Nora Prentiss (1947)

I'm almost afraid to call Nora Prentiss a film noir. I know I can be a bit one-note on the merits of the noir canon and pretty much deserve the eye-rolls and polite Ya, I'll give that one a watch, Scott niceties tossed my way when I recommend these old crime melodramas. Nora Prentiss is a bit of a different bird though. It's a top-notch B, well-written, well-cast, fantastically lensed by cinematographer James Wong Howe and directed with precision by Vincent Sherman. In short, it's a winner on almost every front.

It's also a film that's hard to describe without giving away too much of the plot. In a nutshell, a doctor, bored with his pedestrian existence, invents an elaborate plan to escape it with a night club singer he's fallen for. Wanker. Not surprisingly... it all goes very badly, but just how it goes badly is marvel of 40's potboiler scriptwriting. It simply boggles the mind that this film hasn't been remade. The story is adult, modern and has a wicked twist that arrives in the final 10 minutes that seems ripe for an update.

Kent Smith plays Doctor Richard Talbot and he nearly tops his performance in the noir/horror classic The Cat People, made 5 years earlier. Ann Sheridan plays Nora and despite being top-billed in a role that has been described as the ultimate “woman's noir”, Smith nearly steals the show. Nora Prentiss is the product of the studio system at its peak, with excellent performances from Smith, Sheridan, and a bunch of Warner Brothers regulars including Bruce Bennett (from Dark Passage and Mystery Street), Robert Alda (The Man I Love), John Ridgely (The Big Sleep) and a young Wanda Hendrix (from another great and nearly forgotten noir, Ride the Pink Horse – great title huh?).

The expressionistic look of the Nora Prentiss is a testament to the always excellent work by Howe and this film ranks amongst his best. The picture literally drips with a paranoid, claustrophobic atmosphere that's hard to shake. Vincent Sherman directed a number of noirs for Warner Brothers including Backfire, The Unfaithful (also with Sheridan), The Affair in Trinidad and The Garment Jungle, but I think Nora Prentiss is my favourite. The score by Franz Waxman is also stellar.

All that said, Nora Prentiss, like a lot of films from the era, requires a modern audience willing to grant the story a little leeway and suspend some disbelief ...particularly for the conclusion, an ending that's at once the film's best attribute, but also a little hard to swallow. It may not stand up to extensive scrutiny, but it makes for a excellent downbeat finale.


the coelacanth said...

ya, i'll give that one a watch, scott.

La Sporgenza said...

You're welcome. I'd have been rather disappointed if somebody didn't take a swing at that one.

the coelacanth said...

i'll never let you down.