It’s hard to imagine Sam Fuller and Douglas Sirk sharing much common artistic ground: the former was a one-time journalist whose films were notable for their gritty and sometimes shocking realism; the latter, a German romantic whose florid melodramas seem to exist in an alternate Technicolor reality.
Believe it or not, however, the two did once work together — and the fruit of that collaboration, the black and white thriller Shockproof, will be screening at 8:40 pm on Thursday, March 1st at Pacific Film Archive as part of the series, “Dark Past: Noir Films by German Emigrés“.
Though Fuller had previously sold a few stories to Hollywood, Shockproof was his first screenwriting assignment. Sirk, on the other hand, was already an established director who’d been in Tinsel Town since the early forties. Both of them, however, experienced studio interference during the making of Shockproof: Fuller’s script was watered down with an absurd happy ending grafted on by weepie specialist Helen Deutsch, the result being a final scene shot without the director’s participation. Sirk was so unhappy with the result that he temporarily returned to Europe.
The film opens on an unglamorous stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, where ex-con Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight, a long since forgotten starlet bearing a slight resemblance to Jane Russell) is getting a post-prison makeover — including a blonde dye job — in anticipation of her first visit with parole officer Griffin Marat (Knight’s then-husband, Cornel Wilde). Now free after serving five years of a 1 to 15 for murder, Jenny gets read the riot act by Griff, who informs her that not only must she stay away from old flame Harry Wesson (‘50s TV regular John Baragrey, a suave fellow with a touch of the George Macready about him), she’s also forbidden to marry until she completes her parole. One immediately suspects both admonitions will be ignored before the final reel.
Still a thing going on
Despite the tough talk, Griff has gone the extra mile to make Jenny’s transition back to civilian life is an easy one: in addition to finding her a new apartment, he’s also lined up an accounting job for her. (Do parole officers still provide such generous services? Perhaps more to the point, did they ever?) Everything seems copacetic until Griff runs into the smarmy Wesson on his way out of her flat, confirming his suspicion that, despite their five year separation, Harry and Jenny still have a thing going on.
Within days, the pair surreptitiously meet in a gambling den where they plot with bookie kingpin Monte (heavy-set Frank Jaquet) to get Jenny’s parole transferred from L.A. to San Francisco. A police raid, however, puts paid to the scheme, and Jenny ends up back in custody, where kindly shrink Dr. Daniels (Ann Shoemaker) convinces Griff to give the girl one more chance before sending her back to the pokey.
Conveniently, that “one more chance” involves Griff hiring Jenny to take care of his saintly blind mother (Esther Minciotti), who lives in a suburban home that, curiously, features interior design more typical of the Victorian era. The two fall in love, quietly get married, and settle down — until Harry’s blackmail attempt and a near-fatal shooting forces the newlyweds to flee the city.
Variation on a style
Unlike many films mistakenly classified as noir, Shockproof is the genuine article. Its main characters are trapped by circumstances from which escape seems impossible: Jenny by her past and by her relationship with Harry; Griff by his under-the-counter relationship with his parolee. Unlike most noirs however, the big city remains in the background, with much of the film’s second act taking place inside the Marat family home and around the oil fields of the rural southwest. It’s a unique and interesting variation on the style, and, though let down by Deutsch’s sappy ending, remains worthy of your consideration.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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