A flashback. Within a flashback. Within a flashback. Have I whetted your appetite? Or do I detect a glazed look in your widening, screen-bleary eyes?
For those not as enamored of narrative brambles as I, let me offer some immediate reassurance: you won’t need a diagram to follow The Locket. In fact, the surprising clarity of the film’s symmetrical progression—burrowing deep into the past and then rising to the present again—strikes me as a small miracle.
Mysterious Nancy Monks (Laraine Day) is all set to marry rich John Willis (Gene Raymond) and has thoroughly beguiled his family. However, on the day of her wedding Dr. Blair (Brian Aherne), a psychiatrist claiming to be Nancy’s ex-husband, shows up and demands to speak with the groom. Cue the flashbacks! Dr. Blair launches into a multi-layered story about Nancy’s kleptomania, her deadly web of lies, and the childhood trauma that triggered her compulsions. Is it true? And will the groom go through with the wedding?
This psychological thriller, directed by overlooked auteur John Brahm, hasn’t gotten the recognition it merits within the noir canon. (Only 2 stars, really, Leonard Maltin? No better than Laserblast? That simply won’t do.) Though remembered mostly for its plot eccentricities, The Locket is so much more than a curio. I’ll admit it suffers from a slight case of Rosebud syndrome, but the overall brilliance of the movie transcends any individual contrivance.
The conviction of its performances, the burnished splendor of its cinematography, and the acerbic social commentary of its script all combine to produce a level of quality I associate with top-tier films noirs.
By jumbling the beginning, middle, and end, this film unnervingly draws the viewer into the fractured mind of its heroine. Director John Brahm had already proved his gift for illuminating disturbed souls with the obsessive flourishes in Guest in the House, The Lodger, and Hangover Square.
Here, he takes a structure designed to tax the limits of plot continuity and, instead of backing off, brazenly cloaks it in another layer of expressionistic anxiety. This is a movie that gently lures spectators to the edge of the abyss then dares them to look down.
I have a lot to say about this underrated gem, but I’ll get the most important part out there now: do yourself a favor and watch The Locket. (And, thanks to Warner Archive, it’s available on DVD!)
If ever a film noir deserved to be “rediscovered,” this is it.
We now return to your regularly scheduled screenshots and analysis. Oh, and beyond this point there be spoilers.
The Curse of Cassandra
What does it matter now if men believe or no?
What is to come will come. And soon you too will stand
beside, to murmur in pity that my words were true.
—Cassandra in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon
In case you’re craving a Western Civ refresher, let’s revisit one of the worst breakups in Greek myth. When Trojan priestess Cassandra refused to have Apollo’s child, the Sun god cursed her to foresee the future perfectly—only to meet with disbelief from those around her.
The Locket directly alludes to the story of Cassandra with a creepy portrait of the unfortunate prophetess, modeled on Nancy and painted by her then-lover Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum). The grotesquely blank eyeballs of Clyde’s Cassandra initially seem like they’d be more at home in a horror movie. In fact, they offer the first window into the howling chaos lurking beneath Nancy’s pert, abnormally normal exterior.
The film’s most potent link to the Cassandra myth, however, stems from Nancy’s youth, as revealed in the innermost layer of flashbacks. To signal the start of each flashback, the camera tracks into the character’s darkened face, as though the camera were slipping into their subconscious. We peel back through Dr. Blair’s memories as he confides in Nancy’s groom and then through Clyde’s memories as he recounts them to Dr. Blair. Finally, when the camera slides towards Nancy, she shares the experience that fuels her compulsion.
Shortly after Nancy’s father died, Mrs. Willis, the snotty, sadistic dowager who employed Nancy’s mother as a housekeeper, accused little Nancy of stealing a valuable locket. Although Nancy didn’t do it, Mrs. Willis insisted she was guilty and forced a confession out of the scared child. The injustice of the scene—laden with ugly overtones of class entitlement—will rankle anyone with half a heart. It’s downright painful to watch.
Like Cassandra, Nancy told the truth, but no one believed her.
