Film Title: The File on Thelma Jordon
Studio: Hal Wallis Productions/Paramount Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Film Noir
- Barbara Stanwyck
- Wendell Corey
- Paul Kelly
- Joan Tetzel
There’s always something to be said for a film known by many and seen by few. Whether or not that is the case with 1950’s The File on Thelma Jordon is best left to speculation. However, it seems that although it falls at the tail end of our beloved 1940s, the film’s limited airings and lack of availability has rendered it somewhat rare. It’s a noir by definition, in theme and characteristics. Despite the unparalleled Barbara Stanwyck in the title role, Thelma is yet another tale peppered with unfamiliar faces, and so much the better.
Assistant DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) is busy with a late night bender in the office. The place is deserted and drinking sounds far more interesting than rushing home to his wife Pam (Joan Tetzel), with whom he seems at odds. As Cleve slips further into his alcohol-induced haze, a mysterious woman appears in the doorway. Her name is Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck). Thelma is looking for Miles Scott (Paul Kelly), hoping that Scott can offer some assistance with her eccentric Aunt Vera. Cleve offers to listen in Scott’s absence. Hesitant at first, Thelma explains her situation but leaves abruptly when Cleve demonstrates his romantic, yet drunken bravado. He follows her outside, where she finds a parking ticket waiting on the windshield of her car. Realizing his position, Cleve agrees to have Thelma’s ticket “fixed” and she goes out for a drink with him as a show of appreciation. The two share brief company at a local bar before Thelma practically carries Cleve out. Back in the car, Cleve kisses Thelma who is powerless to resist his advances. He informs her of his weakening marriage, which doesn’t appear to scare her away. Neither of them wants to part for the evening but Cleve eventually returns home to a questioning Pam and coldly ignores her. Thelma shows up at the office the next morning. Cleve has sobered up and apologizes for any trouble his behavior may have caused. It isn’t long before they’re in each other’s arms again. A romance quickly begins to blossom despite the fact that Thelma claims to have a husband named Tony (who conspicuously appears after one of her “meetings” with Cleve). She professes to be uninterested in Tony, especially in light of her newfound love.
Both she and Cleve justify the adulterous relationship by using their unsatisfying home lives as an excuse. The more they spend time together, the more it seems like people are watching their every move. Thelma even meets Cleve down by the road in front of her house so no one will see him. She disguises their phone conversations, pretending that he’s a random friend calling for mindless chatter. The weight of hiding is too much. A familiar town doesn’t provide the best setting for a forbidden affair, so they decide to drive off together. The plan requires Cleve to go home and wait for Thelma to pick him up. She leaves a note on Aunt Vera’s nightstand, stating that she’s borrowing the car for the weekend and will explain when she returns. A few moments later, Vera is awakened by a raging storm outside and suspects that a burglar is roaming around her house. She grabs a gun and unsteadily heads downstairs to look for the intruder. Suddenly, a shot rings out. Vera is killed. Meanwhile, Cleve is impatiently waiting for Thelma to pick him up and calls her for an explanation. Thelma is hysterical on the phone in the wake of Vera’s death. She begs Cleve to come over, though she never tells him the exact reason. He races over to find the body on the floor with Thelma in disarray and questions her about the events. It seems that Thelma has foolishly altered certain aspects of the crime scene. When Cleve presses her for specific details, her memory is foggy. With only the two of them and the body, Cleve helps Thelma reconstruct an “untouched” version of the crime, so that neither one of them will be suspected of foul play for tampering with evidence. They finish up and get out. In order to distance himself, Cleve drives through the night to meet Pam at their beach house.
When the police arrive at Thelma’s house the next day, Miles telephones Cleve and tells him to cut his beach time short. Cleve arrives a few hours later to find detectives questioning Thelma about Vera’s death and getting very little information. Miles persuades Cleve to try a private interrogation with her (unaware of their personal history). Once alone, Thelma and Cleve embrace. Everything seems innocent enough until it’s announced that Thelma will be charged with Vera’s murder. The visible evidence implicates her; and what’s more, the police are suspicious about frequent telephone calls from an unknown man they’ve dubbed “Mr. X”. Cleve is nervous but composed. Thelma does her best to maintain a guiltless calm. At present, Cleve simply believes that both he and Thelma were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their only crime was indiscretion, or so it seems. Cleve knows, as Assistant DA, that it’s up to him to clear Thelma’s name. He’s involved to an extent, so vindicating her will be a simultaneous clearing of his own name. Through a series of clever legal maneuvers, he arranges to make himself the prosecuting attorney. As long as he can control the proceedings, he can purposely “throw” the trial. None of Cleve’s colleagues have a clue about his plan. They believe, along with the rest of the town, that Thelma Jordon will be found guilty and given the death penalty.
