Woman in the Dark (1934, Phil Rosen)

Woman in the Dark is literally a movie from before they knew how to make movies like Woman in the Dark. The film’s also fairly obviously done on the cheap, and director Rosen doesn’t bring anything to it. But it’s a film noir story trapped in a Pre-Code romantic drama. For a while, it’s a road picture, and all of a sudden, the romantic drama works, but then the film reverts and never recovers.

There are a few reasons it doesn’t work out. First, the suspense drama has a tepid finish, and then all outstanding story arcs get unceremoniously dropped. But mostly, it doesn’t work because Dark starts leveraging comic relief Roscoe Ates. And Ates is mildly amusing for a little while when he first shows up, but only because he’s got Ruth Gillette playing his suffering wife, who has to keep him in line.

For the third act, Ates is solo and failing to get any humor out of his constant jokes. Some very slight restructuring and Dark could be Ates’s movie, which is a problem because he’s very much not the lead.

Fay Wray gets top-billing; she’s the Woman in the Dark. But it’s more Ralph Bellamy’s movie. It opens with him getting out of prison on parole. He was in for manslaughter; he got into a bar fight defending the honor of Nell O’Day. O’Day is the sheriff’s daughter, which raises some parenting questions, but the sheriff–Granville Bates—is an asshole, so whatever.

Also, there’s an age question. O’Day’s probably supposed to be eighteen or nineteen, which means she was a teenager when she caused the bar fight and so on. But, apparently, without causing any scandal either, as she’s a good girl, and Bates will do anything to defend her honor.

Including harassing Bellamy after his release. Bellamy’s moved back home. It’s slightly important, but not really. With a bigger budget, maybe.

Wray shows up on the run from Bellamy’s ritzy neighbor, Melvyn Douglas. Turns out rich guy Douglas is actually a big creep, and Wray wants nothing more to do with him. Bellamy offers to put her up—with O’Day around to de facto chaperone—only Douglas is going to take her back by conniving or force. It puts Bellamy in a bad position; he doesn’t want to punch anyone out and go back to the hoosegow, but Douglas and his sidekick Reed Brown Jr. are getting more and more intrusive.

When Brown finally goes too far, and Bellamy intercedes, it’s almost immediately the worst-case scenario.

Bellamy and Wray have to go on the run—hours after she first sought refuge with him—and there’s a nice road movie romance for the two of them. The film’s adapted from a Dashiell Hammett story, with screenplay credit to Sada Cowan and additional dialogue credits to Charles Williams and Marcy Klauber. One of those people included a subplot for Wray wanting a guy to respect her a little and not just paw at her. It’s sort of an unresolved arc, sort of not, but it’s a very interesting theme for a while.

They end up in the city—presumably New York City, but it’s never made clear because of the budget—where they go to Bellamy’s old cellmate Ates for help. Things keep going wrong, and there are eventually a bunch of stakes; there’s the romance, there’s Bellamy going to jail, there’s Wray going to jail, then there’s someone potentially dying. It’s hectic. And it’s got a very perfunctory, very rushed conclusion, with Ates herding the narrative along.

It’s a bummer.

Okay performance from Bellamy, good performances from Wray and Douglas. Gillette, O’Day, and Brown are all fine. Ates is a goof. Oh, and Frank Otto’s good as Wray’s slimy lawyer.

Woman in the Dark could be a lot worse; it does fail Wray and Bellamy, particularly Wray, whose character is more layered than the role needs. It should’ve been a better part for Wray, instead of evaporating for bad Ates gags.

But it’s engaging enough for sixty-eight minutes.

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