Great title for this film noir. Zachary Scott plays the slimy woman-user Ronnie Mason. He starts by murdering Alice Turner (role not credited), and splitting for California. Insinuating his way into the Fenchurch family in L.A., he takes up with older sister Hilda (Faye Emerson), but eventually figures little sister Anne (Mona Freeman) is the (meal) ticket, as she’s an heiress; mom is played by Mary Servoss. Rosemary DeCamp is Hilda’s shrink, Dr. Jane Silla.
Creepily, after killing Alice, Ronnie slides the wedding ring off her finger, then takes the time to gather her money together before letting himself out the window. Soon enough, though we’re in the Fenchurch Stenographic office, where Dr. Andrew Lang (Bruce Bennett) tries to chat up Hilda and Jane.
When Hilda gets home, she bumps into Ronnie, who’s looking for a room. As it happens, Anne’s room is available, so he’s in. He charms mom as well as Hilda. Bunkie (Richard Erdman) shows up, hoping to find Anne, who’s been putting him off. Ronnie doesn’t waste time with Hilda, inviting her to a weekend away.
Enjoying the beach, Hilda rhapsodizes “Funny how rich we all are, when we stop to think about it.” Well, whether she’s thinking about it or not, she pretty much falls hook, line, and sinker for Ronnie that day and night. Conveniently, the ‘friends’ that they were supposed to meet for dinner at the lodge don’t show. Then, by some miracle, their car won’t start; the upshot is that, by the next morning, they’re engaged–he’s nervy enough to give Hilda the murdered woman’s ring into the bargain.
Anne arrives, and Ronnie wastes no time cosying up to her as well. She picks up on that immediately “How do you know so well what I need?” Annie pumps her sister for the down-low on Ronnie; nonetheless, she shows Ronnie the family pictures. A good exchange follows: Anne “I think you’re pretty conceited.” Ronnie: “I think you’re pretty.”
It’s clear that he likes both girls–and, that they’re competing for him. Now, to keep his options open, he wants to put his wedding plans with Hilda on ice. Anne admits that she knows Hilda’s in love with him; he keeps both of them in the dark. That’s because what he’s feeling is opportunity, not love. Anyway, Anne goes out with Ronnie behind Hilda’s back.
Hilda finds a gun in Ronnie’s things; and, through Kate (Joyce Compton), she also finds out about Ronnie’s two-timing. Ronnie, as an actual crime/mystery writer, asks Hilda for advice on a plot–her advice is actually a thinly-veiled suicide note. From Bunkie, Hilda finds out that Ronnie, pretending to be broke, has been wining-and-dining Anne. Hilda wants to kick him out, but he leaves open the possibility that Anne will leave with him.
The sister-to-sister talk becomes a fight. Anne won’t accept that Ronnie’s playing them both. After all that, Hilda fetches Ronnie’s gun. A great scene, as Hilda, holding the gun, waits for him in a dark room. Only through the cracked door do we see Ronnie approach, saved at the last second by Anne calling him away.
Frantic, Hilda goes to Jane, confiding, “I’ve got to destroy what he’s done to us!” Exactly. “[he] Sounds like a scoundrel…” the shrink tells her; she gathers that Hilda actually plans to kill Ronnie. Hilda arranges for Jane to meet him. She tells him that he’s not in love with either sister. Correct. But he reads Jane well, agreeing to see her again. Later, Jane sums up Ronnie’s sociopathic personality to Hilda.
Despite all of his baggage, he nonetheless seems bent on marrying Anne. Maybe he even has his eyes on Jane. Anne gets back from a date with Ronnie: whee! She’s engaged! To Ronnie! And, she’s way drunk…Setting things up for a great denouement. Hilda confesses to mom that she herself was engaged to him too (at the most, what? a few weeks ago?).
Maybe he’ll try to kill…who? Hilda, or Anne? Sure enough, he comes poking around at night to Hilda’s room. Saved, literally, by the (door) bell, it’s Dr. Lang. Eerily, Hilda quizzes him about a lethal botulism sample. Contemplating poisoning the cad, eh? Anyway, Ronnie goes to meet up with Jane; and then, Andrew looks up Jane, hoping to find Hilda.
Meaning Andrew knows the nasty stuff has gone missing. Things are brewing up…at Willow Beach. Ronnie approaches Jane’s office, but Hilda’s there–at the ready, we suppose. He’s suspicious; he figures that it was Hilda, not Jane, who arranged the meeting (the telegram ploy was wise, as she couldn’t pretend to be Jane on the phone). She has the advantage of being able to honesty claim that she’s just trying to win him back from Anne.
He seems to believe her; her cover of fixing dinner gives her the chance to spike his food. The thing is, we don’t see her actually do that. He almost, but not quite discovers the bacteria. Knowing that murder is in the air, Andrew and Jane race to the beach house. Which attracts the police. With some nifty dodging around (the ’39 Dodge police car), they lose their pursuer.
Back at the fateful dinner table, she tells him, confidently, that he’ll be dead in an hour. He begs for a doctor. Andrew and Jane arrive; incredibly, Andrew determines that the vial of poison hasn’t been opened. Hilda was bluffing. He’s not gonna die. But, fleeing a dogged Tom Turner (Alice’s husband, played by John Ridgely), Ronnie accidentally trips, and falls off a cliff into the sea.
Things are tidied up back home, as everyone gets what they want: Anne gets with Bunkie, Hilda with Andrew. Danger Signal closely parallels the plot and mood of 1943’s Shadow Of A Doubt; that Hitchcock movie has gotten a lot more attention, but I see the merits of both. It does seem, though, that Danger Signal was greatly influenced by the earlier movie.
Almost everything works very well: there’s even, complimentary performances, with some interesting characters (Hilda’s is questionable, as noted below), good suspense, and a well-paced script that hurtles on to a surprising climax. The juxtaposition of ordinary domesticity in the Fenchurch bousehold is masterfully offset by Ronnie’s completely evil impact.
With his note of disharmony gone, the sisters can get back to themselves. The cutesy ending makes enough sense; had Ronnie not come along, this is pretty much what would’ve happened. Unremarkable, right; predictable, ok; and, yes, happy.
DeCamp’s role is interesting, in that she’s the only one of the women who’s impervious to Ronnie’s charm. He’s aware of that; but still feels that he might fool her too. Although Anne sort of gets a pass because of her presumed youthful gullibility, Hilda seems to fall for Ronnie as though she’s never met a guy before.
Then, although she seems to comes to her senses quickly enough, she goes way overboard by wanting to kill him. It’s too much to accept that she could be so naive, and then so vindictive–unless she’s made out to be unbalanced–but no, she’s the girl next door.
Farmermouse is still wondering how the police car changed from right- to left-hand-drive, but he liked the chase scene; so he gives Danger Signal nine out of ten swims in the ocean. 9/10.