Wednesday 7 January 2009

Blind Alley (1939)

Sometimes it seems surprising that there are still films released in 1939 that I haven't seen. However it wasn't just Hollywood's greatest year in quality, it was a pretty prolific year too. And here's one that's pretty interesting for a couple of reasons: Chester Morris is playing a bad guy and Ralph Bellamy doesn't lose the girl. In fact Bellamy is already happily married from the beginning of the film, making this a pretty strange but welcome film. He's a college professor, Dr Anthony Shelby, who specialises in psychology and has a habit of psychoanalysing everything around him. Morris, however, is a gangster, killer and escaped convict called Hal Wilson.

The two meet at Shelby's house, which is on a lake. Wilson plans to hide out there for an hour or two until some partners in crime pick him up by boat. He's already taken three lives since breaking out of prison: two guards and the warden, who he first used as a hostage to get out. Now he has plenty more targets, because while he was just expecting the three Shelbys (the doctor, his wife and their young son), he finds instead a bunch more because they're having a party: a few friends and some help. Of course Wilson and his cohorts take everyone hostage and he kills a young student who arrives late, but the boat stubbornly doesn't arrive, so Shelby attempts to seize the advantage by psychoanalysing Wilson.

And here's where our story really lies. Sure, there are some little scenes here and there that build some background and sure, there are some other people in here that you may have heard of, not least Ann Dvorak, but the heart and soul of this film is in the interaction between Shelby and Wilson. Morris plays Wilson as a jittery and troubled soul, angry and frustrated, full of bad dreams and fear of the unknown. Shelby, to him, is infuriatingly calm, though he gradually finds respect for him as a belief grows on him that he's somehow stumbled onto the one person who can help him.

It's great to see Ralph Bellamy play something other than a Ralph Bellamy role, and indeed it won't spoil the film to say that it ends with him in his wife's arms. It's also great to see Chester Morris, one of the great pulp film heroes, as a bad guy. No, he wasn't the greatest actor that Hollywood ever saw but he was a solid and dependable actor who was always a joy to watch. The two of them work off each other well, with a decent story as the framework. This film doesn't feel like 1939 and that's a compliment.

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