Damsel Distressed

WithoutHonHS

The best first thing to do, when you’ve got a dead body…on the kitchen floor and you don’t know what to do about it, is to make yourself a good strong cup of tea.

-from One Hand Clapping; by Anthony Burgess (under the pseudonym Joseph Kell); 1961

The above is the advice I would have given to Jane Bandle (Laraine Day), right after she offs her lover in the kitchen and stashes his corpse in the laundry room.  Fill the kettle, light the stove, get the tea things ready, and take a deep breath.  Only sensible thing to do.  It will 1) keep you calm; 2) keep your mind and hands occupied; and 3) buy you time.  Because, let’s face it, when you’re dealing with The World’s Oldest Problem⁠—namely, What To Do With The Body⁠—calmness, busyness, and time are most essential.

As a devout tea drinker myself, it’s what I would have done.  Jane, however, decides to go to the police.  (Something tells me she’s a coffee drinker.  Just about the worst beverage to imbibe.  Stuff’ll make you nervy.)  She changes her clothes, calls a cab, heads to the front door⁠—and runs smack into her smarmy brother-in-law.  Who right away wants to know where she’s going.

See what I mean?  Had he instead found her quietly sipping tea, seemingly without a thing on her mind…well, it would have made for quite a different scene, wouldn’t it?

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The above scenario is the premise of Without Honor, a small (barely 70 minutes), rather unconventional film from 1949 that, per its DVD box, is about “Love, Sex, Infidelity and Murder in the San Fernando Valley.”  Quite a combo of topics there, though the actual movie is less sensational.  It’s one of several late-1940s/early-1950s movies about frustrated wives, slowly going nuts in stultifying marriages, who suddenly find themselves with a dead body on their expensively manicured hands.  And thus faced with that pesky Body Disposal problem.  Let’s hope supplies of tea were plentiful back then.

As I noted, a number of movies came out during that era ringing changes on such a plot.  Three of them I’ve looked at on this blog—Cause For Alarm!, The Arnelo Affair, and the over-the-top Beyond The Forest.  Although that last flick may certify as a camp classic, I wouldn’t claim that for the whole genre; and there may be enough such films to quantify them as such (Whirlpool, Too Late For Tears, Ivy, Where Danger Lives, The Lady From Shanghai, Possessed, Paula, The Prowler…).  The films are a curious mix of Crime Thriller, Film Noir, and Woman’s Film—especially the latter.  The main character is usually beautiful and well-accoutered, usually married to a financially successful man who buys her everything but what she needs.  And usually she’s lonely, ignored, and bored.  Most emphatically—bored.

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That’s almost the first thing we learn about poor Jane.  She’s the Original Desperate Housewife, stuck in a barren existence of overseeing “poker parties and business dinners” for her dull spouse.  “You made me see [my life] for what it is,” she cries to her soon-to-be-defunct lover, Dennis (Franchot Tone), who’s shown up at Jane’s nicely decorated bandbox of a house to announce he’s calling off their affair.  Despite Jane’s pleading, he’s decided to return to his (very) well-accoutered wife and teenage daughters; and for Jane, that’s the finish.  She grabs a shish-kebob skewer (significantly a part of her evening meal preparations) and tries to stab herself.  Only to end up stabbing Dennis instead when he tries to grab it from her.

Hence Jane having to stow Dennis in the laundry room.  Just when nasty Brother-in-Law Bill unexpectedly (and inconveniently) shows up.

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At this point Without Honor’s plot takes a quirky turn and sends us round a curve.  We follow not the dead-lover-in-the-closet narrative but what turns out to be the long-standing strife between Jane and Bill (Dane Clark, really smarmy).  The two despise each other with an almost pathological passion, Bill constantly taunting Jane for her priggish behavior, Jane refusing to speak (literally) to her brother-in-law.  Their conflict has a past:  Some ten years earlier, a drunken young Bill clumsily tried to kiss Jane at a picnic.  She (over)reacted hysterically, and Bill still recalls, bitterly, Jane calling him a “filthy kid.”  Since then, their relationship has been a long simmer of mutual hatred—Bill hating Jane for separating him from his beloved brother (and Jane’s husband) Fred, and Jane hating Bill for…being Bill.

Only now Bill’s got the upper hand.  He’s been spying on Dennis and Jane and knows of their affair.  And he tells Jane he’s invited both Dennis and his wife Katherine for a little get-together with her and husband Fred—a gathering to be climaxed by Bill revealing the hot truth about Jane’s cooling infidelity.  The result, he hopes, will destroy Jane’s marriage and free up Fred.

Not that marital destruction is foremost in Jane’s mind.  She’s more concerned more about Bill (and everyone else) finding out what she’s got stored in her laundry room…

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In earlier posts on what I’m calling Housewife Noir, I’ve noted certain genre tropes, which Without Honor amply fulfills.  We get the House-as-Prison metaphor, with Jane trapped inside a domicile she can’t leave.  She roams her tiny dwelling from living room to kitchen to bedroom to bathroom, and back, in a constant loop of motion that goes nowhere.  And wherever she turns, someone stops her from exiting, whether it’s girl scouts asking for a donation of used clothes (inconveniently left in that Laundry Room…), a taxi that doesn’t show up, or Bill himself, denying Jane egress.  Compounding the imprisoning house theme is that of conspicuous, albeit unsatisfactory consumption, such as oblivious Fred (Bruce Bennett) buying a TV set, happily announcing that now they’ll be able to watch “prize fights, wrestling, night baseball” (ya gotta feel for Jane here).  Jane can only look forward to long evenings spent in further entrapment.  With nowhere to go.

