By Tony Williams.
Imagine Lee J. Cobb (1911-1976) playing a star role as an honest cop turned bad played for a sucker by femme fatale Jane Wyatt (1910-2006), an actress not usually associated with such parts but more as the contented spouse of Robert Young (1907-1998) in Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and Spock’s mother in the 1967 “Journey to Babel” Star Trek episode and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Consider “gay dog” John Dall (1918-1971) portraying an average all-American guy extolling the blissful virtues of marriage and family life in a film using San Francisco locations, many of which foreshadow Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and you have a very unusual production in more senses than one. Formerly considered “lost,” unless one frequents those shadowy noirish streets of bootleg collectors willing to supply addicted completists with unexpected fixes less costly than real-life narcotics, The Man Who Cheated Himself had been wonderfully restored by the estimable Flicker Alley.
The narrative is already familiar. Derived from Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin (1868), borrowed by James M. Cain for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and filmed in so many variant versions such as Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (1939), Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), reworked by Cain to become Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Tay Garnett’s 1946 film of the same name, plot elements utilized by Julian Duvivier in Chair de Poule (1963), the 1981 Bob Rafelson version, other international versions with multi-media radio and operatic treatments thrown in, one has a familiar dish to which ingredients of the “sucker” trope are added. These appear in Wilder’s version and in the unsuccessful Richard Quine version Pushover (1954) with Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak in a film also derived from the pulp novel Rafferty (1953) by William S. Ballinger. Later, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) adds neo-noir spices to a recipe others will also add to in the future. When Sam Spade tells femme fatale Brigid that he will not play “the sap” for her in The Maltese Falcon (1929), the noir ingredients are already in place challenging any newcomer to provide variant elements to avoid tedious repetition.
Director Felix Feist (1910-1965) and producer Jack M. Warner (1916-1995, son of the Jack himself!) manage to do this with The Man Who Cheated Himself. Both are little known names associated with some familiar titles, the first with The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and Donovan’s Brain (1953) and the latter producing The Hasty Heart (1950). However, in one of those not so rare instances of creative collaboration in Hollywood cinema they signed Lee J. Cobb to play a starring role following his successful stage appearance in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), directed by Elia Kazan; Jane Wyatt to portray a femme fatale; and John Dall as Cobb’s all-American heterosexual fellow cop and brother, allowing them to deliver against-the-grain performances that would be described as “Brechtian” in another context. Building on the location noir films of the post-war era such as Call Northside 777 (1947) and Naked City (1948), one has a film shot mostly in San Francisco, bizarre as well as watchable, emphasizing a rare moment of deliberate performativity in post-war American noir cinema that makes its reissue fascinating on more than one level.
It’s a strange brew indeed resembling an inversely unconscious variant version of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) with three actors known for familiar screen personae reacting against the formal requirements of a genre that constrains their established personalities and possible unconscious desires to play their roles “against the grain.” Cobb was the Willie Loman of his era who made this film on the basis of his recent reputation but was usually performing character roles. Devout Catholic Jane Wyatt, who would be married to the same man for 65 years, portrays a femme fatale in a performance that seems to be a reaction against that very stereotype, while John Dall excessively attempts to set the conventional period seal of normality on his role but ends up by being a hearty gay male version of “the lady doth protest too much.” Whether this was due to the rushed manner of shooting or a conspiracy on the part of all concerned to buck the system will now never be known, but often “happy accidents” are unconscious and unplanned.
This is by no means a bad film ruined by unconvincing performances, as several critics have argued, but rather a low-budget feature going “against the grain” to the often formulaic nature of studio filmmaking, and herein lies its significance. As one of the contributors to the two features included on this DVD notes, the ending must be seen to be believed, the whole narrative being a “cautionary tale” concerning the type of relationship to avoid. When Cobb offers Wyatt a cigarette, noting the way she is going to manipulate her defense lawyer in the same way she manipulated him, a knowing look appears on his face as if the character is conscious of falling into all those many traps awaiting those countless victims of those many spider women inhabiting the genre. When he lights up her cigarette a knowing look appears on her face as if she expresses a consciousness of a performative mode of behavior she has used in the past and will use yet again. Such performative self-reflexivity represents a significant variant to that line “The stuff that dreams are made of” as Bogart’s Sam Spade displays the fake Falcon to an uncomprehending Nulty (played appropriately by one of John Ford’s regular “whipping boys” Ward Bond) in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Only in this case Cobb and Wyatt appear self-aware of the absurdity and artificiality of the roles both have played, whether as actors or characters in this particular drama.
Commentators Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller, Raymond Feist, and Julie Kirgo add informative contributions to “The Man Who Cheated Himself Revisited” feature. Rode suggests the origins of this film originated in a “dysfunctional family quarrel” between father and son who, nevertheless, employed familiar Warner Bros scenarists Seton I. Miller (1902-1974) and British novelist Philip MacDonald (1901-1980) to work on the screenplay, the former polishing the relationship between the two brothers, the older being a mentor to the younger that I see anticipating the relationship between Broderick Crawford’s newspaper editor to his young protégé played by John Derek in Philip Kaufman’s Scandal Sheet (1952) based on Samuel Fuller’s 1944 novel The Dark Page. Raymond Feist supplies biographical information about his father who began as a film loader in MGM before directing his first film, Deluge (1933). Although having no pretensions about his role in the film industry, once describing his work to his son as “We grind sausages but every once in a while we make a really good sausage”, his son firmly believes that this film fell into the second category with his father recognizing the serious thematic nature of the “moral consequences” depicted. Jack M. Warner knew that this prolific director, as well as writer and later producer, could deliver the goods so chose him for this low-budget $300,000, fifteen-day film that was photographed by veteran cinematographer Russell Harlan (1903-1974). Kirgo notes that the five days of location shooting occurred in San Francisco with rear-projection in the studio utilized when crowd fascination with the actors became problematic.
The contributors supply relevant information about the main actors, including Lisa Howard (1930-1965) then in her second marriage to director Feist before she became a pioneering female journalist interviewing and sleeping with such figures as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and supplying information to the CIA before being dropped by LBJ that led to the end of her second career and eventual suicide. Although portraying Dall’s wife, Howard’s character is also an artist and a bohemian living in a San Francisco apartment and could have influenced the character of Barbara Bel Geddes’s Midge in Vertigo.
Did Hitchcock ever see this film? As the main feature and the accompanying seven minutes “The Man Who Cheated Himself Locations Then and Now” reveal, many locations turn up again in Vertigo. Brian Hollins’ virtual tour of these sites is highly informative and reveals how a visual essay can be conceived without any unnecessary obscurantism and pomposity. The final feature is a two-minute, 12-second trailer with the actors speaking to the camera about their characters in a manner that may be described as unconscious Hollywood Brecht. It certainly is an unusual trailer for the time, in this respect. Accompanied by an illustrated booklet featuring location shooting, newspaper clippings, and information about the various participants, this DVD is attractively compact, informative, and professionally produced – a tribute to the hard work put into it by both The Film Noir Foundation and Flicker Alley.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Cinema Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale as well as Contributing Editor to Film International.