George Raft is Detective Joe Warne, looking for foul play in the somewhat fishy suicide of playboy piano composer Keith Vincent (Edward Ashley). There’s some lady friends of Vincent’s that might have stories to tell–his maid Susan (Myrna Dell), sisters Frances Ransom (Lynn Bari) and Carol Page (Virginia Huston). Lover boy has pictures of these ‘dolls’ pinned up at his pad. Although the song Vincent is working on when he’s killed is dedicated to ‘Dolores’; that’s a D.O.A. clue, as he calls all the women in his life by that name. We’ve seen dogs, cab drivers, spouses, ‘stool-pigeons’, and others as helpers to movie detectives, but how about a mom? That’s Mabel Paige as Joe’s mom.
Susan is so indifferent to her boss’s death–she’s slept through the whole thing “I mind my own business. Which is dusting furniture.” Not to mention, speaking of Vincent’s music “it was icky!” Joe looks over the line-up, err, the photos on Vincent’s wall, as the houseboy comes in, who’s immediately interrogated.
Tough guy Joe is next interviewing mom about her bingo night; but she’s asking the questions now: “want a sandwich, Joe?” and “Who’s this Dolores?” Soon, he’s dreaming a montage of all the Dolores’s pictures. Next day, Joe’s back at Vincent’s. Susan lets on “for my money, all his gears didn’t mesh.” At a restaurant, he finds Dolores #1, a waitress (Clair); she’s witty, but he soon moves on to Dolores #2.
That would be Nora. But she’s just killed herself–thanks to Vincent. Back at headquarters, after (the chief says) the ninth Dolores, he’s reminded that the coroner says Vincent’s death was a suicide, so Joe’s officially off the case. Meaning, unofficially, he’s right back in the middle of it. More jawing with Susan, and he’s onto another Dolores, that is Frances. “Tell me,” Joe asks “why did you kill him?” “Which one?” is her comeback. Knocking her boyfriend into the pool is Joe’s cool move. Onto dance instructor Grace, to check on Frances’s alibi.
He gets into Frances’s place; he wants to take her out. She says ‘no’ a bunch of ways, but he wheedles her into it. At the Brown Derby: “you spend much time at places like this?” she wonders. Guess not: “no, on my nights off, I usually go to the opera.” It happens to be the club where Carol’s singing. Joe gets the piano player to do Vincent’s song, Nocturne. He meets the creep duo Fingers (Joseph Pevney) and Torp (Bern Hoffman). Torp? Sounds like a sci-fi name for ‘goon’. Anyway, he abducts Susan. Joe finds Carol, quizzing her about Vincent’s song, how she knew it.
She tells him that Vincent and Frances just broke up. Frances’s place again. “I seem to have fallen into a pretty fancy hole” she figures. She also thinks “Isn’t it better that he’s dead?” He begs to differ, but manages to make out with her. Oh, oh, Torp’s hiding in a backroom, so there’s a fight. But hilariously, the landlady chews them all out for the commotion–and they’re all apologetic. Then, a little distance away, Torp continues the fight, because “I don’t think the little baby can hear us now.” Maybe gratuitously, Susan gets beat up.
At the Brown Derby, Joe tries to get Fingers to finger Torp. Fingers, though, had a beef with Vincent, so, then, a motive. For a mood switch, another mom scene, with her friend, Mrs. O’Rourke. Nonchalantly, they speculate about powder and fingerprints on the murder weapon. They also provide a great clue–maybe the murder weapon had a blank, meaning that Vincent was murdered, then the gun was put in his hand, and a blank round fired–to simulate suicide. On the set where she’s an extra, Joe finds Frances; he runs his blank cartridge theory by her…“You’ve been reading too many detective stories” she says. “No, I’ve been talking to mom” is his cunning rejoinder.
At Shawn’s (John Banner’s) studio, Joe sees a body hanging from the ceiling, it’s Shawn. Cops are suddenly everywhere. Getting away in a patrol car, Joe’s back at Frances’s, and breaks in. Someone had booby-trapped the place by leaving the gas on. Frances is passed out on a couch; she comes around thanks to Joe (who’s just read her suicide note).
Quickly, we zip back to the club, and another fight with Torp. The big lug gets a pot of steaming coffee in the face. Now, Joe confronts Carol: is she the murderer? Of Vincent? Of Shawn? Frances joins them; Joe thinks Carol killed both guys, with Torp’s help. Oh, yeah, now I get it…it’s Fingers, who’s actually married to Carol, who was cheating with Vincent.
Fingers thinks he’s got the drop on Joe, with the old gun-in-the-piano deal. But Joe plays the winning hand–he tells Fingers that the gun’s not loaded–once Joe gets it away from him, he demonstrates that it actually was. Finally, the police show up, and nab Fingers. Joe and Frances are all good now, she’s even invited to meet his mom.
To say the plot is overly-complex is just to scratch the surface of Nocturne. There’s enough detours and u-turns to block off a whole city, let alone clog up a few brains. I only think I know what happened. Why was Frances protecting Carol if it were really Fingers who did the murders? Why did Fingers believe Joe that the gun wasn’t loaded? Joe couldn’t possibly have known it was there; even if he did, he would hardly have access to it. How did Susan get involved enough to get worked over by Torp? How did Shawn figure into it?
Well, in a way, it doesn’t much matter that several plot lines are frayed; the central mystery is resolved, and it’s a believable, if fairly unexpected outcome. There’s just a few too many buckets of red herrings dumped on us.
I liked the performances here, especially the ‘Dolores’–they’ll all play unique personalities–there’s a lot of attitude, from fairly naive, likeable Carol to sandpaper-gritty Susan. The dialogue is super snappy, but it reveals character excellently; not to mention entertains in a wry fashion, without sinking the tone into outright comedy.
Raft’s performance has attracted a lot of attention for its lack of nuance. Actually, though he can petrify a forest with his wooden demeanor, that image works here. Everyone he plays against, male and female, hood or not, guilty or innocent, are very animated, very expressive. His remoteness allows the supporting cast to stand out.
Balancing the arbitrary nature of the plot, and the headline-quality one-liners, there’s the interesting paradox that this is also a lot like ordinary life. Maybe an exaggerated, mutable version of life, as though retold with a polished-up image, but essentially made of emotinal situations fueled by circumstance and desperation. That makes Nocturne a definitive film noir; the broken window of a reality obscured by the imagination.
Farmermouse, as usual in ’40s movies, had his pick of cozy DeSoto taxis. He gives this nine teeny tables at the Brown Derby. 9/10