Thursday, February 20, 2014

Conflict (1945)

Conflict is a somewhat overlooked movie, which is a bit strange given that it’s a 1945 Warner Brothers film noir starring Humphrey Bogart. The reason it’s overlooked may be that this is not Bogart in tough guy mode. Far from it. This is Bogart in loser mode, but he’s not a glamorous loser. More a sad pathetic loser. Which is probably not what most people want from a Bogart movie, which is probably why this movie bombed at the box office in 1945.

Richard Mason (Bogart) and his wife Kathryn (Rose Hobart) have what most of their friends think is is a perfect marriage. The reality is however far from perfect. They don’t really like each other very much and Kathryn is the sort of woman who just can’t help being critical. Especially when she senses a weakness. And it’s not difficult for her to sense weakness in Richard.

The marriage is certainly less than ideal from Richard’s point of view, and there’s a further complication in the form of Kathryn’s kid sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith). Five years ago, when Richard married Kathryn, he didn’t take much notice of Evelyn. She was just a kid. Now she’s all grown up and Richard is definitely noticing her. In fact he now wishes he was married to Evelyn rather than Kathryn. He’s sure that she feels the same way. Not that she’s ever told him, but he’s still sure she feels that way. As Richard will discover, for a middle-aged man to fall in love with a woman half his age isn’t the cleverest thing to do. But they do say there’s no fool like an old fool.

The problem as Richard sees it is that Kathryn is standing in the way of his happiness. And of Evelyn’s. Kathryn has made it quite clear she will never give him a divorce, and certainly not in order to make such a fool of himself. Richard is convinced however that he and Evelyn were meant to be together. If only there was some way to remove the one obstacle to their happiness.

Their friend Dr Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet) is a psychiatrist. He’s also a shrewd judge of human nature and he doesn’t miss much. He understands Richard better than Richard understands himself, not that that’s a difficult feat since Richard doesn’t understand himself very well at all. And Richard’s understanding of other people is even more flawed.

This situation is of course going to end in tears. In fact it’s going to end in murder. But Richard will find that things don’t seem to have happened at all the way he thought they had and he is soon one very confused man, a confused man who is unravelling rather rapidly.

Arthur T. Horman and Dwight Taylor wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann. The plot is extremely contrived but it’s contrived in a clever and entertaining way, as long as you are prepared to accept that things happen in movies in ways that are rather improbably complicated compared to the way things happen in real life. That’s why movies are more fun than real life.

German-born director Curtis Bernhardt made some interesting movies around this time. He wasn’t able to make an implausible story seen plausible but he was able to at least make the movie look good. And it looks very good. There are plenty of the visual touches film noir fans enjoy so much. The crucial scene on the mountain road is particularly good, being both suitably sinister and mysterious, and nicely doom-laden. And since the movie involves psychiatry he throws in some of the psychiatry special effects that so delight fans of 1940s psychiatry movies like myself.

Alexis Smith is wasted in a role that doesn’t really go anywhere. She really gets to do very little other than acting as the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. Sydney Greenstreet makes a fine psychiatrist.

Bogart’s character is the one that really matters and he gives a sensitive and complex performance as a man controlled by his own delusions with a grip on reality that becomes steadily more tenuous. He very wisely underplays the part, avoiding the usual tricks that most actors resort to when playing the role of a man self-destructing. Richard does self-destruct, but Bogart keeps it subtle which makes it all the affecting. There’s nothing twitchy
or mannered in his performance. This also allows him to make a sad and unattractive character oddly sympathetic. Bogart wasn’t happy with the film but he gives one of his most effective performances.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD includes no extras but it does offer an extremely good transfer.

Conflict is not a great movie and is perhaps not a complete success, but it’s stylish and enjoyable and Bogart’s performance alone is sufficient reason to see it. Content-wise it’s more crime melodrama than film noir but it has the style to please noir fans. Recommended.

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