With noir becoming a more pervasive genre as the decade would go on, directors and screenwriters had to become more creative. You can’t just rely on chiaroscuro lighting and male antiheroes for everything. I find that the lower-key types of noirs often are the most memorable, since they aren’t concerned with focusing on grandiose murder mysteries. Shadow on the Wall, directed by British expatriate Pat Jackson, tells a noirish tale through a child’s eyes. In a genre known for its femme fatales and the questions of whether noirs are empowering or not, Shadow on the Wall presents an interesting gender swap, with a trio of female leads who are all up to the task.
When Celia Starrling (Kristine Miller) is killed her husband, David (Zachary Scott) is suspect number one. Already threatening the cheating Celia with a gun, he’s knocked unconscious and believes he did murder his wife. In actuality, Celia’s sister Dell (Ann Sothern) is the murderer and plans on getting the hell out of dodge. The only one who could ruin Dell’s escape is David’s daughter Susan (Gigi Perreau). As a sympathetic doctor (Nancy Davis, pre-Reagan) tries to ascertain what Susan saw, Dell does everything in her power to silence the child…for good.
Since the noir genre’s so set in its ways, any deviation from the road well traveled creates something unpredictable. We’re introduced to David and Susan first, because at the end of the day this is a movie about a father and daughter. This is one of two films I watched with Scott this week, and he proves he’s able to play more than a smarmy cad a la Mildred Pierce (1945), although his charm here is just as playful and cute as it was in that film. Whether he’s trying to play up to Veda Pierce or little Susan in this, he’s got chemistry with his actresses. His scenes with Perreau are cute and tender, telling the audience this is a sympathetic father who should be spending time with his kid.
But daddy can’t spend time with his darling daughter because of that foul beast called woman! I kid, but the film definitely telegraphs what you should think about Celia, the philandering, maybe gold-digging, wife of David’s. This is the first film of Kristine Miller’s I’ve seen and she’s both cruel and beautiful, like a Karen Morley only more glamorous. (I originally thought she was Virginia Mayo until I looked closer.) Although only in the film for a few minutes, she’s a crucial catalyst in setting up the moral ambiguities within Dell and David’s characters.
Initially your sympathy’s with Dell, the scorned woman coming to the painful realization that her sister has stolen her husband (and this might not be the first time). The act of murder, with David threatening Celia with a gun before being accidentally shot by Dell is probably the strongest anti-gun PSA I’ve seen in noir before. If you don’t know guns aren’t bad…watch Shadow on the Wall for all the reasons! Regardless of everyone’s intentions, it’s obvious A) this was an accident and B) Celia had it coming!
But after David is convicted of murder and sentenced to death – seriously, this is a death penalty case?! – Dell decides to exonerate David with a note, but doesn’t plan on turning it over till she’s well out of town. This is all well and good, but the letter never factors into events again. Dell becomes committed to offing Susan, but what happened to just leaving town? She was going to prove David wasn’t the killer anyway, so who cares if Susan spills the beans so long as Dell’s in a place lacking extradition? If the acting wasn’t good or the story didn’t move so swiftly this unexplored facet could ruin the movie completely.
Ann Sothern as Dell takes time to hone in on the complexities of her situation. Sure, she doesn’t just leave earlier, saving her a lot of blood on her hands, but she also doesn’t take murdering a child lightly. The camera makes sure to emphasize the pained expression on Dell’s face as she turns around, leaving Susan with a poisoned glass of milk. This is an innocent child who might or might not have seen something terrible, and Dell doesn’t treat that with kid gloves. (Speaking of, this movie uses poisoned milk fare more suspensfully than Suspicion (1941). There, I said it!) Even when Dell embraces her inner murderer, she doesn’t pander to those expecting a maniacal murderer; she’s calculated.
Nancy Davis nee Reagan is perfectly fine as Dr. Caroline Canford, the doctor attempting to open up Susan’s fractured mind. Shadow on the Wall received plaudits for discussing child psychology in a sensitive way and though the revelations aren’t particularly earth-shattering (Susan’s using the toys as a way of acting out the murders, quelle surprise!) they work towards anchoring the film in reality and giving the adult audience a means of entering Susan’s mind.
This is my first time watching child star Gigi Perrau in anything and she’s very much in the vein of Margaret O’Brien without the precociousness. Susan tells it like it is – “She’s [Celia] not my mother. My mother’s dead…I won’t say it but I’ll still think it” – and is cute enough to put the audience on her side. Much of the film takes place with her recounting the previous events, and that’s fine as it limits the chance of her going too cutesy with things, although she’s got quite a set of lungs she exercises frequently.
Shadow on the Wall is a nifty noir eschewing the clanging bells and whistles of more A-list noirs. The cast works, particularly Scott and Sothern, while Perreau gives us a sympathetic child to care about. Warner Archive recently put this out on DVD and it’s worth a look, especially as we enter the doldrums of Noirvember.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.