November 1, 2009

NO QUESTIONS ASKED (1951)


A black widow without a mate is just another spider.


A man is on the run through the wet and deserted streets of lower Manhattan. He dodges into the shadows of a stairwell just as a prowl car tears by, its siren whining against concrete and brick. As the man hunkers down we hear his voice, “My name is Steve Keiver. That’s what all the sirens are about. They were screaming for me, I was very popular that night — everybody wanted me, dead or alive. You think there’d be a thousand hiding places in a large city, but there aren’t.” More police cars make the scene, closing off any possible egress and penetrating the deep shadows with searchlights. As Keiver presses his back against the dark recess of a doorway in an effort to become invisible, the narration inevitably turns to the source of his present dilemma, “You wonder how it happened and where it all really began…”


Keiver (Barry Sullivan) is an insurance company lawyer who gets the brush from his girlfriend Ellen (Arlene Dahl) because in spite of a promising future, he can’t give her diamonds and pearls. A telling exchange early in the film provides some insight into their characters. The scene finds Steve and Ellen discussing their relationship over a taxicab ride home from the airport. Steve erroneously believes Ellen to be returning from a solo ski trip to Sun Valley:


Ellen: “I’m not a one-room flat kind of girl. I don’t want to raise my children in the kind of poverty I was raised in. I couldn’t stand it. I want security.”
Steve: “If you’re just patient honey —“
Ellen: “— I’ve waited a year. You can’t deposit patience in a bank.”
Steve: “We’re never gonna be rich, that’s not security. But we love each other, you can deposit that in my bank.”



Steve asks for a raise the following day, but is put off by his boss who reminds him that, “Ladders are built for patient men.” However during the meeting his boss makes an offhand remark about some stolen furs: he’d pay ten grand to the thieves, no questions asked, in order to avoid settling the insurance claim. Steve gets a big idea: he’ll find out who heisted the furs and broker a deal between them and the insurance company. He’ll receive a finder’s fee and everyone will be happy: the thieves will get more for the goods than a fence would pay, his boss dodges a six-figure payout, and Steve’ll have enough loot in the bank to give Ellen everything she wants. Unbeknownst to him, it’s already too late. Ellen has married Gordon Jessman (Dick Simmons), a smooth operator she met in Idaho, and spent the balance of her vacation honeymooning in Europe. Steve is crushed when he visits Ellen’s place and finds it deserted.


Though he’s unsuccessful in his first attempts, Steve eventually contacts the crime syndicate and arranges to buy back the furs. It isn’t long before he’s contacted about another cache of stolen goods, and then another. Soon he’s flush enough to leave his job at the insurance company and start his own little cottage industry. In the wake of Ellen’s departure from his life, Steve develops a relationship with the Joan (Jean Hagen), a coworker from the insurance company who has carried a torch for years. Joan represents the “good girl” to Ellen’s femme fatale. She knows that Steve is embarking on a treacherous path, yet she’s pined for him for so long that she can’t help but to tread along with him.


During the gala premiere of a Broadway show, two henchmen of the vicious gangster Franko (Howard Petrie), pull off a lurid robbery. Dressed as women (!), they crash the powder room during intermission and steal the jewelry of everyone present. The police become suspicious when they learn that Steve attended the premiere with Joan, who was pistol-whipped by one of the thieves. They suspect Steve’s involvement on some level and blame him for single-handedly starting a crime wave within the city. One in which crooks will steal anything, including difficult to fence items like artwork, knowing that Steve can broker an insurance company buy-back. Steve, a polished attorney, knows how to balance himself between both sides of the law — but the difference between legality and morality is one that he fails to grasp. It will come to cost him.


When Ellen learns of Steve’s success, she attempts to reenter his life by claiming her marriage with Gordon is loveless. At Steve’s apartment, she learns that he’s about to handle the buy-back of the loot from the Broadway premiere heist. When Gordon discovers what Ellen has been up to he decides to rob Steve and take the jewels for himself. In doing so he kills a police detective, and makes it look like Steve pulled the trigger. Already leery of cops, Steve runs. Real time and flashback coalesce as the film returns to its opening scene, where Steve attempts to melt into the shadows of the urban nightscape.


