Directed by Vincent Sherman
Produced by William Jacobs
Screenplay by N. Richard Nash
Story by Paul Webster/Jack Sobell
“A type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography, dark shadows and lighting to show the complicated moral nature of the subject and foreboding background music.”
Now that’s the Merriam-Webster definition of Film Noir. I’ve got a simpler definition: some Poor Slob gets into a situation way over his head involving murder and or/theft. Mainly through and because of his relationship with a Dame and/or Femme Fatale that he had no business messing around with in the first place. By the time he realizes he’s up to his neck in You Know What, our Poor Slob is either dead, dying, soon to be dead or wishing he was dead.
The Poor Slob in NORA PRENTISS is Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) He’s an extremely successful and highly respected physician. He’s got a great house in the suburbs, a lovely wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and two marvelous children that love and respect him. But Talbot is a profoundly unhappy man, bored with the predictable dull routine of his life.
That all changes when he meets The Dame. Nightclub singer Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) is struck a glancing blow by a speeding truck and since Talbot’s office is closer than a hospital, she’s taken there for treatment. Turns out she’s just bruised a little. But Talbot is quite taken with the charm and beauty of this woman and it isn’t long before he’s spending his nights in the nightclub, listening to Nora sing. The relationship progresses as you may well figure that it does as Talbot’s infatuation with Nora develops into love.
Talbot just can’t bring himself to ask his wife for a divorce and when one of his patients drops dead right in his office, Talbot sees a way out. He puts his wedding ring on the man’s finger and identification in the man’s pockets. He changes clothes with the dead man and places the body in his car, sending it over a cliff. Talbot tells Nora he’s getting a divorce and they move from San Francisco to New York. Seems like Our Poor Slob has gotten away with it and will live happily ever after, right?
Don’t you believe it. Talbot starts drinking heavily and becomes increasingly more and more paranoid as he finds out his death is being investigated. He’s in a constant state of terror that isn’t helped by Nora’s old boss from San Francisco (Alan Alda’s dad Robert Alda) showing up in New York. Talbot is convinced Nora is cheating on him and that thought makes him even crazier. And like any good Film Noir, just when it looks like things couldn’t get any worse; it does in a plot twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.
First of all, let’s talk about the look of the film. The cinematographer on NORA PRENTISS is the master of cinematography himself; James Wong Howe and as a result NORA PRENTISS looks absolutely marvelous. The acting is equally magnificent. I have to admit that I never paid much attention to Ann Sheridan before and that’s my loss because she owns this movie from start to finish. I especially liked how Nora is the one with the common sense and brains in the relationship. She tells Talbot this is an old and well-traveled road that they’re on and it’s not going to end well for either one of them. But there’s something about this man that is irresistible. Maybe it’s because he really listens to her when she talks. Maybe it’s because he took the time to be her friend before he became her lover. Whatever it is, it’s got her bad.
Kent Smith I’ve seen in a few movies and he always struck me as a pretty bland actor. It’s a quality that actually works for him in this movie as Talbot is a bland, boring man until he falls in love with Nora. It awakens emotions in him that he hasn’t felt in years. And it’s his inability to handle these emotions that dooms him. And the final scene Smith has with Sheridan is quietly devastating as Talbot explains with a terrifying calmness to Nora exactly why he has chosen the fate he has and why she must go along with it and never, ever tell the truth.
If you’ve always been curious about Film Noir and didn’t know where to start, NORA PRENTISS is an excellent way to begin. Trust me.