Underlying it all is the not-so-silent misery of the post-WW2 American housewife—who, after the intensity and drama of the war years, finds herself exiled to a dreary domestic isolation, her spouse occupied with either business or buddies.  At least with Dennis, Jane could fantasize a life of Romance (“Close your eyes and imagine I’m very beautiful and—kiss me,” she gushes to him).  But real life offers only a neglecting husband, a tormenting brother-in-law, and emotional sterility.  One of the film’s saddest moments is Jane’s embittered confession that her husband never wanted children (though she clearly does).  She’s expected to devote herself to him alone, a constant prop for his own pleasures.

The film’s director, Irving Pichel, handles these themes subtly, making dramatic use of his limited set (the House).  He does so by turning film space into psychological space.  Scenes are staged in long shot, with two, three, or even four characters in the frame, actors placed in different depths in relation to each other.  When, for example, Katherine (superbly played by Agnes Moorehead) shows up, she’s put in, around, and in-between Jane and Bill, defining her position to them as both observer and participant.  And when obtuse husband Fred appears, he’s often seen at frame periphery, marking him as an unwitting outsider inside his own home.

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Still, per Jill Blake at the TCM site, Without Honor received lackluster reviews (Arthur Lyons in Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir calls it a “total clunker”).  I kinda see why.  The film is like a play, talky and restricted in action to its one set.  It’s not a typical noir thriller, its location not the dark city but the brightly lit suburbs (though its ending is suitably ambiguous).  Nor would the material have pleased the Production Code.  Jane is clearly engaged in what she perceives as an exciting affair (she tells Dennis she welcomes having their relationship exposed) and clearly hates being what she calls a “hausfrau.”  And the characters are not attractive:  Jane is prim and judgmental, Dennis is a serial womanizer (his wife resigned to his behavior), while Fred is stuck in adolescence (insisting he wants to watch the TV technician install the antenna even though a guest is present).

But my gut tells me that the hinge on which this movie swings is the character of Bill.

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Whether anyone says so or not, I think reactions to the film depend on reactions to Bill.  The movie portrays a love triangle, but it’s not your typical wife/husband/lover set-up (Dennis disappears after the first ten minutes).  Instead, it’s Jane/Fred/and…Brother Bill.  The marriage is falling apart because of Bill’s rage that his brother chose a wife over his sibling.  His behavior—his persistent scheming to bust up Fred’s marriage—leaves something stuck in the viewer’s throat.  And outside his bust-up schemes, Bill doesn’t seem to have a life.  He apparently doesn’t date, doesn’t have a girlfriend (Fred initially mistakes Katherine for Bill’s dinner date), and, if he’d once been attracted to Jane, that attraction has long since curdled.  Other than the drunken-picnic incident, we’re not given any background on why Bill is…Bill.  Why does that long-ago picnic stay lodged in his psyche; why is he so attached to his big brother (who got him drunk at that picnic in the first place…)?  The script offers no convenient Freudian pigeonhole in which to stash Bill as easily as Dennis is stashed in the laundry room.  Bill’s Why, and its absence, is for us to figure out. 

Though I think that absent ‘Why’—that “motiveless malignity,” if you will—makes Bill the most ‘noir’ of all the film’s characters.  He shows up, suddenly, like Moose Malloy, with one, unappeasable motive, pursuing it with steam-roller implacability.  For Moose, it’s finding Velma; for Bill, it’s disposing of Jane.  Conversely, that helps us to understand Jane.  You see why she so desperately wants out of this marriage, why there’s no satisfactory resolution for her (a lover is one thing, but family…?).  And your reaction—certainly mine—is a subversive one:  You hope she succeeds.  You hope she gets out of that House, away from Fred, to make another life.  Which goes against the film’s, and Production Code’s convention, of seeking the safe status quo.  (Per the AFI Catalogue entry, “Advertisements for [Without Honor‘s] San Francisco run indicated that ‘Dr. Fenna Simms, Ph.D., Famous Marital Relations Counsultant'[sic] would be in the theater’s lobby ‘to talk with you!'”  How insistently status quo is that?)

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Further disrupting the narrative is Dane Clark’s performance as Bill.  I’m not a fan of the actor, but he digs way down deep into Bill’s wrath, bringing out something skewed and unsettling in the man; watching him, I get the sense that it’s more than his sister-in-law.  (“You really hate her,” Fred exclaims in an epiphanic moment; “Yes,” is Bill’s sudden response—and Clark makes Bill surprised in his admission.)  It all leads to the film’s final, also unsettling scene—of Bill running down the road (towards the camera’s POV), screaming at the top of his lungs for Fred to return to him.  I find that last, prolonged scene…unnerving.  It upends the expected conventional ending, of the rejoined married couple, raising more Whys for us (why end not with Fred and Jane but a shrieking Bill?).  Like Jane restlessly traversing her encircling House, Bill racing down that not-ending road, headed nowhere, is motion in stasis.  It’s got that disquieting fatalism of great noir—it disturbs.  Just where is anyone going here?

I gotta admitI feel so disturbed just thinking about it, that I think I’m gonna go myself…and make me a good strong cup of tea…

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While available, you can watch Without Honor on YouTube here.  Recommended with a good strong cup of tea on the side.

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