Housewife Noir

The first hint of alarm given in the 1951 thriller Cause for Alarm! (the exclamation point is part of the title) comes at the start, as the camera tracks in toward a beautifully kept suburban home, complete with its proverbial white picket fence—only to halt at a “Quiet” sign tacked onto it, warning that illness resides within. That sign is more than letters on a board; it’s a literal signifier of the movie’s underlying theme—that a deep sickness might lurk in the heart of what’s considered the proverbial American dream. It may have been sold to home buyers as an aspiring ideal, but Life in the Suburbs ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The rest of the film follows through on that premise, its story presenting “the most terrifying day” experienced by the film’s fragile heroine, Ellen Jones (Loretta Young), a “girl” (as the poster indicates) who’s “in trouble!” In one hectic afternoon she must deal with: a dead husband, an annoying kid, a snooping relative, a nosy neighbor, an intrusive salesman, an accusation of murder, and the maddening regulations of the United States Postal Service. After her bedridden, paranoid spouse with a heart condition (Barry Sullivan) informs her that he’s just posted a letter to the District Attorney charging both her and his physician with plotting his demise, he inconveniently keels over from cardiac arrest, leaving Ellen with no convincing alibi. She must then attempt to retrieve that implicating letter from a teeth-grindingly obstinate mailman (Irving Bacon), whose strict observation of post office rules (he has to deliver a letter once it’s been mailed—rules is rules!) leads to Ellen’s confrontation with an obtuse post office supervisor (Art Baker) who won’t release the epistle until he’s received the (now-deceased) husband’s consent to do so. By this point, Ellen understandably wigs out in the supervisor’s office, an incident that, unfortunately, will not look good in court. Ellen is definitely having a bad day.

The movie is an unusual combination of film noir and women’s melodrama, in that its events happen not down dark city streets or inside dingy dives, but in a sun-soaked California suburb filled with tricycling children and gardening women, where tree-lined avenues flank rows of monotonously lovely homes. Much of the action takes place inside Ellen’s meticulously clean house, where she’s first seen vacuuming the living room rug, dressed in a puff-sleeved blouse and poodle skirt, which normally would make her look more like a carefree teenager than a busy housewife.

But ‘Housewife’ is the key to who and what Ellen is. She even identifies herself in a voiceover as such: “I’m a housewife,” she says—a unit of that post-World-War-Two band of American women who returned, willingly or not, to the domestic hearth after serving in the wartime work force. Ellen herself, as seen in a flashback, had once been one of that corps of capable women who fought the good fight on the home front, and her post-war reaction to this shrinkage of her horizons may be reflected in the house’s geography. Its cramped rooms and over-furnished interiors swallow up space, while its twisting staircase, leading up to the cheerless bedroom, stands as an objective correlative to Ellen’s own feelings of helpless entrapment. It’s the mise en scène of noir transplanted to the domestic ménage; and what’s been promoted as a familial paradise becomes instead both madhouse and prison.

Nor do the outside scenes provide relief. Director Tay Garnett’s earlier noir film, 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, used an atypical lighting scheme, of sunlight and white surfaces (including Lana Tuner’s blindingly white costumes), to suggest menace displayed in the open; and Garnett similarly uses bright light and clean, spacious streets to convey not safety but Ellen’s isolation and danger. The emptiness surrounding Ellen offers her no hope of succor; and the hot sun perpetually beating down becomes an oppressive, claustrophobic force. Throughout the film Young is photographed in a sheen of sweat, her hair curling in tight tendrils, her face drained of energy. She looks like a flower dying from too much of a good thing.

