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A Twist of Fate: Close-Up on "The Chase"

Once a third act twist hits this way-out 1946 noir the movie becomes quite different—and quite more than noir.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Arthur Riplye's The Chase (1946) is playing from September 30 - October 30, 2017 in the United States.
“It’s happened again.” This almost throwaway admission by the protagonist of The Chase, Arthur Ripley’s way-out 1946 noir, comes just after the film’s jolting third act twist. It sets the viewer up for the unexpected, but is delivered with such exasperation that, at least for the beleaguered hero of the picture, the situation may perhaps be all too familiar, a possibility that in itself makes the occurrence that much more significant. Prior to this point, The Chase had been a solid, atmospheric thriller, with sufficient quirkiness to keep it in thoroughly fresh territory. But with this derailing revelation, there is really no preparing for how The Chase plays out, and what that, in turn, means for the preceding story. On its surface set-up, the film has all the primary trappings of conventional noir, with a down-on-his luck sad sack who falls for the boss’ girl and suffers the projected consequences. And while less overtly to start, the cinematography by Franz Planer steadily illustrates the film in standard nocturnal settings of intricate shadows and a shifting, moody ambiance. Then comes that twist, and from there on out, and in retrospect, the movie becomes quite different, quite more than noir. Truth be told, The Chase was never really normal to begin with. From its reticently expository opening to its ensuing sense of spatial and temporal displacement, there was something a little off all along, something surreal, something like a dream…
Robert Cummings is Chuck Scott, a World War II Navy vet barely getting by. Shuffling along on a Miami sidewalk, he leers at a diner’s sizzling bacon window dressing. Hungry and broke, dropping inches from his waistline before our very eyes, he happily and conveniently finds a wallet on the ground. An empty pile of dishes later, the now cigar-smoking Chuck has a belly full of breakfast and guilt for dessert. Prompted by a card in the wallet, he tracks down its rightful owner: Eddie Roman. Arriving at the mansion of this unknown, unwitting benefactor, Chuck is greeted—not once, but twice—by peep-hole eyes and a behind-closed-door question of his intent. The first inquiring orb belongs to Job, a butler played by James Westerfield; the second belong to Gino, Roman’s right-hand man played by Peter Lorre, here more dubious than usual. The ocular initiation is the first of several repetitive cues in The Chase, and it is but one example of how Ripley takes the most mundane of occurrences and adds a dash of the uncanny; not enough to make it distractingly abnormal, but enough to cock the head in pleasant intrigue.
After waiting in the brilliant, sun-drenched hall of Roman’s manor, a lavishly designed yet soullessly obnoxious mausoleum of a home, Chuck meets the man himself. Steve Cochran as gangster Eddie Roman is the preeminent performance of The Chase, and one of the more curiously chilling in the entire noir catalogue. While Cummings acts as a generally unadorned blank-slate (in more ways than one, as it turns out), Cochran’s Roman is a devilishly complex villain, oozing erratic contradictions with a simmering viciousness: in his introduction, he is unnervingly soft-spoken with an elderly female barber, but when accidentally nicked by his manicurist, he is ferociously swift with a brutal backhand. Nevertheless, impressed by Chuck’s man’s-gotta-eat honesty, Roman hires the stranger as a chauffeur, christening him “Scotty” in the process, assigning him the status of a servant or a pet—someone under his thumb either way. Roman will at times appear composed and cordial, even attempting to make a few jokes (though his brand of humor is such that it’s not always clear), but Cochran’s delivery—staring, smirking, ambivalent —obscures his intentions and makes him both delicately dangerous and immensely intriguing. 
The basic situation is essentially established at this point, but The Chase still feels tenuous and unsettled. In particular, these three male leads remain ambiguous at best. Gino, a bored, annoyed, and volatile little man with a sadistic bite behind a sneering bark, is indifferent to Chuck’s good deed and dubs the newcomer a “silly law-abiding jerk.” Meanwhile, Roman’s inscrutable incentives are further masked by his placid ability to say and do one thing while seemingly thinking of something else altogether; his eyes, body, and mind are seldom in sync and his too-calm demeanor suggests fake decency and ulterior motives. Though he has a maniacal interest in the ships of a competitor, what exactly Roman does for a living is unstated (in the film’s 1944 source novel, “The Black Path of Fear,” by Cornell Woolrich, opium is the prime commodity, a suggestion left vague to non-existent in the movie). Gino says they’re in the “amusement business,” but again, that blatantly imprecise designation tells neither what the amusement is nor for whose enjoyment it is intended. Ripley and screenwriter Philip Yordan have delightfully unconventional fun with these character interactions and eccentricities, though perhaps the most hilarious anomaly is Roman’s car, equipped with backseat gas and brake pedals allowing him to override the driver and rev the vehicle to 110-plus miles per hour. Deployed as a test for “Scotty”—in an impulsive, breakneck attempt to beat a barreling train—the manipulation is also a testament to Roman’s quest for control. And yet when faced with this phenomenon, Chuck is never as leery as he should be. The ex-GI is too accepting of the bizarre, not easily put off by Roman’s obviously risky behavior, and is too tolerant of the derision and mockery. “I don’t get it,” he affably chuckles after narrowly avoiding the locomotive.
