Saturday, September 2, 2023

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

The Damned Don’t Cry is a 1950 Joan Crawford melodrama with a definite film noir tinge.

In classic noir style the story is told in flashback. The movie opens with the discovery of the body of a mobster found in the desert. A home movie is discovered that shows the mobster with glamorous socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford). Lorna is nowhere to be found which leads the police to speculate that it might be worth questioning her about the murder.

We then get the flashback that fills us in on Lorna’s life. She was once Ethel Whitehead, married to an ordinary working guy, and with a six-year-old son. Life is a constant round of struggle and poverty. When the boy is killed in an accident Ethel has had enough. She leaves. She wants more out of life and she wants to get it before it’s too late.

She gets a job as a fashion model. The models get kickbacks for introducing suckers to a gambling joint. Ethel is starting to make some money and she likes it.

She meets a rather nice man. Martin Blackford (Kent Smith) is an accountant. Through Ethel he meets Grady and Grady has a small accounting problem which Martin clears up. Grady is impressed. Grady is a businessman whose business activities are not what you might call strictly legal. In fact he’s a gangster. Grady is impressed by the idea that a guy like Martin could put his operation on a more sound and profitable footing.

Grady sings Martin’s praises to his boss, big-time mobster George Castleman (David Brian). Castleman sees the possibilities. Castleman represents a new type of gangster. He sees the future in terms of operating a crime organisation like a legitimate business. Much more efficient and much more profitable. In Castleman’s view the days of gang wars and thuggery and having guys rubbed out are over. He offers Martin the job of running the whole financial side of his criminal empire. Martin doesn’t want to be involved in crime but he figures that the only way to keep Ethel is by having lots of money so he takes the job.

Soon Martin is a rich man but he did it all for Ethel but Ethel has set her sights on George Castleman. He can give her what she wants. He can give her more than Martin could ever hope to give her.

Ethel is soon installed as Castleman’s mistress. And with the help of socialite Patricia Longworth (Selena Royle) she reinvents herself as Lorna Hansen Forbes. She has acquired enough class to pass as a high society dame. She has everything she wanted.

For the sake of convenience and simplicity I’m going to continue to refer to her as Ethel.

There’s one fly in the ointment - Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Nick runs the west coast territory for Castleman but Nick is old school. He does things the old way. If someone causes a problem Nick gets the boys to take the guy for a ride. Nick’s habit of having guys killed puts him out of synch with Castleman’s approach and there’s eventually going to be a showdown. And Ethel, much against her will, is going to be right in the middle. Ethel doesn’t like being confronted by unpleasant realities like gangsters planning to have each other rubbed out.

It’s a good script with more than enough noirishness to justify the film noir label. Both Ethel and Martin are nice ordinary people but they get sucked in by the lure of easy money and they slowly become corrupted. They make more and more compromises and as they get in deeper it becomes more and more impossible to get out.

Ethel is ambitious and ruthless but she’s not as tough and ruthless as she thinks she is, and while we’re appalled by her climb to the top we can understand her motivation. We can understand why she thinks it’s worth paying any price to escape the life of poverty and despair she once knew. She might be a bad girl but there are lines she will not cross. One of those lines is murder. She will happily live off the proceeds of crime but she wants no part in violence of any kind. She is attracted to George Castleman because he’s a gangster who has renounced violence. It never occurs to Ethel that a situation might arise in which George would be tempted to revert to violence. Ethel thinks she can remain in control of her situation but she’s wrong.

Martin is in the same boat. He thought that being an accountant for the Mob wasn’t the same as being an actual gangster but he learns that once you work for the Mob you’re a gangster whether you like it or not.

Kent Smith is excellent as the hapless Martin. David Brian effortlessly combines smoothness and menace. Steve Cochran is always a joy to watch.

There’s so much to like about this movie but there is one major problem that can’t be evaded. Joan Crawford is right for the part and her performance is excellent but she was simply too old to play this role. At least fifteen years too old. This was true of several of her 1940s movies. Crawford was never one to let that bother her. She always relied on sheer bravado to carry it off and in most cases it worked. It doesn’t work this time.

I can buy the idea that George Castleman falls for her. He’s attracted by her intelligence, her ambition and her ruthlessness. He sees her as a female version of himself. I can just about buy the idea that Martin falls for her. For years he’d worked long hours for very little money. He had neither the time nor the money for a social life and he’s naïve about women.

What I can’t buy is that Nick Prenta would fall for her. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to fall for a woman almost old enough to be his mother. The whole romance between these two is wildly incongruous and totally unconvincing and unfortunately it’s absolutely critical to the plot that the viewer does buy it.

Apart from that problem this is a fine noir melodrama. If you can ignore the problem of Crawford’s age then it’s highly recommended.

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