Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nora Prentiss (1947)

Nora Prentiss is a 1947 film noir that is often overlooked but has enough quirks to make it worth seeking out.

It’s more a noir melodrama than a conventional noir, but that’s fine by me since I quite like 40s melodramas. There are crimes of a sort in this movie, but no criminals.

Richard Talbot is a respected, pleasant but rather dull San Francisco heart specialist. He has a very successful medical practice, a comfortable home, plenty of home, a devoted wife and two well-behaved children. He should be content. And he is. Until one fateful day when a woman is knocked down in front of his office. She’s not badly hurt, just a few bruises, easily dealt with in his surgery.

The woman is Nora Prentiss, a night-club singer, and she’s much less respectable than Dr Talbot’s wife. And much more exciting. She’s vastly amused by this rather stuffy doctor who is very disturbed by her shapely legs, and even more disturbed by her willingness to display those legs. She’s even more amused when he rather sheepishly asks her the name of the night-club where she sings. And her amusement knows no bounds when he then turns up at the club with a story that his wife is out of town for the weekend.

Her amusement starts to turn to affection when she realises he really is quite clueless about women and is hardly even aware that he is making a very clumsy attempt at a seduction. He might be naïve about women but he’s kind of sweet, and she’s not used to men who treat her like a lady. His marriage might appear to be successful but the passion and the fun have gone out of it, and Nora is fun to be with. Underneath her tough cookie exterior Nora is lonely and craves the kind of affection that Dr Talbot is all too willing to show. Inevitably they drift into an affair.

Of course the strain of conducting a clandestine affair soon starts to tell on them. Richard can neither bring himself to ask his wife for a divorce not bring himelf to give up Nora. Then fate steps in, offering what appears to be a way out.

At this point the movie begins to move from being a fairly straightforward romance into full-on melodrama territory. The plot becomes increasingly contrived and unlikely, and increasingly reliant on coincidences, but this is not a weakness. This movie obeys the rules of melodrama, and contrivance and coincidence are assets in this genre. They are necessary in order to bring about the requred workings of fate.

The movie also plays some interesting games with characterisation. When we meet Nora we assume she’s going to be a Bad Girl/Femme Fatale character. Her behaviour, her dress, her provocative posing on the doctor’s examining table, her tough girl banter, all point to this. But she isn’t a femme fatale. Her affect on Dr Talbot’s life might be disastrous, but she’s really a nice girl who just wants to be loved.

Several key minor characters are dealt with in the same way. We’re led to make assumptions about the roles these characters will play and the sorts of people they’ll turn out to be, and those expectations turn out to be totally wrong. This is not done in a dishonest way, but it is done in such a way as to make us uncomfortably aware of the dangers of judging people, and of course of the dangers of judging Dr Talbot and Nora. He may be The Unfaithfull Husband and she may be The Other Woman but they’re real people who have real emotions and are trying their best (even if sometimes very unsuccessfully) to deal with a difficult situation.

The ending is unexpected and rather bizarre, but unlike the endings of so many noirs it’s a satisfying ending.

Ann Sheridan is very good as Nora. Kent Smith was one of those actors who got as far as playing leads in B-movies but never quite made the big time. His superb performance in Nora Prentiss suggests that he deserved better.

Nora Prentiss benefits from fine cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, and competent direction by Vincent Sherman. It uses some standard noir techniques such as telling most of the story in a flashback but it uses this device effectively and for a purpose. It’s both a film noir and a “women’s picture” as the term was understood in the 40s and it manages to be an intriguing example of both genres. A movie that certainly deserves more recognition than it’s received. Highly recommended.

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