Cause for Alarm (1951) Tay Garnett

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You know you are really having a bad day when your invalid husband announces to you he just mailed a letter to the D.A. implicating you and his best friend in a plot to kill him. In “Cause for Alarm,” a 1951 low budget suburban noir, George Jones (Barry Sullivan) is confined to his bed  and his mind is deteriorating as well. A weak heart and paranoia make for a lethal combination as George convinces himself that his loving wife Ellen (Loretta Young), who has been taking care of him and his best friend, and physician, are out to kill him by slowly poisoning him.

cause_for_alarm_000004    In flashback we find out Ellen was first dating Lt. Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling), a young doctor and best friend to George. Grahame’s busy days left little time for romance and soon Ellen began dating George, falling in love and getting married. Now a few years later, George is confined to his bed with Ellen taking care of him and Grahame his physician.

With his condition deteriorating,  George comes to believe his wife and best friend are having an affair. George, who the good doctor recommends should see a psychologist, instead makes plans to retaliate by writing and secretly mailing an incriminating letter to the District Attorney outlining a supposed plot to murder him. After the letter is mailed, which Ellen herself unknowingly gave to the mailman, he tells her all about his plan. Confronting her, George ever more paranoid, now sets a plan in motion to kill Ellen except, well, poor George got himself so worked up that before he could pull the trigger on Ellen, he has a massive heart attack and drops dead with the pistol still clutched in his hands.cause_for_alarm_000006

Ellen is obviously relieved though not for long when she realizes the letter her husband mailed will incriminate her as his murderer. From what George told her just before he died, everything he put in the letter could be misinterpreted to prove there was a plot to kill him.  Attempts to get the letter back from the Post Office, the D.A. are in vain. With each passing moment, Ellen is becoming a bigger and bigger web of nerves, on the verge of a breakdown, all while her husband’s dead body remains upstairs in the bedroom. When George’s Aunt comes to visit and wants to see George, you fear the poor woman is going to go totally berserk. Later, Ranney shows up to check on George, and Ellen tells him what happened. He calmly goes upstairs, finds his friend’s body, and methodically begins to “clean up” the scene, rearranging the body, pulling the shades down. Surprisingly he shows no sign of distress over his friend’s recent demise.

cause_for_alarm_000011   A twist of an ending, which I will not give away, seems to clear Ellen. I say seems to  because while the assumption is Ellen is an innocent victim here, she and Ranney act more as if they are in a conspiracy to cover up a crime. It does leave a bit of doubt as to what really went on. Was George right about the love affair, or was he “rude and selfish” since he was a child, as his Aunt Clara mumbles during her visit. Ellen seems more concerned with clearing her name than her husband’s death. Of course, he did try to frame her for his approaching death. It is all kind of Hitchcockian, though without the irony, or a scent of black humor that Sir Alfred would have introduced.  cause_for_alarm_000020

Loretta Young manages to pull off a performance that miraculously comes close to the edge of “way too much” but somehow she holds it all in check with a great breakdown scene at the end. Despite a frazzled state for most of the film, she is certainly beautiful to look at and the film really belongs to her. This film came toward the end of a long movie career, and she was only a couple of years away from the beginning of a new start on TV with “The Loretta Young Show”, an anthology series where she started each show in an exquisite evening gown and was introduced as Miss Loretta Young. It was all very formal. Additionally, she starred in many of the episodes.  Another highlight of the film is Margalo Gillmore who gives a testy performance as Aunt Clara, hitting all the right and annoying buttons.  Also adding to the suspense is Andre Previn’s score and Tay Garnett’s direction. Garnett is no stranger to noirish style films though here he take the atmosphere out of the city and into suburbia. The film was produced by Young’s husband Tom Lewis, who also co-wrote the script along with Mel Dinelli. The film was amazingly shot in 14 days!

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12 comments on “Cause for Alarm (1951) Tay Garnett

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    You continue to expose my strongest weakness (of omission) in Movie Land, what with a number of film noirs still on the back burner. When Loretta Young won her Oscar for “The Farmer’s Daughter” she pulled off the biggest of upsets, but as you rightly note she’s a talented actress who looks great on screen. But I understand you felt that the final ‘breakdown scene’ is what saved what was basically an “over the top” turn. And then there’s Tay Garnett, whose greatest work of course is noir masterwork, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and composer Andre Previn, whose work I have always appreciated. Sounds like the basic premise is conventional, aside from that unrevealed ‘twist’ ending, but it’s always the execution that matters most.
    You continue to do the film community (noir in particular) a great service by posting films that have little ink, so to speak. Great review.

