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Nervous, pushy and tormented by an inferiority complex, Joan Crawford had rough years at MGM battling for decent roles against actresses with closer ties to the studio. Some of her later work there was pretty desperate, so much so that when she left and signed at Warners, Crawford did her upmost to never be in a vulnerable position again. But her triumph in Mildred Pierce led to a succession of ever-weakening vehicle parts: Humoresque (not bad), Possessed (strained), Flamingo Road (downright campy). Her movies soon verged on self-parody. The scripts insisted that she was still a woman to turn heads and capture men with just a glance, but the newer, tougher Joan was no longer slim and sleek. From The Damned Don't Cry forward, the casting department had to find ways to make sure that every other female in the movie was less attractive than the 40ish-and-showing-every-mile Joan.
This Woman is Dangerous is an unofficial third picture teaming Ms. Crawford with David Brian, who had played a tough politician and a brutal gangland boss. Joan's very last Warners picture on her '40s contract is a slapdash mix of exploitable elements. A brutal crime story thread never begins to match up with soap opera ideas that seem to have been force-fed into the storyline. Writers Daniel Mainwaring and George Worthing Yates had between them a list of great credits -- Out of the Past, The Lawless, The Tall Target -- but This Woman is Dangerous plays as if they would write anything to get Crawford to sign off on her script approval. I have to think that what we're seeing is Crawford's idea of a gripping thriller.
Beautiful Beth Austin (Joan Crawford) leads a double life. As Elizabeth Austin, she's a society dame who frequents gambling casinos. But as just plain Beth she's the brains behind the Jackson Brothers, notorious armed robbers. Will Jackson (Philip Carey) is a hothead who doesn't like Beth making all the decisions. His wife Ann (Mari Aldon) just wants to get along. Matt Jackson (David Brian) is Beth's jealous lover, a heavy drinker prone to bursts of violence. When Beth finds out that she's losing her sight, she must travel to the next state for a risky operation. Matt never quite believes this story, and becomes unreasonable when Joe Grossland, a detective he hires (Ian MacDonald), reports that Beth is spending a lot of time with Ben Halleck, her handsome doctor at the eye clinic (Dennis Morgan). After recklessly killing a highway patrolman on the open road, the brothers ought to lay low for a spell. But Matt goes nuts and races for the clinic, determined to make Beth pay for her infidelity.
For a bargain sale program effort, This Woman is Dangerous has its good points -- the snappy, violent Warners house style comes across well. Director Felix Feist was a dependable journeyman almost always assigned to second-tier productions, like the weak Tomorrow is Another Day from the year before. Ted McCord's cinematography is solid, but the cheapness shows in the way scenes are laid out. Will and Ann Jackson are mostly seen in a couple of small interior sets, one of them a trailer towed behind a car. It's actually pretty funny when the furious Matt tosses a bottle out the window of the trailer, right in front of a motorcycle cop. Oops.
Joan Crawford's idea of a Woman For All Seasons is a gangster's moll who is also a refined lady with a stock of killer evening gowns. it just breaks a girl's heart, having to choose between the hunky but psychotic alcoholic Matt, and a handsome, sensitive professional eye surgeon. A heartthrob matinee idol during the war, Dennis Morgan's tenure at Warners was almost over as well. He's pleasant, courteous and bland as skim milk. His Dr. Halleck represents an instant new family for Beth Austin -- he has a daughter at home who needs a woman to show her how to cook. It would be a perfect setup, if Beth weren't being followed by Public Enemy #1, a maniac determined to shoot big holes in his competition.
With David Buttolph's music score ramping up the tension, Matt sneaks right into the operating theater, where kindly Dr. Halleck is saving the life of yet another grateful patient. One guy heals and the other destroys, get it? How will Beth choose? Art Director Leo Kuter gets a maximum dramatic effect out of this scene with a narrow, tall set on three levels -- the operating room, the viewing gallery above and the rafters above that.
The acting is fine in this overly schematic, somewhat overcooked thriller. There isn't much room for ambiguity but the actors give it everything they have. Joan Crawford would move on to individual productions, and do quite well for ten or more years. For Dennis Morgan it was westerns and TV shows. David Brian (so good in Intruder in the Dust) would also do better as a free agent, even if his typecasting as a belligerent jerk would come back to haunt him (The High and The Mighty). Young Philip Carey was just starting out, but would see plenty supporting character action in cop shows and military dramas. He'd finally reach real stardom on a TV soap opera, One Life to Live.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of This Woman is Dangerous is a perfect encoding of a show that once played in constant rotation on syndicated television. At 97 minutes, it was perfect for a two-hour slot (23 minutes of commercials). It is also so episodic that stations frequently hacked it down to 80 minutes for a 90-minute slot -- they just dropped scenes like the stopover at the women's prison, and the visit home to Dr. Halleck's house.
Technically, This Woman is Dangerous has been classified as a film noir, but I'm not sure why. Crawford's character is always in a state of nervous anticipation -- worrying about the operation, her loose-cannon boyfriend, her new beau -- but the only scene that has a potential noir feel is when she visits the prison and looks at the female inmates being ordered about. Beth is sitting in a car all dolled up and coiffed, while these sad sisters walk with their heads down... and she knows that in a few days she could be there with them. But two minutes later Beth is baking a dessert with Halleck's daughter in a perfect little family setup. She's too tender-tough to let any of this absurdity affect her.
The cover illustration is no joke but an original poster design -- WB was really going cheap in 1952!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
This Woman is Dangerous rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.