Chuck Scott, a penniless veteran (Robert Cummings), finds the wallet of Miami mobster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) and goes to his mansion to return it. Roman, intrigued by Chuck’s honesty and situation, hires him as a chauffeur. Every day Lorna Roman (Michèle Morgan) asks to be driven to the shore, where she stares out toward Havana, expresses depression over four years wasted with her controlling heartless husband Eddie. Lorna offers Chuck $1000 to help her sneak away to Cuba, and by the time they get there, they’re madly in love. Meanwhile, Eddie and his efficient, catty, deadpan right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre) follow the couple to Cuba, frame Chuck for Lorna’s murder, and shoot him.
Except part of that never happens. Chuck wakes up, back in Eddie’s house, in a pool of sweat, and rushes to his Navy Doctor and friend, Commander Davidson (Jack Holt). We already saw Chuck’s pill-popping, but now we learn that he suffers from frequent blackouts and memory loss. Once he pieces together how he got into that chauffeur’s uniform, and how he fell in love with a woman named Lorna, the couple prepare to sail for Cuba, again with Eddie and Gino in close pursuit, but this time the story plays out differently.
The Chase was based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1944 book The Black Path of Fear, which in turn came from his story “Havana Night.” Woolrich was a fantastic suspense writer who had many of his novels and 100+ pulp stories adapted for big and small screen, into the movies The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), Rear Window (1954) and The Bride Wore Black (1968) to name just a few of dozens. The Black Path of Fear was one of Woolrichs’s six “black series” of novels, works loaded, as much of his writing was, with dark atmosphere and melodrama. Screenwriter Philip Yordan changed the characters’ names, stretched out the book’s one-night timeline, added the dream sequence and the amnesia, and cut out the book’s flashback story told to a Cuban prostitute who then helps the hero (she does get a neat little scene in the film). Those may sound like huge deviations but Yordan, director Arthur Ripley, and cinematographer Franz Planer stayed true to the story’s mood, and cooked up an intense, hot, paranoid, frantic nightmare of a noir.
Cochran is great as the sadistic psycho Eddie, who seems inescapable and all-knowing, pulling strings as far as Cuba or crossing Chuck’s path by sheer coincidence. When a deal with shipping company owner Emmerich (Lloyd Corrigan) goes sour, Eddie locks the man in the wine cellar to be mauled to death by the dog. Eddie makes a point of telling Emmerich how huge this dog is beforehand, so even though we never see the animal, all we need to picture the gruesome attack are the deep growls, Emmerich’s look of horror, and the brandy running across the floor from the bottle he drops. Chuck gets a similarly harrowing experience the first time he takes Eddie and Gino out for a drive. Eddie’s got his own override gas and brake pedals in the back seat, and gets kicks out of taking control, pushing to max speed and trying to beat a speeding train to the crossing. All Chuck can do is steer and pray, and say he doesn’t “get it,” and he’s just that helpless for most of the movie, whether it’s fate or Eddie manipulating and ruining his life.
And so, Chuck’s in a confused, guilty fog, unable in the dream/frame-up sequence to prove his innocence to an overly logical police detective, when a bribed storekeeper lies about selling him the murder weapon, and an exonerating photo from the nightclub goes missing and its photographer murdered. In the amnesia section of the story Chuck is just as lost, unable to put his finger on why he feels pursued and driven to do some important task at some time with someone. His chance to replay this part of his life with the “new” knowledge brings him right back to Lorna, to Cuba and the club, and this time both are at least free of Eddie’s control, but who knows what fate has in store for them.
Strange, dark and fascinating, The Chase is a fine noir, and a part of the Words, Words, Words, blogathon, the CMBA’s Spring event. See all the other writing about writers in film and book to film adaptations. While you’re there please check out the eBook collecting some of this great writing.