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  2. John Greco says:

    Sam, definitely agree about “Postman” being Garnett’s greatest and Previn is always a joy. Thanks again for the kind words and the support.

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  3. Brett says:

    Having only seen “the Bishop’s Wife” and “The Stranger”, I was pretty unfamiliar with any other Loretta Young films (with the exception of a few generic, chrome and satin, penthouse comedies from the 30’s).

    Overall I liked this noir, which reminded me a lot of a suspenseful radio play – especially during the narrated sequences.

    Also it had the claustrophobic staging of a future tv show like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” In fact the scale and setting of this film kept giving me the feeling that she was going to run smack in to the Cleavers or Nelsons at any second.

    This film along with “The Desperate Hours” and even later films like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Unguarded Moment” all contribute to a very intriguing, darker vision of suburbia.

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  4. John Greco says:

    “Also it had the claustrophobic staging of a future tv show like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

    Brett – What you say here is so true. It does have the feel of a “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode and would have made a good one.

    “In fact the scale and setting of this film kept giving me the feeling that she was going to run smack in to the Cleavers or Nelsons at any second.”

    LOL – yes, even down to the nosey next door neighborhood. These exterior scenes were actually filmed on location, so they were true to life.

    thanks – interesting comments!!

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  5. Judy says:

    Fine review as ever, John – must admit that yet again I haven’t seen this. I’d like to see some of Loretta Young’s later films, though, as I’ve mainly seen her in earlier stuff.

    Recently saw her as a young single mother in an interesting but pretty awful pre-code called ‘Born to Be Bad’, opposite Cary Grant who doesn’t get much chance to show what he is capable of – wish I’d written that one up but I didn’t get round to it!

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy,

      hope you get a chance to see this. When you mentioned BORN TO BE BAD I thought you were talking about the Nick Ray film from 1950 with Robert Ryan and Joan Fontaine. I must admit I am unfamilar with the Grant/Young film of the same title. Another Youngfilm worth seeking out is THE STRANGER directed and starring Orson Welles, Edward G Robinson and Ms. YOung.

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  6. My favorite parts of this film are Barry Sullivan’s paranoia and Loretta Young’s excruciating negotiations with a cranky mailman. I recall scoffing at the ending but thinking it an effective piece of suburban paranoia overall. It’s one of an oddly large number of MGM films from the period that plopped into the public domain, as I have it in a Mill Creek Entertainment box set. In this case it may be because Tom Lewis held a copyright and let it lapse, but was MGM itself goofing off in any way?

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    • John Greco says:

      Samuel,
      The scene with the mailman is terrific as is Sullivan’s delusions. A minor work but certainly worth watching. As for the copyright lapse, I really don’t know but I think MGM should have to get some of the blame.

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  7. Dave says:

    John – I’ve been neglecting making the rounds because I’ve had overload with work and LSAT stuff (ugh), but now that those are finished… I can stop in here and comment on yet another outstanding review. This is another film that I have sitting on my DVR waiting to be watched. I believe I will do so this evening/tomorrow and will be back with more thoughts. But just in case something happens and it doesn’t get watched, I wanted to at least post and say that I really enjoyed this review and it has me looking forward to the film.

    I haven’t watched as much noir lately as I had been doing in the past, but these reviews that you are posting is rekindling the interest.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave – hope you did well on your LSAT and i am sure it is a relief to have it behind you. Cause for Alarm is a nice little B-Noir. Hope to heare your thoughts if you get the chance.

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  8. Dave says:

    John – After watching this one, it seems like we’re in agreement. It’s by no means a great film, but for anyone who is a fan of noir it is definitely worth seeing. For those that are not as crazy about noir, then there are certainly better films that can be recommended. But with junkies like us, it is worth watching. Plus, it’s nice to see another Garnett film, whose work I’m really only familiar with through The Postman Always Rings Twice.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave – I have only seen a few other Garnett films, A Connecticut Yanked in King Arthur’s Court and Bataan. Off the cuff I’d say Postman is his best work. Cause for Alarm is one of those little films that there are bits here and ther that make it worth while to see.

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