Past and Present
The girl stands shocked by the words that flew out of her mouth under duress. A music box that tumbled on the floor during Nancy’s scuffle with Mrs. Willis attracts her attention. Its chirpy, inappropriate tune cuts through the suffocating tension. Brahm gives us an extreme low angle shot of Nancy, dazed, almost paralyzed.
Have you ever felt smote by fate, squashed by forces beyond your control to the extent that, for a moment, you have the impression of looking at yourself from the outside? I have, and that shot is just about the best I’ve seen that feeling caught on film.
Something breaks inside of Nancy right there. The mechanism that lets her distinguish between true and false, between good and bad, shatters. Whatever face she puts forward to the world, she’ll always be the Cassandra of Clyde’s portrait, staring emptily out from a private hell.
At the end of the film, Nancy comes full circle and returns to the place where she learned to lie. The music box again tumbles to the floor and Brahm punctuates the parallel with the exact same angle—peering up at Nancy. Not even her bridal veil can shield her from the uncanny gaze of the camera. The veil trembles like a canopy above us, enfolding us with Nancy as we look up, as if from a point within her. She suddenly relives the trauma that pursued her and drove her to repeat a cycle of crime and deceit.
The Eyes of a Prophetess
Time, that enigmatic thing that healthy people perceive as a one-way linear path, doesn’t go forward for Nancy.
Her childhood ordeal, petty yet dense as the dying star mass at the center of a black hole, ruptured the chronology of her life. Nancy can’t escape the gravitational pull of her past, and she traces the edge of the chasm again and again. Is she even aware that she’s recreating a pattern of disaster? Probably not, the film suggests.
When Dr. Blair confronts Nancy with incontrovertible evidence of her thefts, she can’t compute the facts. As she stands in the rubble of her apartment (in England during the Blitz), the camera moves into Nancy’s vacant face as the flashes of bombs light alternating sides of her face. She dissolves into the painting of Cassandra—except in place of the portrait’s blank stare are her own glassy eyes. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
Nevertheless, it’s a familiar nightmare. We might draw back from the freakish dead face with living eyes, but the compulsion it represents doesn’t diverge too significantly from the somnambulistic pursuit of things and stuff that governs millions of lives.
Of all femmes fatales, Nancy strikes me as one of the most alarming since she doesn’t fully understand what she does. If she can wreak havoc without knowing it, can’t we all?
And who’s to say we’re not doing so already?
Indeed, I’d argue that Nancy’s craving for valuable jewelry (and, by extension, the status they symbolize) only intensifies the everyday materialism that motivates modern society. While The Locket delivers a grim, universal meditation on truth and compulsion, it also clearly and specifically condemns the American Dream and its underpinnings of greed and social exclusion, as so many noirs do.
Nancy’s mother expressed her faith in such a dream, telling her child, “If you want things badly enough, someday you’ll have them.” Innocent as it sounds, that cycle of wanting, getting, and then wanting more consumes Nancy’s existence. Drawn to signifiers of upper class privilege and comfort, Nancy manifests a stronger, more maladaptive version of the desires that, more or less, control all of us. The Locket implies that (in)sanity is a continuum; our common unhappiness falls closer to normal than Nancy’s neurotic misery, for sure, but the average person is not as far away as she’d like to imagine.
When the prophetess stares out at me from the painting, maybe her unseeing eyes curdle my blood because because they remind me of myself.
The Realness of Lies
It’s fundamentally human to trade in lies and to want to believe in lies. Falsehood is the path of least resistance. Lying for profit goes back even beyond mankind, to our primate ancestors. We’ve evolved to be fluent in deceit.
The trouble with lies, though, is that they’re a lot more real than we think. Unchecked, the lies we tell others can warp reality, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. And the lies we tell ourselves? They can be as devastating.
Although The Locket depicts its male characters with sympathy, these men deceive themselves almost as much as Nancy deceives them.
