Thursday 22 February 2024

The Web (1947)

Director: Michael Gordon
Writers: William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser, based on a story by Harry Kurnitz
Stars: Ella Raines, Edmond O'Brien, William Bendix and Vincent Price

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve wondered throughout this project when the studios would start to realise the potential that Vincent Price had to be a villain. It turns out to be halfway through his First Thirty, the success of his first top billing in Shock enough to somewhat stereotype him into villain roles in films noir for a while. After fifteen films of not playing a single villain (albeit not always a hero either), this one marks three villains in a row, with another one on its way right after it.

This time, he’s a businessman who lives in a different world to the rest of us. We learn that when Bob Regan barges into one of his board meetings to serve him with a summons. Regan is very serious about the $68.72 he wants from him on behalf of a client whose banana cart he knocked over with negligent driving. Andrew Colby of Colby Enterprises merely laughs and promises to write him a cheque.

However, that night, he also hires Regan to be his bodyguard for a couple of weeks. Maybe he’s a little upset that the attorney got in that easily and maybe he appreciates the balls that he demonstrated in doing so. Either way, he’s offering a lot of money, so Regan takes the job, noting that “Until this morning, I had to save up to weigh myself.” One day later, he starts to regret his decision because he has to shoot a man dead to earn that money.

Regan is a young and thin Edmond O’Brien, who feels like the lead actor but was actually second billed to Ella Raines, who plays Colby’s trusted personal secretary, Noel Faraday. Price is credited fourth after William Bendix as a cop, Lt. Damico, who knows Regan and quickly has to investigate him anyway.

You see, this is all about a cool million bucks worth of counterfeit bonds, which makes for a pretty enticing MacGuffin. The very first scene features Leopold Kroner meeting his daughter at the station after serving five years in prison for embezzlement. He’s surprised to find that Colby isn’t there too, given that he worked for him and we can safely assume that he took the fall for him too.

Of course, Kroner is why Colby hires Regan, because he fears the ex-con will come for him and, sure enough, he does, getting all the way to the office in Colby’s house. Hearing gunfire, Regan rushes upstairs and shoots Kroner dead and that’s the end of that. Except, of course, it isn’t, because there’s a web of intrigue that he realises has to be unravelled, hence the title.

This is hardly the deepest film noir I’ve ever seen but it’s capably done and I do appreciate the way it’s set up without needing flashbacks of any sort. Regan may be an attorney but he’s a budget one, quite literally given how much Colby pays his, and he’s hardly the most astute detective in the genre either. However, he has a doggedness about him that works well here and he’s not so stupid that he doesn’t realise he’s been set up with aplomb.

I liked O’Brien here. He’s more jovial than I tend to expect but he does a great job being at once bumbling and dedicated. Raines doesn’t have a lot to do, so she struggles to justify her top billing. Sure, Bob and Noel hit it off, so a romance sparks but we never care much about it, just as we don’t care much about whatever Lt. Damico is doing or not doing. It’s fair to say that there’s a little mileage in how a secretary adapts to the realisation of what her boss is really up to, but only a little.

While O’Brien is a lot of fun and Raines has a cute retrouss√© nose, Price steals the film with his professional charm. It’s clearly effortless to him, but he also crafted it with care, giving the impression that he’s not just playing a villain but enjoying it. As versatile as he was, I think he knew that he was born to play charming and sophisticated villains far sooner than the studios did and he was relishing the villainous parts that he was finally getting.

Behind the scenes, Irving Glassberg does an excellent job with his cinematography but this was his first picture and he’d grow with time. Mostly, if we’re going to hurl praise at anyone except Price and, to a lesser extent, O’Brien, it has to go to the writers, William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser, who were working from a story written by Harry Kurnitz, albeit more for their dialogue than their plot.

Frankly, the plot ought to have had more of an impact, given a particular aspect that I was thoroughly impressed by. Put simply, Regan is never arrested for shooting Kroner because he is clearly acting appropriately in the course of his duties as a bodyguard. However, when he starts to realise that maybe this was murder, he has to be careful about how he proves it. If it’s murder, after all, then he’s the murderer.

I’m guessing that Kurnitz ought to get some of the credit for that dialogue, given that he wrote two instalments in the Thin Man series, rightly well regarded for sparkling dialogue. Bowers was mostly known for comedy, though he did write across genres and his Oscar nod was for a Gregory Peck western, The Gunfighter. Millhauser was more used to mysteries, with a slew of screenplays in that genre going back to The Lost Necklace, a Pearl White short in 1911. He’d written Sherlock Holmes scripts for both Clive Brook and Basil Rathbone, and mysteries for detectives as well known as Philo Vance, Nick Carter and Arsene Lupin to solve.

My favourite scenes of dialogue are between O’Brien and any choice of other character. The first example is with Ella Raines when Regan’s faced with Noel Faraday as the final hurdle to pass to see Colby. The second is with Price, as he realises how high up the ladder he’s found himself. The best are probably with Bendix, as their relationship is only hinted at.

Regan and Lt. Damico quite obviously know each other and very well too, but they appear to be antagonistic in a way that suggests that they’re really great friends. However, they’re never seen doing anything that great friends do, beyond the cop approving his gun permit and perhaps giving him some extra leeway as he investigates his shooting a man dead.

For all that the attorney flirts with Faraday, he really has a far more substantial friendship with the lieutenant, one that I would like to have seen grow over further movies. However, The Web was a standalone film, so that never happened.

Of course, any sequel would inevitably have missed out on the biggest success this original had to flaunt, namely Vincent Price. He’s not a series regular, he’s an episode villain, but he’s the sort of episode villain that fans remember fondly looking back at a series.

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