As the trial begins, Cleve strategically pieces together a crime with subtle, yet intentional loopholes. He knows that Thelma’s lawyer will be able to disprove the case. The “facts” are orchestrated very carefully so that no one will identify the ruse. Between sessions, the two lovers have little contact but seem to communicate through glances. On one occasion, Cleve tries to comfort Thelma, reassuring her that his attacks in the courtroom are nothing but dramatic performances with no substance. As an “innocent” woman, Thelma’s only duty is to stay collected. The trial concludes and a verdict is handed down. But, is everything really over? Did Thelma kill Vera? Did Cleve help her? If so, what was the motivation? What role does Tony play in all of this? Why was he at the trial on the last day? What is in the file on Thelma Jordon?
Choosing the star of this film is not a cut-and-dry process. Barbara Stanwyck is obviously the most well known of the cast. It’s her natural talent that allows her to blend into a sea of ordinary co-stars. By 1950, she had already completed nearly 40 films and was nothing short of Hollywood’s elite. More often than not, her roles were dramatic. It was a rarity for Stanwyck to appear in any film that failed to capitalize on her versatility. Thelma was a drama like many of her roles in the 30s and 40s, and it was another play on the theme of personal alienation. Stanwyck’s characters often found themselves backed against the wall as a result of their own doings. Thelma Jordon, in her own way, was a lot like Phyllis Dietrichson, Martha Ivers and Lily Powers. Interestingly enough, she was also a combination of Stanwyck’s more helpless characters like Leona Stevenson, Sally Morton Carroll and Sugarpuss O’Shea. Granted, Thelma’s upper hand never strayed too far out of reach. Even at her most vulnerable, she appeared to be in control. Wendell Corey, as Cleve Marshall, teetered on the fine line between a downtrodden nobody and a man of distinction. Thelma was only his 9th film, though his second alongside Stanwyck (he’d played Dr. Alexander in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number). They would appear together once more after Thelma, the same year, in 1950’s The Furies. Corey was far from a headliner but a definite asset to his films. His gift and his curse was a lack of distinctiveness. He was almost a nameless face in the crowd, the type of man you might find walking along the edge of the park after a rainstorm. In the context of Thelma, he was perfect, but in the lush wonderland of Hollywood, he’s dispensable. Luckily for the viewer, this film doesn’t need an all-star cast. In fact, it might have actually been a disadvantage. Films with numerous superstars in the cast often wind up being more about competition and egos, rather than focusing on the story. Just a quick mention about a few others in Thelma: Richard Rober played Tony Laredo, Thelma’s “ex-husband”. Rober was another nameless face, but one that was intended for the complete opposite. He was advertised and presented as “the next Bogart”. Had he not been killed in an accident two years after Thelma in 1952, there’s no telling where he would’ve ranked in Classic Hollywood history. Gertrude Hoffman, who began her career as a silent actress in Germany, played Aunt Vera. Hoffman didn’t actually make it to the United States until after the age of 60. Her most recognizable role was probably as Mrs. Odets in 1952’s My Little Margie. Aside from that, Hoffman was primarily unbilled.
The File on Thelma Jordon is not available on DVD. In fact, there has never even been a VHS release. The usual method to see films of this kind is to anxiously check for airings on your classic film network. Unfortunately, that has become a scarcity in itself. One glimmer of light is that the film seems to have found its way online under the pretext of being public domain. We cannot provide links to said film, but a little bit of dedicated searching should suffice for interested parties. That aside, there’s no way this film deserves to sit in a forgotten vault. It’s one of many films that scream for a DVD release. Lesser-known films have at least gotten bare bones releases. There has only been one WB Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection to date. However, this film looks to be owned by Paramount. Hopefully, Warner Bros. will purchase the rights to the film and release it or the public will have to specifically pressure Paramount for a DVD. It doesn’t look to be too high on their priority list.
The one thing that arouses the most interest about this film is its place in the grand scheme of the era. Film Noir is an entity in and of itself, but the “B-Noir” stands on its own as a sub-genre. It would be easy to consider Thelma a B-Noir in the vain of 1946’s Detour. It’s gritty, but polished just enough to look like a professionally made film. Opening in the United States on January 18, 1950, The File on Thelma Jordon was also known simply as Thelma Jordon. File or no file, this is a case worth investigating.
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