David Goodis is in the pantheon of pulp fiction’s great crime writers. Though not as well known, he’s up there right alongside Chandler, Cain and Hammett. For years Goodis’ work was serialized in magazines and published in book form. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, his novel, Dark Passage gave him his big break. Hollywood came a knocking and the result was a big time hit movie from Warner Brothers starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That same year (1947), he co-wrote, with James Gunn, the screenplay for The Unfaithful, another WB production.
Though the writers are given credit for an original screenplay, the source of the tale is from W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Letter. The basic plot is the same. A lonely wife of a rich man shoots her lover, in this case, an artist named Michael Tanner, claiming it was self-defense. Unlike the first two films, set on a rubber plantation, this film takes place in modern time (1947 style). The husband, having returned from two years in the military during the war, is now a big time home builder. The film stars Ann Sheridan and Zachary Scott as Chris and Bob Hunter along with Lew Ayres as lawyer and close friend Larry Hannaford.
Instead of an incriminating letter, here we have a bust of Chris made by her now dead former lover/artist who helped Chris through her lonely hours while her husband was getting shot at in the Pacific. Throughout the investigation, Chris tries to keep the former affair from her husband. This forces her to lie to Hannaford, her lawyer and the police which only digs a deeper hole, making the stabbing look more like a murder than self-defense. Sheridan’s heroine is more sympathetic than in the previous versions. She does seems to care for her husband and wants to spare him the embarrassment and hurt of her unfortunate cheating.
It was a good idea to modernize the story, but the film, while it keeps you interested, is hampered at times by an uneven screenplay with some unbelievable points. One of the most obvious is that Hannaford is a divorce lawyer, yet when Chris is put on trial for murder, he easily slides into the part of her defense lawyer. Additionally, when Hannaford finds out the truth about Chris’ relationship with the murdered man (she first claims to not have known him) he is shocked, just shocked! A woman cheating on her husband while he was away for two years during the war. He does not seem to even entertain the possibility that Bob, somewhere along the line, may have been with another woman out of the same feelings of loneliness during the forced separation. There has always been wartime infidelity, then and now. Reasons vary, from loneliness to couples who rushed into a marriage they were not ready for. It’s an important topic to address, and it works for most of the film. However, the filmmakers did not seem to know where to go with it as the movie progresses and it all deflates toward the end.
Overall, the film is an easy watch that I recommend, though once seen, you will most likely not go running back to watch again. The three stars are all fine, but the real standout here is Eve Arden as husband Bob’s tart, snippy, recently divorced cousin Paula. Her performance is the real highlight. Whenever, she is on the screen things begin to sparkle. You can’t wait for her to come back on.
The film is directed by Vincent Sherman (Mrs. Skeffington, The Damned Don’t Cry), a solid Hollywood craftsman, who keeps the film moving at a decent pace. The same year, he directed Sheridan in Nora Prentiss. Sherman is aided nicely by cinematographer Ernest Haller who provides a lot of darkish, noir like lighting (though this is not a film noir) and a good soundtrack from Max Steiner.