suspense filmmaking Hitchcock ever executed. It was made for the television show, Suspicion, in 1957 (it changed the name of the story by one hour, retitling it "4 O'Clock.")

    Regarding The Chase: I like it well enough, but, man, Bob Cummings is the worst leading man. Talk about a void at the center of the movie. I'm sure he was a pleasant enough man--his screen presence oozes "pleasant"--but a noir hero ought to have more rough edges. Maybe that's just me.

    Nice blog you have here, by the way.

  5. Hmmmm.... I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about Bob Cummings. Cochran and Lorre are like an evil comedy team that needs a straight man to be most effective. Any harder edged, and Cummings might have been indistinguishable from the sordid pair. He does a good job with the straight man role.