We make allowances in our enjoyment of films that we withhold when considering other art forms--movies seem to operate by a different set of standards: so many disparate elements come together from so many different minds and sets of hands, not to mention competing agendas, that audiences can be incredibly forgiving if a film isnít up to par...provided some aspect of it captivates them! Itís one of the reasons why movies are timeless: viewers can find something worthwhile in a film they would otherwise consider a failure.
The Pretender, a second feature from Republic Pictures, is a good example of such a film. It offers the sort of half-baked film story that gets dreamt up in some writerís bed during those hazy moments somewhere between awake and asleep. Its overly contrived and forces itself upon us, but it nevertheless piques our curiosity in some way that, despite its flaws, we still want to see how its particular gimmick plays out on-screen.
The Pretender stars Albert Dekker, a man whose name is familiar to film buffs but more or less forgotten by the general public. Dekker had a sturdy career in the movie business, finding his way west after making his bones on Broadway. Today heís remembered mostly for the title role in the 1940 science fiction classic Dr. Cyclops, though he did make a few crime pictures, including the essential 1946 film noir The Killers. He can also be found chewing scenery in the 1946 noir-on-ice, Suspense, and playing it mysterious in the fascinating 1941 proto-noir Among the Living. [NOTE: Mark leaves out another iconic role for Dekker, as Dr. Soberin in Kiss Me Deadly, which might be explained by his minuscule screen time...nevertheless, dedicated noir fans know it's Dekker, particularly due to his distinctive voice.]
In spite of Dekkerís work in front of the camera he remains one of the unlucky souls for whom the Kenneth Anger-hyped speculation surrounding his grisly, sexualized death will forever overshadow anything he accomplished in life. It seems that whenever his name comes up writers feel obligated to rehash the details of his demise. [NOTE: At which point, Mark then proceeded to rehash the details of Dekker's demise anyway. There are some rumors that have surfaced about Mark's death, too, but we won't repeat them here either.] The gossip is unfortunate, because it obscures the fact that Dekker was a pretty good actor--he had an intelligent and refined screen persona that was enhanced by sheer physical size. He was able to use that persona to affect either feelings of pathos or enmity from his audience. The guy had real range and he should have been a bigger star. His performance is the saving grace of The Pretender.
The movie finds Dekker in the role of Kenneth Holden, a Wall Street loser who likes to play the market but canít pick a winner. Heís in the hole big-time, so he starts drafting five-figure ďloanĒ checks from the accounts of one Claire Worthington (Catharine Craig), a pretty young woman whose sizable fortune he holds in trust. Dekker writes check after check in hopes that his luck will turn, but when it doesnít he gets the idea to marry the girl and co-opt her funds the easy way. The problem is that Claire is already engaged to Dr. Leonard Koster (Charles Drake)--a good-looking psychiatrist.
Holden refuses to let a little thing like love get in his way, so he arranges with local racketeer Victor Korrin (pudgy Alan Carney, scene-stealer par excellence) to have the boyfriend knocked off--which is exactly when The Pretender begins to sink under the weight of its own contrivances. It starts when Holden canít pass along the name of Claireís fiancť: she has inconveniently kept his identity a secret. Korrinís only option is to scan the metro society columns for her engagement announcement, and then kill the man with whom sheís pictured.
Of course he doesnít do the dirty work himself: he subcontracts the messy stuff, and refuses to reveal the hired killerís identity to Holden. Itís in the scene where the killing is arranged that the filmmakers frustratingly fail to cash in on one of those moments of wicked irony that so often makes film noir a treat.
Korrin wants twenty grand for the job, which obviously Holden canít get his hands on unless he raids Claireís accounts yet again--but screenwriter Don Martin fails to cash in on the irony of one man purchasing his rivalís death with the money of the woman they both desire. The addition of such a scene would have done much to elevate The Pretender as a film noir, but it just slips away. The scene still registers due to John Alton's presence as photographer: the camera gets in tight on both actors, each cloaked in shadow. Carney, performing his ass off, does a bit with his cigar that makes the scene unforgettable.
No sooner than the Holden and Korrin seal their deal the film jumps across town to an equally critical scene, when Claire, ready to paint the town, meets Dr. Lenny at his hospital. Just as the young lovers head for the elevator he gets called to the operating room for a psychiatric consult that quickly turns into surgery, a ruined evening, and hurt feelings. In a startlingly forced 180, even for a B-movie, Claire decides she isnít willing to share her man with the medical profession and stuffs her diamond into an envelope along with a hastily scribbled note that reads simply, ďIt wonít work.Ē She fumbles the envelope into a nurseís hands, then slinks to a phone booth and dimes Holden: ďLetís get married--tonight!Ē
(In spite of the silliness of her character, I found Craig to be an actress with considerable appeal. She looks like a cross between Norma Shearer and Kay Francis: classy without being aloof, sophisticated yet attainable. The camera seemed to like her, so itís surprising she didnít have a longer career in the movies: married to Robert Preston, she retired to raise a family in 1950 after a small part in No Man of Her Own.)
Of course this leaves Holden with a small dilemma. After his whirlwind marriage, he's got to cancel that contract. But before he can get in touch with Korrin to do just that, the fat manís past catches up to him and he gets bumped off. Suddenly the bewildered Holden has a big target on his back and is looking over his shoulder for a man with a gun.
The latter sequences of the film focus on Holdenís unraveling psyche as he scrambles to identify and try to stop the would-be killer. His fear of this unknown reaper causes him to come completely unglued--leaving him sequestered in his room, fittingly unable to exalt in the wealth he conspired to obtain.
Holdenís paranoia overtakes him at a lightning pace, and itís not particularly credible from a story standpoint, but Dekker is good enough to keep you intrigued. He changes his appearance, mistrusts and dismisses his servants, refuses to eat anything but canned goods, and fails utterly as a husband--and, the next thing we know, Dr. Leonard is back on the scene! The inevitable conclusion offers a fitting consequence of the noirish fatalism that permeates the movie, with an ironic, smirking postscript reminiscent of such films as Shockproof and Tomorrow is Another Day tacked on for good measure.
The Pretender is so brief (just 69 minutes) that itís not unfair to suggest that a few years later, it might not get made at all, given the advent of television. While the story is gimmicky (and often feels more like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents), it would be a shame had that happened, due to two production details that remain notable today.
First, this is the moment in which John Alton gets his first real crack at noir subject matter. While his work is more uneven than will be the case in his subsequent work, there are a few great moments (the deal making scene mentioned above, and Dekker's frenzied night-time paranoid driving scene in the film's closing minutes). Second, the use of theremin music in the soundtrack is ahead of its time: the instrument would soon give the science fiction films of the following decade their distinctive electronic sound. Billy Wilder's older brother, fashioning his strange but interesting career in Hollywood as a kind of spectral thorn in the great man's side, is clearly not afraid to try something different, and in this case his gamble has a payoff: the movie wouldnít be the same without it.
Several solid screencaps too large to display conveniently here can be found at the following link, where a somewhat more enthusiastic review of the film can be found: