Film Title: They Won’t Believe Me
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Film Noir
- Robert Young
- Jane Greer
- Susan Hayward
This little known film noir contains a cracker of a story about a husband who indifferently cheats on his wife with not one but two women. Larry Ballantine (Robert Young reluctantly cast against his usual good guy type) stands accused of murder when two of the women in his life turn up dead. Can he convince the jury that he didn’t kill either? This will be a tall order since he appears to be so unaffected by either one’s departure. His cold matter of fact courtroom explanation to the jury (which accounts for the film’s title) will, in noir fashion, flashback to the events leading up to his prosecution. These are events full of engrossing plot twists and turns, including his own admission of planned murder, right up to and including a final shocking denouement. As compelling as they are, these narrative surprises pale next to this film’s most magnificent quality: The unique character of Ballantine himself, superbly delivered by Young’s wisely underplayed performance. In his first flashback encounter he seems capable of genuine emotion. Soon after some self-centered ‘easy way out’ decisions, we discover deep down he’s really “consumed with apathy” but will nevertheless try to act differently. He’s someone who wants to feel passionate about something, (so he attempts to be well off financially), or someone (motivating him to secure relationships with the various women he encounters) but he cannot succeed in these endeavors, let alone feel the emotion their successful completion might bring about, at least not on his terms. This brings us to the second most intriguing aspect of the story and a recurring development that keeps getting in Larry’s way. Every time he shows some initiative, whether it be the simple intention of giving a gift to someone, all the way to his final act of life altering consequence, fate intervenes, as if some supernatural force is at war with Larry. It quashes his plans, and to paraphrase Larry “deals one from the bottom of the deck”. Even when fate hands Larry the same outcome he had previously tried so hard to get on his own, he’s most riddled with malaise: He travels the world aimlessly without a clue until “Fate dealt one from a whole new deck of cards” baiting him with another foolish hope of determining his own future. In regards to acquiring a strong sense of self-determination, try as he might, Larry will forever remain helpless and hopeless.
Noir stories are characteristically those of extremes and this is no exception, but character and plot dynamics are polar opposites. On the one hand we have what critics have accurately described as “the James M. Cain atmosphere of murder and betrayal” but on the other we have Ballantine who could not be more unlike Cain’s (or any other) noir protagonists who are typically emotional obsessives driven to commit their extreme acts. It seems like Ballantine commits desperate acts just to feel desperate. The extreme dramatic consequences of fate’s intervention elicit no apparent emotional response from Larry… He didn’t cause them to happen. So he just goes along, unlike our typical noir heroes wracked with varying degrees of anger, guilt, despair and paranoia. He’s a “fish out of water” in this noir universe, a guy more at home in Cheever’s literary world than Chandler’s. This however makes his tale here all the more fascinating to behold.
The women are far from noir stereotypes either. Their behavior and moods are, like the plot, unpredictable but always sophisticatedly intelligent, and certainly not “femme-fatale” like in the least. The three principal women in Larry’s life recognize him as a weak and self-centered cad but are nevertheless attracted to someone who has no real passion for anyone, even himself. He’s a “blank canvas” so to speak so they are free to paint their own pictures without having to compete with his. Besides, each time he shows some interest to one, the awareness of his flirtatious advances from the others, makes that interest seem like a competitive accomplishment. Larry is receptive even if he’s on guard. Since he wants to feel more than a conceptual interest, he envies these women whose romantic feelings come so effortlessly. It’s as if making stronger commitments to each one of them might allow some of that enviable trait to rub off on him. Ultimately, however, that great overseer of Fate will not allow these women to get a foothold over Larry’s destiny any more than Larry himself. So in bold dramatic fashion these mysterious forces will cast these women aside, adding to the film’s enigmatic quality, helping to make this a deeply satisfying, engrossing cinematic story.
The screenplay is by Jonathan Latimer (the excellent The Glass Key (1942)) and contains some juicy noir dialogue: “She looked like a very special kind of dynamite, neatly wrapped in nylon and silk. Only I wasn’t having any. I’d been too close to one explosion already. I was powder shy.” It’s taken from a story by Gordon McDonell who also wrote the original story of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) which focuses on another kind of self-serving noir protagonist. The very capable director is Irving Pichel who even though he co-helmed The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and would go on to direct another hidden gem Quicksand (1950), is hardly the name that comes to mind when one thinks of their favorite cinematic “auteurs”. Maybe that accounts for its relative obscurity. I can’t imagine why Martin Scorsese failed to mention it in his recommendations blog for the month it played on TCM in the U.S.. There’s another strong contribution to this drama: Right from its opening doom-laden bars Roy Webb’s exceptional music announces there are extraordinary forces present that will shape the tragic events about to unfold. Looking at their impressive list of previous credits, Producer Joan Harrison, a one time assistant to Alfred Hitchcock (as screen writer behind some Hitchcock triumphs including Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942)) and Executive Producer Jack L. Gross, Johnny Angel (1945), The Locket (1946), Riffraff (1947) among other noir favorites, one imagines that their recognition of this very special project inspired them to put together a top-notch creative team. That they did including actresses Jane Greer and Susan Hayward (both perfectly delineating Ballantine’s love interests) Rita Johnson (deeply sympathetic as Larry’s wife Greta) and ace cinematographer Harry J. Wild, Murder My Sweet (1944), Johnny Angel (1945), who achieves some strikingly memorable images here most notably those photographed at a secluded canyon waterfall favored by Greta. This perfectly hand picked team would all work together at the top of their respective crafts.
At the end of his, and this film’s story, while the jury deliberates their verdict in Larry’s murder trial, there is an all important moment that will provide not only the motivation behind the act portrayed in the last shocking verdict scene but the emotional gravitas at the heart of this unique character and story. Larry tells his only surviving female friend, who has come to really care for him, that it doesn’t matter anymore what the jury’s verdict is…he’s brought in his own. It’s as if he finally gets how little it matters what anyone else believes about a person who doesn’t believe in himself.
The shortened version is available on an Italian DVD in English with removable subtitles. There’s also a licensed Spanish DVD (also the shorter version) in English with non-removable Spanish subtitles unless one has the applicable computer software to remove them or the equivalent DVD player. If you want the DVD from Italy make sure you specify that’s the only one you want if ordering online because some retailers don’t care which version they send you. The short version seems to be the one that occasionally plays on TCM. Being a relatively old RKO title it also occasionally plays on network television so check the listings in your area. The longer 95 minute version’s added scenes are important (and this print has been seen by some, like Eddie Muller’s devoted Noir City Festival attendees, so does exist) but so is seeing the film itself so if watching it becomes an option by all means take it even if it is the shorter one. A version was also made on VHS tape with a listed running time of 91 minutes but I cannot confirm its duration at this time. All of the above described legitimate transfers contain adequate picture and sound considering it’s release date but unless it shows up on one of your local T.V. stations, I’d hold out for a proper release. Perhaps there will be a “Made On Demand” DVD like some of the other RKO titles released theatrically around this time and we’ll hope it’s the longer 95 minute transfer. It is also available as a free download from some questionable grey market sources online along with the typical lousy picture and sound quality. I’m not sure if any of these downloads are the aforementioned 95 minute version.
What is really “unbelievable” about They Won’t Believe Me is how at the end of his story we can feel so much compassion for this basically spineless heel. It must be that incredible synergy of plot and character development brought about by some especially talented filmmakers. This combined with a little of that mysterious “fate” like that which so profoundly shapes it’s character’s lives.
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