Of course, everything about The Chase changes with the presentation of Roman’s wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan). Housed under high ceilings and surrounded by an opulent collection of ceramic busts and figurines, she is at times kept literally under lock and key, like one of her husband’s many fine possessions; Ripley’s framing of Morgan, her white dress the same hue as the pallid house, melds the young woman into a piece of mobile statuary. A cool blonde siren treated poorly and spoiled at the same time, Lorna plays the noir part well, spelling trouble for Chuck the ill-fated outsider. After nightly excursions to the ocean, where crashing-wave dissolves pass the time and progress an incremental relationship, she begs him to take her to Cuba. It’s an unnecessary risk, to be sure, but what would noir be without that?  
In Havana, The Chase cuts loose. Chuck and Lorna arrive at a patently garish nightclub where he is abruptly spooked, and a cryptic, nightmarish quality seeps in and subtly modifies the film’s tone and imagery. In a single scene, Ripley and Planer convey a stifling environment teeming in miscommunication, constraint, and feverish confusion. Inside the restaurant, as the noise of an enraptured crowd begins to fade, the lights dim as a singer perches on the balcony and belts out a ballad. A roaming photographer hovers on the periphery, taking photos for the tourists. Suddenly, with one blinding flashbulb, Lorna goes limp and drops to the ground, cradled in Chuck’s arms. A knife extends from her back. All signs point to murder; all signs point to Chuck. Investigators descend on the American as the swift wrong-man plot drives The Chase to full-throttle, smoldering anxiety. Guided by cinematographer Planer (an impressively varied Austrian cameraman who worked with everyone from Max Ophüls to Nicholas Ray), this entire Havana sequence dazzles with opaque, wiry outlines, candle and headlight illumination, murky corners that drop off into some abyss, and a decadent geography out of whack with previously stable space. The circle tightens with the arrival of Gino, affirming the size of Roman’s ruthless, intercontinental net. There is a confrontation. Chuck is shot down. A phone begins to ring.  
Then, Chuck wakes up, bemused and back in Miami, back at the Roman residence, back on the night he is to abscond with Lorna. He calls a naval hospital and asked for his doctor, Commander Davidson (Jack Holt). Now an amnesiac whose symptoms possibly derive from some psychosomatic PTSD, Chuck is no longer the classically steadfast center; his reliability, and the validity of what just transpired, ostensibly seen from his vantage point, is fundamentally undermined. Ripley, going solo on just his second feature film, and Yordan, an eventual Oscar winner for Broken Lance (1954, though more famous for delirious entries like Reign of Terror [1949] and Johnny Guitar [1954]), fill the remainder of The Chase with coincidence and narrative black holes, purposely teasing the incongruity and doubt. “There doesn’t seem to be any beginning,” Chuck tells Davidson, refusing to confirm when this apparent reverie began. “All I can remember is the end of it.” Pieces fall into place, but the complete picture of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle remains unclear.
As David Bordwell has noted, there are potential indications of the film’s evolving dream state, elusive elements like Chuck yawning, some implausible audio transitions, unrealistic lighting, and passages of dialogue like “Forget time” and “Like the stars in a dream song.” But if any of this is supposed to be a trigger of some sort, it is all so unaffected and so seamlessly edited by Edward Mann that it often gets missed upon the first viewing, only attaining importance in hindsight (and even that is pushing it). Like Chuck, one is left searching for clues, backtracking in a spiraling daze to uncover what exactly happened and when. In what was then a daring upending of storytelling convention (we never do find out these details), the fast-track wrap-up of the film apparently provides Chuck a second chance, an authorial restart to try again for a happy ending. This whole narrative curve is a common enough device today, but The Chase still works because of its willful lack of clarification and its assured progression. Rather bewildering and with much left unexplained, it throws the viewer for a loop without skipping a beat.
The Chase

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