Angela Lansbury plays the femme fatale in Paul Guilfoyle’s A Life at Stake (1955), an independent noir film restored to beautiful clarity on a Blu-ray from Film Detective.
You’d have to know me to understand how unlikely it is that I’d never heard of this picture, but the commentary by scholar Jason A. Ney points out that this film is so obscure, it’s not listed in most noir references, despite the presence of a major star. So this might count as more of a rediscovery than restoration.
The film opens with several minutes of beefcake provided by muscular Keith Andes, who plays surly, brush-headed Edward Shaw. He’s got his own architecture firm in Los Angeles, but he spends time moping shirtless in his room at a boarding house.
A visit from shady attorney Sam Pearson (Gavin Gordon) establishes that Shaw badly needs money and that he’s a suspicious wise-cracker with a chip on his shoulder. He carries a glass-framed $1k bill as a superstitious totem to goad himself into not using it. It becomes a symbol of his self-tantalizing, enervated paralysis.
Pearson proposes a deal involving a wealthy couple, the Hillmans, who live in a swanky mansion with a pool on a hill looking over the glamorous L.A. freeway. Gus Hillman (Douglas Dumbrille), the middle-aged moneybag, won’t be introduced until later. First, Shaw meets the trophy wife, a real estate saleswoman named Doris (Angela Lansbury) who conducts business meetings at the pool in her wet one-piece suit.
Before he even sees her, the maid warns him that sometimes Mrs. Hillman swims in the nude. “Don’t worry about it. So do I,” he answers pertly. Doris then baits Shaw by warning him not to be flirtatious as she lies under a towel to pull down her top, complaining of the heat. Maybe they should go into the air conditioning.
As Doris explains it, the partnership requires insuring Shaw’s life for an enormous sum. As soon as she mentions it, he walks out, knowing he’s being played for a chump. The audience knows it too, and that’s one of the cleverest angles of a film that rings a variation on classic insurance-scam tales like Billy Wilder‘s Double Indemnity (1944).
Even though Shaw suspects he’s being roped in as a fatted calf to be bumped off, he’s so attracted to Doris that he’s willing to play the odds. In the wittiest scene, they trade steamy kisses while negotiating the insurance figure. In other words, he walks into a bad idea with his eyes open, but he’s not really using just his eyes. If we want to do a number on him, perhaps the self-loathing Shaw secretly yearns for someone to put him out of his misery, to prove he’s worth more dead than alive.
The film runs only 76 minutes but a bunch of stuff happens at a nice clip, sometimes too quickly for us to analyze how much adds up, with some elements more obvious than others. In a sense, everyone is clumsy and transparent, and that feels reasonably credible. The story mixes common sense (e.g., going to the cops and the insurance company) with devious cupidity and lust amongst tawdry, small-minded people.
The ambiguous Doris develops real feelings for the handsome Shaw, as well she might since she seems trapped in her marriage with Hillman. She may be her hubby’s reluctant puppet. At an ebb in her career, Lansbury’s portrayal is crisp and lively.
Contrasting with Doris is her younger sister Madge (Claudia Barrett), who initially seems naive but reveals sense and self-reliance when she begins to grasp the implications of Shaw’s embroilments. She drops a surprisingly ambiguous punchline to end the film after events come to their melodramatic head.
Madge and Shaw conduct a montage of going out on the town that’s scored by a lush piece of orchestral lounge music, “Summer Interlude”, credited to Hank McCune and Les Baxter. At the end of the montage, this music is revealed as an LP played by Madge on her record player, which she abruptly cuts off. That’s a nice little “meta” detail.
Also in the picture is Oscar-winner Jane Darwell, who plays Shaw’s nosy bustling landlady.
A Life at Stake can’t be called an essential classic or lost masterpiece, but it can’t be called a bad example of low-budget noir either. It’s a good example. Besides the players, a stand-out quality is Ted Allan’s photography, equally good in moody night scenes as in documentary shots of 1950s Los Angeles.
As Ney explains, this film’s curious origin lies with big-eared comedian Hank McCune, who briefly starred in his own free-wheeling TV sitcom, The Hank McCune Show. Like his femme fatale, McCune went into real estate, but first, he yearned to try his hand at producing independent features, of which this was the first.
His second, which he directed himself, was Wetbacks (1956), in which a hero (Chuck Connors) fights murderous gangsters who smuggle and exploit illegal immigrants from Mexico. Written by Ed Wood (!), this sounds like the first project ever to address a topic that was freshly relevant and unfortunately remains so. Not having seen it, we imagine it may be a festival of mixed signals, starting with the title.
Returning to A Life at Stake, McCune created the story and hired people from his television series, including writer Russ Bender and supporting actor Frank Maxwell. Director Guilfoyle, a former actor, directed 1950s television prolifically and could clearly crank out a professional product on a budget. His wife, Kathleen Mulqueen, plays Shaw’s mom-like secretary.
Shot in June 1954 and released spottily the next year, the result was a late entry in the postwar noir cycle that played under the critical radar and quickly vanished. In his booklet, Ney identifies the film as one of the last distributed by Ida Lupino‘s indie company, The Filmakers. The disc contains a brief extra about this company.
This instantly forgotten, saucy little potboiler looks better than it probably ever has, thanks to this transfer from a 4K restoration of a 35mm print. Quality of image and sound makes the difference between a film that looks shabby and unprofessional and one where we can sink into the look and tone and story. For 76 minutes, we’re smack in the sleek, seamy, sweaty, paranoid underside of the American ’50s, and it’s a nice trip.