Thursday 2 February 2023

The Guilty (1947)

Director: John Reinhardt
Writer: Robert Presnell, Sr., based on the short story Two Men in a Furnished Room by Cornell Woolrich
Stars: Bonita Granville, Regis Toomey and Don Castle

Index: 2023 Centennials.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me with classic film is that it’s consistently not crap. Yes, there are exceptions but you have to dig to find them, because even the poverty row studios people thought of as cheap cinema, because of their low budgets, turned out consistently decent product. Just compare a modern studio like the Asylum to a classic one like Monogram and you’ll be shocked at the difference. The Guilty was one of over thirty pictures that Monogram churned out in 1947 but it was probably the only one to be produced by a millionaire. Jack Wrather ran his family’s oil company in Texas, married a senator’s daughter and commanded an air group of Marines in the Philippines. Then, having divorced Molly O’Daniel, he settled down with former child star Bonita Granville, whom he met on this film, before moving into television, producing Lassie and The Lone Ranger. But I’m watching for her rather than him, because she would have been a hundred years old today.

Granville was past her peak at this point, still best known for playing Nancy Drew in four B-movies in the late thirties, but she was a talented actress who continued to do good work. Case in point: this movie, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, prolific pulp crime writer whose work had already been adapted to The Leopard Man and would soon be adapted to Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Rear Window, to name just three notable classics. Granville doesn’t just play one role but two, a pair of identical twins with different outlooks on life. They also very much don’t get along, especially given that they’re both after the same man, Johnny Dixon. And so Granville plays a bad girl, Estelle Mitchell, who used to be with Johnny until he dumped her for two-timing him, and she also plays her good girl sister Linda Mitchell, who’s been murdered before the film begins. We learn what happened in flashback, through the avatar of Mike Carr, who was Johnny’s roommate and is also sweet on Linda. What a tangled web they weave!

Just in case you hadn’t immediately visualised this as a film noir, it makes that clear from the start. Carr isn’t a hardboiled detective but he certainly acts like one, providing a running narration as the camera follows him down the street, so that all we see is his hat and trenchcoat. He’s going back to the old place, six months after the murder, to meet with Estelle in the apartment building’s bar. He’s early and explains what went down to the barman, Tim McGinnis, and off we go into flashbacks so that we can see it as well as hear about it. Carr is played by Don Castle, who gets a “presenting” credit here, as if he was brand new to the business. Instead, he’d been making films for a decade, since Love Finds Andy Hardy in 1938. This was his twenty-fifth feature, even if he was uncredited in a bunch of them, and this was only one of seven in 1947 alone. He’s decent as Carr and he’s a capable grounding for the picture, even if he comes across like what you might receive if you ordered Clark Gable on Wish.

The first thing we learn is that he wasn’t buddies with Dixon, who was a lieutenant during the war when Carr was just a corporal. It just happened that Dixon moved into Carr’s apartment after getting out of the institution. Yes, he suffers from what we would call PTSD nowadays, courtesy of a mortar shell at the Battle of the Bulge, but is referred to here as “his spells”, moments when he “goes to pieces”. He didn’t want his family to see him like that so found a place of his own, but he realises Johnny is living over the street, and they both save some money by sharing the place. And yes, there’s lots of foreshadowing here, setting us up to believe certain things now that we know Linda’s going to die. We immediately start trying to figure out who would go on to do it, but Dixon is only the first of a string of candidates. The next is Estelle in the first scene featuring both twins face to face, arguing over Johnny. “You can have him,” says Linda, “over my dead body.” The icy Estelle retorts, “I’ll remember that, darling.”

Granville is a lot more restrained here than I remember her from a decade earlier in the Nancy Drew films or even from earlier in the forties, in films like Now, Voyager, Hitler’s Children and Youth Runs Wild. However, she still finds ways to use body language to play two identical twins in a way that never confuses us, even in a clever scene like this one, which I assume was made possible using double exposure. Earlier scenes in the buildup to this one use simpler techniques like body doubles, shadowplay or even the old routine of seeing one and hearing the other. Even with strong scenes like this one and with some biting dialogue, courtesy of Robert Presnell, Sr., who had been Oscar nominated earlier in the decade for Meet John Doe, the film does take a little while to find its feet, definitely B-movie stuff but also with that je ne sais quoi that keeps us watching and paying diligent attention. Gradually it tightens as we get progressively closer to Linda’s inevitable demise and we start to feel the tension grow and grow until it grabs us.

