(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: Nunnally Johnson/from the novel “Once Off Guard” by J. H.Wallis; cinematographer: Milton Krasner; editors: Marjorie Johnson/Gene Fowler, Jr.; music: Arthur Lange/Hugo Friedhofer; cast: Edward G. Robinson (Richard Wanley), Joan Bennett (Alice Reed), Raymond Massey (Frank Lalor), Edmond Breon (Dr. Michael Barkstane), Dan Duryea (Heidt), Thomas E. Jackson (Inspector Jackson), Arthur Loft (Claude Mazard), Dorothy Peterson (Mrs. Wanley), Robert Blake (Dickie Wanley); Runtime: 99; MGM/UA; 1944)

“A classic Fritz Lang film noir about the transgression of middle-class morality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwart

A classic Fritz Lang film noir about the transgression of middle-class morality. Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) is a professor of criminal psychology at Manhattan’s fictional Gotham University (probably a substitute for Columbia). He’s a stuffy, intellectual, workaholic, middle-aged married man with two kids, who just sees his family off as they depart for Maine on a summer vacation. Before entering his exclusive private men’s club to enjoy his first night of liberation from his family duties, Wanley stares at an alluring portrait of a woman in the next door art gallery’s window and fantasizes about her. Wanley then meets with his equally high-brow stuffy middle-aged friends at the club for a few drinks — DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and medical doctor Michael Barkstane (Breon). They tease the old-fashioned virtuous man about his newly acquired bachelorhood and joke that he’ll now be living it up, but Wanley assures them he’s to do nothing wild but go early to bed and present his usual morning college lecture.

On Wanley’s way home alone at 10:30 p.m. he stops again to look at the painting and is startled to discover the model, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), is standing before him and observing his reaction. She’s pleased that he admires how attractive she is and invites him for a drink at the local bar, and then convinces him to go over to her apartment to look at some more paintings the artist did. While Wanley behaves innocently in her swank place nursing a drink and idly chatting, a jealous and brutish boyfriend bursts in and accuses her of being unfaithful. He takes his anger out on the professor and starts choking him to death. When Alice realizes that the professor might be killed she slips him a scissors and he fatally stabs him in the back. They both refuse to call the police fearing a scandal, and decide that the professor will go back home to get his Caddy and dump the body of the man they don’t know by name. Alice says no one knows she was seeing him and they will never see each other again.

The professor nervously drives up the Henry Hudson Parkway and tosses the burly body in the woods at one of the exits just outside of Manhattan but cuts his finger on the fence, leaves his footprints in the mud, and his tire marks on the road where he parked. When he next sees his DA friend, Lalor is excited about a report he received that a missing millionaire financier, Claude Mazard, has been found by a boy scout and that he had been murdered by a scissors. The DA invites the professor along to see how the police under Inspector Jackson conduct a thorough murder investigation. Though the professor acts guilty and so overcome with remorse that he’s anxious to incriminate himself, the DA doesn’t suspect that his old friend could ever be involved in something as sordid as this and tends to just bypass him as a suspect and concentrate on a missing bodyguard.

There’s one very amusing scene when the professor is listening to the radio for a news report about the murder and an antacid commercial is fully played, as the professor turns colors as the spokesperson is describing an upset stomach similar to the way he feels inside.

Meanwhile, Alice is contacted by the sleazy ex-cop bodyguard, Frank Heidt (Dan Duryea), who was kicked off the force because of blackmail charges. He tells her he knows she and her mysterious boyfriend killed his client and that she better pay him $5,000 or he goes to the police. Frank’s been hired by Mazard’s Wall Street firm to tail him and make sure their wealthy and secretive boss comes under no harm.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

When Alice calls the professor with this bad news, he philosophizes that the only choice left is for her to spike Frank’s drink with a number of the sedative pills his doctor friend gave him to relieve his tension and hope that is potent enough to kill him. This doesn’t work as the wily blackmailer sniffs it out that he’s about to be poisoned, and takes the blackmail money and demands another payment tomorrow. Upon hearing this the professor takes the poison, as he’s too ashamed of himself to face his upper-middle-class peers and family. But the police have been looking for the missing villainous bodyguard as a suspect, and when he’s spotted in the street near Alice’s residence — he’s killed when he pulls a gun on the police who tried to stop him. When Alice tries to call the professor to tell him their worries are over and he doesn’t answer, the camera follows him slumped over in his chair. In the next shot he’s awakened by his club’s waiter, as the surprise ending reveals it was only all a nightmare.

The film was suspenseful, ably directed by Lang, and filled with all kinds of Freudian psychological interpretations about sexual repressions. The dark camera shots and jittery angles caught by cinematographer Milton Krasner, added to the tension seen in Robinson’s internal struggle. The performances by the stars was superb. That the Robinson character made one wrong move in his life and had to pay for it, shows how even the most innocent type of person is capable of murder if he’s faced with the right circumstances. The only thing I didn’t care for was the surprise ending. It seemed to be tacked onto the story not for its artistic merit but as a Hollywood “Production Code” decision not to ruffle feathers about sexual misconduct. The producer and screenwriter was Nunnally Johnson and it is based on a story by J. H.Wallis.

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