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Noir-vember 2014: Strange Bargain

Posted by martinteller on November 2, 2014

“I’m finally getting a glimmer on this case. Funny, it’s like a defective jigsaw puzzle where the picture on the inside isn’t like the one on the box.”

Sam Wilson (Jeffrey Lynn) is a bookkeeper, having a hard time making ends meet and providing for his wife Georgia (Martha Scott) and two children.  He goes to his boss Malcolm Jarvis (Richard Gaines) to ask for a raise… but instead he gets fired, because the firm has been losing money for years.  Jarvis takes Sam out for a drink and reveals that he himself is flat broke.  And he makes an unusual proposal: he wants to kill himself, and he offers Sam $10,000 to help him make it look like murder.  Sam refuses to have anything to do with it, but that evening Jarvis calls to inform him he’s going ahead with his plan.  Sam rushes over to stop him, but he’s too late.  Sam reluctantly fulfills his part of the bargain.  In the resulting investigation, homicide detective Lt. Richard Webb (Henry Morgan) seems to have his sights set on Jarvis’s business partner, Tim Hearne (Henry O’Neill), and Sam wrestles with his conscience to protect an innocent man.

My Noir-vember kicks off with a whimper.  I admit I have low expectations this year… I’ve seen an awful lot of noir and at this point I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel, with only a slim hope of finding a hidden gem.  This isn’t a hidden gem.  It is easily classifiable as noir: economic troubles leading a man to desperate measures, a bloody crime, the tension of the law closing in.  But it lacks any true moral ambiguity for the protagonist.  Everything Sam does is out of an impulse to do the “right thing”, he pretty much never acts out of self-interest or self-preservation.  When he participates in Jarvis’s scheme, it’s clear that he’s not doing it for himself, he’s doing it to help Jarvis’s family.  He takes the fat envelope full of money just to remove the evidence.  Sam’s too much of a bland goody-goody, a puppet in the hands of darker forces.

It’s not a bad movie, mind you.  Lynn has a Gary Cooper-ish quality.  He’s not a very engaging presence but he sells the paranoid claustrophobia and ethical struggle well enough.  The best bits involve Katherine Emery as Jarvis’s widow and of course Morgan as the savvy cop.  Funny coincidence, Morgan playing a detective named Webb some 20 years before co-starring in a detective show with Jack Webb.  Morgan walks with the aid of a cane, which not only supports the character’s war hero background (one of the more interesting aspects of the movie is how Sam’s son idolizes Webb) but also becomes a useful prop at the climax.

The movie is a tight 68 minutes which makes it an easy watch, but it’s rather toothless and doesn’t have much impact.  Production values are fine but the cinematography is primarily utilitarian and the score is forgettable.  There’s some suspense but the film just doesn’t sing.  Rating: Fair (66)


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