Wednesday, 7 May 2014

"Nora Prentiss"

Today's feature is "Nora Prentiss", directed by Vincent Sherman, written by Paul Webster and Jack Sobell, and starring Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith.  It's the tale of a respectable nuclear family patriarch who falls for a younger, hard-boiled dame.  As his infatuation grows, he makes decisions that are more and more suspect considering his position.  So let's meet our characters...

Dr. Richard Talbot, top-level doctor and loving father to his somewhat mentally challenged children.  (His son, for example, is fond of dumbly repeating things people say).  The opening shot of his character shows him adjusting his appearance in the mirror, brushing off his suit jacket.  It's instant characterization; he likes everything to be neat and orderly. In the next shot, we see his family sitting down at the table to eat, his daughter breezing in with some gratuitous, swelling music (which frankly I don't think the character is important enough for).  The shot of them all together, bickering in a non-dysfunctional manner, shows that he has achieved what everyone should aim for: a nice family, a nice house and a nice profession.

Everything starts to change when he meets Nora Prentiss.  Of course, she's a nightclub singer (this is the only profession for attractive females in noir world).  It doesn't take long before he begins to fall for the smoking singer routine.  Nora is kind of cynical ("Dreams only last so long.  Then you get hungry.") and seems to have more of a grasp on how the real world works than Talbot.  As Talbot falls for her charms she seems perpetually ready to back out (though she is ostensibly still in love); pointing out when Talbot is making decisions that invite disaster.  And boy, does he make a lot of those.

Other characters include Phil Dinardo, the nightclub owner whom Talbot begins to see as a romantic rival, and Mr. Bailey, the doomed patient.  These characters aren't really characterized much, but they're still essential cogs in the plot machine, if you'll pardon the dehumanizing metaphor.

The acting in this film does a pretty good job of selling the characters.  Kent Smith plays a believably uptight Talbot, while Ann Sheridan as Prentiss is attractive enough (except when she's wearing those square shouldered dresses that were popular at the time).  The two have a sort of chemistry together; it's not the "these two are passionately in inflammatory love kind" but the "maybe this is a bad idea" kind which works with the themes the film is trying to convey.  

In this film, being on time and having a strict schedule is associated with keeping it together.  The daughter's late arrival to the breakfast table early in the film prompts a speech from Talbot's wife on the merits of being punctual, stating how in the real world people need to be on time for things.  It took me a second viewing to notice how this foreshadows/sets up the rest of the film.  In their first meeting Prentiss remarks to Richard how she sets her clock by him.  He's got an organized life.  It's only when he starts to deviate from his schedule (Prentiss points this out herself) on the excuse that he can do things at some other time, that things start to go wrong, and the life he has put together begins to fall apart.

Random Observation: I think they re-used the flaming car going off a cliff effect from Sudden Fear, possibly reversed.

Best Line: "It's a big city, and there's nobody to know if you're alive or dead.  And very few people to care."  Delivered ominously by John Ridgely, and it's a nice bit of foreshadowing too.

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