Thursday 15 February 2024

Shock (1946)

Director: Alfred L. Werker
Writer: Eugene Ling, based on a story by Albert DeMond, with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley
Stars: Vincent Price, Lynn Bari and Frank Latimore

Index: The First Thirty.

Shock is one of the easier movies to see from Vincent Price’s First Thirty, because it’s in the public domain, but it’s one that I haven’t seen before and am very happy to see for the first time now, because it’s Price’s first top billing.

He was the leading man his first film out in Service de Luxe, but it was a Constance Bennett movie and he played her love interest rather than the other way around. He played the title character in The Invisible Man Returns, but that had Sir Cedric Hardwicke top billed. Price saw his name on the poster for his earliest fifteen films, but this sixteenth marks the first time it was either listed first or indeed above the title.

It’s a B-movie film noir, merely 70 minutes long, but it’s a telling picture that starts Price out on the road to the roles we generally know him from, far more so than the more overtly horror-based The Invisible Man Returns. That’s because he plays another mad doctor, as he would so often later, from The Fly, The Tingler and The Bat to the Dr. Phibes duology, via, of course, the wacky Dr. Goldfoot pictures.

This sure looks like a horror movie from the outset and it sounds like one as well, with dark ominous music behind the opening credits. It also features a nightmare sequence early on, after Janet Stewart checks into a San Francisco hotel to meet her husband, who’s been at war for a few years and presumed dead for two, but he doesn’t show. She imagines him outside but he can’t get in and she can’t find the door; even when she does, the handle is too big; and, when she finally makes it through, he’s gone again. These visuals are primitive but effective and they set a mood for the picture as a whole.

And, after all that, there’s Vincent Price on a neighbouring balcony. He’s Richard and he wants a divorce from Margaret so he can be with Elaine, which seems fair enough until the argument becomes so heated that he hits her hard with a candlestick. That sends poor Janet, already emotional, completely over the edge.

When her husband, Lt. Paul Stewart, shows up in the morning, he finds her catatonic on the divan, her delightful big eyes even bigger for effect, staring at nothing. Dr. Blair states that “I think she’s suffering from some sort of shock” but refers her to Dr. Cross, a talented psychiatrist already staying in the hotel.

No guesses for who that might be! Yes, Dr. Cross is Richard and, after diagnosing nervous collapse, realises the layout of the hotel and thus the root cause of her shock. Now Janet’s nightmare can truly begin. She’s a witness to a crime but she’s so traumatised by it that she’s unable to speak. Once whisked off to Cross’s private sanitarium for some special treatment—“Believe me, lieutenant. It’s best for her.”—she may never get that opportunity.

What opportunities exist here are for Price and Lynn Bari, along with Frank Latimore and Anabel Shaw as the couple caught up in a new nightmare, just as they thought they’d got out of an old one, which is a brutal idea conjured up by screnwriter Albert DeMond and adapted from his story by Eugene Ling.

You see, Paul Stewart had been captured at war and spent two years in a P.O.W. camp as an unreported prisoner. Janet, who can’t have been married for long, mourned as a widow until the joyous news arrived that Paul is alive. Just as they’re about to be reunited, she sees a murder, then is put into the care of the killer, who does his best as a psychiatrist to convince her that she saw nothing. After all, nobody else even believes a murder happened, given that Cross has staged an “accidental death” for Margaret to be discovered and reported.

Price is excellent here, in a rather nuanced part. He’s tasked with two villain roles: being a man who’s able to kill his wife for the love of another and also a doctor who finds himself in a fortuitous position of power who can misuse it scientifically to get away scot free. However, he’s also given a conscience, which gradually weighs on him and deepens his character.

What’s notable is that he has a very obvious little devil on his shoulder in the form of Lynn Bari, but no little angel equivalent, beyond his tentative conscience. Bari plays Elaine Jordan, his nurse and his lover, for whom he killed his wife, and Elaine has no such conscience. While Richard is a bad guy here—make no mistake about that—Elaine’s pulling his strings with deliberate intent, to the degree that, when his plans to brainwash Janet begin to falter, she presses him to kill her too, for them.

That makes Elaine a sociopath deliberate in her evil, but Richard a weak and flawed man able to do evil but also able to feel bad about having done it and at least think about finding a way to rectify the situation. The end follows naturally from there and gifts Price a powerful final scene and Bari a bunch on the way.

Frank Latimore does well as Paul Stewart, a soldier away from society for so long that he needs to get used to functioning within it once more, at the precise moment he needs to save his wife, who he doesn’t initially realise needs to be saved. There’s admirable complexity for him and, while Latimore isn’t a Price or a Bari, he does a decent job at exploring it.

While those are the three names appearing in the credits before the title screen, it seems unfair for Anabel Shaw to be relegated to just the first name in the “with” category after it. Sure, she doesn’t have as much opportunity, given that she has to be asleep, comatose or otherwise unresponsive for long periods, but she’s the one who suffers from shock and she’s the one with the most traumatic arc, not to forget she’s the one who actually sets things in motion. She lives up her to her casting choice alongside more well-known co-stars.

Another name worth mentioning here is Joe MacDonald, who was building his name at the time as a talented cinematographer, with Little Tokyo, U.S.A. behind him and Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets and Pickup on South Street in his future, not to ignore My Darling Clementine and Viva Zapata! He makes an excellent use of space or, more accurately, the lack of it, thus emphasising how Janet has been trapped.

However, it’s how she’s been trapped that’s so impactful here, especially for 1946, only one year after World War II ended. It suggests that those returning are going to find the country they fought for unfair so they’ll need to keep fighting, even against the system and those it tasks with helping. In that, this is an acutely pessimistic film but only in hindsight.

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