Before They Were Stars

Play "Spot the Filmmaker" in Sirk and Fuller's obscure, early film noir

Old-school genre junk food: A cheap 79-minute time-waster that's all business (as opposed to busy-ness), with a deservedly minor star, written by one then-obscure auteur and directed by another.

Shockproof, which the Pioneer has chosen to revive for a week in an unscratched 35mm print, is a 1949 noir so recondite that it seems to have never garnered a New York City review (or, possibly, a Manhattan opening). The star is Cornel Wilde and the love interest is his wife Patricia Knight. The movie's own interest derives almost entirely from its curious pedigree, directed by Douglas Sirk from a Sam Fuller script; it's not so much a whodunit as a which-done-what?

Was it Sirk who conceived the brisk opening montage wherein Knight, a Gene Tierney knock-off, is introduced pondering the mannequin in a Hollywood shop window? The director is certainly responsible for Shockproof's delicate chiaroscuro, choreographed mirror shots, and decentered dramatic compositions. Indeed, an image of an anxiously posed Knight taken from the movie's big set piece did find its way into a 1964 painting by British pop artist Richard Hamilton. Later, Sirk told an interviewer that Hamilton's use of fragmented objects and off-screen space illustrated "very well a point about my style." True, but only Fuller could've concocted a love story between Jenny the winsome ex-con and her parole officer, whom only Fuller would have named "Griff." (See House of Bamboo, Forty Guns, and The Naked Kiss.)

Shockproofmoves right along, fueled by Fuller's snappy repartee ("It's heredity," "It's environment," "It's a joke") and one-liners ("Put that in your test-tube, Doc!"), as well as a nifty bit in which a busted parolee jumps from the 20th floor of the Bradbury Building rather than return to prison. But, however hostile their initial meet-cute, the central couple is a bland pair of swans, both overshadowed by future TV stalwart John Baragrey as Jenny's oleaginous crypto-pimp.

There's a lot of sentimental hooey involving Griff's family, complete with adoring kid brothers and a super-intuitive blind mother, but the narrative kicks in once Griff truly falls for Jenny, despite her dubious past and unknowable intentions. Fuller's original title was The Lovers—changed, along with his ending, by a studio rewrite. (In his memoir, Fuller only expresses gratitude that one of his postwar yarns had finally made it to the screen: "I didn't give a damn what they called it." Sirk was more irritated by the enforced happy ending, which he directs with the cursory disdain he would use under similar circumstances in his '50s melodramas.)

Fuller's l'amour fouangle is an audacious stunt but once the couple take it on the lam—Griff making a screeching U-turn for the border, abandoning his jalopy and stealing a fresh car belonging to a pair of newlyweds—the movie becomes Sirk's. Griff finds a job in an oil field; he and Jenny share a microscopic cabin amid many others and a forest of noisy derricks. The near expressionist mise-en-scene of this proletariat hell anticipates the more extensive, rear-screen projected oil fields of Sirk's Written on the Wind.

That's an auteurist epiphany but the main thing is that, for a disposable entertainment, Shockproofhas an intensity that sticks to the mind—yours, mine, or Richard Hamilton's.

 
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