Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Danger Signal (1945)

The Warner Bros. stock company is in fine form in DANGER SIGNAL, a lesser-known film noir which deserves rediscovery. Although there are some minor weaknesses in the plot, the excellent acting, suspenseful atmosphere, and striking black and white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe make this a must-see for noir aficionados.

The opening scenes of DANGER SIGNAL inescapably call to mind Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), as Ronnie Mason (Zachary Scott) escapes from a boarding house, leaving behind the body of a dead woman.

Ronnie's wallet is full of the dead woman's cash, and he hops a train for California, where he rents a room in the sunny suburban home of the Fenchurch family. The SHADOW OF A DOUBT theme continues as evil, under a charming mask, walks into the home of a family too nice to recognize the threat.

Ronnie sweeps Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson), who works as a typist, off her feet...until Hilda's little sister Anne (Mona Freeman) returns home from a mountain sanitarium where she's been treated for a lung disease. When Ronnie learns that Anne is due to inherit $25,000, he quickly turns his attentions from Hilda to Anne.

The more Hilda uncovers about Ronnie, the more distressed she becomes, ultimately turning to one of her clients, a psychiatrist (Rosemary DeCamp), for advice on how to deal with a man who seems increasingly frightening.

I thought this was a terrific little film, with an atomospheric, compact plotline and excellent acting. I was hooked from start to finish, particularly by Faye Emerson's performance as shy, hardworking Hilda, who can't quite believe that dashing Ronnie is romancing her. (Of course, she also hasn't noticed the interest of the absent-minded professor played by Bruce Bennett, who would be a far better match for her.) Hilda's shy delight, followed by crushing disappointment as she realizes Ronnie is two-timing her with her own sister, is riveting.

Scott cornered the market on slimy heels in the '40s, and he's at his best here. He conveys a man who receives a perverse pleasure from his ability to manipulate those in his orbit.

Mona Freeman is also excellent in a role which conjures memories of Ann Blyth's Veda in the same year's MILDRED PIERCE (1945); in each film, Scott romances a too-young girl while the girl willfully ignores the fact that she will break the heart of a close relative. Curiously, DANGER SIGNAL and MILDRED PIERCE, which were both Warner Bros. films, came out within just about a month of each other. And even more curiously, as I finished writing this paragraph I read that Ann Blyth was originally cast as Anne! It would have been a bit odd if there were a Scott-Blyth pairing in both films, and this gives Freeman a strong opportunity in a role far different from her irrepressible Miriam in DEAR RUTH (1947) and its sequels.

I had a few quibbles with the film's storyline; the ending, which involves the husband (John Ridgely) of the dead woman from the film's opening scene, seemed almost too easy; I had a little trouble believing the distressed Hilda's plans near the end of the film; Mona Freeman's Anne seems to change personalities with a baffling ease, switching back and forth from sophisticated young woman to carefree teenager; and I couldn't help thinking, as the film closed, that both girls would have suffered strong psychological repercussions.

I also thought there might have been a missed opportunity to build suspense; it would have been great, for example, if at some point near the end Hilda had seen the police flyer about Ronnie. And just what was Ronnie contemplating doing the night he tried to enter Hilda's room?

Perhaps if those issues had been addressed, the film would have reached the next level of success and be better known today, but nonetheless, I enjoyed it tremendously.

Rosemary DeCamp, who is especially lovely in this film, deserves particular praise for her warm, confident portrayal of the German-accented psychiatrist. Accents seem to have been a DeCamp specialty; she was also completely believable as an Austrian refugee in HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941). She was also particularly good as a Red Cross aide in PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945). Each time I see DeCamp's work, I find her more impressive.

With DeCamp's psychiatrist attempting to diagnose what makes Scott's character tick, DANGER SIGNAL represents yet one more example of Hollywood's mid-'40s fascination with psychological issues. The theme popped up in musicals such as LADY IN THE DARK (1944) and comedies like IT HAD TO BE YOU (1947), but it seemed to be used with greatest regularity in suspense films. Other examples of "film noir meets psychology" reviewed here in recent months include CONFLICT (1945), THE LOCKET (1946), SHOCK (1946), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), and DISHONORED LADY (1947). The best-known example of a mid-'40s suspense film with psychological themes is perhaps Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945).

The DANGER SIGNAL cast also includes Richard Erdman (CRY DANGER), Mary Servoss, Joyce Compton, Virginia Sale, and Robert Arthur.

DANGER SIGNAL was directed by Robert Florey. The screenplay was based on a novel by Phyllis Bottome. The running time is 78 minutes.

DANGER SIGNAL does not appear to have had a release on DVD or VHS, but it can been seen on Turner Classic Movies, which notes in its online article that "Scott has no peer when it comes to playing a smarmy seducer." Indeed.

The trailer can be seen at the TCM website.


March 2018 Update: DANGER SIGNAL is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive. My review of the DVD may be found here.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I am intrigued. Put another one on the must-see list.

One thing - we're halfway through the article before you mention Bruce Bennett. I was hooked before that, but he's the lock.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I always smile when I see Bennett and Ridgely, and DeCamp -- they were such fixtures in WB films of the era. I especially liked Bennett in MYSTERY STREET (which ironically wasn't at WB, but MGM).

Hope you are feeling well after your run-in with the garbage truck the other day!!

Best wishes,

6:15 PM  

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