Inspecting Hidden Gem #10: They Won't Believe Me
THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME
U.S.A. / RKO / 1947 / B+W / 95 minutes (Re-released in the U.S. at 80 minutes) / Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
This little known film noir contains a cracker of a story about a husband who indifferently cheats on his wife with not one but two women. Larry Ballantine (Robert Young reluctantly cast against his usual good guy type) stands accused of murder when two of the women in his life turn up dead. Can he convince the jury that he didn't kill either? This will be a tall order since he appears to be so unaffected by either one's departure. His cold matter of fact courtroom explanation (which accounts for the film's title) will, in noir fashion, flashback to the circumstances leading to his prosecution. These are events full of engrossing plot twists and turns, including his own admission of planned murder and a final shocking denouement. As compelling as they are, these narrative surprises pale next to this film's most magnificent quality: the unique character of Ballantine himself, superbly delivered by Young's wisely underplayed performance. In his first flashback encounter, he seems capable of genuine emotion. Soon after some self-centred easy way out decisions, we discover he's really "consumed with apathy" but will nevertheless try to act differently. He's someone who wants to feel passionate about something (so he attempts to be well off financially) or someone (motivating him to secure relationships with the various women he encounters). Although he keeps trying, Larry cannot succeed in these endeavours, let alone feel the emotion their successful completion might bring about, at least not on his terms.
This brings us to the second most intriguing aspect of the story and a recurring development that keeps getting in Larry's way. Every time he shows some initiative, whether it be the simple intention of giving a gift to someone, all the way to his final act of life altering consequence, fate intervenes, as if some supernatural force is at war with our anti-hero. It quashes his plans, and to paraphrase Larry "deals one from the bottom of the deck." Even when fate hands him the same outcome he previously tried so hard to get on his own, he's riddled with malaise: Larry travels the world aimlessly without a clue until "Fate dealt one from a whole new deck of cards" baiting him with another foolish dream of influencing his own future. In regards to acquiring a strong sense of self-determination, try as he might, Larry will forever remain helpless and hopeless.
Noir stories are characteristically those of extremes and this is no exception, but character and plot dynamics are polar opposites. On the one hand, there's what critics accurately describe as "the James M. Cain atmosphere of murder and betrayal" but on the other, we have Ballantine who could not be more unlike Cain's (or any other) noir protagonists who are typically emotional obsessives driven to commit their extreme acts. It seems like Ballantine attempts desperate acts just to feel desperate. The extreme dramatic consequences of fate's intervention elicit no apparent emotional response from Larry... He didn't cause them to happen. So he just goes along, unlike our typical noir subjects who are wracked with varying degrees of anger, guilt, despair and paranoia. He's a "fish out of water" in this noir universe, a guy more at home in Cheever's literary world than Chandler's. This, however, makes his tale here all the more fascinating to behold.
The women are far from noir stereotypes either. Their behaviour and moods are, like the plot, unpredictable but always sophisticatedly intelligent, and certainly not femme-fatale like in the least. The three principal women in Larry's life recognise him as a weak and self-centred cad but are nevertheless attracted to someone who has no real passion for anyone, even himself. He's a "blank canvas" so to speak, so they are free to paint their own pictures without having to compete with his. Besides, each time he shows some interest toward one, the awareness of flirtatious advances coming from other attentive females, makes that interest seem like a competitive accomplishment. Larry is receptive even if he's on guard. Since he wants to feel more than a conceptual attraction, he envies these women whose romantic feelings come so effortlessly. It's as if making stronger commitments to each one of them might allow some of that enviable trait to rub off on him. Ultimately, however, that great overseer of Fate will not allow these women to get a foothold over Larry's destiny any more than Larry himself. So in bold dramatic fashion, fate’s mysterious forces will cast these women aside, adding to the film's enigmatic quality, helping to make this a deeply satisfying, engrossing cinematic story.
The screenplay is by Jonathan Latimer (the excellent The Glass Key) and contains some juicy noir dialogue: "She looked like a very special kind of dynamite, neatly wrapped in nylon and silk. Only I wasn't having any. I'd been too close to one explosion already. I was powder shy." It's taken from a story by Gordon McDonell who also wrote the original story of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt which focuses on another kind of self-serving noir protagonist. The very capable director is Irving Pichel who even though he co-helmed The Most Dangerous Game and would go on to direct another hidden gem, Quicksand, is hardly the name that comes to mind when fans think of their favourite cinematic auteurs. Maybe that accounts for its relative obscurity. I can't imagine why Martin Scorsese failed to mention it in his recommendations blog for the month it played on TCM in the U.S. There's another strong contribution to this drama. Right from the opening’s doom-laden bars, Roy Webb's exceptional music announces there are extraordinary forces present that will shape the tragic events about to unfold. There is an impressive list of previous credits from They Won't Believe Me's Producer Joan Harrison. A one-time assistant to Alfred Hitchcock, she was an accomplished screenwriter behind some Hitchcock triumphs including Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. Ditto for Executive Producer Jack L. Gross, who also produced Johnny Angel, The Locket and Riffraff among other noir favourites. One imagines that this duo's recognition of this very special project inspired them to put together a top-notch creative team. That they did including actresses Jane Greer and Susan Hayward (both perfectly delineating Ballantine's love interests), Rita Johnson (deeply sympathetic as Larry's wife Greta) and ace cinematographer Harry J. Wild who previously provided the moody atmosphere for Murder My Sweet and Johnny Angel. Wild achieves some strikingly memorable images here, most notably those photographed at a secluded canyon waterfall favoured by Greta. This choice hand-picked team would all work together at the top of their respective crafts.
At the end of his, and this film's, story, while the jury deliberates in Larry's murder trial, there is an all important moment that will provide not only the motivation behind the act portrayed in the last shocking verdict scene but the emotional gravitas at the heart of this unique character and film. Larry tells his only surviving female friend, who has come to really care for him, that it doesn't matter anymore what the jury's verdict is… he's brought in his own. It's as if he finally gets how little it matters what anyone else believes about a person who doesn't believe in himself. What is really unbelievable about They Won't Believe Me is how we can feel so much compassion for this basically spineless heel. It must be that incredible synergy of plot and character development brought about by some especially talented filmmakers. This combined with a little mysterious fate like that which so profoundly shapes its characters' lives.
How To Best Appreciate This Gem:
The shortened version (80 minutes) is available on an Italian DVD in English with removable subtitles. This has the same running time as the print that occasionally plays on TCM. Being a relatively old RKO title, They Won’t Believe Me also plays on network television so check the listings in your area. The longer version's added scenes are important (and this print has been seen by some, like Eddie Muller's devoted Noir City Festival attendees) but so is seeing the film itself, so if watching They Won’t Believe Me becomes an option, by all means take it even if the transfer has the shorter running time. The 80-minute version was also made on VHS tape despite being listed at 91 minutes. All of the above described legitimate transfers contain adequate picture and sound but I'd hold out on purchasing anything until there’s a proper release. Perhaps there will be a "Made On Demand" DVD like some of the other RKO titles shown theatrically around this time and we'll hope it's the longer transfer.
The only 95-minute version released legitimately so far is the Laser Disc issued by Image Entertainment in the U.S. but the picture quality is quite poor as it was reportedly taken from a 16mm transfer.
There is no soundtrack CD of Roy Webb's complete score. The film's original main title music is available on an out of print CD called The Curse of the Cat People: The Film Music of Roy Webb, released on the Cloud Nine Records label (CNS 5008) in 1995.