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!