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Not all films noir deal with detectives, cops and professional criminals. One particularly interesting specialty is Domestic Noir, in which seemingly ordinary people, often in a family setting, allow themselves to be sucked into morally compromising straits. Dick Powell plays a bored husband who gets involved with a woman with criminal associates in Andre De Toth's Pitfall, and housewife Joan Bennett tries to cover up an accidental killing in The Reckless Moment. The common thread in these stories is a sense of the precariousness of relationships and the lengths people will go to preserve their social standing. Any violation of the unwritten rules can lead to personal disaster.
This idea is strongly felt in noir specialist Robert Siodmak's The File on Thelma Jordon, a Paramount picture in which a loving family and a good job are apparently not a recipe for happiness. The star is Barbara Stanwyck, whose presence all but promises trouble; she helped launch film noir in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, after all. Co-star Wendell Corey is often charged with being too passive of a screen presence, but that quality makes his role in Thelma Jordon seem all the more true to life.
Screenwriter Kelly Frings' name is on other noirs in which women are imperiled by problem relationships: The Accused (Loretta Young), Dark City (Viveca Lindfors), The Company She Keeps (Lizabeth Scott, Jane Greer). In The File on Thelma Jordon the focus is on a man with a troubled home life, Assistant District Attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey). His wife Pamela (Joan Tetzel) is more loyal to her wealthy father, and her constant criticism has pushed him into some serious drinking. Cleve is avoiding going home on his wedding anniversary when Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) comes into his office looking for help about an attempted burglary. She lives in the large house of her Aunt Vera (Gertrude Hoffman) and has noticed someone creeping around. Cleve spends most of the night drinking with Thelma, finally getting so drunk that he professes his love for her. His family leaves for the beach the next day, enabling Cleve to apologize to Thelma by taking her to dinner. Cleve learns that she's separated from her husband, a shady character named Tony Laredo (Richard Rober). A furtive romance begins. Then late one night Thelma calls begging for help -- an intruder has broken in and shot Aunt Vera dead. She thinks Tony might have been the killer. Cleve helps Thelma rearrange the crime scene and joins his wife at the beach. Returning to help his superior Miles Scott (Paul Kelly) handle the case, he finds out that other evidence points squarely to Thelma. By now Pamela knows of the affair but Cleve is still trying to maintain his disconnection to his lover. He gets himself in deeper by arranging to prosecute the case himself, and quietly hiring a defense attorney for Thelma. Cleve can hardly believe that he's getting away with this blatant obstruction of justice, but there are a few more things that Thelma Jordon hasn't told him...
The File on Thelma Jordon takes a curiously downbeat direction right from the first scene. Cleve Marshall must be willing himself to make such stupid moves, compromising his career for a woman he's barely met. If this is a mid-life crisis he's certainly going all the way. Wendell Corey is perfectly cast in this part, as it would be difficult to find another actor with the same, "I'm not sure if I really care" look on his face. His dead-eyed stare expresses a sense of emptiness and regret. Cleve already has a cowardly inability to confront his family and he seems to be begging for an excuse to give up on his home life. It's one thing when a private eye decides something's rotten in the big city, but when an ordinary husband goes bad, Domestic Noirs indicate some kind of failure of the American dream.
Barbara Stanwyck is again her professional self, generating a potent sexual charge as yet another slippery female with a highly developed talent for manipulating men. The File on Thelma Jordon is one of several movies in which Stanwyck performs a variation on her Phyllis Dietrichson character from Double Indemnity. In this case she uses Cleve to help her commit a crime, keeping him in the dark throughout. Thelma has clearly fallen in love with Cleve, at least on some level, a development that won't sit well with the mystery man Tony Laredo. Cleve and Thelma are alike in that they really don't know themselves. Cleve has surrendered control of his own life, while Thelma's conniving has made her lose touch with her own feelings. One character slips further into defeat, while the other suddenly snaps.
Director Robert Siodmak is known for some of the most dynamic and stylistically interesting noirs of the late 1940s. Criss Cross and Cry of the City are pictures with violent action scenes and confrontations. This movie generates tension but not a great deal of excitement. When the worst happens, Cleve does what he's been doing through the whole picture -- walk away with his hands in his pockets, at a loss to account for his self-destructive behavior. In Domestic Noir the ultimate punishment seems to be the alienation of loved ones, coupled with the loss of one's livelihood and social position. The movie may be muted and downbeat, but anybody can relate to those fears.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The File on Thelma Jordon is a good presentation of this respected film noir mystery thriller. The B&W HD transfer has a substantial amount of negative dirt on the titles and around reel breaks, but is otherwise in fine condition.
We still marvel at Barbara Stanwyck's sheer staying power. She was 43 while filming Thelma Jordon and would continue to play romantically attractive women for at least another fifteen years, long after most of her peers had retired. Producer Hal Wallis must have wanted to develop Stanwyck and Wendell Corey as a screen pair, for they re-teamed immediately in Anthony Mann's western epic The Furies. Actor Richard Rober may have been on the verge of a wider career when he was killed in an auto accident just two years later. He makes a good, slightly thuggish mystery man in this film, and was cast to fine effect in lower-visibility thrillers like The Well and The Tall Target.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The File on Thelma Jordon Blu-ray rates:
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