Backfire, 1950. 7/10

Pretty good film noir, let down somewhat by a confusing structure. The performances are even and nuanced. Gordon MacRae’s Bob undertakes a quest to find a war buddy who has gotten mixed up with gangsters; strangely enough, another war buddy turns out to be the head gangster. By the time Bob has rescued Steve (Edmund O’Brien) there’s a pile of bodies left along the way.

The premise is fine, right up noir-alley. Although I’m not convinced that the rather long opening sequence (showing Bob’s convalescence) helps the pacing or the tone. It has a lighter romantic motif. Virginia Mayo, as MacRae’s love interest Julie, is the angelic counterpart to the sultry dark-haired Viveca Lindfors’ Lysa. Maybe the movie should’ve begun with Bob meeting Bonnie (memorably played by MacRaes’s actual wife) and Lysa in the first nightclub scene.

It’s difficult to unpack the plot due to a quicksand of flashbacks. That device works better when it’s sort of a ‘one-way ticket’. If a movie has a frame story, with the bulk of the plot unfolding as a continuous flashback, that’s guiding the viewer one way. Or, if the movie starts near the denouement, then goes back, leading up to and beyond the opening, that also points one way.

But in Backfire, flashbacks pop us back, forward, every which way, to the point that we’re having to guess when something ‘really’ happens. The effect isn’t only disorienting, it subordinates all the other, more interesting aspects of character, motivation, and atmosphere, to the technical plot puzzle.

The dialogue, especially Sheila MacRae’s, was well-written and delivered. Ed Begley’s Captain Garcia manages a nice balance between world-weariness and toughness. Lindfors makes a great noir kept woman, and Dane Clark’s businessman/hood character(s) shows the superficial charm needed to aptly fill both roles. MacRae doggedly plays the ordinary guy in over his head in noir territory.

Definitely watchable, Backfire suffers from overly-slick plotting that obscures a genuinely good film noir. 7/10.

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