Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) is recovering from yet another surgery in a veterans hospital when his best friend Steve (Edmond O'Brien) vanishes without a word. One night at Christmastime, while Bob is sedated, he's visited in the hospital by a mysterious woman (Viveca Lindfors) who tells him Steve is badly hurt. Bob's doctor (Charles Lane) chalks the story up to a vivid, drug-induced dream.
When Bob is released from the hospital, Police Captain Garcia (Ed Begley) tells him that Steve is wanted for questioning in a murder. Bob is incredulous, and he and Julie (Virginia Mayo), a pretty nurse from the hospital, start to look for Steve on their own. They visit several people who provide clues, including another veteran, Ben Arno (Dane Clark), and Bonnie Willis (Sheila MacRae, then billed with the last name Stephens), who has a photograph proving Bob's mysterious hospital visitor was real.
MacRae and especially Mayo are appealing as the leads, but the story is a disjointed mess. The film has some nice moments scattered here and there, but despite some occasional shots of Los Angeles, on the whole the movie feels unreal, occasionally playing like a parody of the genre.
There's a scene which caused me to sputter with laughter, as ever-present Warner Bros. stock player John Ridgely, wearing an unfortunate mustache, earnestly notes a dying Chinese man's final words; as the man stops speaking, the doctor somberly intones, "The next time he talks, it will be to his ancestors." For a moment, the scene felt like a comedy sketch. A climactic scene with O'Brien "Frankenstein walking" in a back brace looked way too ridiculous for words. Some of the characters, such as the nosy hotel cleaning woman (Ida Moore) and sweaty Dr. Anstead (Mack Williams), were just a little too far over the edge to be real.
Fans of the lead actors and film noir titles set in Los Angeles will want to check it out, but it's definitely lower tier noir. Although filmed with a Grade A cast and director, it lacks the energy level and interest of shorter films made with far fewer resources, such as FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949) or the L.A.-set BODYGUARD (1948).
It's fun to see Gordon and Sheila MacRae sharing an extended scene together. They'd been married nearly a decade when this film was made; this was Sheila MacRae's first film.
Watch for Helen Westcott as a mortuary receptionist. The same year this film was released, she starred opposite Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER (1950).
The great character actor John Dehner can be spotted in one scene as a plainclothes detective reporting to Ed Begley. Dehner started out as an artist at Disney, and his first appearance on screen was as an artist seen in Disney's THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941). Over the course of his career he had over 275 film and TV credits, including an appearance as Banker Bates in the famous MAVERICK episode "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres."
The cast also includes Russ Conway, Douglas Kennedy, Frances Robinson, Monte Blue, and Richard Rober.
Note that the film's poster art portrays Mayo as a sultry vixen, when in reality her character is a sweet and wholesome nurse! Mayo looks especially lovely in this black and white film.
This film was directed by Vincent Sherman and photographed by Carl Guthrie. The running time is 91 minutes.
BACKFIRE is available in a nice-looking DVD in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5. The DVD can be rented from Netflix. The set was reviewed by Glenn Erickson, who notes "The story is awkward at best."
BACKFIRE can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, where it will next air November 28 and December 23, 2011. The December 23rd screening is part of an evening of "Christmas Noir," showcasing films set at Christmastime. BACKFIRE will be followed by LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and MURDER, MY SWEET (1944).