Vincent Sherman | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English
MacRae is Bob Corey, our hero, whose hospital bed is visited by a woman (Viveca Lindfors) who tells him his army buddy Steve (Edmond O’Brien) has been in a horrible accident. The staff dismiss his story as an hallucination, but when he gets out, Bob and his new love, nurse Julie (Virginia Mayo), set out to find out what’s happened to Steve — who, it turns out, is wanted for murder — and find themselves negotiating a complex web of past events and future dangers….
Backfire doesn’t seem to be very well regarded on the whole (though, in spite of that, there’s a surprising amount of production detail on Wikipedia). This may be because at times it feels more like an Agatha Christie mystery than a film noir: a pair of clean-cut amateur sleuths bumble their way through a string of clues, learning more and more about the plot thanks to other characters’ flashbacks. I like a good Christie mystery though, so the pairing of styles isn’t a problem for me.
Besides, even if the film seems to forgo the usual gritty noir trappings for a pleasant “English murder mystery”-type tale at first, it actually has its fair share of dark elements and noir-ish features, which only increase as it goes on: secretive gangsters, nightclub singers, revenge shootings… Then there’s the photography which, again, transitions from a fairly ‘regular’ (for want of a better word) style early on, to a world of rain-slicked streets and high-contrast lighting.
The story is reportedly “lifted from other, many times better, films”, which may well be true, but clearly I’ve not seen them. It all builds to a twist that I didn’t see coming, which is always good in my book; plus a final shoot-out featuring something that never seems to happen in films: the villain loses because he runs out of bullets! Along the way, the movie challenges the audience to keep up with which flashback is taking place when and how they’re connected to each other — indeed, the really attentive viewer might be able to use that to correctly guess the ultimate reveal.
MacRae is perfectly decent as the perfectly decent chap, who somehow manages to be a much better detective than any of the detectives. He’s aided by a sterling supporting cast, from the club singer’s tag-along roommate (Sheila Stephens — later Sheila MacRae) to the ex-army buddy mortician (Dane Clark), from the slightly creepy hotel desk clerk (who isn’t adequately credited) to the wisecracking police chief (Ed Begley).
It’s in the latter’s case that the writing gets a chance to shine, too: the chief’s flashback is littered with snappy dialogue that feels kinda like he’s telling you the story himself, not just a matter-of-fact “here’s what happened earlier” objective account. Other flashbacks retain a degree of subjectivity — we only see events the characters could have witnessed, and in some cases the way they witnessed them (like the cleaning lady who only sees customers’ feet, before spying through a keyhole in a shot complete with keyhole matte) — but there’s an idea there, briefly glimpsed in that detective’s flashback, that would’ve made for an even more interesting film.
As it stands, Backfire isn’t all it could be, but I think it’s good for more than the consensus allows.
Backfire is on TCM (UK) tomorrow, Saturday 15th November 2014, at 1:15pm.