“There doesn’t seem to be any beginning. All I can remember is the end of it…”
Mr. Johnson’s plump fingers wiggle around the bottle. “Napoleon brandy! 1815!” He beams with joy. Until he realizes that he’s all alone in the wine cellar.
Calling out to his absent companion, he totters along wooden racks of dusty bottles. After pausing in one aisle of the cavernous room, Mr. Johnson turns around, then hears a low, deep growl, and spins around again, to face us. His gaze is fixed on something just below where the camera would be. Something horrible and hungry. Clutching his precious find, the pudgy man backs away to a brick wall. His panic rises and the bottle slips from his hand.
Cut to the shattered glass on the ground. Rivulets of brandy run along the floor, as the sound of wild screams and the snarls of a vicious dog continue to assault our ears.
This stomach-churning ellipsis should give you a taste of what The Chase, at its best, is capable of. Don’t say I didn’t warn you: this sick, dizzying film noir might be a few cigarettes short of a pack. Still, if The Chase doesn’t ascend to the trippy epiphanies or concise bitterness of truly great noirs, you’ll have a hard time forgetting the idiosyncratic classic.
The plot meanders weirdly, falling into a subjective nightmare and never quite coming out of that nosedive. Rather than seeming engaging and twisty, like The Big Sleep, for example, The Chase floats along for a while, accelerates to a prestissimo, then drifts to its denouement. Events pile on top of one another, seemingly without any larger design, and wobble to and fro. This unstable plot structure is both a strength and a weakness. You may feel cheated by the way it deceives you, but you also share the trancelike disorientation of the main character.
Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, the movie features a protagonist typical of the author’s work: an innocent schmoe who gets mixed up in crime. Robert Cummings is the schmoe du jour, Chuck Scott, a down-and-out veteran. When Scott finds a wallet stuffed with money on the street in Miami, he goes to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, that owner happens to be vicious gangster Eddie Roman, who, impressed by Scott’s honesty, hires him as a chauffeur. The gig’s not bad—except that Roman has his car rigged up to be driven from the back seat, as well. (Don’t ask.) Scott also gets to drive Roman’s wife, Lorna, to the beach for her nightly poetic sobbing.
Motivated by that 1940s male urge to play the knight in shining armor, Scott agrees to help Lorna flee her sadistic husband and to book passage on a ship for Havana. However, faster than you can say “happily ever after,” Roman’s confederates have traced the couple and conspire to cut off all escape.
Upon reflection, I’m inclined to give Cornell Woolrich the most credit of any crime writer for his contributions to the film noir canon. Often published under the pseudonym William Irish, his fiction distilled an impressive range of the genre’s tropes: the amnesiac investigating his own past (“The Black Curtain”), the dream crime that turns into reality (“Nightmare”), the elusive MacGuffin and the avenging angel (“Phantom Lady”), the voyeur who sees too much (“Rear Window”), the serial killer exploiting a mass panic (“Black Alibi”), and the conniving femme fatale who destroys others and ultimately herself (“Angel Face”). His works are like a treasury of film noir plots, a sampler copied and embellished by a lot of gripping movies.
In The Dark Side of the Screen, a book that I unreservedly recommend, Foster Hirsch notes that the words, “ ‘Black,’ ‘night,’ and ‘death’ appear with obsessive recurrence in Woolrich’s titles.” Indeed, The Chase is based on a novel originally titled, The Black Path of Fear.
Alas, from what I understand about the source material, gifted screenwriter Philip Yordan would’ve done well to stick closer to the book, which sounds tighter and more coherent than the film. Instead of Woolrich’s well-constructed thriller, Yordan and undistinguished director Arthur Ripley put out a rambling fugue of pursuit and anxiety. Thankfully, the excellent supporting cast and the cinematography pull it together. Well, almost.
Whenever the script allows, director of photography Franz Planer blows up the low-key lit esthetics of noir to dissonant extremes. Eddie Roman’s huge mausoleum of a mansion, all in white, resembles a funhouse with the multiple shadow textures Planer casts over it. The scenes in Havana, particularly the nightclub sequence, exhale a hot, evil wind. Tight, intimate close-ups of Scott and Lorna ooze despair and desperation, as though dawn will never come. The slowly tracking camera and the consuming darkness suggest a tropical night so tenebrous and mysterious that it borders on abstraction. It’s not merely night; it’s Night, the boundless Night that Woolrich evoked in his titles.
The visuals remain startling and beautiful even in the DVD print I have, which looks like the negative was marinated in coffee for a decade or so.
As for the acting, Peter Lorre steals his share of scenes and gets most of the best dialogue as Gino, Roman’s skulking, perpetually annoyed toady. When Scott brings back the lost wallet, Gino sneers, “Silly, law-abiding jerk.” His laconic, eye-rolling reactions to Scott’s bewildered goodness walk the fine line between funny and menacing. In my favorite snappy exchange, Scotty protests to one of Roman’s quirks,“I don’t get it.” The ever-blasé Gino retorts, “Who does?”
Michele Morgan, with her lush, orchidaceous face, glides through the film like a lost soul, a diaphanous dream woman not long for this world. The white horror flaring up in her wide eyes speaks to us of all the abuse that the Production Code couldn’t show. Within the confines of a rather decorative role, Morgan creates an achingly gentle woman who would trigger anybody’s protective instincts.
Of course, the movie really belongs to oily hunk Steve Cochran in his deadly prime. I sometimes have a hard time finding classic movie gangsters scary; more often, they’re impudent and amusing. Eddie Roman, as Cochran plays him, gives me the willies. From the manicurist who does his nails—and gets slapped if she nicks his nail bed—to his most formidable business rivals, no one is safe from Roman’s penchant for violence, both physical and psychological.
Even the simplest of lines spoken by Cochran slither into our ears like whispered obscenities. This man doesn’t just enjoy watching other people suffer; he lives for it. It was only Cochran’s sixth film, but he’d perfected the silent menace routine. Even disregarding everything else this film has going for it, you’d be well advised to check it out for Cochran alone.