Young keys into this anxiety, building her performance on an accretion of small, frightened gestures that act as protective distraction against hysteria. Ellen forces herself to keep busy with household tasks—stacking groceries, stripping beds, even washing stains off an aunt’s skirt (while the aunt is wearing it)—as she keeps up an interior voiceover monologue on how she must behave. Taking up her husband’s lunch, she tells herself to be “pleasant and cheerful as if nothing happened.” The horror, for Ellen, is that activities that should be “nothing—that should be mundane, normal, inconsequential—assume a grotesque significance under the flaming eyes of George, her enraged, taunting, and pathologically jealous spouse—the very Cause for Alarm himself.

Ah, yes, George. The film’s irony is that the one who should be the domestic provider, who should care for his wife and protect hearth and home, is instead the embodied sickness within. As played by Sullivan, George is a blazing psychopath, who suspects his wife of carrying on an affair with his doctor (her former boyfriend), and he never lets up on his suspicions. Part of his emotional abuse is to keep his wife isolated and fixed on his needs, so that Ellen has nowhere to turn (George “doesn’t believe in neighbors,“ she explains helplessly to one). He’s that full-blown narcissist that women’s girlfriends always warn about, but for whom women continue to fall. When seen in the flashback (how he and Ellen met during the war), George is snarkily charming, the self-regarding Alpha male strutting like a rooster in a barnyard, who blatantly manipulates Ellen’s feelings—you can see why this smart woman made such a bad choice.

Now an invalid dependent on his wife’s care, George can no longer be bothered with the surface charm but instead goes for the kill. When Ellen tries to appease him (much of how she handles him is by a string of attempted appeasements) by pointing out all the time the doctor spends with him, George sarcastically notes, “Maybe that’s because he’s a bachelor—no home life.” The film’s creepiest scene has George sadistically regaling Ellen with a recollection of a childhood incident, when he had savagely beaten another child for playing with his toys. Sullivan plays the scene against what you’d expect; he speaks in a soft, coaxing voice, gently pulling Young down to sit next to him, his seeming affection masking rage. It’s suburban drama played as sheer horror, in which the Monster no longer lurks in the shadows but has crawled into the lady’s own bed and is fed out of her own hand.

Cause For Alarm! seems to have slipped out of MGM’s copyright and into Public Domain, but don’t let the blurry prints floating round the internet put you off. The film’s plot twists and strange characters keep you both absorbed and off-balance as you wonder what further terrors will spring out at Ellen; it has the sour tang of a fairy tale gone bad. It also has a peculiar resonance for today’s post-feminist, post-responsible-man culture, in its depiction of so many childish men with whom the protagonist must contend, including her infantile husband, the ineffectual doctor, and even the complaining mailman who delays Ellen with a long-drawn tale of his suffering feet. There’s also a real child, a small, spectacled boy in a cowboy costume who frequently stops by Ellen’s kitchen to mooch cookies at the most inopportune times. He’s the sort of irritating neighbor who might make you think twice about moving to the suburbs (no wonder our heroine lives in constant alarm); and is another reason why poor Ellen’s suburban dream might just be a waking nightmare.

No Cause for Alarm: you can watch Cause for Alarm! by clicking here to watch a not-too-bad YouTube print

This article was originally posted on Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and has been reprinted here in slightly modified form.

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  1. Your in-depth look at all the aspects of Cause for Alarm! that make it such a successful thriller was a great read that made me want to move it up on the re-watch list.

    Another reason I got such a kick out of your piece was that I love it when we think alike. My look at the movie was on a much small scale, but not less in appreciation:

    • Love your title for your own post! And you make a great point about the stresses of working at home (as well as the wedding shower warning; so true!). Loretta Young usually made sophisticated comedies, but she occasionally strayed into noir terror-ity.; this film, along with The Stranger, The Accused, and Paula, make for a nice noir quartet in her later work. (TCM should devote an evening’s schedule to these films!)

  2. Love this description. I’ve never seen it, but I’ll look for it. Terrific essay.

    • The film doesn’t seem to be a well-known one in Loretta Young’s work, but her performance stands out; and the film itself is unusual for its era, in its dark look at suburban life. Thanks so much.


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