Robert Wise | 88 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG*
Director Robert Wise certainly had an eclectic career. Depending on your genre predilections, you may feel he’s best known for The Sound of Music and West Side Story, or The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or The Haunting and The Body Snatcher, or perhaps even a string of film noirs including The Set-Up, I Want to Live!, Odds Against Tomorrow, and this mid-’40s thriller.
Based on the novel Deadlier Than the Male** by James Gunn (not that one), the story sees a young woman, Helen (Claire Trevor), getting a divorce in Reno so she can marry her fiancee (Phillip Terry). On the night she’s due to leave, Helen discovers the murdered bodies of her friendly neighbour and her new boyfriend, but chooses to skip town early rather than tell the police. On the way back to San Francisco she runs into the murderer, Sam (Lawrence Tierney). He inveigles his way into Helen’s life, but when she refuses his advances he turns his attention to her rich sister (Audrey Long), and… well, I’m getting quite far into it now, aren’t I? Suffice to say there are affairs, investigations, and more murders. It’s “an hour and a half of ostentatious vice”, as one contemporary critic put it. You should read their full review, it’s full of more gems, concluding that “discriminating people are not likely to be attracted to this film.”
Even today, it’s quite a nasty little work, although tastes have evolved to the point where “discriminating people” are likely to be attracted to it — though not purely for the violence. You’d imagine that would pale by today’s standards, but even now the opening double homicide — presented pretty much in full on screen — is quite shocking, especially because it seems so horrendously plausible. Much movie violence is heightened, involving gangsters or spies or whatever, but here it’s a lover in a jealous rage killing two people in the kitchen of a regular house. Grim.
The real reason to watch is the quality cast. Trevor and Tierney are excellent as the secretly-duelling central pair: her, scheming but oft thwarted; him, an unreadable mass of brazen nerve, cunning, and a fatally short temper. There’s able support from the ever-reliable Elisha Cook Jr. as Sam’s only friend, attempting to aid his cover-up, and Esther Howard as the gregarious landlady who won’t let the murder of her friend go unavenged. Plus, Walter Slezak as a strangely jovial investigator, one of those left-field characters who never quite seem like real people but, thanks to their appealing affectations, sometimes develop a cult following.
Nasty it may remain, but Lady of Deceit is really probing dark corners of human nature; mining its story from the places people might find themselves if they’re a little too prepared to dig fresh holes to avoid potential troubles. Performed by a cast all firmly on their game, it adds up to a quality noir.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013 — the first on it to be more than four years old, in fact. Read more here.
** The film is called that in Australia. In the US, it’s Born to Kill. In the UK, it was released as Lady of Deceit and the print aired on TV bears the same title, though the DVD release plumps for Born to Kill. For my money, the novel’s title is the best, followed by the UK one, while the US title is blandly generic. ^