Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wives under Suspicion (1938)

I have not seen the original pre-code version of this film "The Kiss Before the Mirror," also directed by James Whale. Presumably it was too racy to be re-released so it was remade, with one of the great actors of the pre-code period, Warren William as its star. Gail Patrick (My Favorite Wife, Stage Door) co-stars as his long-suffering wife. William plays a prosecutor whose work has begun to poison his whole life. He keeps a ghoulish abacus on his desk to keep track of the criminals he's sent to the chair, the beads on which are little skulls. He neglects his wife who spends her time changing clothes and hanging around with her young unmarried cousin and her fiancee. He takes on the case of a University Professor who murders his wife in a crime of passion. As we see the prosecutor's own home life unfold, it becomes clear that there are a number of striking parallels. It all becomes a little too clear, actually. The story telling is heavy handed and any subtlety in William's acting is pointless since the film posits a very unsubtle scene to explain every nuance.

Gail Patrick is an actress I've never liked. In part because the movies I've seen her in she plays unpleasant people, but here, when she's supposed to be sympathetic, she still isn't likeable. I really tried honestly, and maybe I'm blaming her for the weaknesses in the script, but I feel like she doesn't give her character any kind of arc. She is supposedly a long-suffering, adoring wife, who becomes distanced from her husband because of a case he's prosecuting. Her tone in every scene is the same. She seems like she doesn't really love the guy from the beginning. Maybe it's that Patrick and Warren don't seem to have any heat together. He is far more enjoyable playing off Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Lucy from The Awful Truth) as his faithful Gal Friday, Sharpy. After a while I wanted Hollywood to drop it's deeply entrenched age double standard, its production code and abandon the whole belabored point of the film and have him run off with his secretary. Cunningham was only six years older than William, and he just doesn't seem to have any chemistry with the woman almost twenty years his junior who was cast as his wife.

Warren William does have one really great scene in the movie, that made it worth watching for me. He takes a confession, playing the "good cop" and listens to the professor pour his whole heart out. His reactions are so sympathetic and human and given the parallels to his own marriage, you start to wonder if he's going to cut the guy a break. As soon as the prisoner is taken from his office he cackles with delight that he wormed the confession out of him. The about face is startling and chilling, owing a good-deal to the gloomy, rainy night atmosphere in the office during the confession. If James Whale would have used a script that was more sparse and let his camera tell the story more, this would have been a much better movie. The forced "happy" ending also sucks away any tension or feeling of "noir" that he might have built up.

This movie isn't a complete waste of time, but it's not one I'd recommend either. I don't give stars or anything like that in my reviews but if I did, the gratuitously racist "comic relief" would be enough to subtract a star. I can cringe and bear the occasional "simple" african american stereotype popping up in an old movie. Generally, I hope it ends as quickly as possible. Lillian Yarbo, a talented black actress who was relegated to playing maids in many films, gets an unfortunate amount of screen time as the Stowell's dim-witted maid. One line in particular made me just about fall out of my chair. Gail Patrick says to her guests, "well at least she can cook which is more than you can say for most of them." Yikes.


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