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DANGER SIGNAL(director: Robert Florey; screenwriters: from a book by Phyllis Bottome “Murder in the Bud”/C. Graham Baker/Adele Comandini; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: Frank Magee; cast: Zachary Scott (Ronnie Mason/Marsh), Mary Servoss (Mrs. Fenchurch), Bruce Bennett (Dr. Andrew Lang), Rosemary de Camp (Dr. Silla), Faye Emerson (Hilda Fenchurch), Mona Freeman (Anne Fenchurch), Richard Erdman (Bunkie Taylor), John Ridgely (Thomas Turner), Virginia Sale (Landlady); Runtime: 78; Warner Brothers; 1945)
“It’s a febrile attempt to study a psychopath.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This routine noir feature just doesn’t cut it — its story is too implausible and it lacks proper tension. Zachary Scott plays a charming scoundrel who uses the name Ronnie Mason back East, but in Los Angeles he is Ronnie Marsh. He lives off vulnerable women by wooing them and ruthlessly going after their money. We first see him stealing his dead girlfriend’s wedding ring and lifting some money from her purse. When the landlady knocks, he climbs out the window and flees. The police investigate and find only her suicide note.

Mr. Turner (Ridgely) tells the police his wife ran off with a writer named Mason. Turner is positive that she would not commit suicide. The police tell him that all they can do is keep the case open. What gives this opening scene its noir look, is the shadowy photography James Wong Howe provides.

Scott gets on a bus for Los Angeles and steals a service pin from a sleeping passenger. When Scott looks for a vacant room to rent, he has the service pin on his suit lapel and poses as a wounded veteran. Scott talks the reluctant Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson), who is a stenographer for a college, into letting him rent the place. When Hilda sees his service pin and is impressed by his good manners and handsome looks, she changes her mind about not renting the room. Hilda was at first opposed to her mother’s idea of renting because it would mean additional work. But now rationalizes she did it for patriotic reasons since there is a housing shortage due to the war.

Scott has already charmed Hilda’s mother (Servoss) and now courts Hilda. He wins Hilda over with his earnestness and gift of gab, and gives her the ring he stole from Mrs. Turner. Scott tells her it’s his grandmother’s, and that they should keep their engagement a secret until he can sell a story and afford to marry her.

Meanwhile Hilda’s impressionable teen-age sister, Anne (Mona Freeman), returns from being treated in the hospital for a sickness. The young boy who wants to date her, Bunky (Erdman), finds himself rejected. The 28-year-old Scott has secretly taken Anne out dancing evenings and plies her with liquor, and actively turns her against Hilda. Scott manages to continue to charm Hilda’s mother. But Scott arouses Hilda’s suspicion when Bunky phones and tells Hilda he saw Scott at the bank cash several checks for stories he already sold. Hilda reacts angrily, going into his room to snoop and discovers a revolver in his suitcase. She confronts him and demands that he leave but as hard as it is for me to believe, it turns out that he has Hilda’s mother and sister on his side. So he remains.

When Anne tells the family that they are engaged this is too much for Hilda, who can’t reason anymore with her naive sister. Hilda realizes that he asked her sister to marry him when he found out that she will inherit a considerable amount of money when she marries. Hilda then goes to her friend, the college psychoanalyst, Dr. Silla (De Camp), for advice. Dr. Silla visits the Fenchurch home for dinner and gets into a conversation with Scott. Dr. Silla comes to the conclusion Scott is an egotist, who lures women but doesn’t respect them. Dr. Silla makes a plan with Hilda that they will get Scott to come to her beach house and there she will break him down and expose him as a scoundrel.

A shy and absent-minded science professor, Dr. Lang (Bennett), someone who secretly admires Hilda but can’t get up the nerve to ask her out, comes by her house to ask her assistance while he works in the lab. Hilda discovers a tube of poison and sneaks it out of the lab, planning to poison Scott by inviting him to dinner at the beach house before she executes Dr. Silla’s plan.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

Dr. Lang tells Dr. Silla he can’t understand why Hilda stole the poison. Dr. Silla understands and gets him to bring along an antidote for the poison and the two rush to the beach house, losing a police car tailing them. At the beach house, Hilda couldn’t go through with the poisoning. Anxious to leave, Scott rushes out but Mr. Turner is waiting for him. While running away from Turner, Scott slips and falls to his death down a cliff. Why and how Turner was there was never explained, except he seemed to be tailing Scott on his own.

The story simply didn’t add up, but its quick pace helped move things along. Zachary Scott can always be counted on to give a competent performance. But nothing can save this film from mediocrity. It’s a febrile attempt to study a psychopath.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”