By Tony Williams.
Based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1944 novel The Black Path of Fear, The Chase (1946) has long required a remastered DVD version though bootleg versions previously available may have added to its reputation as a darker shade of noir appropriately associated with its creative source. It was directed by Arthur Ripley (1897-1961) who earlier wrote, co-produced, and directed the evocative noir Voice in the Wind (1944) starring Francis Lederer of Pandora’s Box (1929) fame; produced by American born Seymour Nebenzal (1899-1961), whose production credits also included Pandora’s Box, People on Sunday (1930), Westfront 1918 (1931), Ariane (1930), M (1930), Kameradschaft (1931), L’Atlantide (1932), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), Max Ophuls’ Mayerling (1936) and Werther (1938) as well as Hollywood low budget productions such as Joseph Losey’s M (1951); and features key icon of French poetic realism such as Michele Morgan and the ubiquitous Peter Lorre. One could only have hoped that this particular DVD audio-commentary could have matched the various talents associated with this feature production. However, despite a good restoration, the choice of Guy Maddin as audio-commentator once more exhibits the pitfalls of using a celebrity instead of an acknowledged expert in the field such as David Bordwell, Tim Lucas, or Cornell Woolrich biographer and film expert Francis M. Nevins. Although not as bad as Ken Loach on the audio-commentary of his Sweet Sixteen (2003), the visual expertise of Maddin as director does not match his appointed role as commentator on this version – but more of that later.
Many versions have appeared on film, radio, and television of one of the bleakest voices in the literary canon of film noir, but few have matched his dark, anguished visions, with this film, Street of Chance (1942), Phantom Lady (1944), Black Angel (1946), Fear in the Night (1947), and The Window (1949) being notable exceptions in the classic American film noir field. The Black Path of Fear belongs firmly within the paranoid world of Woolrich’s Black series of novels described aptly by Nevins as a “powerful contribution to noir literature with its evocations of love discovered and love destroyed, its occasionally haunting imagery, its compelling picture of a man alone, a stranger in a strange land, menaced on all sides and fighting for his life” (Nevins, 295; for a plot description see pp. 295-300). The novel has, of course, undergone Hollywood adaptation. In a script by Philip Yordan, chosed to reflect the circumstances of the immediate post-war era, Woolrich’s sacrificial victim now becomes Navy veteran Chuck Scott obviously suffering from P.T.S.D. – though this cannot be made explicit at this time for reasons Raymond Chandler learned when he was forced to change the villain in his Blue Dahlia (1946) screenplay to avoid bringing disrepute against returning veterans. Thus, although Scott returns to his Navy doctor – played by Jack Holt and not Bruce Cabot, as Maddin states in his audio-commentary (63:59) – at a later stage of the film, his amnesia can be easily related to other doomed Woolrich characters, as in The Black Curtain (1941) and The Black Angel (1943) as well as their respective film versions. As it stands, the discordant narrative structure with its dream imagery in a film that David Bordwell has meticulously analyzed and described as “another Forties film that flaunts the unexpected virtues of accidental innovation” in a precise two-part investigation forms an apt complement to Woolrich’s original source novel and offers certain innovative directions explored by classical American film noir.
Sadly, Guy Maddin’s audio-commentary does not meet the rigorous expectations that analysis of this important cinematic text should merit. He begins with a rambling discussion of Arthur Ripley over the credits, occasionally contributes some relevant insights such as comparing the initial appearance of mobster Steve Cochran to Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), but expresses uncertainty as to whether a particular character appears in the original novel (maddingly Maddin could easily have consulted pp. 53-54 of the Ballantine Books paperback edition beforehand!). He makes some glaring errors such as describing Dan Duryea’s character in Black Angel (1946) as a private investigator, initially describing Robert Cummings as “kind of a strange guy” before realizing that prestigious directors such as Hitchcock and Mann, and even Martin Gabel in his only film as director – The Lost Moment (1947) – had no problems casting him in their films. Maddin also notes the shadow rising and falling as a curtain in three porthole scenes in the film but does not remark on why this might be significant in this particular sequence! At least Bordwell comments, “The light falling on Lorna and Scott in their cabin is markedly unrealistic, with a shadow dropping and rising on the porthole” (“In Pursuit of THE CHASE), though I would argue that this is one of the most eerie sequences in the entire film and needs further exploration. Despite doing this commentary in 2016, Maddin has not read Nevins’s indispensable biography on Woolrich nor does he mention Michelle Morgan’s role in Quai des Brumes (1938), one of the most influential Poetic Realist influences on American film noir. Other scenes cry out for recognition and discussion such as the extended lap dissolves of the waves going over the image of Morgan in one key sequence, which suggests a fantasy within a fantasy. Furthermore, why are so many people wearing white hats throughout the film? This may not be entirely due to the hot and humid climates of Miami and Havana in the film but could have some unrealistic costume associations needing further exploration. Occasionally Maddin offers some scattered undeveloped insights such as the possibility of the heroine really being killed by a camera flash rather than a knife, but otherwise his commentary resembles a lazy night with the drones in Manitoba. No matter how often Maddin mentions Nebenzal’s later Siren of Atlantis (1949) with Maria Montez, one would prefer a more focused commentary.
The DVD contains two radio productions of The Black Path of Fear both mostly following the Woolrich novel but without the flashback that occurs in the first half of the novel. The August 31st 1944 CBS Suspense production features Brian Donlevy (Nigel Kneale’s favorite Professor Quatermass!) in the role of Bill Scott ending with him urging prospective Rosie the Riveters to do their war work while the March 7th 1946 Armed Forces Radio Service utilizes the voice of Cary Grant, perhaps more closer to articulating Woolrich qualities of fear and suspense, in the hero’s chase by police through Havana at night. Both versions reproduce the original Woolrich ending with Scott mourning the death of his Lady Fair after he has killed her husband. In the novel and radio versions Media Noche (or Midnight) plays a more prominent role by hiding Scott and disguising him to resemble her husband, who has already died of small pox by using her lipstick to resemble those marks that have put her apartment in quarantine. See chapter four that leads to the flashback in the following chapter that the film chooses to abandon. This would be difficult to repeat in the film version, but the Woolrich encounter resembles many of those damned characters haunted by the loss of a loved one from which they will never recover. However, this complementary relationship between two lost and doomed characters never develops in the film version.
However, Maddin aside, this DVD version is definitely worth seeing especially for Peter Lorre’s droll performance as bodyguard to handsome dangerous mobster Steve Cochran who if not excelling the fiery violence of Raymond Burr in Raw Deal (1948) comes close to displaying subdued qualities of cinematic menace ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. In fact, the whole film conveys an aura of sublimated menace with its director firmly believing that murder was not too distant from what was mandated as a happy ending. Apparently, according to Maddin, Dennis Jacob who took classes with the director in 1961, Ripley (believe it or not) never ran films when he was teaching classes but made his students read Joseph Conrad instead. Now isn’t that an interesting idea for today’s film students who could also explore the cinematic noir world of Cornell Woolrich in both his books and short stories rather than gaining their knowledge from being clerks in video stores?
Bordwell, David (2016) “Observations on film art: In pursuit of THE CHASE”. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2016/08/28/in-pursuit-of-the-chase.
– – -. “Observations on film art: Back on the trail of THE CHASE. ” http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2016/11/01/back-on-the-trail-of-the-chase/.
Nevins, Francis M. (1998), Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then you Die. New York: The Mysterious Press.
Woolrich, Cornell (1944/1982), The Black Path of Fear. New York: Ballantine.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international. He has recently authored James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-edited, with Esther C.M. Yau, Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).