Proto-Noir: ‘Conflict’

This is an early film in the trend that French critics would call “film noir”, and a very interesting one. It’s an inverted mystery in which we see the murder committed, and then follow the killer’s point of view as events become increasingly tense, leading to the possibility that he’ll have a nervous breakdown before he’s ever caught for the crime. Being forced to identify with a “bad guy” in a hopeless situation, played alternately with sympathy and chilly steel by Humphrey Bogart, is the heart of the film’s claim to noir, and the shadowy, foggy black and white photography is the seductive garment wrapped around it.

Architect Richard Mason (Bogart) feels trapped in a miserable marriage to the brittle Katherine. She’s played by Rose Hobart, a rather angular actress who has something of a cult around her, since she was the subject of an avant-garde film called Rose Hobart. We don’t know why their marriage is this way, but there’s a strong possibility it could be his fault. Anyway, he’s clearly not having sex with his wife; we intuit this subtext not only from their demeanour but from a big symbolic injury to his legs, which renders him psychosomatically unable to walk until he leans on a cane. He secretly yearns for his wife’s younger sister (Alexis Smith), so he devises a clever plan to murder Katherine in a misty, expressionistic scene.

The trailer makes a point of advertising that Bogart is being re-teamed with Sidney Greenstreet, a co-star from their recent hit The Maltese Falcon. Greenstreet is brilliantly in command of his role, a family friend and confirmed bachelor who’s also a psychiatrist. The plot arguably turns on a single shot, carefully composed, in which Greenstreet “acts” in a perfectly passive, non-reactive manner. Greenstreet is essentially the film’s detective figure, for this movie is part of the Hollywood thriller’s postwar discovery of Freud (see also Alfred Hitchcock’s contemporary Spellbound), so that there’s much symbolism and interpretation in the visuals and dialogue. These Freudian films believe two contradictory things at once: that everything is mysterious, and that everything can be neatly explained.

The film also journeys unpredictably into the realm of the uncanny, that borderline area where you can’t be certain if events might be taking a supernatural turn. The expressive close-ups and swirling opticals are designed to bring you into the uneasy mind of Bogart’s character, wrestling with guilt, fear and desire. Part of him actually wants the very thing he fears: that impossible possibility that Katherine has somehow come back from the dead to haunt him.

Of course, today’s viewers will be way ahead of him because we’ve seen this kind of thing many times since, but the rituals are still fun. Besides, one reason the plot is predictable is that it plays fairly in the old-fashioned manner of laying out the detective’s clues, hoping the viewer will pick up on them and match wits against Mason ourselves.

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt from a story (“The Pentacle”) by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann, all refugees from Hitler’s Europe, this is a crackling, mood-drenched example of the studio era’s growing attraction for the psychological thriller.

RATING 6 / 10
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