Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Greed, lust, love, and justice have 'Impact'

Impact (1949)
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Helen Walker, Charles Coburn, Anna May Wong, and Tony Barrett
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After his gold-digging wife (Walker) and her sleazy lover (Barrett) fail in their attempt to murder him, through-and-through nice-guy and self-made business tycoon Walter Williams (Donlevy) hides out and recovers in a small Idaho town as he reads newspapers accounts of his wife's ongoing trail for his murder. Although his heart is full of hunger for revenge--a revenge he hopes to see delivered when his wife is executed for supposedly murdering him--his growing romance with the widowed owner of a gas station and car repair shop (Raines) who hired him as a mechanic, causes his inherently good side to reassert itself and he returns to San Francisco to clear his wife and set the facts straight. But things don't go quite as he had planned....

"Impact" is an interesting and unpredictable film from beginning to end with talented actors portraying interesting characters as they deliver sharply written dialogue and move through a story that features a number of film noir and mystery genre standards being deployed in unexpected ways. The creators of this film even managed to do successfully what so many try and fail at: Just when you think the film is about to be over--when it reaches the point where many lesser films would be over--things instead get really bad for our poor hero and the film changes gears and keeps going for another 15-20 minutes. More often than not, when filmmakers do this, my reaction is, "Oh, for God's sake... you just blew the perfect ending and now you're wasting my time with unnecessary crap and undermining your movie." But not this time.

"Impact" stars in a film-noirish vein, with viewers quickly realizing that both Fate and his evil bitch of a wife are conspiring to make the life of  Brian Donlevy's character--a man who is no-nonsense and gruff in his business dealings but who is endlessly kind and compassionate to his friends and loved ones--very unpleasant.  But after the attempted murder, the film breaks away from that tone and instead places Donlevy's character in a peaceful town full of nice people. Instead of going darker and following Walter Williams on a revenge spree,  it instead lightens up a bit... even if there is still quite a bit of darkness in the sense that Williams is passively watching the justice system move his wife ever-closer to execution for a murder she didn't manage to pull off. But even as he nurses his hatred, the kindness of the characters around him eventually draws out his true, fundamentally good nature. And once Williams reveals to the authorities that he is not dead, the film enters yet a third mode, as it becomes a courtroom drama, with a little bit of film noir coloring for good measure.

The genre-mashing and shifts in tone that go on in this film could well have doomed it, especially the final portion. It's a testament to the skill of the writers, the director, and the actors that the audience is drawn deeper into the story and becomes more eager to see how it will all turn out instead of being put off.

Naturally, the actors have a great deal to do with the success of a film, and "Impact" is no exception; a bad actor can ruin the most well-developed character and spoil the most finely crafted lines.

In this film we're treated to Brian Donlevy playing a sensitive male before they were in vogue... and he even has a scene where he cries without seeming wimpy or laughable. I'm not able at the moment to think of another Guy Moment quite as heartbreaking as the ragged sob that issues forth from Walter Williams when the realization that the person he loves above all else was behind the violent attempt on his life; it's made even greater by the fact that Donlevy was such a tough character, both in his screen roles and in real life. An extension of the unexpected depth of Donlevy's character is the relationship that develops between him and the widow played by Ella Raines. It's a mature relationship, between two mature people that have both loved and lost and who realize that it's time to give love and life a second chance. It's the sort of relationship that any adult should hope to be in, as well as the kind of relationship that isn't often portrayed in movies. Raines' performance strikes the exact right balance between tough self-reliance and vulnerability to make her character the ideal match for Donlevy's Williams.

Another great performance comes from Helen Walker, Williams' despicable wife. For the majority of the film, she is a run-of-the-mill femme fatale that the audience is eagerly waiting to be served her just rewards, but in the scene where she is confronted by her supposedly dead husband, Walker conveys more with body language and facial expression than pages of dialogue would be able to do. In that scene, Walker shows her character's emotions going from surprise, to panic, to defeat, to the realization that she she can still take advantage of her husband's kind heart to save herself and destroy him even now, with barely an uttered word. She also manages to fully convey the depths of evil within the woman. It's a scene that clearly shows what a tragedy it is for movie lovers that she never achieved the leading lady status that she would have been more than capable of handling.

"Impact" is one of hundreds of movies from the 1930s and 1940s that were in danger of slipping into oblivion but was brought to the public again with the advent of the digital age and the DVD. It's a film that any lover of classic mysteries needs to check out, and both sources for it feature an excellent, crystal-clear print. (I rarely bother to comment on the quality of these public domain films on DVD, but this one was so well preserved that it's worth noting.)

(Trivia: Brian Donlevy lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army at 14. He also loved to write poetry. When he retired from acting, he turned to short story writing.)

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