Friday, April 02, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Impact (1949)

I recently noticed a curious pattern to my movie viewing: in the last two months I've watched 10 films with one-word titles! The latest movie on that list, IMPACT, was a really interesting film noir with terrific location photography in San Francisco.

Successful San Francisco businessman Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) dotes on his wife Irene (Helen Walker). Irene seemingly has it all, including a wealthy, loving husband who showers her with roses, jewelry, and affection. Unfortunately for Walter, Irene does not return his love; Irene and her lover (Tony Barrett) have devised a plan to kill Walter. However, things don't go quite as planned, and Walter survives the attempt on his life, although he is assumed dead when his car explodes in an accident.

The wounded Walter staggers into the town of Larkspur, Idaho, where he takes a job as an auto mechanic at a gas station owned by war widow Marsha Peters (Ella Raines). Walter quietly nurses his hurt and anger at his wife's betrayal, avidly collecting stories from California newspapers about the arrest of his "widow" for plotting his murder. But Walter can't continue his idyllic existence in Larkspur forever...and more twists and turns are ahead.

IMPACT is a stylish, well-plotted film with an excellent cast and an absorbing story. The movie's atmospheric photography was by Ernest Laszlo. There are many great shots of San Francisco, including the cable cars and Chinatown. The quiet little town of Larkspur, Idaho -- filmed in Larkspur, California -- provides a contrast with the big city. I loved the film's visual details, such as the now old-fashioned Coca-Cola cooler in the gas station or the ad for Borden's ice cream painted on the side of a building in Larkspur.

Brian Donlevy is touching as the rejected husband, who is a business whiz but learns the hard way the woman he adored didn't love him. There is a scene early on where he breaks down after learning the truth that I found very moving. Donlevy's Walter doesn't stay down for long, however, as his natural strength and integrity once more rise to the fore, encouraged by pretty Marsha (Raines).

Ella Raines doesn't appear until about an hour into the film, but she is quietly effective as the open, sunny small-town widow who takes a shine to the initially taciturn Williams. The last section of IMPACT calls to mind Raines' role in PHANTOM LADY (1944), as she turns detective in order to help Williams.

Helen Walker is absolutely terrific as the duplicitous Irene. At the TCM Movie Morlocks blog, Moira Finnie has recently chronicled Walker's life and career in Parts 1 and 2. Part 2 focuses on Walker's film noir credits, including IMPACT and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. It's a valuable history of a relatively little-known actress whose career deserves wider attention. Moira writes that Walker was initially to be cast in the role played by Ella Raines, but Walker instead wanted to play Irene, a part with "guts." Walker comes close to stealing the movie with her fascinating performance.

The deep cast also includes Charles Coburn as Lt. Quincy (complete with Irish brogue!), the San Francisco detective working to solve the niggling questions about the "death" of Walter Williams. The more details Quincy collects, the more the story seems to unravel.

One-time silent actress Mae Marsh plays Marsha's warm, sensible mother. Jason Robards Sr. is the judge in the final section of the movie. Clarence Kolb, Anna May Wong, and Philip Ahn complete the cast.

Some reviewers question whether IMPACT should be considered a true example of film noir, as much of it takes place during broad daylight. Perhaps it's more of a "crime drama," but the spooky attempted murder sequence, a foot chase through Chinatown stairways, and the evil femme fatale cause me to lean toward considering it film noir. I'd enjoying hearing opinions on that from others who have seen the movie.

IMPACT was directed by Arthur Lubin, who began directing in 1934. Lubin directed many B movies as well as the Francis the Talking Mule series. Lubin's career seems to have been inextricably linked with talking animals, as he had a long association with the MISTER ED TV series. Lubin's name is familiar to me as he directed many episodes of my favorite TV series, MAVERICK.

IMPACT is in the public domain. My understanding is that some DVD prints are shorter than the film's 111-minute running time, so exercise caution. The blog Noir of the Week recommends a DVD from Image Entertainment.

I recently recorded the film from a Southern California public TV station; the print was of good quality and was the proper running time.

IMPACT is a very entertaining film which deserves wider recognition. Recommended.


Blogger mel said...

That's an interesting observation regarding one-word titles.

Apparently Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for them: Notorious, Rope, Frenzy, Psycho, Vertigo... The list goes on and on.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I believe you are correct. Rating it as a film noir, I gave it a 65. You can read my full review, which I just posted, here:

5:20 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's a fun point about Hitchcock, Mel!

Steve, thank you so much for sharing the link to your review of IMPACT at Mystery File. I enjoyed your comment that it's three movies in one!

Best wishes,

1:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Laura,

I don’t know if you are still listening in 2020 but …

This is film noir for sure. It's one of my favorites, in no small part because of Helen Walker’s terrific performance as the scheming object of Brian Donleavy’s affection.

‘Impact’ is almost unique for noir in one regard. That's the second third, when Walter, disoriented and betrayed, wanders into Larkspur. Walter Williams seems destined to be sucked into the kind of dark world his ever-loving wife inhabits, but there is no room in Larkspur for that. The town is quite deliberately portrayed as an almost impossibly idyllic place where people apparently live by their principles and their better feelings. And when beautiful Ella Raines in white coveralls finds you interesting and attractive, it doesn’t get more idyllic than that.

