Not All Spies Have an Ideology
I have loved Thelma Ritter as long as I can remember. I'm not sure she ever played a lead role, because there aren't a lot of lead roles out there for middle-aged women of no particular beauty. She played a lot of mothers and best friends. She seldom had a chance to shine, because that's not the kind of part she played. She can clean up after Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day. She can play matchmaker between Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck. But a woman like her cannot be the lead. And you know, I'd always known that I could not know how talented she was, because I'd never seen her do anything challenging. It is still true here that she's a minor character. However, she gets one moment that is extremely powerful, extremely moving. In all honesty, this film is worth watching just for that single scene; you'll know it when you get to it. And then she lost the Oscar for it to Donna Reed in [i]From Here to Eternity[/i].
Candy (Jean Peters) is doing one last favour for her ex-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley). She is simply to make a delivery of an envelope; she doesn't even know what's in it. However, when she's on the subway, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) slips his hand into her purse and steals that envelope. And that's when we find out--Joey had been under surveillance by the US government for being a spy. That envelope contained microfilm. The Communists want to get it back, and the FBI wants to stop them. The police enlist the help of informant Moe Williams (Ritter), hoping to find the pickpocket before the Communists do. Somehow, Candy manages to find Skip herself; Moe is Skip's friend and won't tell the police where to find him. Candy, however, falls in love with him. She doesn't care about the microfilm any more than he does, but she does care very much about what will happen to him if the Communists get him. Or, come to that, if they get her.
I think Moe has given up on hope in this world. She sells secrets to the police and, apparently, black market ties to construction workers and so forth. That's not much of a life, and she knows it. There's certainly not a lot of money in it, but she saves every cent she can toward a proper burial. She has a deep horror at the idea of ending up in potter's field, just one more person that no one cares enough about to claim for burial. She wants a proper funeral, a proper headstone, the works. And it could be just me, but I don't think people think that way who have all that much to live for. Ritter was only fifty-one at the time, but in Hollywood, that's an age where you're playing considerably older women. I doubt Moe is old enough to be collecting Social Security, but she's certainly no longer young. She has no family. People like her, but she's aware of who and what she is, and she's aware of the place she has in the world. The funeral she dreams of is a way of ensuring someone someday thinks she was worth something, when they see her grave.
Joey doesn't appear to be in the spy game because of his abiding Communist principles. Indeed, hardly anyone in the movie seems to have any principles at all. Skip hardly seems to know why he's a pickpocket. Moe cares more about the money than the idea of putting criminals behind bars. Candy is drifting through life. She hardly knows enough to know that she shouldn't be helping Joey, because she doesn't know what Joey is doing. When the police find Skip, they try to get him on their side by appealing to his sense of patriotic duty, only to discover that he does not, in fact, have one. He's an American because he was born in the United States, and if he had been born somewhere else, he'd live there, instead. He doesn't want to move, though, because he doesn't care that much about any other country, either. These people are just going through the motions of living, and none of them really want to do more than that.
Overall, this is a fairly middle-of-the-road noir, one that has some similarities with various others that tried to be more interesting than they were by throwing in a touch of Cold War hysteria. (It's possibly worth noting that the plot was about drugs in both the French and German dubs.) About the only thing that truly stands out in it is Thelma Ritter's performance, and that alone is reason enough to watch it so far as I am concerned. I have discovered in myself a persistent fondness for actresses who ended up stuck in the sidekick role--in addition to Thelma Ritter, there is also my love of Joan Blondell. It would be nice if the darker byways of American cinema had provided those women with more opportunities; after all, one of the reasons Marilyn Monroe didn't get the role of Candy was that they needed someone less blatantly sexual. There was a place in these films for women of average appearance or middle age, at least theoretically. It's a shame it wasn't true in practice.