|Strange Impersonation (1946)
Running Time: 68 Minutes
Dir. Anthony Mann
Cast: Brenda Marshall, William Gargan, Hillary Brooke, George Chandler
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir
Screening Time: Monday, August 28th at 7:00 p.m.
Chemical research scientist Marshall injects herself with an experimental drug and finds her life falling to pieces. A neat low-budget thriller lent class by Mann’s stylish direction.
Does there exist a male baby boomer who grew up watching reruns of "The Abbott and Costello Show" during the 1950s and early '60s who was able to resist falling in love with Hillary Brooke? With her sexy blond good looks and sweet demeanor, no wonder Lou and all the other guys had a major "thing" for her. Viewers may be surprised to learn, however, that before "The A&C Show," Hillary excelled at portraying so-called "bad girls," as the 1946 potboiler "Strange Impersonation" so amply demonstrates. Here, she plays the assistant to anesthesia researcher Brenda Marshall (herself so memorable in one of my Top 10 films of all time, the 1940 remake of "The Sea Hawk"), as well as the best friend from hell. Hillary sabotages one of Marshall's experiments, leading to an explosive fire and the disfigurement of her boss. She then goes about stealing Marshall's fiancé, leading to a twisty story involving betrayal, plastic surgery, murder, blackmail and identity theft. All this in a brief 68 minutes, and topped with a surprise ending that some may find cheap, but that surprisingly explains away the many plot loopholes, inconsistencies and implausibilities that have preceded it; an ending, in addition, that is wholly earned and was set up in the film's opening moments. Yes, this IS another B cheapie made on the quick by Republic Studios, but it certainly is fun. And need I even mention that it is a must for all fans of Hillary Brooke?
First off, I practically fainted at seeing a Republic Picture that didn't star John Wayne and wasn't one of their few big-budget movies. That studio turned out some excellent films and they are rarely seen. (This even though till about ten years ago our ABC affiliate showed one, sometimes two, every Saturday night.) The movie itself is not Mann at his best but it's very good. He's been given a fabulous cast. Brenda Marshall is a great favorite of mine. Ruth Ford did more on stage, maybe, than on screen. William Gargan was handsome before he moved into character roles. And Hillary Brooke! Wow, what a performance she turns in here! Lyle Talbot is also on board. He's somewhere between his days as a leading man and his time with Ed Wood. He looks a bit pudgy here.
When we first meet the three principals, they're all wearing glasses. You see, they are scientists.
In a parking garage on her way home from work, Marshall accidentally backs her car into the inebriated Ford. And that's all the plot I'm giving.
Brooke is given a very meaty role. It seems like the typical best-friend part. She seems like a low-budget Eve Arden at first. But oh no! That changes. And she is up to every twist and turn of the plot.
The movie is a little bit soap opera, a little bit noir. But it's both highly entertaining on its on and a must-see for fans of the great Anthony Mann.
Heralded noir director Anthony Mann made his name in legendary collaborations with cinematographer John Alton (T-Men, Raw Deal, Border Incident). But his work in the cycle started earlier when it was still coalescing — before its essentials had become codified.
A 1945 Republic release (under an old, pre-eagle logo), Strange Impersonation comes in a compact package holding a lot of plot — perhaps too much. Pharmaceutical chemist Brenda Marshall, anxious to test a new anesthetic she devised, goes home to do so. [On the way, however, she gets into an unpleasant traffic scrape involving a tipsy woman and an ambulance-chaser.] Finally ensconced in her luxurious penthouse, she injects herself and goes under, only to wake in hospital, suffering disfiguring burns from an explosion and fire among her bottles and beakers.
The next year proves to be no picnic. During her convalescence, her rich fiance (who owns the drug company) drops her like a hot brick. She accidentally murders the accident victim — see above — who has resurfaces with a gun and a blackmail scheme. On the lam, Marshall assumes a new identity and buys a swell new face through reconstructive surgery. Then she returns to her old firm with a notion of settling scores.
Cheeky, and with the courage of its conventions, Strange Impersonation draws us in by rapid and unexpected changes in its course. Marshall holds an especially strong hand as the brainy victim of outrageous fortune, and plays her cards well. But she’s almost matched by Hillary Brooke as her duplicitous assistant/rival. William Gargan (later to become TV’s first Martin Kane, Private Eye) remains no more than a plot point as the duped fiance.
Mann plays fast and loose with themes and gimmicks that were to become staple ingredients later in the noir cycle, as if trying them on for size. There are elements here that recall or prefigure movies such as The Woman in the Window, Dark Passage, A Stolen Face and No Man of Her Own, to name just a few. And if they’re not worked out with the ruthlessness of vision that was to shape the finest film noir, no matter. Strange Impersonation is a swift, dark funhouse ride.
"You cannot escape the person you are," says plastic surgeon H.B.Warner, holding up a bony finger. Nevertheless, leading lady Brenda Marshall tries, which puts her in the postwar vanguard of stars doing identity switches [see Bogart in DARK PASSAGE and Stanwyck in NO MAN OF HER OWN]. The script also stirs in elements from A WOMAN’S FACE, plus a dash of mad-scientist hubris, then shakes it into a film noir cocktail.
Marshall plays a research chemist who tries an experimental anesthetic on herself ["nothing can go wrong"], but ends up disfigured, then takes on the identity of extortionist bad girl Ruth Ford. The switch involves several plastic surgery montages, but mostly results in a new coif, a dark rinse, and make-up adjustments.
The plot also plays out the popular postwar subtext of Send-Rosie-the-Riveter-Back-to-the-Kitchen: when scientific professional Marshall turns down a marriage proposal in favor of finishing her own work, she suffers for it at the hands of scheming Hillary Brooke, and then has to fight to get another chance at that marriage ring. This conventional message is somewhat at war with the subversive noir style, but this script includes: the unsuspected hostile motives of a friend, the nightmare chain of events, and the police station third-degree. The novelty here is the woman protagonist, who herself shifts into a femme fatale. In fact, the film centers on a trio of femmes fatales: Marshall and Brooke and Ford. The man involved is William Gargan, relaxed and charming, so hardly an homme fatal.
Republic’s studio style– aimed at simple feel-good entertainment, with invariably stodgy decor—was not exactly a natural home for noir. However, Anthony Mann delivers lean direction, with exceptionally fluid camerawork, some striking high and low angles, and smart playing from all [poor Marshall has to spend a good half-hour with her face wrapped up in bandages]. However, a few years later Mann worked out the situation– two women tussling over a man–more pointedly, and with lots more shadows, in the superior RAW DEAL.