Damon and Pythias in Van Nuys

Guest Shadowplayer Chris Schneider always makes me happy when he writes something for me–

“I thought I knew the wheat from the chaff,” go the words of the song, “what a laugh!” The song is “Can’t We Be Friends.” It can be heard in two Vincent Sherman-directed crime dramas, NORA PRENTISS and BACKFIRE.

NORA PRENTISS is SISTER CARRIE, sort-of, only reworked for a post-war Warner Brothers world of chantoozies and criminal intent. BACKFIRE has other things on its mind.

BACKFIRE, which I saw for the first time a week ago, is more concerned with traumatized WW2 vets and a “Damon and Pythias” friendship — not to mention gambling and alcohol and murders being committed by a hand-with-a-gun-in-it whose identity we’re unable to see. Compare it to DEAD RECKONING for the “Damon and Pythias.” Compare it, too, to Sherman’s earlier THE UNFAITHFUL as an example of b-team noir used as an excuse for location shooting (Glendale, Van Nuys, Olvera St.) and showing off the talents of contract players.

Gordon MacRae, who’s in a Van Nuys hospital, seeks out fellow soldier Edmund O’Brien with the aid of nurse Virginia Mayo. Viveca Lindfors, who appears like a phantom at MacRae’s bedside, encourages this effort. Lindfors, who turns out to be a singer kept in niceties by an unseen gambler, is also concerned about O’Brien. Dane Clark, another friend from military days, looks on from the sidelines.

The main problem with BACKFIRE is that the putative hero and heroine, MacRae and Mayo, are so dull. Lindfors comes off best. She gets star close-ups, a Milo Anderson gown, and a French song. One reads about how, when the film’s release was held back a few years, posters and publicity were finessed so that they favored Mayo. Was the (SPOILERS ahead) off-camera death of Lindfors’ character a hasty reshoot designed to play down her importance?

DEAD RECKONING had Bogart and his soldier pal, and BACKFIRE has O’Brien and MacRae. The question this kind of story provokes — at least in LGBT viewers — is whether things are “homosocial” or actually homosexual. I ain’t sayin’ yes and I ain’t sayin’ no. Let’s just say that MacRae is awf’lly concerned about his absent beloved. Midway through, when a low-level masher keeps asking Lindfors to dance with him, O’Brien asks the guy if he wants to dance with *him*. When the film’s happy end occurs, with a truck riding off into the horizon, that truck contains MacRae and Mayo and O’Brien — like an obverse of the three-way ménage at the end of DARK VICTORY.

Too bad that the Mayo/MacRae relationship is strictly from Snoresville. Also that Dane Clark falls victim to an ill-considered plot-twist and is saddled with an unplayable final scene. Or that a servant played by Leonard Strong speaks in egregious “velly solly”-style Asian Stereotype-speak.

Oh well. At least the post-war Warners zeitgeist is in evidence. And Lindfors, who has a moment or two reminding us that she was capable of MISS JULIE (“Didn’t you know? I like it here. It’s gay and exciting. I have all I ever dreamed of as a girl.”), does look splendid.

4 Responses to “Damon and Pythias in Van Nuys”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    In “real life” Lindfors married the great Don Siegel. They had a son who became an actor under the name Kristopher Tabori — after Lindfors’ second husband writer George Tabori whose “Secret Ceremony” was made into a very interesting late period Joseph Losey starring Eliabeth Taylor an , in a performance quite suggestive of her off-screen life, Mia Farrow. All this an Robert Mitchum too in a turn of seductive malevolence that he played so well.

  2. Lindfors said that her arrival in Hollywood unfortunately coincided with the craze for “girl next door” types, “and I was never the girl next door.” She was always an absolutely magnetic presence when she turned up in movies. I remember thinking “WHO IS THAT?” when I first saw her in The Sure Thing.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    In BACKFIRE she’s more of an expatriate “woman of mystery.”

    Someone was commenting on BACKFIRE’s formidable collection of screenwriters. Two of them are Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff, who I know mainly through Cagney-connected Warners pictures like WHITE HEAT and COME FILL THE CUP. The third, Larry Marcus — then billed as “Lawrence B. Marcus” — also is credited with the original story of BACKFIRE. He’s something of a mystery to me, having been credited with both PETULIA and Cukor’s JUSTINE.
    David C says he was a major contributor to the Lester film’s script. Scanning his credits, I thought that the closest to BACKFIRE would be the Dieterle-directed DARK CITY (chanteuse plus gambling) or William Conrad’s BRAINSTORM (infidelity, fluctuating sanity). I’m also curious about the John Korty-directed ALEX AND THE GYPSY and VOICE IN THE MIRROR.

    DARK CITY had Viveca Lindfors in its cast.

  4. Alex and the Gypsy seems to have a bit in common with Petulia, only it’s maybe less critical of its manic pixie dreamgirl?

    Lester felt that, since neither he not Charles Wood had been divorced, Marcus’ experience as well as his writing skill was essential.

    He also co-wrote The Stunt Man.

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