Although Stronger Than Desire is eighty years old, it has a modern quality which I’ll call Lifetime Movie Channel Syndrome. Meaning that an otherwise promising plot is abruptly hi-jacked by needless melodrama. In this case, a murder is dropped in the midst of a dangerous liaison. Two unsteadily-married couples cross paths; one of the husbands attempts to blackmail the married woman he’s enamoured with.
The blackmail letters are hardly lurid, and, Elizabeth (Virginia Bruce) is batty to offer so much for them. Particularly since her husband Tyler (Walter Pidgeon) has been on-the-make with ex-client Barbara (Rita Johnson). It’s not likely he can afford to be high and mighty. She’s even more foolish to shoot Michael (Lee Bowman). The fact that her shot missed isn’t revealed until the end, so her guilt over inadvertently framing Michael’s wife Eva (Ann Dvorak) does add some flavor and suspense.
Tyler not only ends up defending Eva, but also cross-examines Elizabeth (is that legal?) after her courtroom confession. In fact both women confess, and, incredibly, both get off–Elizabeth tried to shoot Michael; Eva actually did. At least Elizabeth was provoked. Since there were no other witnesses, how can Eva justify self-defense? Michael’s a dirtbag alright. But, had things been a bit more rational, maybe Tyler unloads on him when Michael gets found out. Or, leave in the attempted shooting, and Elizabeth goes home to Tyler, and then Michael gets his comeuppance. But it’s just too much to accept that Elizabeth would want to kill him.
Barbara’s role was underwritten. There’s probably more chemistry between her and Tyler as between Elizabeth and Michael; but there’s very few of the more interesting ‘attorney/client’ scenes. On the other hand, Jo’s (Ilka Chase’s) character is ever-present–sort of a bad angel plunked on Elizabeth’s guilty shoulder. All of her advice is horrible: she enables Elizabeth’s fascination with Michael, keeps Tyler in the dark about it, acts as if it’s no big deal that Elizabeth might’ve killed Michael, and that it doesn’t much matter that Eva gets blamed for it. If Jo is going to stir up so much, make her a major character for whom there’s consequences.
I liked the performances in Stronger Than Desire. And, up until the murder, the movie was pretty entertaining. But, not only does the second part completely diverge from the lover-affair premise, it doesn’t have enough inner consistency to maintain suspension of disbelief. Very promising, but fairly disappointing. 5/10