Jeff’s tangled past finally catches up with him, a web of deceit and lust spun by a lovely black widow. Director Jacques Tourneur films one of the great noir classics, a chiaroscuro triptych involving an honest but flawed protagonist, a brutal mobster hidden beneath the veneer of respectability, and a addictively seductive femme who orchestrates their fatal climax.
Tourneur begins the film as Jeff’s small world is revealed as nothing more than a big sign, his innocence and charm about to be questioned by a skeleton from his secret closet. His desire to settle down with his small-town girl is haunted by ghosts, and he must exorcize his past by confronting it. Jeff is wonderfully complex, his guilelessness offset by his lustful betrayal: he compromises himself and the confidence of his boss, and is caught in a cheap frame. Robert Mitchum’s sleepy-eyed performance perfectly captures this duality, a man who is honest enough to blame only himself and pay the consequences without complaint...only regret. The first third of the narrative is mostly flashback, as Jeff tells the story that has led him to this fateful meeting: he tells the truth without conceit.
The script’s slick dialogue is delivered with utmost sincerity, like prose typeset in a word-balloon of cigarette smoke. The cinematography projects the shadow world that lurks in the heart of every man, and the score’s tempestuous tempo coincides with the labyrinthine plot. Tourneur isn’t concerned with where the story is going, only with where the characters are. The editing compresses time and action, smoothing the volatile convolutions so little time is wasted with peregrinations, instead focusing upon destinations.
Jeff and Whit are involved in a duel...but not with each other: they both become victims of the deadly Kathy. Though Whit never discovers this fact (or he discovers it too late), Jeff is able to dial his own salvation.
Final Grade: (A)