The Pretender (1947)
Director: W. Lee Wilder (Billy’s brother)
Cinematographer: John Alton
Screenplay: Don Martin, Dialog by Doris Miller
Starring: Albert Dekker, Catharine Craig
Released by: Republic Pictures
Running time: 69 minutes
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 isn’t up to par — provided some aspect of it captivates them. It’s one of the reasons that 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 writer’s 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 the 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 he’s 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 1945 noir-on-ice, Suspense (essayed about here as well as at my site), and playing it mysterious in the fascinating 1941 proto-noir Among the Living. In spite of Dekker’s 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. Dekker’s corpse was discovered in the bathroom of his Hollywood apartment in 1968, hands shackled behind his back and body hanging limply from the shower curtain. For three decades conjecture involving robbery-murder, suicide, autoeroticism gone wrong, and things even more bizarre have made the rounds. 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 can’t pick a winner. He’s in the hole big-time, so he starts drafting five-figure “loan” checks from the accounts of one Claire Worthington (Catharine Craig), a pretty young woman — years his junior — whose sizable fortune he holds in trust. Dekker writes check after check in hopes that his luck will turn, but when it doesn’t 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 (Chares Drake) — a good-looking psychiatrist she’s fallen head-over-heels for.
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 can’t pass along the name of Claire’s fiancé — she has conveniently kept his identity a secret. Korrin’s only option is to scan the metro society columns for her engagement announcement, and then kill the man she’s pictured with. And of course he doesn’t do the dirty work himself— he subcontracts the messy stuff, and refuses to reveal the hired killer’s identity to Holden. It’s 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 can’t get his hands on unless he raids Claire’s accounts yet again — but the filmmakers fail to cash in on the irony of one man purchasing his rival’s 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, yet Wilder let the moment pass. Nevertheless the scene is still the best in the film by a mile — 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 isn’t 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, “It won’t work.” She fumbles the envelope into a nurse’s hands, then slinks to a phone booth and dimes Holden: “Let’s get married…tonight!” In spite of the silliness of her character, I found Craig to be an actress with pluses. 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 it’s surprising she didn’t have a longer career in the movies — it lasted just ten years from start to finish, then a forty-year marriage to the Music Man himself, Robert Preston.
The story briskly shoves its way along, damn the credibility, until it gets what it wants: Claire ducks out of her engagement to the shrink and instead elopes with Holden. But before he can get in touch with Korrin to cancel the contract on her husband, the fat man’s past catches up to him and he gets bumped off, leaving a bewildered Holden with a big target on his back and looking over his shoulder for a man with a gun. The latter sequences of the film focus on Holden’s 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. Holden’s paranoia overtakes him at a lightning pace, and it’s 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 — 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.
At 69 minutes The Pretender is so brief that it’s fair to suggest it doesn’t get made, even on Poverty Row, a few years further into the era of television. The gimmicky story, which feels more like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents than it does a feature film (or even a second feature), seems more suited to the smaller screen. It’s notable on the production side for two reasons. This is the moment in which famed cinematographer John Alton gets his first real crack at noir subject matter, and while his work is as uneven as the film itself, there are a few great moments — like the deal-making scene between Holden and Korrin. Also noteworthy is the use of theremin music in the soundtrack. The instrument that would give the science fiction films of the following decade their distinctive electronic sound is used with gusto in The Pretender, and while it seems somewhat foreign in a crime picture, the movie wouldn’t be the same without it.