In the meantime, Ellen and Gordon are frantically packing their bags when Franko’s men arrive, hoping to find Steve and the jewels. Ellen gets the idea that they can score big if they can sell the bundle back to Franko, and she and Gordon go willingly to negotiate a deal. It’s in this sequence that No Questions Asked becomes something special. The moral of the film is simple: Crime doesn’t pay — especially for amateurs. Decent people fail to understand that crooks play by a different set of rules and shouldn’t be trifled with. Everyone in the picture who has chosen to “play” at crime is about to learn a cruel lesson. Ellen and Gordon, believing their elevated social status gives them some advantage over hoodlums, pompously attempt to handle Franko:


Ellen: “How much are they worth to you?”
Franko: “How much are they worth to you? I don’t think I’m going to have to pay anything for them Mrs. Jessman. You’ve got the jewels — I’ve got you.”
Ellen: “If anything happens to me you’ll never find those jewels.”
Franko: “You’re smart, but you made on big mistake: I never went to Vassar. I’m afraid you’re dealing with dirty people. When we get finished with you you’re going to be begging to tell us where those jewels are.”


Franko opts for torture, the mere threat of which makes Gordon squeal. Mere seconds after Franko learns the location of the bundle he orders Ellen’s execution, which happens as Gordon looks on. Gordon himself is shot a moment later, just as Steve is brought in. The matter-of-fact brutality of the killings is so unusual and so bluntly casual, that even though both shootings occur just outside the frame the effect is chilling, even by film noir standards.


Following the killings of the Jessmans, Franko nods to one of his men: kill Steve Keiver. Steve grabs at Franko, and the two men tumble backwards into a swimming pool. The setting of the denouement is contrived — we learned early on that Franko’s personal exercise regimen involves holding his breath under water for extended periods of time. As soon as the two bodies disturb the surface we know that Steve’s luck has run out. So often in films two characters engage in a death struggle beneath water. Convention assures us that the protagonist will somehow rise to the surface, gasping for breath, having prevailed. Not this time. The leering Franko, in his element, calmly and sadistically pushes Steve’s head under the water. He wraps his arms and legs around Steve’s torso and simply holds his breath until the smaller man drowns. Yet when he rises to the surface, leaving Steve’s lifeless body at the bottom of the pool, the dynamic has changed: The police have arrived, and his men are in handcuffs. Steve is fished from the water and after a time resuscitated, though refreshingly the film doesn’t give in to convention: Although it’s clear to all that Steve didn’t pull the trigger on the murdered cop, he’s charged as an accessory. As he is loaded into an ambulance for Bellevue and then Rykers, Detective Duggan tells Joan that she’ll have to wait for Steve a while longer — he’s looking at a two-year stretch.


Let’s get one thing straight about the femme fatale in film noir: she can’t exist without a man. And not just any man — she requires one compelled to throw away everything he’s got and everything he believes in to possess her. In No Questions Asked, Ellen Jessman is that rare girl: a bona fide femme fatale: she’s greedy, manipulative, superficial, immoral, and exists to lure Steve into sacrificing his place in the world in order to satisfy her material needs. Nonetheless she represents only half of the proverbial coin. A femme fatale can only be a femme fatale if she has a man to lure to his doom. Although the opening sequence of No Questions Asked vividly establishes the movie as a noir through such stylistic conventions as dark, wet streets seen from disconcerting angles; an alienated, fugitive character; voiceover narration; and flashback — its primary thrust is in the narrative exploration of the symbiotic relationship of Steve and Ellen. If Ellen is an archetypal femme fatale, Steve is every bit as archetypal a film noir protagonist. Like others before him, he suffers from a fatal inability recognize the difference between good and bad in women. It’s tough to fathom why he would abandon a healthy relationship with Joan in order to return to Ellen, because the differences in their character are meant to be apparent to the viewer. But Steve can’t see beneath the surface — and so like most men in similar situations he errs on the side of sex (and redheads). But because the character of Ellen is beyond redemption she’s killed off, along with her cowardly and murderous husband. Steve is killed too, if only for a moment. He abandoned an honest career for a fast buck and gambled a life with the good girl in exchange for adultery with the bad. Fate holds Steve accountable for his choices — his career is lost, but he’s given a second chance with Joan, who despite his foolishness is willing to wait for him to do his time in prison.


In spite of the title’s admonition, one question must be considered as the end titles roll: Does Steve really get wise or is he the same sucker as before? With Ellen dead we’ll never know.



No Questions Asked (1951)
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Director: Harold Kress
(Significant films as director: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Mrs. Miniver, Random Harvest, The Yearling, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Silk Stockings, How the West was Won, The Poseiden Adventure, The Towering Inferno.)
Cinematographer: Harold Lipstein
(Significant films as DP: The River’s Edge, Pal Joey, Ride a Crooked Trail, Hell is for Heroes.)
Story: Berne Giler
Screenplay: Sidney Sheldon
Starring: Barry Sullivan, Arlene Dahl, George Murphy, Jean Hagen.
Released by: MGM
Running time: 80 minutes

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