A glorious noir worthy of the package warning “Suggested for Mature Adulterers,” 1950's THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON, directed by Robert Siodmak and costarring Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey, finally makes its much-anticipated appearance on Blu-Ray and DVD by way of Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
A celebration of hopelessness, forbidden desires, and relegated loserdom, JORDON's engrossing appeal is that it miraculously manages to not depress its viewers. The layered monochrome photography and staggeringly murky style suggest a never-ending nocturnal bender...a nightmare that you can't wake up from, mostly because you don't really give a damn anymore. Suffice to say, THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON ain't the “happy one for the holidays.”
The movie opens in a drab small town on a particularly dreary night (the entire picture seems to play during noir's prerequisite time of the day, around 3 a.m.). Cleve Marshall is the Assistant D.A. - a one-time wunderkind, now unhappily ensnared in a personal and vocational rut. His greatest ambition is to perhaps one day make it to Small Fish in a Small Pond Head D.A.; also to be able to survive his torturous marriage to the attractive but dull daughter of a high-falutin’ judge. What gets Cleve through the night is his growing dependence on booze – threatening to downwardly spiral him into full-blown alcoholism. This is due not only to his boredom and self-loathing, but the fact that his wife and father-in-law seem to have an incestuous relationship rivaling Greek mythos proportions.
The arrival of Thelma Jordon piques his interest; she's a smart, beautiful, savvy individual who immediately takes an instant dislike to Marshall (which, to Cleve's credit, is a plus in that I'd-never-join-a-club-that-would-have-me-as-a-member division). She seeks legal help on a matter, and Marshall slurs his way toward assistance.
Jordon ignites a spark of life in the henpecked, virtually cuckolded attorney that at once becomes apparent, even to his boss. “You're a dog!,” announces D.A. Barry Kelley to Corey (quite a denouement when one considers Kelley's sinister citizenship in the genre).
Remarkably, the lust is reciprocal; soon Thelma is panting for Cleve, which leads to some vigorous de-panting, a redefining on both sides of the professional term “mouthpiece.” Jordon's so into the besotted sot that she even attempts (heaven forbid) to tell the truth: she's still married to a lowlife thug who likely has murdered the woman's rich aunt and absconded with jewelry worth two hundred thousand (1950) dollars. Marshall's lapdog response is to thoroughly corrupt the crime scene – knowing that he's pretty much digging his own grave (an incredible camera movement highlights this segment, a bow to the movie's artistic virtuosity).
Jordon's “truths” are actually just more lies, which take a bizarre turn once the trial begins. Cleve, as prosecutor, purposely infuriates and antagonizes the jury, causing them to sway toward Jordon's favor – much to the dismay of the D.A. Jordon's duplicity trips her up and Cleve ironically ends up doing his job – inadvertently tying a judicial noose around his lover's neck.
The finale, where Corey's character realizes that the entire affair was a plot to help his devious squeeze get away with murder, has double-edged overtones, mostly underlining the fact that he's only getting what he deserved.
THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON is a fascinating kick in the ass of post-war America and, in general, the human condition. It's also a must-have for any film noir collector. That this movie refuses to be a downer is due to the powerhouse performances by the two stars and the extraordinary direction by Siodmak, a master of the genre. THELMA JORDON is one of Robert Siodmak's best works (although I think the top honor may belong to 1948's Criss Cross), and easily earns a first-tier echelon position alongside Phantom Lady, The Dark Mirror, The Killers and Cry of the City).
The two stars cannot be praised enough. The morose Wendell Corey is literally in high spirits in THELMA JORDON, his character of a surly, defeated, drunken pessimist being (apparently) not all that different from his off-screen persona. With more bags under his eyes than a Samsonite warehouse, Corey carried lots of other personal luggage around with him. While generally excellent in everything he did (JORDON, Desert Fury, The Furies and Rear Window being standouts), he wasn't exactly the go-to guy one would look to party with. His thespian abilities were early-on spotted by producer Hal Wallis, who put him under personal contract. Once the Wallis deal expired, Corey drifted into decidedly second-rate fare – eventually populating the likes of Cyborg 2087, Women of the Prehistoric Planet and Astro-Zombies. Kirk Douglas, also under servitude to Wallis, recounted an amazing incident in The Ragman’s Son, the first of his several autobiographies. After hearing Corey make some anti-Semitic remarks about him, Douglas, rather than get into a physical altercation, vowed to steer clear of the actor. Years later, when Corey passed away, the actor was surprised to receive a call from his widow. She wanted to know if Kirk would deliver the eulogy at her husband's funeral. Douglas was aghast, “Don’t you think someone else would be better?,” he tactfully inquired. The response stunned him: “No, no. You’re the one. You both started together in New York.” A lame excuse that nevertheless unmasked Corey for the friendless wretch that he was. Douglas reluctantly agreed “because she was a sweet, pathetic woman.”
