Clearly, It's Okay for Henry Fonda to Kill Vincent Price
Somewhere around here--I can't tell you where; I can't tell you where most of my books are--I have a cookbook by Vincent and Mary Price. I may have said this before, as it's a story I haul out pretty much any time I'm reviewing a movie with Vincent Price in it that I really don't have much to say about. At any rate, when I picked it up cheap somewhere, I thought, "Well, that's an amusing coincidence. A cookbook by some guy named Vincent Price." I bought it for just that reason. Then, when I got it home and actually looked through it, I discovered that "some guy named Vincent Price" turned out to be "actually that Vincent Price." It seems there are all kinds of things we don't know about him, because what we think of when we think of him is a mad scientist of some sort. And while he's a deeply, deeply unpleasant person here, he isn't an unpleasant person of the mad scientist variety. He's a magician, but he's a stage magician.
And, as of the beginning of the movie, he's a stage magician shot and thrown down a staircase by Henry Fonda. This is an occasion of shock and horror, because Joe Adams is such a nice guy! Why would he do such a thing? As the movie progresses, Joe tells us in flashback exactly why he would do such a thing. You see, he met and fell in love with the sweet and innocent Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) after a chance meeting. They grew up in the same orphanage, though Joe got out some time ago and Jo Ann only three years ago. It gives them a mutual bond. Only Jo Ann also turns out to be wild about Maximilian the Great, one of the just plain sleaziest characters Vincent Price every played. Slowly, Joe finds out that practically everything Maximilian ever said about himself, to Joe or to Jo Ann, is a lie. Charlene (Ann Dvorak), Maximilian's former assistant, even provides Joe with what turns out to be the last straw. And when Maximilian pushes the issue, well, Joe has taken all he can.
The thing is, what we really have here is another mediocre noir, evidence in case we needed any that you can have a mediocre noir despite having great actors. Because poor Vincent Price actually was in many ways a fine actor. You can tell, because by all accounts he was a really nice guy. Here, though, you absolutely believe that he's basically seducing Jo Ann not because he really finds her all that desirable in herself but because it's so much fun to debauch the innocent. Henry Fonda's still doing the earnest but walking wounded routine, which apparently hurt his children to watch. (A better actor than a father, I understand.) Still, the reason he kept doing it is that he was good at it. It makes me wish I could see a better film starring these two, because this one isn't much worth the time. Surely there was a chance for one.
About the only thing worth noting is that the movie is a perfect Madonna/whore dichotomy. Jo Ann really is that pure and innocent. She works in a greenhouse. She is inexperienced; her view of the world is through what other people tell her about it, though she can visualize it so clearly that it's almost like being there. To both men, she represents something better than what they have. A light and delicacy they'd never known. Joe says that he'd thought coming home would let him be done with killing, and the life represented by Jo Ann is one he could only dream of. And, of course, that Maximilian wants to take. Then there's Charlene, the after picture. She let Maximilian take her away; it's likely but never explicitly stated that they were lovers. He used her up, then he left her. There's something in her which draws Joe, too, though it almost seems to be the part of himself that he never much liked in the first place.
The thing which surprised me most about the DVD of this movie was that it didn't have subtitles. The sound dropped way, way down about fifteen minutes in, which I initially thought was just because it was the narration of Joe's internal monologue. It wasn't, though. It was that this was, alas, a Kino release. And I finally came up with a reasonable explanation of the Kino company, if you're interested in it. And I guess if you've come this far, you are. Much credit is given to the Criterion Collection, and rightfully so. While they do release a fair share of movies more intended to pay their bills than deserving of the company's loving touch, they are also about the only DVD release for a lot of older movies. These tend to be the great classics--or else movies that their selection people think ought to be, I suppose. And then there is Kino. Kino is to the Criterion Collection what "fashion dolls" bought at the dollar store are to name-brand Barbies.