Film noir from the classic period often deals with returning servicemen trying to cope with life after the military. Sometimes the protagonist is injured or even suffering from some sort of amnesia. Other times, the vet just is having a hard time returning to civilian life. There are many examples of men suffering some sort of dislocation including The Crooked Way, Dead Reckoning, Nobody Lives Forever and Backfire.
Backfire is a 1950 film shot by Warner Brothers in 1948. The film, although produced by a major studio, is in the B-movie mold. The stars, with the exception of Virginia Mayo, are not on WB’s star list. Also most of the plot is lifted from other, many times better, films. But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it. I found the film an entertaining mystery with a flashback structure (a number of people telling their side of the story from their point of view) that I thought was reminiscent of “The Killers”.
I’m not going to go into the plot too much in detail but it begins nicely. A returning serviceman is in a California VA hospital recovering from over a dozen spinal injuries. While there he falls in love with his nurse (Mayo) and begins to make plans with his Army friend Steve (Edmond O’Brien) to buy a ranch when he is finally released.
While stuck in bed for months Cowboy looses touch with Steve and begins to have nightmares that his army buddy is in danger. While doped up on pain killers one night he’s even visited by Steve’s mysterious lounge-singer girlfriend (Viveca Lindfors
doing a sexy Ingrid Bergman
impression) who tells him that his future ranch partner is now too suffering from back injuries. Even worse he’s suicidal. Cowboy passes out before he can find out how to get in touch with him.
Things start looking better when he gets a telegram from Steve telling him all is well. The good news lasts about five minutes. He’s released from the hospital with plans to spend a romantic weekend with Mayo at a local swank motel. Bob’s weekend plans are scrubbed when he’s picked up by cops not fifty steps from the hospital exit and taken to the homicide division. There he’s told that his best friend is the suspect in the killing of a high-profile gambler and is on the lam. Cowboy sets out to try to find his friend and clear Steve’s name.
The cast is fine in this one. Mayo gets top billing, but really it’s Gordon MacRae’s film. MacRae is unknown to me but apparently he’s famous for appearing in a number of colorful musicals. (That’s probably why I’ve never seen him before) He plays Bob “Cowboy” Corey as a naive but determined man out to solve a mystery. Mayo plays the good girl in this one, like she did in Red Light released a year before. Noir fans will be happy to see O’Brien, Dane Clark (one of their army buddies) and Richard Rober. Ed Begley plays the police chief as he did in about every other film of this type. He does get the best line, however. When a cop begins firing at a fleeing suspect in a crowded street. Begley grabs the policeman’s arm and says, “Stop. You might hit a tax payer!”
The film includes some interesting camera work at a seedy downtown hotel. I like the performances by the actors playing the maid and hotel clerk. Look out for the camera view through a keyhole.
Other notable scenes include a shooting of a man in his living room. The scene is shot nicely from the outside of the house. Near the end, in another stand-out scene, the killer is foiled in an unsuspected way.
One last note: I like to read Bosley Crowther's reviews at the New York Times. I was reminded this week of a very negative review for “Gilda” when the film first came out. Here’s his complete review for Backfire dated January 27, 1950:
A very terse observation is all that "Backfire" deserves, in view of the feeble detonation of this Warner mystery drama at the Globe. Telling a most unlikely story of a young man who casually proves that his best friend, suspected of murdering a gambler, did not do the job, it rambles from one small coincidence to another without style or suspense until finally it puts a listless finger upon the fellow who did the deed. And even though several nice young people, including Gordon MacRae and Edmond O'Brien, are involved, the most that can possibly be said for them is that they get the thing done.
In this case, the title is descriptive of the effort expended by all. A short and sweet observation covers "Backfire": It does!