It’s time for another Noirvember review! This year, I’ve been trying to jump in and find new, first-time-watches to sink my teeth into, in order to hopefully expand my knowledge of the fascinating series of films that is film noir. Today, I’m turning my attention to Blind Alley, a 1939 psychological drama released at the very cusp of the film noir movement. Coming this early, is Blind Alley really a work of film noir? Is it worth taking a look? Well, read on!
Blind Alley follows Dr. Shelby (Ralph Bellamy) a young psychology professor. One night, as he’s hosting a party for a group of friends at his lake house, prison escapee Hal Wilson (Chester Morris) breaks in and holds the group hostage as he waits for an escape boat to arrive. As tension escalates late into the night, Shelby struggles to gain the upper hand against his captors using the one thing he has, his mind. Ann Dvorak, Melville Cooper, Ann Doran, Scotty Beckett and Milburn Stone co-star in the movie. Charles Vidor directs from a script by Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort and Albert Duffy.
I stumbled onto Blind Alley through the Criterion Channel which hypes the work as an early noir, a claim which really interested me. Coming in 1939, Blind Alley hit theaters two years before The Maltese Falcon (1941), the oft-cited beginning of the noir movement. This is a claim I hoped to investigate. Watching Blind Alley, it’s difficult to call it a full on work of film noir with 100 percent certainty. In actuality, it feels closer to the other action thrillers of the late thirties like The Petrified Forrest, The Roaring Twenties and Angels with Dirty Faces.
However, Blind Alley does show definite hints that the industry of the time was moving fast in the direction of film noir. Interestingly, Blind Alley‘s director Charles Vidor would eventually helm Gilda in 1946. Even this early in his career, Vidor injects Blind Alley with a number of the stylistic and narrative elements which eventually became hallmarks of the cinematic movement. From the cinematography some of the character development, and even the plot structure, this movie teeters on the precipice of film noir. However, it’s just not quite there yet.
Chester Morris top lines Blind Alley as gangster and career criminal Hal Wilson. Those who know me, know of my fondness for the Boston Blackie actor. He’s a particular favorite of yours truly. It turns out, Blind Alley isn’t the best fit for Morris. Throughout his work in the 1930s, Morris often plays criminals. However, he always injects his characters with a deeply rooted complexity. In movies like The Big House and Blondie Johnson, there is always a sense that while these men are rough around the edges, they aren’t pure evil. Instead, they’ve made mistakes and suffered plenty of bad breaks. These characters are a vivid and deep personification of a certain kind of Depression era masculinity.
Unfortunately, for much of Blind Alley, Wilson doesn’t get much development beyond simply being a hood. He’s evil for evil’s sake. He’s the bad guy and that’s about it. Other actors during this era played these parts and ultimately, played them better. As the film cusps the second act, and the psychoanalysis plot picks up speed, only then is Morris finally able to spread his wings. It’s just a bit of a case of too little, too late.
That being said, the importance and the very presence of psychology narrative is by far and away the most interesting element of this story. This intricate crafting allows the script — even briefly– to turn its glance squarely on Wilson’s character. He may be the antagonist, but at one point, the movie quite literally climbs into his subconscious in an attempt to not only explain, but understand why this man is the way he is. This is where Blind Alley feels very noir. This may just be for part of the second act, but the audience shares a real intimacy with Wilson. In climbing into his mind, the audience sees the world through his eyes. All of a sudden, there’s less a focus on the very black and white dichotomy of good and evil. Instead, the script isn’t afraid to wallow in the gray areas so common in works of film noir. Could it be possible for the audience to even side with Wilson?
At the same time, I can honestly say that Blind Alley shows the often under-appreciated Ralph Bellamy at what I found to be his most vibrant and interesting. The actor spent so much of his career playing second bananas and often found himself cast as “the man the leading lady dumps to marry the star”. As a result, it is rare — at least for me– to see Bellamy in a leading role.
Delightfully, the role of Dr. Shelby fits Bellamy to a tee. He thrives in this relatively subdued, but highly cerebral character, never once coming across flat or boring. In fact, as the script hits the psychological narrative in the second act, Bellamy looks to be having a lot of fun. Truthfully, it is a joy to see. He thrives in the mind games he orchestrates against Wilson, but at the same time Bellamy injects a layer of sympathy. Shelby is still a doctor and it’s very clear that at some level he also wants to help this criminal, despite everything telling him not to.
Blind Alley brings together a fantastic and colorful supporting cast. Performers like Melville Cooper, Marc Lawrence, Stanley Brown and Marie Blake absolutely make this movie, despite all having relatively low screen time. Stanley Brown is particularly memorable as Shelby’s former student Fred Landis. Brown’s filmography credits the young actor with an exhausting 134 credits over just 7 years before his career came to a halt (a Los Angeles Times obituary cites World War II as the cause). The relative youngster takes this character, who could easily be little more than a plot device, and makes Fred a surprisingly fun, brash and likable individual. The strength behind the performance makes me wonder why this is only the first I’m hearing of the delightful Stanley Brown.
Ultimately, Blind Alley was a first-time-watch for yours truly. The movie proves to be a fascinating viewing as it sits on the cusp of so much Hollywood history. There’s some noir in there, but at this same time, the movie is very much of the 1930s. In watching this 1939 psychological drama, there’s a definite sign of things to come, making Blind Alley a perfect work to check out this Noirvember.
Blind Alley is currently available on the Criterion Channel.