Undercurrent, 1946. 6/10

Top shelf cast for this psychological film-noir/mystery. Robert Taylor is Alan, a big wheel, courting Katherine Hepburn’s Ann. She’s already got an admirer in Professor Joe Bangs (Dan Tobin) a colleague of her dad, Prof. David Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Although Alan has gotten rich off of Government contracts for his aeronautical inventions, his brother Michael (Robert Mitchum) has dirt on him.

She takes an obvious shine to Alan. He’s all charm “Do you see the spark?” he hints, as they experience some static electricity. She’s pretty much overwhelmed, feeling frumpy and undesirable. Nonetheless, we leap ahead at a lurch: she’s married to him. She feels out-of-place in his crowd; more or less treated like a kid or poor relation.

When she vows to fit in better with his friends, he responds, chillingly, “If you do, I’ll kill you” Sort of condescending misdirection. Next, from a sort of motherly aunt type, Mrs. Foster (Kathryn Card), she hears about Michael. Alan goes on about Michael, accusing him of embezzling from their company. Anyway, more or less fortified by a new wardrobe and Alan’s confidence (his mother was an invalid for years before her death), they’re planning a dinner party.

She’s pretty much comfortable now, the gracious host. To Judge Putnam (Charles Trowbridge) she goes on about a book of poetry that she didn’t realize belonged to Michael. Alan knows that however, and goes nuts, instantly jealous. That’s weird, as she hasn’t even met Michael yet. They go down to the family home, near Mrs. Foster’s.

There’s some quizzical looks from the caretaker George (Leigh Whipper) and even the dog. In the stables, a horse rears, and a disturbed guy is going on. When Alan gets back he berates her for playing a piano tune that his mother was playing when she died. Another gaslighting moment, as George tells her that Alan’s mother never played the piano.

She figures out (with George’s help) that it was Michael who played that piano tune. She tells George they have to ‘help’ Alan. But out on the West Coast, they run into Sylvia (Jayne Meadows) an old flame of Michael’s. She’s got some angle on him, but she’s kind of secretive. While Alan’s on a sidetrip, she visits his office; but, like everyone else, the assistant there is guarded about Michael.

There’s more subterfuge about him–but this time from Michael himself. She finally runs into him at a family beach front house around the Bay Area, and mistakes him for a caretaker. He points out that it’s dangerous to swim nearby, because there’s a bad “undercurrent.” Suddenly, Alan shows up; berating her once again for snooping into the past. A lot of shadows on the wall, tumbled furniture. Michael remains incognito.

Meanwhile, she surmises from gossip that Alan’s intentionally trying to make her look bad. More than that, his motive for marrying her was to have a ‘replacement’ for someone who got away–and that he was going to ‘create’ a wife to suit his fancy. She goes to see Slyvia to find out the straight dope on Michael.

She finds out that it’s Michael who’s been wronged by Alan. Sylvia thinks that Alan has killed him. Alan wants Ann to go back East. She ruminates on what Sylvia told her. As usual, George knows something. We know Michael is around; even the dog knows. The Alan/Michael reunion scene at last. Michael accuses Alan of killing a former employee who invented the aircraft control device that Alan took credit for. Aha!

Alan admits he’d rather have Anne than his reputation and fortune. It’s an atmospheric, almost gothic scene in the stables, with them arguing while the wind is whipping around, the horse rearing, leaves scattering, the lantern swaying…But Anne never stops apologizing for suspecting Alan of misdeeds. At least she finally gathers that Michael is around. Alan thinks she’s in love with Michael.

Maybe so. More threats from Alan “I said I’d never let you go!” He literally stops her at the gate. “Don’t be afraid, Anne” She just can’t get away from him. Alan stupidly takes the cantankerous horse as they ride with Mrs. Foster to her place. Alan’s apparently thrown by the horse, but–he’s faking it. With Mrs. Foster gone, he tries to push Ann off the path and over a cliff. He almost succeeds, but, interestingly, the horse saves her by trampling Alan.

At long last, she has Michael available. The movie, already a bit long, lingers on this final scene as they tell each other what we already know. Undercurrent has good performances from most of the cast, captivating settings with appropriate atmosphere, and has many good scenes–especially the first scene with Mitchum, and the stable scenes. But the plot never really adds up.

It’s hardly to buy the premise that Ann’s character could fall in love with someone she doesn’t know she’s met until almost the very end. If Michael’s character had a larger role it might’ve been more believable; for example, have Michael reveal his identity to Ann in the California beach house sequence. He really gains nothing by waiting; as it is, he only comes clean with Ann after Alan has tried to kill her.

Which leads to a bigger problem: why would Alan want to kill her anyway? If she was going to throw a wrench in his plans, why would he want to marry her? Her theory that she reminds him of a lost love is a more plausible reason for his love/hate relationship with her. The idea that Alan’s past will catch up with him because of Ann doesn’t necessarily follow. She remained loyal to him most of the way, until his domineering behavior became overtly dangerous.

That would all make for a good straight psychological thriller premise, as he clearly tries to drive her over the edge (in all possible ways, as we see). But what triggering event or cause could their be for his psychotic behavior towards her? In a nutshell, the wartime invention element has nothing to do with Alan’s personal life; Ann’s a complete outsider to all that. I see three possible plots here: a revenge plot between the brothers, possibly with Alan’s delusions complicating things, a love triangle, with Ann coveted by Alan and Michael, and a straight Gaslight psychodrama, with the focus on Alan’s obsession with Ann.

What Undercurrent does is combine elements of all three of these plots. The result is a lot of underdeveloped and incomplete aspects that don’t fit well together. In addition to expanding Michael’s role, it might also have been interesting to give Sylvia more scenes. It seems weird that she has simply accepted the rumor that Michael’s dead–why can’t she drive out to the beach house and find him skulking about? After all, she’s apparently been living nearby the entire time that he’s off the grid.

With Sylvia and Michael more prominent throughout, there would be another shot at a triangle once Ann shows up. It’s just too automatic that Michael falls for Ann just because she’s there, and Alan’s gone.

Undercurrent is worth a look, literally, as there’s plenty of good cinematography here. Just not a lot of drama. Farmermouse liked the Continental convertible, so he gives Undercurrent six hood ornaments. 6/10.

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