Three highly intelligent individuals—an astute artist, a psychoanalyst, and a well-educated heir—develop intimate relationships with Nancy while remaining completely oblivious to her unstable mind. Why? Because the truth would interfere with their fantasies. Interestingly enough, different as their personalities are, they all make similar comments about how Nancy represents their ideal woman.
John Willis tells her, “I’m living in a dream world. I keep pinching myself. I think I’ve always wanted to marry you, Nancy, even before I knew you.”
Dr. Blair recalls, “She seemed so perfect it was alarming, and, despite my psychiatric training, I was unable to detect the slightest flaw in her, which in itself should’ve given me pause, since none of us are perfect.”
Norman Clyde reminisces, “It was as though the perfect girl, the one you’d always imagined but never expected to meet, suddenly materialized, if you know what I mean.”
Nobody questions paradise, not even when serpent slithers in. Not until it’s too late. Perhaps we should all be on guard against things that seem too good. When people see something they want, they become accomplices in their own downfall.
Ironically, just as Nancy told the truth and was punished for it, Nancy (unwittingly?) inflicts the same fate on her lovers. Both Clyde and Blair discover Nancy’s larcenous impulses and, on separate occasions, try to warn her current fiancé or husband. Nobody believes Nancy’s spurned accusers. In comparison to poised, lucid Nancy, they seem like the crazy ones. Truth looks like a liar and lies become true.
The cinematography of The Locket, some of the legendary Nicolas Musuraca’s best work, eloquently suggests the encroaching danger of lies. From the cheerfully bright opening scenes, the lighting advances towards noir by degrees. The virtuoso lighting reaches its shadowy pinnacle as Clyde and Nancy argue about their involvement in a murder; a crackling fire makes their faces and outlines glow, like figures in a Caravaggio painting. The film’s visual progression into noir also amps up the captivating beauty of its visuals, emphasizing how seductive delusions can be.
Shrinking the Shrinks
Most examples of Hollywood’s Freudian craze haven’t aged well. They strike modern audiences as silly—if not irresponsible—because they present psychoanalysis as the secret decoder ring for human misery. Appropriated even by some of the best screenwriters, Freud’s complex theories of symbolic interpretation and transference often reduce to just another convenient shortcut leading to the inevitable: a happy ending.
In the movies, psychoanalysis efficiently fixes confused good people (as in Spellbound and The Secret Behind the Door) so that they can settle down and fulfill their socially-appointed destinies. When such a positive result isn’t possible, Freudian theory provides a means of sniffing out irrevocably bad people (as in Conflict), surgically removing them from society, and delivering them to their Hays-Code-sanctioned doom.
Rather than indulge in retrospective smugness, though, let’s note that audiences regarded psychoanalytic thrillers as silly even when they were first being made. In 1948, The Screen Writer magazine chuckled over the emergence of the psychoanalyst-hero trope: “the mental wonder-worker who is half physician and half super-sleuth… Vienna and Scotland Yard rolled into one. What fun!”
By contrast, The Locket stresses Dr. Blair’s fallibility and lack of insight. He lived for years in blissful ignorance of the kleptomaniac under his roof. As Clyde sneers, “You’re no psychiatrist! You don’t know truth from lies. You’re just a lovesick quack.” In a masterstroke of irony, Dr. Blair’s failure to diagnose and cure his wife’s compulsion ends up landing him in a mental asylum!
At the film’s conclusion, Dr. Blair doesn’t offer the glib reassurance we expect from a psychiatrist in the last five minutes of a studio-era movie. He can’t guarantee Nancy’s recovery. Instead he and John Willis lead a nonresponsive Nancy out, presumably to an institution. Meanwhile, the wicked Mrs. Willis lingers by her mansion gates, no less a prisoner of her twisted emotions than Nancy is.
In 1946, ending on such an unresolved chord, leaving the viewer to wonder about Nancy’s guilt and her future, was an awfully bold thing to do.
The bitter words of Aeschylus’s Cassandra apply to The Locket: “there is no god of healing in this story.” And that is why Brahm’s film remains so disturbing and tantalizing almost 70 years later.