They Won’t Believe Me (1947): Irving Pichel’s Underestimated but Superlative Film Noir, Starring Robert Young, Susan Hayward and Jane Greer (Suicide on Screen)

Actor-turned-director Irving Pichel made They Won’t Believe Me, a hard-boiled film noir, starring Robert Young, Susan Hayward and Jane Greer.

The film was produced by Hitchcock’s longtime assistant and collaborator, Joan Harrison, who considered it to be her most fully-realized movie.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

They Won’t Believe Me
Theywon'tbelieveme.jpg

Theatrical release poster

This was a crucial year in the career of Susan Hayward, who gets top billing (above Robert Montgomery), though she plays a smaller part than Jane Greer.  In the same year, Hayward scored the first of her five Best Actress Oscar nominations for her performance as an alcoholic in the melodrama, Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman.

It was also a good year for Jane Greer, who scored in another superb film noir, Out of the Past. Greer still is one of the most undervalued actress in Hollywood cinema.

Cast against type, Robert Young gives an effective performance, equal parts creepy and sympathetic, depending on the phase of the ever-shifting story. Young later claimed this was the only picture he made in which he played a nasty character, perhaps trying to reason why it was a box-office flop at its initial release.

The tale, which is narrated by an unreliable teller, Larry Ballantine (Young), unfolds as a series of flashbacks, after beginning as a routine courtroom drama, which decidedly it is not.

In a brief opening, set in a court house, the prosecution rests its case in the murder trial of Larry, the defendant takes the stand to share his story.

In flashback, Larry recounts how he began seeing Janice Bell (Jane Greer), first innocently then more seriously, when feelings developed between them.

Unwilling to break up his marriage to Greta (Rita Johnson), whom Larry had married for her money, Janice gets a job transfer. Larry agrees to run off with her. When he returns home, however, Greta is unwilling to give him up, informing him that she has purchased a brokerage in Los Angeles for him. Larry, tempted by the idea, leaves with Greta without bidding Janice goodbye.

However, at the brokerage, Larry once again begins womanizing, and he is reprimanded by business partner Trenton (Tom Powers) for neglecting one of their richest clients.

Enters attractive employee Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward), who produces a copy of  letter supposedly mailed by Larry to the client the day before, but actually written by her and sent special delivery that day. Larry resists romantically involvement with a woman already engaged with Trenton, who admits she is a gold digger. Verna demands to know if he is on the elevl and forces him to make a choice.

Late one night, Larry is confronted by Greta, who informs him that the marriage is over, but she will not divorce him. She has sold the brokerage interest and bought an old mountainous Spanish ranch. She again asks him to choose, and once again Larry elects to go with her.

The ranch is isolated without phone (which she took out) or mail, with the nearest place a general store down the road. Larry is bored, but Greta loves it there, cultivating interests in nature, flowers, and horses.

When Greta plans to build a guest house for an aunt he despises, he claims he knows an architect, then calls Verna and arranges to meet her in Los Angeles.

Larry describes his plan to clean out a joint checking account with Greta and run away together. He writes a check for $25,000 for Verna to cash at the brokerage and leaves a note for his wife declaring he has left.

Verna produces the uncashed check, forcing Larry to choose between a poor future with her or return to Greta, and Larry tears it up. She has bought herself a cheap wedding ring, foreseeing their marriage.  Driving to Reno that night an oncoming truck blows a tire and swerves into their path. Verna is killed and burned beyond recognition. Larry wakes up in the hospital, where he is consoled over what’s presumed to be his wife.

When the police have mistakenly identified her as Greta, because of the wedding ring, Larry does not correct the error.

Once he recovers, he returns to the ranch, planning to kill Greta for her money. He finds his farewell note at the top of a cliff and her body beneath the waterfall, her favorite spot. Larry then dumps the corpse in the river.

Depressed, Larry decides to tour South America and the Caribbean to cheer himself up. In Jamaica, he runs into Janice, and after reconciling, they return to Los Angeles together.

Later, Larry sees Trenton go into her room, and eavesdropping, he discovers that Trenton has become concerned about Verna’s disappearance and enticed Janice as a partner.

Dared by Larry, Trenton calls in the police, and Lieutenant Carr obtains search warrant. They find Greta’s body, but assume it is Verna’s. Local storekeeper Thomason (Don Beddoe) is a witness to Larry and Verna driving away together. The police theorize that Larry killed her because she was blackmailing him.

While the jury deliberates, Larry is visited by Janice, and he informs her of his self- judgment for his actions.

Spoiler Alert

The last scene is particularly compelling, set back in court, where the tale had begun.  The members of the jury enters one by one and assume their seats.  Then, just before the jury’s verdict is delivered, Larry rushes to the window to commit suicide, when a fatal shot by a security guard fells him. As is well known, the Production Code would not permit the depiction of suicide on screen.

The flashback structure of this film noir, which is truly suspenseful, creates effectively foreboding tension that is sustained up to and excluding the very last scene. The tale ends on an odd, and compromising note, when the jury verdict is read, “Not Guilty,” leaving viewers, then and now, bewildered.  If They Won’t Believe were made today, with censorship restrictions, Larry would have successfully jumped of the window and terminate his life, lending credence to the film’s title, They Won’t Believe Me.

Cast
Susan Hayward as Verna Carlson
Robert Young as Larry Ballentine
Jane Greer as Janice Bell
Rita Johnson as Greta Ballentine
Tom Powers as Trenton
George Tyne as Lieutenant Carr
Don Beddoe as Thomason
Frank Ferguson as Mr. Cahill, Defense Attorney
Harry Harvey as Judge Charles Fletcher
Byron Foulger as Harry Bascomb (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by Irving Pichel
Produced by Joan Harrison
Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, based on a story by Gordon McDonell
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Harry J. Wild
Edited by Elmo Williams
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: July 16, 1947

Running time: 95 minutes