Nora Prentiss, 1947. 7/10

In that fateful way that film-noir operates, Dr. Talbot (Kent Smith) meets Nora (Ann Sheridan) accidentally. Doubly so, because she’s had an accident. Though the Doc is a solid, respectable guy, he quickly wants to junk everything for Nora. Then, to sort of mess with fate, he fakes his own death so can disappear with Nora. That’s a leap in the dark.

Like many noir films, the story unfolds via flashback–a jail house self-confession. With this device, there’s a sort of ‘if only I could go back to then, then none of this would’ve…’ quality. In effect, the flashback lets the viewer identify with the protagonist (Dr. Richard Talbot here). “What was he hiding, what did he do?” He begins, referring to himself. Right off we see that his wife Lucy (Rosemary DeCamp) is bossy and regimented.

Somewhat arrogantly, he upbraids his colleague Dr. Joel Merrian for being late, when he’s late himself. “Am I dead or something?” moons Nora as she comes to in Richard’s office after her close call in the street. She seems to have fun with everyone around her. “I, I seem to amuse you”, Richard stammers. It’s clear that she unsettled him; it’s also obvious that he’s taken with her. On her return check-up, he shows interest by finding out where to catch her singing act.

Alluring act it is. He’s sort of a fish out of water sitting alone, watching her. “What’s a married man like you, with a strict routine, doing in a place like this?” She badgers him. Phil (Robert Alda), the club owner, pops in. Suddenly Richard’s got an alias, Mr. Thompson. Oh man, now Richard’s revved-up; next day, he’s taking her up to his mountain cabin. She’s so matter-of-fact comfortable that you can almost feel him churning inside–he feels great with her, but awkward, and definitely guilty. “This is a little different than most of my evenings,” she intimates. More importantly, she confides that Phil wants her to move back East with him, but she doesn’t want to.

She realizes that her ‘thing’ with Richard is dumb, and hopeless. She’s right, but now it’s her turn to give in to him. Suddenly, it’s a full-blown affair. Now he’s running late…all the time. Will be be found out? Lucy’s suspicious. He doesn’t show up for his daughter’s birthday party. Anyway, as we suspect, he wants to ‘manage’ his affair. Ever the realist, Nora tells him to give her up. He insists that he’ll ask for a divorce; otherwise, she’ll take Phil up on his offer.

As usual, he waffles. She basically tells him to get lost. Meanwhile, back at the hospital, he nervously goes into surgery. Nora is splitsville for New York. But now he’s desperate, babbling, pleading. “I’ll find some way.” He does, writing a note to his wife, taking insurance policies out of his safe, etc. But again he hesitates, tears up the note. Ahh, but Fate arrives in the form of his dying heart patient. Whether inadvertently or not, his hesitation means that the guy dies. Tantalizingly, he notices that the vital statistics on the dead guy are just like his.

So, strangely decisive, he quickly gathers the dead guy’s stuff, puts him in his car, which he incinerates, and pushes it off a cliff. Seems to work: we see a grieving widow and office staff. One substantial curiousity is that, because of his affair, there’s money missing. Joel is immediately suspicious. He finds the crumpled up note. Joel goes to Homicide. The old burned-beyond-recognition status of the corpse (what about dental records?) mucks things up.

Over in New York, he reads his own obituary in the S.F. paper, but also notices that the death is under investigation. He’s skittish with Nora–she doesn’t know about his ‘death.’ He tries to sell her on ‘waiting until the divorce is final’ deal, but she knows something’s up. This goes on for months; hiding out in a hotel room. So he gives in, and agrees to go to Phil’s new club. Phil jokingly implies that their absence must mean that there’s some hidden crime. Then Richard bumps into an S.F. acquaintance.

So he comes clean with Nora. Wasn’t it dumb to keep her in the dark? “How did you expect to get away with it?” She says, right as usual. Ironically, he’s no better off than before, as he’s reduced to skulking around again. Not surprisingly, Phil tries to get Nora’s attention; after all, he’s been good to her for years. But, just as she tries to turn him away, Richard shows up, jealous like crazy. He attacks Phil, runs off, and we get the movie’s second fiery crash.

Ironically, Richard thinks that maybe everything’s Jake. Phil, the actual gentleman here, doesn’t even press charges. Equally important, the crash has left Richard with permanent facial injuries that are pretty much an iron clad disguise. But, not so fast; we then get the S.F. cops indicting him for murdering himself. This would be the ultimate plot twist for a murder mystery. The problem is, it’s nuts.

For one thing, assuming the actual corpse wouldn’t have fingerprints, it would still be somewhat incongruous that the victim and perpetrator have the same prints. I do see that Richard wouldn’t have fingerprints on file with the police, but I would think his prints would still be all over his house. So, why not try to establish that he indeed is Richard? His reasoning for not wanting to live doesn’t add up. Nora advises him to ‘confess’ and go back to his wife. Even if Lucy won’t have him, Nora still hasn’t thrown in the towel yet. But he simply doesn’t care, and we end up with Phil waiting for Nora.

Until the ‘fake’ death, Nora Prentiss was very good. And it was still quite good until the end sequence, which dropped it another notch or so. Maybe it would’ve been better to build Phil’s character up a little more. It’s a neat device that the Lucy/Richard/Nora triangle is replaced by the Richard/Nora/Phil set-up. But Phil seems an onlooker the whole time; most of his contacts with Nora are punctuated by Richard’s appearance.

Going back a bit, we really can’t take for granted the alleged anonymity of the dead heart patient. He’s not a transient–he’s got to have had some history–in fact, Joel knows him, has treated him. Wouldn’t Joel wonder what had happened to the guy? He was a regular patient with a dangerous condition. I’ve mentioned that his dental records could still have been used to identity him. I just can’t buy this used-car of a plot with its leaking oil.

My other question is Nora’s character. Sheridan gives a great performance, seductive but honest; tough but vulnerable, and very loyal, very loving. Uniquely, Nora inverts the femme fatale stereotype into the girl-next-door who’s also a dream. But, given Richard’s behavior, she’s just too good for him. She stays with him way too long. The fact that she’s squirreled herself away in the New York hotel with him for ages is not believable.

Nora Prentiss is worth watching for the solid performances and the very tense first part, but it just gets too messy the further in we go. Farmermouse liked the songs, so he gives this seven martinis. 7/10.

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