(director: Mel Ferrer; screenwriters: Lionel Houser, story by Jack Leonard & JamesO’Hanlan; cinematographer: Leo Toyer; editor: Harry Marker; music: Roy Webb; cast: Jane Cowl (Aunt Clara Ewing), Robert Ryan (David McClean), Claudette Colbert (Ellen Ewing), Paul Kelly (D.A. Eric Lowell), Percy Helton (J. P. Roy Palmer), Vivian Vance (Leah), Dave Barbour (Lucian Randall), Doris Dudley (Pearl), Elisabeth (Dr. R.W. Roberts), Philip Ober (Gregory Kent); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Bruce Manning, Jack H. Skirball; RKO; 1950- B/W)

“Despite the story making little sense, I enjoyed it.”

Spoilers: throughout review.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Scaramouche (1952) actor Mel Ferrer (“Green Mansions”) is the actor-turned-director of this rarely seen film noir. It’s based on a story by Jack Leonard (known for The Narrow Margin) & James O’Hanlan, and is scripted by Lionel Houser.

The story revolves around the architect David McClean (Robert Ryan) and concert pianist Ellen Ewing (Claudette Colbert). They are about to wed when a stranger interrupts the ceremony to state that Ellen is already married to a man named Lucian Randall (Dave Barbour). This claim stuns Ellen. But a telephone inquiry to Fairview, California, where the marriage supposedly took place, supports the accusation, and the wedding is postponed.

Ellen and David immediately drive to coastal Fairview, where Ellen’s aunt Clara (Jane Cowl) lives and Ellen maintains a vacation home. Also living there is her longtime guardian, lawyer, Gregory Kent (Philip Ober).

It’s confirmed that it really is Ellen’s signature on the marriage license by Roy Palmer (Percy Helton), the justice of the peace, who supposedly performed the wedding ceremony.

That night, in a hotel room that Kent has reserved for her, Ellen tries to recall her previous wedding day when Leah (Vivian Vance, played Ethel Mertz on the I Love Lucy TV show), a hotel maid, comes in wearing Ellen’s mother’s pin, which she claims Ellen gave to her on her wedding night. Leah then insists that Ellen had married Mr. Randall.

The couple then meet Randall at a private party.  After Randall tells David that Ellen is indeed his wife, she leaves the party to talk with him alone. Then Randall is fatally shot, and Ellen is the prime suspect.

Ellen is prosecuted for murder by District Attorney Eric Lowell (Paul Kelly), who also happens to be her former suitor, and she is defended by Kent.

During the trial, Randall is revealed to be a convicted blackmailer, and Eric accuses Ellen of killing him in order to stop his blackmail of her. At first, Ellen denies all of Eric’s charges, but as the district attorney’s pointedly attacks her, she becomes hysterical and admits she is unsure about what happened to Randall. Ellen is convicted and  sent to an insane asylum.

David turns into a private eye to try and get to the bottom of things. He seeks out Leah at the hotel. For a price, she offers to tell him the whole story after work. Just as David is about to meet with Leah, however, she is strangled by a wire-wielding man. After David finds Leah’s body, he is attacked by her killer. David avoids the killer when driving away from the crime scene, as he jumps out of the car after it crashes into a ditch.

This new evidence gets Ellen cleared of all charges, and she starts to figure out things.

That night, at Clara’s house, Ellen appears with a gun and gets Kent to confess. He reveals that Ellen’s father, a judge, had wrongfully sent him to an insane asylum. To exact revenge, he says, he plotted against Ellen, killing Randall himself and hiring another man to murder Leah and he also tried to murder David. Kent then tries to force Ellen to attack him, so that she will shoot him and be forever incarcerated as a mad woman. However, David arrives and, while fighting with the lawyer, causes a large mirror to fall on top of him
and kill him. Ellen’s nightmare is over. But one of the many questions is why would Kent be her guardian after her father sent him to the asylum.

Despite the story making little sense, I enjoyed it. It’s an under-rated film, whose lead actors are terrific. It’s worth checking out.