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One of the very best psychological films noir, 1946's The Locket treats its theme with restraint and compassion. Audiences loved David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound but that film's trite simplification of psychoanalysis was embarrassing. From an original story by Ben and Norma Barzman, The Locket also deals with 'crazy' behavior sourced in a traumatic childhood incident, but with far more credibility. 1
Lovely Laraine Day (Foreign Correspondent) has the role of her career in this expertly crafted RKO drama, directed with sensitivity by the underrated John Brahm (Hangover Square) and photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, the talented cinematographer behind some of the best Val Lewton thrillers. If Lewton had graduated to "A" pictures, The Locket might have been his kind of production. It presents a serious view of mental illness comparable to Lewton's The Ghost Ship.
Just before his wedding, John Willis (Gene Raymond) receives a surprise visitor, Dr. Harry S. Blair (Brian Aherne), who claims to have once been the husband of the bride-to-be. Instead of throwing Blair out, Willis listens to his grim story. Blair had already met and married the charming and beautiful Nancy (Laraine Day) when he was visited by a popular painter, Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum). Clyde insisted that Nancy was a deceitful liar and sneak thief, and that she had persuaded Clyde to withhold evidence that might save a man wrongly convicted of a murder she committed. Blair dismissed Clyde's accusations, but Clyde then did something that made Blair strongly suspect that he was sincere. Later, during the Blitz in London, Blair's suspicions were confirmed. But the shock was so strong that Blair had a nervous breakdown. Now Blair has come to Willis with what sounds like a fantastic story, hoping that Nancy will be stopped from destroying yet another man. Nancy dismisses Blair's stories as nonsense. Who will John Willis believe?
The Locket has long held a special place as a murder melodrama with a challenging flashback structure: a man tells a story, which includes entire chapters told by another man, some of which were told to him by a woman. The film's flashbacks are complex but not confusing at all; none of the primary "rules" of flashbacks is broken. 2
Nancy is so perfectly poised that we very strongly suspect that she may be the victim of a misunderstanding complicated by the bias of her two lovers. Norman Clyde is emotional and abrupt, and his flashback might very well be a subjective distortion of the facts. Norman sees Nancy leave a room where a murder was committed, but has jealousy altered his memory of that event? The director and cameraman add to the mystery by framing the scene from ambivalent distance, as a detail in a larger view showing a hallway, a staircase and the other party guests, visible over a railing on the downstairs floor.
We may also question storyteller Blair's interpretation of a story supposedly told by Nancy herself. It's a miserable tale of a childhood spent as a servant's daughter in the household of a class-conscious snob (Katherine Emery of Isle of the Dead). Little Nancy feels like a dog in the manger, excluded from the birthday party of the little girl of the house. The birthday girl gives Nancy a locket that happens to be a valuable piece of jewelry, and the mother cruelly takes it back. When the locket later turns up missing Nancy is presumed to be the thief. This self-contained tale of humiliation raises strong feelings of sympathy for Nancy.
Alas, the incident with the locket returns to haunt Nancy and the men that love her. Once again, the screenplay understands that mental illness can often be no more obvious than many "normal" personality quirks. According to Norman Clyde and Harry Blair, Nancy remained in total denial of her crimes, even when confronted with positive proof. The movie presents an interpersonal tangle that reminds us how much our own personal sanity depends on stable relations with our loved ones. The movie presents Nancy as a monster and then forces us to understand how impossible it is to fairly judge people.
Laraine Day is extremely good as a strong woman who wants never again to be associated with that unjustly traumatized little girl. Nancy covers herself with an impenetrable shield of charm and manners. Do we hide our vices the same way? Brian Aherne and Gene Raymond provide excellent support, but the young Robert Mitchum is the film's big surprise. As this was before Mitchum had established his can't-be-bothered screen persona, he seems cast against type. His somewhat arrogant painter turns out to have a tragic sense of justice. As in a number of key romantic dramas of the 1940s, a formal portrait of the leading lady figures heavily in the plot. This painting casts Nancy as a mythological demon. Director Brahm makes sure that Nancy and her portrait are visually equated, with a telling dissolve.
Luis Buñuel would surely have loved The Locket, which in structure resembles many of his melodramas and later absurd comedies. Buñuel nests his flashbacks in an identical fashion, fitting little narratives inside one another like Chinese boxes or Russian dolls -- usually to a more subversive surreal effect.
Ben and Norman Barzman were busy writers active in leftist causes in the film industry when they came up with the story of The Locket. We can't help but think that their Nancy might be based on the careerist liars and schemers they surely met on a regular basis in Hollywood.
Of course, when people cross us in real life, it's all too easy to see them as venomous threats, like Nancy. The Locket is a domestic drama but also a first-rank film noir concerned with weak and victimized characters, and the workings of a Fate that substitutes psychology for a gothic curse. The movie carries an undertow of Dangerous Ideas. The ultimate villain is really the power that society bestows upon the wealthy. Mrs. Willis may never realize the harm that she's done, even when it wrecks the happiness of her son. People are murdered, commit suicide and go crazy, but the rich remain as arrogant as ever.
Favorite Ellen Corby is on hand as one of the Willis servants. Viewers with eyes sharper than my own might be able to pick out a young Martha Hyer as one of Nancy's bridesmaids. Entertainer Queenie Leonard contributes an authentic English music hall performance (irritating though it may be) to a scene set in a country mansion.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Locket starts with a very grainy RKO logo, but the image quality picks up immediately and stays quite good. Contrast and sharpness are fine, and I only saw one scene with a scratch in it. The audio track is clear for all of those dialogue scenes. No trailer is included. The cover illustration comes right from one of those stone litho RKO posters from the 1940s, many of which now impress as works of art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Locket rates:
1. In the excellent blacklist interview book Tender Comrades, Norma Barzman says that she and her husband Ben wrote the entire original first script for The Locket, and that they were negligent in not asking for arbitration when sole screen credit was awarded to the other writer.
2. It's not uncommon in films with lazy flashbacks to have a person tell a story (illustrated as a film-within-a-film) that contains "scenes" that the storyteller could not have personally witnessed. Much less frequently, a film will enter a flashback, and "not return" ... with no reverse release from the story actually occurring. I once thought this was the case with The Locket, but I later realized that the television station showing the film had edited it slightly, removing one of the transitions. Now that was confusing.
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T'was Ever Thus.