Shockproof, 1949, 80 mins, Blu-ray
The clue is in the credits: Written by…. with Helen Deutsch’s name above that of Samuel Fuller. Which I didn’t really question when first watching the film, but in retrospect, considering how greatly the film is derailed by its lousy ending (which I mentioned in an earlier post) I should have smelled a rat. Turns out the script was entirely written by Samuel Fuller but the studio got nervous about its original conclusion so hired Helen Deutsch to give them a happy ending, which spoils the film terribly, and then to add further ignominy to it all, credited Deutsch above Fuller (ensured by Deutsch nabbing a co-producer credit too, further reward for arguably ruining the picture – that’s Hollywood folks).
But it is a terrible shame, because Shockproof is a great dramatic noir and has such a lot going for it, not least of which is Patricia Knight, whose performance here is particularly nuanced and arresting, and actually astonishing when one realises she had no formal acting training, according to what I’ve read about her since. She plays ex-con Jenny Marsh, whose parole officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde (Leave Her to Heaven)) is instantly attracted to her and whose attempts to ensure she goes straight may not be entirely professional or decent. Jenny served five years for murdering a man while defending her shady gambler lover, Harry Wesson (John Baragrey) and remains romantically involved with Harry, who stayed in contact with her during her incarceration. Griff threatens Jenny that she’ll break her parole if she continues seeing Harry, but while that seems reasonable, it also fits in with his own attraction to her and his attempt to be with her himself- to the extent of finding her a job within his own home, something against regulations. Griff further compromises himself by intending to secretly marry her, again against regulations, which is something which Harry and his criminal associates see as a way of ruining Griff’s prospects for political office, from where he could be trouble for them.
The brilliance of Shockproof, and of Knights’ performance, is that there is subterfuge and lies from the start. It is no mistake that prior to her first parole meeting with Griff, the brunette Jenny is seen shopping on Hollywood Boulevard for new clothes and visits a salon to have her hair dyed platinum blonde. She’s obviously using her sex and beauty as a possible distraction against Griff, assuming a role of wounded beauty, manipulating him to give her special treatment. This is tested immediately, as soon after her first meeting with Griff she is arrested with Harry in a police raid on a bookie joint, contrary to Griff’s instructions to stay away from her old lover and the criminal fraternity. Returned to Griff’s office and a likely immediate return to prison, Griff instead sends her to a doctor on the pretence of checking out her twisted ankle. Rather than just the physical examination it pretends to be, this is actually a psychological test of Jenny’s character which she passes, saying all the right things to the doctor, but unknown to Griff, Jenny has sussed it was a test and her responses are all an act to ensure he gives her another chance. She has no intention of breaking up with Harry and knows Griff’s fascination/attraction to her leaves him open to manipulation.
So far, so very noir and typical femme fatale. But there’s all sorts of things going on here. Griff’s attraction towards Jenny increasingly forces him to break the rules, and when she can’t get a job because of her criminal record, he gives her a job at his house which enables him to keep her close and romance her, which makes one wonder who is manipulating who? His controlling influence of who she can see, where she can go, becomes something possibly dark and questionable. Dependant on him for a job and a roof over her head, and living with his family, it could be argued that Griff’s seduction finally works when Jenny starts to have feelings for him too.
Or does she? Because she’s also still in contact with Harry, who knows that Griff is breaking all the rules of his profession and therefore encourages Jenny to go along with it and lead Griff to ruin.
Shockproof is a brilliant tale of subversion and possible perversion. What makes it all work is Knight’s excellent performance- very often the viewer just can’t be sure if what she’s doing and saying is real or just part of an act. Are her growing feelings for Griff real? Just when you think her loyalties lie with Harry, who is clearly no good for her and likely manipulating her himself, one starts to wonder if her loyalties are really with Griff and her love for him genuine. And of course in the background one has to wonder if Griff’s feelings for her are natural or from some dark obsession of his own, manipulating a woman he knows is dependant upon him keeping her out of prison?
The chemistry between Wilde and Knight is inevitably genuine because they were actually a married couple when the film was made. There is an added tension to it which may stem from the fact that Knight later claimed that Wilde was a controlling and dominating figure in their marriage, and increasingly jealous- they were divorced soon after, in 1951. So does this inform the elements of Shockproof that suggest Griff’s controlling attentions towards Jenny and how he uses his professional authority over her are unhealthy and obsessive? It certainly seems to suggest an added darkness to it all.
Incredibly, Knight only appeared in five films and one television episode, her acting career curtailed upon divorcing Wilde, which to me seems such a loss, because I really think she’s terrific in Shockproof. I can understand the impact she made upon Griff because she made such an impact upon me too. She’s beautiful and dangerous but there’s a fragility there. Possibly her limitations as a non-trained actress would have been found out in other roles, maybe its just that this one particularly suited her, but I think she was really impressive here, a femme fatale with some depth.
Which yes, brings us to the ridiculous ending. If you haven’t seen the film and wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading this post here and maybe come back later. In the film Jenny becomes increasingly desperate, caught between and manipulated by the two men in her life, and she eventually turns upon Harry after he threatens to ruin Griff, shooting him dead in a bizarre repeat/twist of her original crime years before. There is at least a suggestion that Jenny actually wanted to flee from both men, knowing its all destined to end badly, but instead she and Griff go on the run together. In Fuller’s original script, which was titled The Lovers, an increasingly desperate Griff and Jenny get into a shootout with cops and come to an ill end. In this reading, Griff’s love for Jenny is genuine and, as director Douglas Sirk observed, “something had changed… something had started blooming in (Griff’s) soul!”, something forbidden by his profession and society.
Instead, we get a ridiculous revelation that Harry isn’t actually dead, and he has a sudden change of heart/pang of conscience and takes the blame for the shooting himself in order to allow the lovers a wildly sudden and inappropriate happy ending: as bad a ‘love conquers all’ ending as any. Its so jarring that it is like it has suddenly become entirely another movie in its last five minutes. It doesn’t work at all, unless you subscribe to the inherent darkness of Griff’s own obsession and his own schemes winning out, which is digging out a noir ending not intended at all, but hey, that’s perhaps me just trying to save what is, other than the ending, a pretty great film.