I've Found a Driver and That's a Start
The Chase is the oldest of eleven Revivals, formerly grouped as Masterworks, at this year’s New York Film Festival. (Separately, there is a Godard Retrospective.) Scripted by Philip Yordan from popular Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear, Arthur D. Ripley’s penultimate credited feature, a 1946 time- and plot-twister, is “the essence of ‘film noir’” though far from its most successful exemplar.
As with a number of its brethren, the story concerns an unknowing hero, or antihero, sucked into a labyrinth not fully of his making. The audience frequently knows more than this puzzled protagonist, and the plot develops around his efforts to stay away from the baddies while, less importantly, figuring out why they are after him.
Lightly different from the generality in that, a traumatized recently demobilized World War Navy vet and rather a good guy, Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) has just enough deviousness to avoid unequivocal squeaky cleanliness. Though hunger does prompt him to spend $1.50 from the wallet he finds in front of Mary’s Coffee Shop, he volunteers that information when returning the find to its owner. And he does fall madly, reciprocally and ridiculously quickly in love with the unhappy wife of that owner, his employer-to-be, even if it is partly money that initially makes him willing to spirit her away even before any mutual declarations.
The quasi-immoral or questionable actions are screen justified by the murderous egotism of that boss, Miami gangster with Havana ties Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran), and the amoral deadliness of chain-smoking henchman Gino (Peter Lorre). Impressions from his light romantic comedy rôles and ‘fifties-‘sixties television series interfere with Cummings’ credibility here: his forever-youthful nice-guy face does not bear the weight of his confused and then hunted and cynical protagonist. Downplaying his probity and intelligence, he is hired on the spot and given room, uniform and cap as Roman’s chauffeur.
The boss is a control freak who murders those who deny him and installs a speed override device at his back seat in his limousine to test others’ nerve. Trophy wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan) is as well on a short leash, miserable and regretful at letting herself be bought three years ago. This bird in a gilded cage has Chuck drive her to an oceanfront jetty from which she gazes south towards Cuba and soon snares him into a plan for the both of them to flee, to that island and farther onwards to South America.
Freedom is not to be found in that Batista playground, either. Murder on a crowded barroom dance floor, arrest, protestations of innocence and escape lead to jade monkey-handled knives at a Madame Chin’s (Nina Koshetz) Curio Shop and a chase through seedy nighttime streets and apartments.
Chuck is somehow back in Florida to telephone the military doctor (Commander Davidson, by Jack Holt) who had treated him for what was at that time called shell shock battle fatigue. He cannot quite remember, but the viewer, too, is at least as puzzled and does not immediately see that the Havana “future” has not yet happened -- in fact is “I’ll love your forever” ironic -- or perhaps has, but in any case will do so and that the confusing, and confused, story has, like the chase, doubled back on itself.
Not so ingenious and engaging as other, Chandler-esque convolutions, and lacking their occasional dark humor, The Chase is no more than one of many forgotten, because forgettable, entries in a genre whose outstanding examples are genuine cinema Masterworks.
(Released by VCI; not rated by MPAA.)