There are some wonderful scenes around the murder. Estelle’s out with Mike, who’s taken up with her now that Johnny’s moved on to Linda, but she borrows a nickel to call her mother and calls Johnny instead. Who isn’t alone. Someone else is there and they’re on the bed, crying. No prizes for guessing who and no prizes on who the cops promptly label their primary suspect, initially after she’s reported missing and later after they find her body. But Estelle wriggles out of Mike taking her home that night, so Johnny isn’t the only one acting suspiciously. And, as we soon discover in a tough scene when Mike and Johnny visit Linda’s mother, who throws the latter out with vehemence, there’s another candidate in Alex Tremholt, who lives with the Mitchells. Who is he and what’s he got to do with these twins? The principle of Chekhov’s gun tells us that he can’t be in the movie accidentally but we don’t know enough to be sure of anything. As Det. Heller, in the capable form of Regis Toomey, investigates, we can’t help but ask questions too.

The longer this picture ran on, the more I liked it. I couldn’t help but sympathise with Mike, because of how his superior officer has continually got the better of him, right down to seeing the Mitchell twin Mike wanted, thus leaving him with his inferior castoff. Of course, Mike is no prize himself because this is a film noir and there are no truly sympathetic characters outside of the barman and the victim’s mother. I’d say the victim too, but she’s a corpse at this point and so we see her differently. I couldn’t help but feel that Johnny is too obviously the killer, during one of his spells, for it to be true. I couldn’t help but want to learn more of Alex Tremholt but the script is careful about what it lets slip. And I couldn’t help but keep an eye on Estelle Mitchell, the femme fatale who’s surely tangled up in this somehow. Even Mike, who’s seeing her, doesn’t trust her as far as he can throw her. He tells us that outright, just in case we weren’t already of the same mindset.

And, if all this suggests that the key element is Presnell’s script, then you’d be right, but the cinematography by Henry Sharp keeps things neatly claustrophobic and the score by Rudy Schrager follows suit. And we’re watching Castle and Granville while the story tightens. It’s telling that we see more of the former than the latter, both in screen time and in height, but the latter makes more of an impression. I don’t know how tall Castle was, but he’s taller than anyone else in the picture and Granville was only five feet with no additional inches. The difference is so obvious that we start to figure out where the filmmakers are using tricks to make it seem a little less so, whether they’re adjusting their heights in a close up or just using perspective to lessen the discrepancy. It’s also telling that Granville grabs our attention more as bad girl Estelle than good girl Linda. While I first saw her as a bubbly go getter heroine in roles like Nancy Drew, she was almost typecast at points as bad girls, in films like These Three, My Bill and Beloved Brat.

She’s one of those rare actresses who’s always watchable, regardless of the quality or the type of role, maybe because show business was in her blood. Her father, Bernard Granville, was a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies and she made her debut on stage at the age of only three. By nine, she’d progressed up to the movies, debuting in Westward Passage in 1932. Only a year later, she was in Cavalcade, which won the Best Picture Oscar. She landed her own Oscar nomination five days after turning fourteen, for These Three, becoming the youngest Oscar nominee up to that point and keeping that record for another twenty years, until Patty McCormack took it from her for her role in The Bad Seed. It was These Three that shifted her into bad girl roles. Beloved Brat may be the pinnacle of that sort of part, given she runs away from home, kills a man and successfully blames it on her family’s butler, who goes to prison for her crime. That was 1938 but Nancy Drew was right around the corner and she shifted to independent and highly capable young ladies.

She managed to survive the transition away from child star, which is far from guaranteed in Hollywood, but after some high profile roles in films like The Glass Key, Now, Voyager and Hitler’s Children, she drifted into B-movies, though, as this one highlights, there was still quality material to be found. This could be considered her swansong, because she only appeared in a handful of further movies, all produced by her husband, to whom she remained married until his death in 1984. Strike It Rich and Guilty of Treason came quickly, but then she moved into television, after Jack’s growing empire trawled in some television stations and bought the rights to famous characters like Lassie, the Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. In fact, those who don’t know Granville as Nancy Drew are likely to remember her as the narrator of the Lassie television show. She even directed an episode, which marked the only time she would ever sit in the director’s chair.

I’d love to read a biography of Jack Wrather, but Granville was side by side with him on many of his exploits, finding quite the place as a businesswoman. They bought the Muzak Corporation, which produced the elevator music you think it should. They bought the Queen Mary, the cruise liner currently moored off Long Beach. They obtained special permission from Walt Disney to build a hotel next to the Disneyland theme park, because he’d run out of credit, and they refused to sell it to him afterwards, keeping ownership of the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, with that name on the frontage. Eventually, of course, the Disney Corporation got their hands on it, in 1987 when they bought half of the Wrather Corporation, but Disney had been dead for a couple of decades and Wrather for three years. When Granville died in 1988, they bought the other half. She was only sixty-five and the then chairman of the board of trustees of the American Film Institute. She’d lived quite the life.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I greatly enjoyed this superb post, Hal! My favorite parts of The Guilty were the beginning and the end. I wasn't bowled over by what came in between, but you have inspired me to give it another chance. I especially liked reading about Granville, and now I want to find The Beloved Brat!