Arlene rumbles her way through life, her sadism matched only by her beauty, and fittingly draws her last breaths in a rumble seat. William Dieterle’s excellent direction and pacing catapults this crime drama forward until it all smashes together for a violent yet lip-locking denouement.
Arlene (Bette Davis) is the bad step-sister of the winsome Val (Margaret Lindsay) and is involved in a convoluted racket of stolen security bonds. Arlene is engaged to a decent guy who works for her step-father’s Firm but her Femme is very Fatale to his future blood-bank balance! Val has an unconditional love for her sister but as the film rockets towards it’s final act, even she cannot make excuses for her decadence and amoral behavior. Bette Davis is wonderfully narcissistic in her role, her wide eyed beauty only a lure to satisfy her own toxic lusts: there is literally no redeeming quality to her character who actually enters the story with a Bang! The plot of stolen bonds is ludicrously complicated and is really the MacGuffin (as Hitchcock would say) that ignites the flame until the conflagration burns out of control. This leads to her fiancée's suicide when his criminal machinations are discovered when he’s spurned by Arlene and, rather surprisingly, her eventual murder by strangulation in the front seat of her car. Bette Davis gets Top Billing yet doesn’t survive until the third act! It’s disconcerting for Val because she was driving around all day with her sister’s corpse hidden in the closed rumble seat. When this is revealed to Val, we get a reverse shot of Arlene’s rigor mortise stiffened arms clawing at the sky while Val screams in horror: it’s a fucking brilliant shot! Val is then kidnapped by her sister’s conspirators and another of Arlene’s boy-toys is drowned in the harbor. Tony is Val's’ beau, a reporter hot on the trail of said criminals with his pal Izzy and camera in tow.
The film’s entire third act is a race against time with careening police cars, rushing trains and speeding boats all filmed on location in San Francisco. It’s exhilarating even though the plot seems rather nonsensical at this point! Tony and Izzy flip some words right side-up (after all, their skill is in wordplay and images) to discover where Val is being held captive even though she bursts safely into their arms at the climax. The bad guy gets machine-gunned as he attempts to escape justice but it’s a happy ending for the two love-birds. Just watch were you step; don’t mind the blood and gore!
Final Grade: (B)