It is no coincidence that film noir as a genre came into being around the time of World War II. There is some debate as to whether this film is true noir, and it's true that it lacks some of the important elements of the genre. However, among the many things it shares are senses of weariness and cynicism. Even in the idyllic town of Larkspur, Idaho, Our Hero assumes that it's a dog-eat-dog world and that the next guy will beat you down as soon as look at you, if you give him half a chance. After all, even Larkspur was not untouched by the late war. We don't know how Our Hero spent the war--if he mentions it, I missed it--but it's implied that he feels its results yet. Not PTSD, no, but a way of looking at the world after years of war and Depression. Probably the main reason this isn't seen as a true noir is that it has an actual redemptive arc. Not everyone can be saved, but Our Hero can.
He is industrialist Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy). One day, he is going on a trip to Denver to oversee the opening of his factories there. His wife, Irene (Helen Walker), asks him if he will allow her cousin, Jim Torrence (Tony Barrett), to come along for the ride. Walter agrees, though he isn't thrilled about it. They stop at a little diner, and Jim says that, instead of going in, he will try to catch a nap. But while Walt is eating, Jim is ensuring that they will get a flat some way away, where there is nothing for miles. And when Walt goes to fix it, Jim goes after him with the tire iron. Walt falls into the ravine, and before Jim can make sure he's dead, some guys in a moving truck come along and see him. He drives off in such a hurry that he doesn't see the gas truck coming the other way. He is killed; the body is unrecognizable. But Walt is not dead, though everyone assumes the body is his. And one phone call is enough to establish that Jim wasn't his wife's cousin after all . . . .
The thing that kind of gets me is that several of the stories are accepted on face value even when they don't make any sense. Oh, not Irene's "cousin"--actually, she says he's a nephew of an aunt, but that's a cousin of a sort even when marriage is involved. Walt has no reason to doubt her. But when Walt turns up alive most of the way through the picture, I couldn't figure out why everyone assumed that the attempt on his life had nothing to do with Irene. The claim that the guy was just a hitchhiker doesn't bear even a little research, and that makes Irene a lot more suspicious than Walt. After all, what are the odds that he'd just end up in Walt's car unless Irene engineered it? Everyone thinks it looks suspicious on Walt's part, but while Walt might reasonably be assumed to be unable to recognize Jim, the odds don't much run the other way. And though the movies often seem to gloss over this fact, attempted murder is still a crime.
The movie is surprisingly open-minded toward the sorts of characters who were getting a tough time from Hollywood in those days. Irene's maid is Su Lin (Anna May Wong), a sweet and loyal girl whose concern is not the police per se but what her testimony might be interpreted as meaning to a man who was always kind to her. One of the first people Walt meets in Larkspur, and of course his eventual love interest, is Marsha Peters (Ella Raines). She is a war-widow who took over her husband's service station when he went off to war. She is even expressly stated to be competent at older cars and just not up-to-date on current automotive technology, and it's never implied that she should be ashamed of doing "man's work." Su Lin's uncle is Ah Sing (Philip Ahn), who is patronized with "You understandee English?" So he says, yes, also French, Italian, and Hebrew. And finally, Marsha's mother, who alas appears not to have a first name and merely be "Mrs. King" (Mae Marsh), has a secret and doesn't share it despite being an older woman.
Of course, it's a bit shot down in the last few minutes, but I can cope with that. At worst, I can just pretend that the movie ends a couple of minutes before it does. I understand the social dynamic, even if I don't like it. And it's nice to know that even Joe Breen seems to agree that attempted murder is legitimate grounds for divorce. Still, I can't help wondering how things will go after the excitement dies down. Marsha knew that Walt, who went by a different name while in hiding, wasn't telling everything. She knew he had secrets. However, she couldn't possibly have been prepared for what her life would be like once those secrets were revealed. Even after the various trials are over, life is going to be very different for her from what it was while she was living happily in Larkspur. I'm not sure she is given enough time to process that fact, but then, I'm not sure filmmakers always realize that life-altering decisions are best made in tranquility. At least Su Lin is happier at the end.