Of course a happy ending is premature. True, the last third proceeds more like a standard crime movie than noir, but nonetheless when we go back to the big city, we live, and maybe die, by big city rules. When the reward for doing the right thing is false witness, disappeared witness, a seemingly airtight murder charge and jail, that’s pure noir.

Wonderful acting, even though the estimable Charles Coburn sometimes forgets that he is supposed to have an Irish accent. The movie features two fine actresses who began in the silent film era, Mae Marsh (b. 1894) and Anna May Wong (b. 1905). I would say the movie is a graceful tribute to them, but for the fact that Wong’s role suffers from some of the racial stereotyping common at the time. In terms of their characters, Ella Raines shows Anna May Wong respect and friendship though, so it’s not too bad.

There are many historically interesting street scenes of San Francisco, shot in documentary style. Although I don’t think it works this way, sometimes one has the impression that the director just set up a camera on the sidewalk and let the natural energy of real people and real traffic infuse the film.

All in all it’s a fine film. And I have never understood the “not at night” criticism. If your lover attempts to have you killed as the odd one out in a love triangle, but it happens before sundown, does that make it not film noir?

Dave G.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Dave!

I'm still here in 2020! All comments are moderated by me so I always see them. :) Unfortunately sometimes it takes me a few days to answer due to the press of work or other reasons, but comments are always greatly appreciated.

I very much enjoyed your analysis of the movie. I was also interested in how the movie is divided into three sections and the contrast of Larkspur and San Francisco. Love the location footage.

Your thoughtful take has got me interested in revisiting this movie for the first time in years. Thank you for that as well!

Best wishes,

9:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your reply; it has taken me so long to get back to this that it’s almost like reviewing the movie all over again. Compared to my comments, which took familiarity with the movie as known, you had the harder task of outlining the plot and characters as you went along, as a professional review would do (not to mention it’s better written).

I had intended to mention the musical score, but forgot. Although I suppose Impact is somewhere between an A and B movie, it did have a score specifically composed for it. And it’s excellent, with many contrasts that bring along the story very well. The script has its moments too. Clever lines of dialog can be found along the way, as in all 40’s movies worthy of the name.

It would be interesting if you were able to revisit Impact, because on seeing a movie for the second time, a person’s impressions naturally change and new perspectives emerge. By contrast, seeing a favorite movie for the nth time seems to lead just to deeper appreciation of the very same things we have latched onto long ago, does it not. Good for the soul.

I was happy to see that you mentioned Phantom Lady, from five years before. The studio and the director of Impact would not have been surprised to see Ella Raines excel in a similar role. And as to the director, I had no idea that Arthur Lubin directed Maverick episodes. That was one of my favorite TV shows, back in the day.

Dave G

11:16 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi again Dave! I'd forgotten about the score and the name (Michel Michelet) is unfamiliar to me. I'll be listening for that when I rewatch it. Pulling the disc and adding to my (very tall) "to watch" stack LOL.

I very much agree about the value of rewatching films. There have been times in the fairly recent past when seeing movies in a fresh context or setting (i.e., years after the first viewing, or with an audience) brought me to appreciate a film I hadn't enjoyed much on the first go-round (A FOREIGN AFFAIR and DESIGN FOR LIVING come to mind). Other times, as you say, I enjoy simply noticing new things, and I very much agree about rewatching favorite films. Recent re-viewings of THE HARVEY GIRLS and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER were, indeed, good for the soul.

PHANTOM LADY is also in my rewatch stack, as last year I picked up the new Arrow Blu-ray with a commentary track by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation. That's the third format I've owned that movie in but it deserves it.

Thanks and I hope you'll visit again.

Best wishes,

9:56 AM  
Blogger Rafe said...

Dave, kudos to both you and Laura (whose blog I've appreciated for years) for your astute observations about a nifty minor A production which I've loved since childhood, which was a long time ago. "Impact"frequently aired on the weekday 4:30 Movie on the local NBC affiliate in New York City, and I never tired of it. That was in my teens, decades ago. For a film in public domain, every print I've seen of it is in surprisingly good condition; my DVD from Image Entertainment, part of the "Wade Williams Collection," is sharp and clear. I proudly claim the title of "film historian," and there's little that I can add that you both haven't already stated. Yes, the performances are uniformly excellent, and the too-long underappreciated Helen Walker is outstanding. It's a pity that the circumstances surrounding her 1947 auto accident quickly put a period to her film career. It's a shame that "Impact" doesn't receive the attention it deserves; it's every bit as good as "D.O.A.," the Popkin brothers' famed production which soon followed it.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Rafe said...

P.S. Dave, I too consider "Impact" part the noir style. It isn't a prerequisite that noir has to occur at night, in New York City or Los Angeles. If noir can be filmed in Technicolor in neither of those cities ("Leave Her to Heaven," "Desert Fury"), then it can be set on a sunny afternoon in Larkspur.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Rafe, thank you for contributing to the discussion of IMPACT, as well as for your kind words for the blog; I appreciate your readership!

I love hearing about your memories of seeing IMPACT on local TV. Like you, that's how I first met many films, though not this particular one. I also got the Image Entertainment DVD of this film.

It's been too long since I watched this film, and I think I will enjoy it even more circling back to it with a greater appreciation of the lead actors' careers. Thanks for sharing your memories of it!

Best wishes,

11:08 PM  

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