And what can one say about Barbara Stanwyck? Never enough – that's what one can say. To call her performance in this movie “brilliant” would be an understatement. The undisputed Queen of Noir, Stanwyck's pure evil in this pic perfectly complements her turns in Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Goddess of two great Hollywood periods – pre-Code and film noir – Barbara Stanwyck's Jordon is a reasonable version of Ladies They Talk About's Nan Taylor nearing middle age. JORDON's crowning magnificent sequence (for both the movie and the star) comprises the announcement of a courtroom verdict. Walking down the corridor to hear her fate, the actress struts her stuff like nobody's business. Stanwyck's silent gradual change of facial expressions and body language is nothing short of breathtaking. It's what great acting, especially screen acting, is all about. Simply put, it's one of cinema's and noir's finest moments.
While Corey's sour, bitter portrayal is commendable, JORDON is, without doubt (and rightly so), Stanwyck's picture from start to finish.
Barbara Stanwyck is, after all, an incredible animal. I can perfectly understand any of her victims’ willingness to cede to her villainy. It's sort of akin to being drug-awake during a dangerous and painful operation. You know what I mean – it's like, yeah I get it: she's lying to me, seducing me, drawing me into her web...and she'll probably end up killing me. But it's Barbara Fucking Stanwyck, and there’s nothing I can do about it! And besides, I'm masochistically enjoying every second. To this effect, she's sort of like the female George Sanders (or vice versa). Bottom line: if I gotta go – it doesn't get any better (or more fun) than this. I’ve been totally Stan-whacked, a lethal condition I wear like a badge of honor.
Aside from the above highly recommended reasons, there are many other perks for viewers on displays in THELMA JORDON. The supporting cast reads like a film noir casting call: there's the aforementioned Kelley, plus Paul Kelly, Joan Tetzel, Richard Rober, Minor Watson, Stanley Ridges, Theresa Harris, Harry Antrim and (one of my 1950s faves) Laura Elliott (albeit in a thankless role as a secretary). I can only surmise that Elisha Cook, Jr., and Ted de Corsia were recovering from gunshot wounds elsewhere.
The twisty script is by Ketti Frings (from an unpublished story by Marty Holland) and is rife with some wonderful demented touches (one that comes to mind is that Corey's wife is as dead to him as Stanwyck's murdered aunt – a blatant connection cynically visualized by the fact that both women wear the same nightclothes).
The Blu-Ray on THELMA JORDON mirrors its human denizens, a mixed bag of contrasts. I've never seen a spectacular print of this movie, and I have no idea why JORDON's elements have resembled some neglected “B” picture. For decades, TV and revival copies looked washed-out, with bacon-frying soundtracks. Indeed, THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON is prime fodder for a major restoration. Until that happens, this Olive Films rendition, I'm glad to say, represents the best quality I've ever seen. With some slight exceptions, the images are sharp; the audio is crisp with minor background hiss. All said, it resembles an excellent 16MM print (although it IS from 35MM). There should be no complaints.
Never have so many negative emotions provided such a plethora of positive fireworks – the ultimate sardonic result of someone outsmarting themself. And, again, no one can pull off that with more panache than JORDON's femme fatale lead, best evidenced by her bemused realization, “Maybe I am just a dame and didn't know it.” Even Thelma Jordon can't resist Barbara Stanwyck.
THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON. Black and White (full frame: 1.37:1; 1080p High Definition). Mono: DTS-HA MA. UPC: 887090048200. Cat #: OF482. SRP: $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090048101. Cat #: OF481. SRP: $24.95.