Brenda Marshall reinvents herself for revenge in this Anthony Mann movie.
“You can change your face completely, but you cannot change yourself.”
Strange, indeed. And though Anthony Mann may be known and admired for directing beautiful and stylish landmark noirs and westerns, in my book one of his minor essentials is this early picture he did for Republic. 1946’s Strange Impersonation is the story of scientist Brenda Marshall and her assistant Hillary Brooke. Marshall thinks they’re fellow researchers and friends, but Hillary is nothing but an enemy with designs on Marshall’s man William Gargan. The story has Marshall busy developing a new type of anaesthetic which she plans to test on herself that very evening. In this one eventful night, she accidentally knocks down a drunken pedestrian whose opportunism will first scare her and then come in handy, she meets an ambulance chasing lawyer, rejects a marriage proposal by Gargan, tests her drug, is devastatingly double crossed by Brooke and has her face burned beyond recognition.
It might not sound terribly pleasant but I just love this wicked little movie, and marvelled once again upon rewatching, how Mann, a director who set manly men in muscular stories and settings, here created female characters who, even in this pulpy material, are complex and compelling, operating all over the scales of good-bad, femme-victim, career-marriage, friendship-jealousy-betrayal.
So far I’ve only given you the first 15 minutes of happenings, so from that you can gather that the movie is pretty packed plot-wise for a 68 minute programmer. Murder, blackmail, revenge, a little horror, a little noir, bits borrowed from other epic stories, all put in a blender with a generous helping of strong spirits and and a cocktail umbrella. Low budget, no-frills and impressively mind boggling, but a tasty concoction that starts working so fast it’ll have you believing it’s downright brilliant.
Consider on top of this that the gorgeous face you know as Brenda Marshall (check out her gallery here at the blog) doesn’t even appear until minute 44, which seems kind of a risky use of your stunning leading lady but it works. It reminded me of one of my favorite Joan Crawford performances in A Woman’s Face. Marshall is here from the start, but her first incarnation is of a stern, bespectacled Joan Fontaine looking intellectual. It’s not until she assumes a new face and the identity of her “accident victim” Ruth Ford, that she emerges as the familiar Brenda, a sleek, dark revenge machine embarking on the Countess of Monte Cristo part of the story, returning to avenge everything that was taken away from her by her “friend” Brooke.
In her new disguise she returns to work with Brooke and Gargan, and you have to wonder how in the world they don’t recognize those prominent cheekbones, but whatever, somehow it works. And there’s still so much more I shan’t reveal other than there’s a knot Marshall ties when she assumes her new identity, that binds her ever more tightly, so that she eventually has to deny murdering herself, which is about as noir as you can get. So how does it all come out? Now we come to a bit of a problem. The final scene and the resolving device it uses is one I hate and which I see by other reviews might be a flaw that yanks the movie right out of noir territory.
Brenda Marshall (wife of William Holden when this movie was made) had such a unique beauty, dark and sculpted, knowing and sweet. Here she’s a lively, determined, intense, intelligent, conflicted, believably traumatized and changeable woman, one convincingly fueled at first by ambition and then by fury. Marshall really does a good job wringing the juice out of all these things while somehow miraculously steering clear of horror, melodrama or ham, and she’s really the key for me, to making this movie so much fun.
She gets an excellent foil in Hillary Brooke, the towering, elegant, cold icy blonde, so mean here with little explanation of her behaviour other than it’s in her nature to be jealous and predatory, ruthlessly eliminating what she judges as the weaker of the species. In this type of tightly packed, short movie, if you need someone to write “villainess” fast, in shorthand, Brooke is a fine choice. There are many reversals of power and fantastic scenes between these two women, like when Brooke is telling Marshall-in-disguise how much of a fool and a loser she thought Marshall was; the looks exchanged in that half minute alone could wipe out an army. When Marshall reveals herself it’s thrilling to watch the shocked and spooked Brooke skitter away in fear. Poor William Gargan is really the weak link here, because I don’t see his character being worth the battle these ladies have over him. In his coke bottle glasses, he seems always to be wondering what hit him; maybe he’s wondering why he went with that unflattering mustache. Apparently there was a sale since the police detective played by Lyle Talbot has one too.
The only thing left to tell that wouldn’t spoil is what a good job Mann did with this potentially ridiculous material, shaping it not only into a decent thriller but even into something of a commentary on women who choose career over marriage. Working with John Alton, the cinematographer with whom he’d create the look of the great noirs T-Men, Border Incident and Raw Deal, Mann gives this movie many similar touches. Case in point is the great drastic spotlighting, low angle, tilted camera and long focus when Marshall is undergoing Talbot’s aggressive interrogation, or the shot that comes around from behind her as she looks at, and reveals to us, her new face in a hand mirror. From the tension and claustrophobia when Marshall’s disfigured face is stared at, to the shadows where she and Ford fight, there’s no denying that the movie has the look and most of the story of a noir.
Strange Impersonation won’t go down as the greatest thing made by Mann but is a must see for his fans, as well as being an irresistible guilty pleasure for the morbidly funny and dark hearted among us who get a kick out of watching chemists try to blow each other up, professional and composed ladies run people down, crooks falling off balconies, as well as good deeds, identity switches and perfect plans gone really bad.
a version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES, newsletter for film noir fans; click here to check out the latest issues