|Cause for Alarm! (1951)
Run time: 74 min
Genres: Crime | Drama | Film-Noir
Director: Tay Garnett
Writers: Mel Dinelli, Tom Lewis
Stars: Loretta Young, Barry Sullivan, Bruce Cowling
Invalid George Jones is both physically and mentally ill. He mistakenly believes his wife Ellen and his doctor are having an affair and also planning to kill him. He writes a letter to his lawyer detailing their alleged murder plot. After he has Ellen give the letter to their postman, he reveals its contents to her and then threatens her with a gun. The excitement proves to much and George suffers a fatal collapse. Now Ellen must find a way to retrieve the incriminating letter. Written by Daniel Bubbeo <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Release Date: 23 August 1951 (Portugal)
First of all, I find the handling of George's character very elegant. The first time I saw it I bought it completely–how he was wonderful until illness and despair drove him into psychosis. Upon my second viewing I realized a few things that give his character a different slant.
We see from Ellen's flashback to their meeting and courtship that although he is quite dashing he is also sly, self-serving, manipulative, and somewhat malicious. This is shown by the way he tricks her and takes advantage in the hospital room and then laughs at her. We also see in the beach and airport scenes that he relishes taking her away from his own best friend. Anyone with a real heart–get the symbolism there–would feel a little regret about that.
Later, after he is established as an invalid, his isolation and anxiety become evident as he intersperses rational conversation with sudden flights of mania and paranoia. His delusions seem ridiculous compared to Ellen's obvious devotion and worry, but we do wonder if perhaps he isn't right about the involvement of the doctor (his best friend of old). Maybe the poor doctor is guilty of secretly wishing George into the grave, leaving the way clear to pursue Ellen; or maybe he's too noble to ever think such a thing. Regardless, George believes he does.
There is a lovely scene before he dies where we see precisely what his relationship is to these people and what he has planned for them. He describes for Ellen his childhood toy, the ship in a bottle, and the neighbor boy who touched it when his back was turned and whom he savagely attacks in return. Before his mother can force him to give up the ship in apology he purposely dashes the bottle to the floor, destroying it.
The parallel between the ship and Ellen is obvious–something lovely, fragile, and completely captive. He has contained Ellen within their house without allowing her to form friendships or interests and he expects her to exist solely for him, just as he wanted no one else to touch or look at his ship. Now he believes his friend is secretly planning against him, or maybe he's making that up as a form of justification for what he's about to do. Now that he thinks he's dying, he's furious to be giving up his wife to the other fellow in rather the way he was expected to reward the covetous neighbor boy. Just like the scene in his youth, he acts to damage his rival and ruin the prize. The only difference is that now with maturity he can plot and scheme rather than strike out impulsively. I wonder if he truly believes in their "plot" or if this is his crafty, nasty way of shattering the ship all over again.
The moments with Aunt Clara reinforce the impression that George never was quite normal. She has no trouble believing the lie about George turning against her, thus she immediately retaliates with a remark that indicates a family history overlooking his cruel tendencies. I thought it was very nicely done, and all the more effective because Clara isn't a sympathetic character. We see a resemblance to George in her utter self-absorption.
One wonders how Ellen could be taken in by George, but love is blind. This is evinced by the scenes where she always just misses him at the window. Others notice him, or she detects the swaying drapery, but she never gets the whole picture of him sitting spider-like among webs of curtain lace. She never sees the real George.
The film does a fine job ratcheting the suspense by using mundane scenarios. The almost ridiculous obstacles in her path contrast with just how sinister George's plan is. He must know that an investigation into his death would be inconclusive at best, but a close review of Ellen's activities that day would cast new light on the details in his letter. We see Ellen driven by panic and pent-up stress into behaving less and less rationally, appearing more and more guilty. She certainly seems doomed, and this could only be brought about by the revelation from George. I feel this is further evidence that he has contrived the plot out of malice rather than paranoia or a desire for justice. He knows exactly how her innocent, beleaguered heart will react to the news. In fact, he is counting on it, he has carefully cultivated this moment.
I don't believe for one second that he intends to shoot her. Notice he never points the gun directly at her. I think he means to shoot the woodwork, cementing the impression of self-defense. He wants it to appear she was forcing him to overdose. He knows the drugs he took earlier will add weight to the accusation; he just doesn't expect them to finish him off right then.
The irony of her later shooting the floor herself serves as a tidy little bookend moment.
I love the ironic, abrupt ending that simply pole-axes Ellen and halts her in her steps. It's wonderful how the relentless, pounding pace of her mounting hysteria is like heart palpitations bounding out of control when suddenly it all just…stops. (Rather like George). Another great bookend moment. Delicious.
When I came across this film on PBS I wasn’t going to watch, but it has an attractive quality that sort of sucks you in. Once things started rolling I was glued. It proves that you don’t need expensive sets and/or effects to make a great film.
"Cause for Alarm" is suspenseful, and creative, and the only film of it’s kind that I have ever come across. I’d recommend it for anyone who doesn’t mind watching a black & white with a better plot and better acting than most movies made now-a-days.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some big-shot producer somewhere came along in the next few years or so to remake this film. They do it to anything good. It’s too easy to take something that’s already good, put some frills on it, and release it in theaters as the beautiful banal junk that plays in theaters now. I’m not about to stand on a soap box and go off on a tangent.
So… I recommend that you check this one out! It’s worth your time.
CAUSE FOR ALARM boasts a fine leading lady in the talented Loretta Young who is believable in the everywoman role she plays here. Barry Sullivan as her sick and mentally unbalanced husband George Jones hits just the right note as well. While the film is somewhat dated in terms of the here and now, it has some very gripping and suspenseful moments especially involving the very real panic surrounding the letter George sent the district attorney due to his psychotic delusion that his wife and his doctor (her old friend) were plotting to kill him. In fact the ending here does cast a little doubt in the viewer’s mind making this film even more intriguing. Any fan of suspense thrillers should enjoy this one.
"Cause for Alarm" isn’t a great film but it captures the noir cinematic scene of the postwar period fairly well. Loretta Young’s frenetic pursuit through hot suburban California streets to retrieve a dangerous missive is well done. Is anyone really convincing in a story of a WWII pilot working in the insurance industry and detouring into paranoia while stricken with a cardiac condition? Nah, probably not. But the movie is a nice visit back to the fifties.
Early in the film Loretta Young walks out to her driveway and encounters – a celluloid ME. Attired in the exact same garb I wore in ’51, a black cowboy outfit with two six(cap)-guns and riding a trusty trike, a not particularly adept child actor passes himself off as the one-and-only Hopalong Cassidy (as we grew older he became "Hopalong Catastrophe" but in the early fifties he was our unsullied hero). This kid even has the same toy I remember treasuring.
All that nostalgia aside, this short film is diverting albeit not the finest example of noir cinema. Loretta Young was as beautiful as she was talented. Barry Sullivan is appropriately nuts and most of the rest of the cast give dependable color to their roles.
This film definitely belongs in any noir retrospective.