ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Maybe I'm no good for you, but I do love you."
Convicted murderer Jenny Marsh is released from jail and finds herself embroiled in a love triangle between her sophisticated gangster paramour Harry Wesson and her middle-class parole officer Griff Marat. Harry wants Jenny to con Griff into getting married so that they can blackmail him, but Jenny feels guilty for taking advantage of a man who just wants the best for her.
Hoo boy, I'm really torn about this one. I *absolutely loved* the setup for it: the power dynamics are so clear, between Jenny's vulnerability as an ex-con, the perceived stability of her former lover Harry ("the only man who was ever nice to her"), and the position of power that Griff takes advantage of in order to ruin their relationship on the pretense of social propriety—it's precise, it's compelling, it's just great.
Griff objects to Harry because he's a gambler, says "he gives you things with money he never earned," and even forces her not to see him as part of her parole, but Jenny reframes this unfair portrayal: he's not just any gambler, he's educated, he's smart, and he has the ability to give her a good life. Griff is blinded by his prejudice—he sees Harry as worthless merely because Harry doesn't live the straight life—and this prejudice causes him to ruin Jenny's chances at happiness.
The dialogue is sharp and snappy (there's a hilarious exchange about getting spanked for breaking the rules that recalls Double Indemnity's infamous "How fast was I going, officer?"), the characters have clear personalities, the performances are all on-point, and there's even an impressively shocking set piece where another ex-con is sentenced to return to jail for twenty years, and he throws himself off a balcony, falling several stories to his death.
But then… then everything goes sideways. So, listen: I'm still trying to talk myself into liking this angle on the narrative, because there is something essentially and fundamentally noir-esque in its despairing hopelessness, but when I actually sat down and watched the movie I really didn't like where it went from here. (Also maybe spoilers? Most of this is still the film's premise, but I'm taking exactly one step beyond the initial setup.)
Jenny ends up marrying Griff and running away with him, leaving Harry behind and eventually leaving the rest of the world behind as well. Which, like—you know, there's some classic femme fatale stuff going on here: Jenny's past as a convict is a deadweight on their relationship, inescapably dragging them down together into a vicious spiral of increasingly poor decisions. This is the essence of film noir existential fatalism distilled into narrative framework.
Their relationship is obviously toxic from the outset: as her parole officer, Griff has too much power over Jenny for them to ever be able to stand on equal footing—and this is a great premise for some classic noir darkness-at-the-heart-of-humanity, everybody's-crooked-in-a-crooked-world type stuff, but the film plays their relationship as a good thing, as a Happily Ever After just waiting to happen. Griff has a savior complex, and the movie rewards his pathological behavior.
Like, take a similar relationship in Gilda for example: Johnny and Gilda get together, but it's always clear that their relationship is irreparably tainted, irredeemably ill-fated. They're *doomed* to be together, not living happily ever after. They're no good for each other. This dynamic is the truth behind Jenny and Griff: they're also no good for each other, their relationship is inherently imbalanced—but the movie wants to play their union as a happy ending.
But here's the thing: I feel like this happens to Sirk in his early Hollywood films. He sets up a tragic premise (star-crossed lovers joined by fate), but then finishes with a cheery conclusion. I felt this way about All I Desire a while ago, and about the two movies of his that I watched immediately before and after this one (Lured and Slightly French [stay tuned: review tomorrow]).
I have no real evidence to back up this claim beyond my personal experience and intuition, but I get the feeling that studios forced Sirk to tack happy endings onto what were originally more tragic melodramas (at least early on in his career). So, yeah, I dunno. I loved the premise, I was a little disappointed in the conclusion, but I think there are potentially interesting interpretations of the material. Maybe it's no good for me, but there are things about it that I do love.
EDIT: Apparently Helen Deutsch is to blame for tacking this sappy ending onto Fuller & Sirk’s harder hitting narrative. Bleh