The places are all alike, Milly. You can’t run away from yourself.
—Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum)
In its own quiet way, Betrayed may count as the scariest (and best) film that schlock auteur William Castle ever directed. Mainly because the realistic bogie men of its shadow world bear a striking resemblance to the people we know and trust.
The murderers of classical film noir were, for the most part, an exotic breed. Not to be confused with the stoic soldiers of organized crime or milquetoast fall guys controlled by femmes fatales, noir’s truly chilling bad boys tended to kill out of sadistic enjoyment, rankling jealousy, repressed desire, or full-on flamboyant psychosis.
Even the more mercenary killers of the canon could point to some sort of morbid root cause or etiology. We are meant to view them as mutants, as creatures with some faulty circuitry in their brains or souls that makes them irredeemably evil.
Which is why I find Betrayed (alternate title When Strangers Marry) so refreshing. It teaches us that killers usually don’t twitch or drool or grimace. They don’t kill for anything other than personal gain. They’re not necessarily crazy or damaged. They’re perfectly normal. Until they see something they want and can’t have.
Stinking of Poverty Row studio Monogram’s tawdry cardboard sets and laced with heady expressionism, Betrayed is one hell of a spooky movie—and a fine, haunting piece of cinema.
As noir master Orson Welles wrote about the film, “Making allowances for its bargain-price budget, I think you’ll agree with me that it’s one of the most gripping and effective pictures of the year. It isn’t as slick as Double Indemnity or as glossy as Laura, but it’s better acted and better directed by William Castle than either.”
Now, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I agree that Betrayed works miracles with its raw material, weaving an oppressive atmosphere of urban dread and paranoia.
Our story centers on Mildred Baxter (Kim Hunter), a vulnerable young woman who married a traveling salesman she’d only met three times over the course of four months. Going to meet this mystery bridegroom in New York, she bumps into her disappointed suitor Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum in the role that really got him noticed). However, she finds no sign of her mysterious hubby, Paul, at the hotel where he promised to rendezvous.
As Mildred tries to get in touch with Paul and then find out more about his peculiar habits, she and the ever-loyal Fred turn up lots of little clues that Paul may be wanted as the “silk stocking murderer” in Philadelphia. Will Mildred continue to protect the man she loves no matter what he did? Because “’til death do us part” isn’t so long when you’re married to a murderer…
The film dramatizes the frightening idea that some people can just mute their consciences when unhinged by the temptation of money. And that this happens more often than anyone might suppose. In one scene, a detective invites Fred, a potential informant, into his office and provides a little summary of a similar murder case, complete with a slideshow.
The decidedly unglamourous, quotidian faces of the perpetrator and his victims that we see flash up on the screen remind us that bad things happen not only to the beautiful lost souls of noirland, but also to us, to the people on the other side of the screen. I also savor the parallel between the horror show that the detective puts on for Fred and the film Betrayed itself as a kind of cautionary frightfest.
This dark tale of love and suspicion stares a little too long at society and spies the goblins and ghouls lurking in places that seem familiar to us: middling hotels, street corners, bus stops.
Anticipating his gift for fear-inducing gimmicks, Castle frequently plays on our nerves with phantasmagoric superimposed images, as though a troubled mind can turn the most prosaic of environments into a house of horrors. In the film’s most visually memorable scene, flashing nightclub lights from outside Mildred’s hotel window, combined with bursts of frantic dance music, result in a kind of hypnotic effect.
The vertiginous overstimulation of urban life fills in for the usual Castle shock tactics. And, many times in the film, we get a false alarm. All of our anxiety, all of the tension built up, suddenly evaporates in a “Lewton bus”-style anticlimax that leaves the viewer frustrated and rattled. Surprise, surprise: Castle’s got us right where he wants us.
In one of his earliest films, Castle delivers a resoundingly unsettling peek at the dirt under the rug of WWII-era America and cleverly peppers slow-burning suspense with the occasional frightening sequence. He shrewdly adopts the old Hitchcock trick of embedding a signal of oncoming danger into scenes in the form of an apparently inconsequential object; the audience often recognizes its significance before the characters do. For instance, in the opening of Betrayed, we see a man wearing a houndstooth hat follow the murder victim to his room. Later, when Mildred finds Paul’s apartment, that same hat is sitting on the table. Uh-oh.
Everyday sights like a book of matches, a name on a mailbox, the label on a suitcase, a letter about to be sent, all conspire to create an ambiance of horror and watchfulness.
I also enjoy how Betrayed shoves you right into its off-kilter parallel universe. In the first shot, we see the flashing light of a hotel sign. Cut to a menacing papier-mâché lion’s head peeking from behind a curtain. As the camera tracks out from this surly, almost diabolical mask, we hear a real lion’s roar on the soundtrack and a man cackles, “I’m king of the jungle!” Under the costume, a plump, abrasive businessman is gallivanting around the hotel, having fun on a conference night.
The non-diegetic lion growl really freaks me out, even though it lasts for only a few seconds. Not only might this sound be a jab at prestige studio MGM’s puffed-up lions, but it also opens our minds to a more allegorical aspect of the film. The predatory, animalistic nature of humans shows up again and again in noir; the battle to rule the asphalt jungle is no laughing matter. Especially since the man who so proudly declares himself the “king of the jungle” in the opening of this movie quickly falls prey to another creature on the food chain.
You just have to admire the economy with which Castle sets up our classic suspense thriller plot and conjures a dreamlike atmosphere with this surreal zoological touch.
I also found it hard not to view Betrayed as a commentary on the inherent Social Darwinism of the average workingman’s lot. I imagine that when this oppressively irritating rich guy gets strangled in his hotel room by a shabby stranger, nobody in the audience shed a tear. The nasty, oblivious goon brought it on himself, didn’t he? Waving his money around, getting hammered, boasting, and inviting a man he didn’t know to spend the night, he asked for it.
Baxter even observes later in the film, “It didn’t seem right that a man like that should have all that money.” Certainly, although we all know that murder is wrong, Castle doesn’t lead us to nurture any empathy for that victim. But, you see, the film tempts us to cave into sociopathic reasoning. Film critic Victor Perkins noted that Hitchcock often pulled a similar trick: he traps his audience in the same moral rationalizations that the killer uses. Well, Castle effectively incorporates this technique.
The fact that silk stockings—a rare, rationed commodity in 1944, when the film was released—serve as the weapon in the film’s key murder also adds strength to the undercurrent of socioeconomic commentary. As Paul Baxter chuckles to himself, watching a cluster of fighting children, “Kids squabbling over marbles. Twenty years from now they’ll still be squabbling, but over money instead of marbles. People don’t change much, do they?”
I went into this film not knowing the ending and cherished every minute, so I don’t want to spoil it, but let me just say that it was a total nail-biter and a pleasure through and through. Given my penchant for Monogram noir, is it any surprised that Betrayed gets Nitrate Diva’s seal of approval? For everyone who thinks that they know William Castle from films like The House on Haunted Hill or Homicidal, I invite you to go down the mean streets of noir with this cigar-chomping showman. It’s 67 minutes very well spent.
Oh, and keep an eye out for his cameo…