A favorite. It’s dark, gritty, cruel, with a flickering possibility of redemption. But just a flicker. Come on, let’s be realistic. Does Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews, at his amoral rough BEST) have a chance at turning his life around? I don’t know. He somehow has attracted the love of a good woman, but will that be enough? I don’t know. The “I don’t know” that lingers when the film ends gives it its great ambiguity. We know right off the bat that Eric is a drifter and up to no good. He’s kicked off the bus because he doesn’t have the fare to go on to San Francisco. He wanders around the small California town, and you get the uneasy sense that he’s looking for trouble, looking for a scheme, a con, something. The town sits on the beach. He comes across a small cafe, with the waves rolling in behind it. He goes in. The cafe’s exterior is atmospheric almost to the level of poetry. It pleases me, aesthetically, to look at that little clapboard structure, with the word BEER placed on either side of the little door, the beach glimmering darkly behind the whole thing. It’s beautiful. It looks innocent. You fear for its innocence.
At the cafe he meets Stella, a waitress, who’s just as glum and cynical as he is. She’s played by Linda Darnell. She wears a white flower in her hair. She lazily steals from the cash register. She goes out dancing every night. Eric thinks up a way to con this small town, by getting in on a promotional level for a traveling psychic. He tries to get the leading sisters of the town, Clara and June Mills (played by Anne Revere and Alice Faye) to support the event. He starts stepping out with Stella, but she refuses his advances (after a certain point, that is). He tries to get her to lie down in the sand with him under the boardwalk and she pushes him off. She’s done all that before, that’s “for kids”, she wants to get married. He, of course, offers to marry her. She comes clean that she doesn’t just want to get married, she wants to get married to a guy who has some money, can give her a home. So begins Eric’s plan to swindle the Mills sisters out of their big inheritance in order to be able to marry Stella, but all of it feels like a fool’s errand. Because does he even love Stella? Does he know what that means? Why would he risk it all to get married to her? He’s gonna get married? Why? What is up with this guy? Does he have self-awareness? Or is he just a creep? Dana Andrews is excellent at not providing easy answers for his character, at not making a plea for our sympathy. He sizes people up, he goes after what he wants – strongly, certainly. There’s a super-sexy moment at a local dance hall, where he is on his first date with Stella. They circle on the dance floor. She says, “I like how you talk.” He says, “I like how you dance.” They kiss. It’s sexy as hell. They pull back from the kiss, look at each other for a while, and then, as one, walk off the dance floor to go get their coats and leave the joint. You understand everything. You understand the heat between them, you understand their motivations. When she pushes him off a scene later, he’s angry, rough. Stella is the type of woman who drives men crazy. She works at the cafe, with lovelorn suitors buzzing around, sitting at the counter all damn day, crush-ing on her. It must be very annoying. She looks at Eric and clocks him for exactly who he is. She’s a tough cookie, that one.
Charles Bickford is great as Mr. Judd, a local guy who had once upon a time been a bigwig on the New York police force and, for mysterious reasons, is now home. There’s a totally brutal scene where he interrogates a suspect in a murder, making sure to put on his kid gloves so that when he brutalizes the guy he won’t mess up his hand. He punches that poor guy over and over and over … and, even worse, he knows the guy didn’t do it. He says later, “I just didn’t like his face.”
Alice Faye, as June Mills, the nice spinsterish woman who gets sucked into Eric’s web, is beautiful and effective in her role. June has no experience with men, and has lived a fairly cloistered and serious life. Eric courts her at the same time he’s courting Stella. He tries to show June the good “little things” in life, like hot dogs, and movies, and going dancing. June may be inexperienced with men, but she knows an unhappy guy when she sees one. She meets him straightforwardly, as straightforwardly as Stella does, but in a different context.
The supporting cast is all great (love John Carradine as Professor Madley, the medium who talks with the dead). The mood is grim. Preminger’s camera, as always, moves and circles, rarely stationary. It’s almost like he stalks his own characters, trying to see them from every angle. Like he’s a prosecutor in a murder case. There’s one very interesting shot in the Mills mansion with the two sisters. They walk from the foyer through the dining room into the kitchen in all one take, and they are talking casually about whether or not they are going to go to the Professor Madley Event. And the camera zooms behind them, almost frantic, almost like a horror film, where you feel the camera is about to pounce. It’s very destabilizing. Even in the privacy of a normal conversation, things are off-balance.
And Dana Andrews is superb. He goes through the wringer in this film, maybe even more so than in the famous Laura, filmed the year before. Eric Stanton doesn’t have as much going for him as Detective McPherson does in Laura. Detective McPherson has seen too much, knows too much, is hard-bitten to the point of being unfeeling (which is why his swoon for Laura is so erotically charged), but at least he has a damn JOB. He has a position in society. Eric Stanton has none of that. He has a dollar to his name. He has no address. He uses people and doesn’t feel bad about it. He is what you dread, he is a person you hope you never meet. The small town in California cannot accept him. It tries to reject him, like a virus. Even when you learn later his life of hard-knocks and disappointments, you don’t really feel bad for the guy. Plenty of people who have a life of hard-knocks don’t USE people. But it’s a magnificent performance, tightly coiled, and yet over the course of the film, he begins to unravel. And maybe that unraveling will redeem him in the end. But maybe not. I don’t know.