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There's nothing better than "discovering" a great picture starring a favorite actor, and 1934's Fog Over Frisco is just such a movie. Made very closely to her acknowledged star breakthrough in Of Human Bondage, this fast-paced thriller sees Bette Davis playing a wildcat heiress up to her crooked neck in criminal activity, and loving every moment of it. At one point her character exults in the thrill she gets from walking around town with a fortune in stolen bonds in her purse. German director William Dieterle once again shows his versatility, pushing Fog Over Frisco at a breakneck pace. The clever story could very well serve as the basis for a good modern thriller. Various sources say that it was remade as Spy Ship, but the description of that 1942 film seems completely different.
Socialite Arlene Bradford (Bette Davis) initially seems the victim of upper-class snobbery when her wealthy stockbroker father (Arthur Byron) condemns her for getting her picture in the paper. Arlene made scandal news until she settled down with an engagement to the moody Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot), one of father's employees. Younger stepsister Valkyr (Margaret Lindsay) defends Arlene but can't get the full story from her or from her father. Valkyr is also fed up with her reporter boyfriend Tony Sterling (Donald Woods) and unfairly blames him for the newspaper's exploitation of Arlene's wild reputation.
In reality Arlene is anything but a victim. She launders stolen bonds for racketeer Jake Bellow (Irving Pichel) by cajoling her fiancé Spencer into selling them at the brokerage. The already demoralized Spencer doesn't know that Arlene intends to dump him to run away with man she really loves. But Arlene's time is running out. Bellow has no intention of letting her quit, and her secret lover wants out of their relationship as well. Just as Valkyr and Tony realize that something is seriously wrong, Arlene disappears without a trace. When the cops are brought into the picture, the ongoing scandal becomes the biggest San Francisco news story in years!
The fact that Fog Over Frisco has been unjustly forgotten is often attributed to its proximity to Of Human Bondage. Bette Davis' wanton wild girl is quite a confection and much more representative of the actress's standard roles in her featured-player period of servitude at Warners. Although Davis's top billing is proof of her growing stature, she would continue to struggle for desirable parts throughout her tenure at the studio, even when she became one of its most profitable attractions.
Davis claims the movie right from the start, cruising into an underworld nightclub as a local celebrity, dazzling her younger sister with her outspoken opinions. When her disapproving father tries to associate her behavior with "bad blood" from her mother, Arlene snaps back with a typically sharp put-down: "Sour grapes! You couldn't hold my mother because you're a mean, worn out old ..." New revelations about Arlene pop up in every scene, until our sympathy defects to the feisty, loyal Valkyr.
The second half of the movie launches into a mystery much more interesting than usual Hollywood exposés of crime among the rich and famous. A sinister butler (Robert Barratt) is seen to creep around the house when Arlene disappears. Cops and newsmen crowd the hilltop Bradford mansion while Valkyr sneaks in and out through the garage entrance in Arlene's convertible roadster. Thinking he's exploiting her for the news story, Valkyr rejects Tony's help, not giving him a chance to atone when he's forced to conceal from her a piece of crucial news. The mystery wraps up in a car chase (up and down the San Francisco hills), the tracing of a mystery yacht and a violent standoff in the Bradford brokerage house, where a mystery man from Arlene's past is finally unmasked.
Fog Over Frisco is often cited for the exciting pacing of its final reels. Director Dieterle simply applies some of the thriller stylistics developed by Fritz Lang but little used in American movies. As the cops go into action, events are telescoped closer together by overlapping dialogue from one scene onto the next. The words of a detective in a remote location are "answered" by a telephone operator, as if they were aware of each other. Once the car chase gets in motion, nothing is allowed to slow it down. Dieterle cuts away from the aftermath of a collision to action happening elsewhere, letting us simply assume that the people in the cars found a way to continue the chase. The pace is also heightened by allowing significant events to occur off-screen, including several deaths. We discover that one important character has committed suicide, but the story barely pauses to reflect on the event. More happens in Fog Over Frisco than in many thrillers twice as long.
Margaret Lindsay would continue as a spirited, if conventional heroine in movies like G-Men and Devil Dogs of the Air. She apparently got along well with Bette Davis, or was not perceived as a threat, for she played with her frequently, in Bordertown and Dangerous. Ms. Lindsay is at her best in William Wyler's superior Jezebel, as Davis' romantic competition for star Henry Fonda.
Providing questionable comedy relief is Hugh Herbert as Izzy, an incompetent news photographer. Herbert's dated style conflicts with everything else in the movie, but he does little damage, even when he reaches for laughs at the film's most surprising scene, the unexpected discovery of a corpse. Farther down in the cast is William Demarest in a straight role; he'd have to wait several years to become perhaps the most celebrated of Preston Sturges' stock company of comedian-stars.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Fog Over Frisco must be one of the studio's recent re-masterings, as it looks very good. The fog of the title is present in many scenes yet the encoding doesn't succumb to the diffuse-video grain effect. We're more likely to notice the fact that the changeable San Francisco weather results in the streets being wet and then dry across continuity cuts. But there's no substitute for location shooting in this most beautiful of West Coast cities.
The original First National trailer plays up Bette Davis as a sexy screen presence, and the film does give us a fairly extended, saucy kissing scene. Released in June of 1934, the movie was produced on the cusp of the enforcement of the Production Code. The story's tawdry elements aren't stressed, except perhaps in a tasteless remark by Hugh Herbert, when he becomes excited by the exposed legs of a dead body as seen through his news camera. Then again, the slivery nightgowns worn by the leading ladies are fairly revealing as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fog Over Frisco rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.