A Life at Stake is a peculiar noir. It’s low budget, it’s got an actor-turned-director in Guilfoyle, it’s got Angela Lansbury as the femme fatale, it’s got a great, lushly romantic score from Les Baxter, and it’s got a jam-packed script from Russ Bender. The film only runs eighty minutes, and there are a couple longer suspense sequences, but Stake is usually full of distinct dialogue. Bender’s always giving someone something weird to say, and then it curiously derails the scene as the film tries to resolve the newly introduced tangent. It’s got a lot of personality.
The script, anyway. The film itself does not. Leading man Keith Andes apparently got the job for his impressive chest—which gets a showcase in the first scene—rather than his acting prowess. Lansbury’s okay as the femme fatale, but once her viciously cruel and rather icky husband Douglass Dumbrille gets into the action, she’s barely around anymore. See, Lansbury’s a wealthy lady who wants to go into business with down-on-his-luck builder Andes. She’s bored and wants to go back to real estate, with Andes building the houses for her to sell. Or is it all a scheme to take out a life insurance policy on Andes then kill him to collect?
The life insurance policy melodrama takes over from the illicit behavior stuff, though it never gets particularly illicit; while Andes is determined not to take no for an answer, Lansbury’s able to keep him under control because he wants her for her money too.
Meanwhile, Lansbury’s earnest kid sister, Claudia Barrett, becomes fascinated with Andes, and he’s not going to cast her attentions aside just because she’s a naive twenty-one. The naivety makes her just great for exposition dumps it turns out, but with a bunch of added dialogue because Bender’s an enthusiast writer. Lansbury probably gives Stake’s best performance—there’s not much competition—but Barrett certainly provides the most likable one. Well, except Kathleen Mulqueen as Andes’s assistant, who has to put up with her boss not just being a post-war builder bro, but an obsessive one. He’s worried he’s too worried about Lansbury and Dumbrille plotting to kill him… because he’s got too much evidence they’re trying to kill him not to be concerned. Mulqueen’s got to weather his ranting. It’d probably be great ranting if it weren’t for Andes’s performance and Guilfoyle’s direction.
Plus, Barrett’s performance falls apart in the third act when she gets downgraded from love interest to sidekick. It’s not her fault as Bender’s writing doesn’t really keep together for the finale either.
Most of the film is wanting interiors, but there are a couple nice exterior street scenes shot on location. The first is just a shot, finally opening the film up—almost the entire first act takes place at Andes’s boarding house (run by Jane Darwell in an extended but not unwelcome cameo)—and the second is a suspense sequence. Guilfoyle’s no better at directing off a soundstage than on, but Ted Allan’s photography is a lot more interesting out of doors.
Frank Sullivan’s editing is bad, but it usually seems to be a lack of coverage from Guilfoyle.
Stake’s engaging throughout thanks to the script’s strangeness—and Baxter’s music leads to some good sequences—with the wanting finale short enough not to matter much.