A black widow without a mate is just another spider.
A man is on the run through the wet, deserted streets of lower Manhattan. He scuttles into the shadows cast by 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’re 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, their searchlights obliterating the deep dark. As Steve presses his back against the grimy recess of a doorway, the narration turns inevitably to the source of his dilemma, “You wonder how it happened and where it all really began…”
Steve (Barry Sullivan) is an insurance company lawyer who gets the brushoff from his girlfriend Ellen (Arlene Dahl), owing to the fact that his present salary won’t set her up in diamonds and pearls. A telling exchange early in the picture provides the straight dope on their shaky relationship. The scene finds their pair bickering during a taxicab ride home from the airport. Steve believes—what a chump—Ellen’s been on a solo ski trip to Sun Valley:
Her: “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.”
Him: “If you’re just patient honey—“
Her: “—I’ve waited a year. You can’t deposit patience in a bank.”
Him: “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 his boss parries: “Ladders are built for patient men,” the guy says. However, the boss also makes an offhand remark about a recent stolen fur case: he’d pay ten grand to the thieves, no questions asked, in order to avoid settling the claim. Steve gets a big zinger: 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 backroom fence would pay, his boss dodges a six-figure payout, and Steve’ll have enough in the bank to give Ellen a swimming pool full of sparklies. Unbeknownst to him—what a maroon—it’s already too late. Ellen just eloped to Europe with Gordon Jessman (Dick Simmons), a smooth operator she met on the slopes in Idaho. Steve is crushed when he discovers Ellen’s deserted apartment.
Steve contacts the crime syndicate and eventually manages to buy back the furs for the insurance company. It isn’t long before he’s finessing a deal over another caché of stolen goods, and then another, and another. Before long he’s flush. With Ellen out of the picture, Steve finally notices Joan (Jean Hagen), a coworker. Joan’s a nice girl. Steve—what an idiot—should be so lucky. She knows that Steve is walking a tightrope in his new venture, but she’s been carrying a torch for so long that she can’t help going along.
Cut to the gala premiere of a Broadway show. Two henchmen from the stable of gangster Franko (Howard Petrie), pull off a lurid robbery. In full-on drag-mode, they crash the powder room during intermission and relieve all the old broads of their Harry Winstons. During the fracas Joan gets pistol-whipped, leading the cops to think Steve might be in on the caper. What’s more is that the boys in blue have already named Steve Public Enemy Numero Uno—New York’s bad boys are stealing more than ever now that they know Steve can broker a high-dollar insurance company buy-back. Our guy Stevie may be a slick solicitor who knows how to walk the line between legal and illegal, but he’s forgotten all about the difference between legality and morality. It’s gonna cost him.
You didn’t think we were through with Ellen, did you? When she gets wind of Steve’s success, she gives Gordon the heave-ho and heads for Steve’s place, where she learns that he’s about to handle the buy-back of the loot from the Broadway premiere heist. Gordon—a cuckold but no fool—decides to rob Steve and take the jewels for himself. In doing so he kills a police detective and frames Steve as the trigger man. Already leery of cops, Steve runs. Real time and flashback coalesce as the film returns to its opening scene, with Steve clawing at the shadows in the cheap side of town.
Meanwhile, Ellen and Gordon are frantically packing their bags when Franko’s men arrive, expecting to find Steve and the jewels. Ellen thinks they can sell the jewelry bundle back to Franko, and she and Gordon go along willingly to negotiate a deal. This is where No Questions Asked becomes something special. Folks, take my advice: don’t mess about with gangsters. Pretty simple, huh? Not to stuck-ups like Ellen and Gordon, who think their nice clothes make them smarter than the lower-class types. Instead they’re amateurs who are about to learn one of film noir’s most brutal lessons. Dig them trying to handle Franko:
Her: “How much are they worth to you?”
Him: “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.”
Her: “If anything happens to me you’ll never find those jewels.”
Him: “You’re smart, but you made a 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 makes with some torture; Gordon pisses his pants and squeals. Ellen prostests. Ellen blubbers. Ellen screams. Franko puts a bullet in her. Ellen dead. Gordon looks on in stupified horror. Franko puts a bullet in him. Gordon dead. It’s one of the most matter-of-fact and chilling death sequences in the entire history of film noir.
Steve—what a cluck—stumbles in and decides he wants to fight. He and Franko somehow go head over heels into a swimming pool. Too bad for Steve, but we learned earlier in the picture—for real!—that Franko’s special thing is holding his breath for a really long time. Boffo! Franko triumphs. Steve floats, all glassy-eyed. Enter the cops. They cuff everyone, resuscitate Steve, and then cuff him too. They figured out he didn’t pull the trigger on the dead cop, but he’s an accessory whether you like it or not. Joan hates it. The cops tells her that Steve looking at a two year jolt in Rykers.
Let’s get something straight about the noir femme fatale: she can’t exist without her special guy. And not just any old schlub—he’s got to be screwy enough to throw away everything he’s got and everything he believes in just to have 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 make Steve sacrifice his place in the world in order to satisfy her material whims. Irredeemable, and yet she’s merely one side of the coin—she’s got to have her man. Steve is every bit the archetypal a film noir protagonist. Like so many others before him, he suffers from the simple, fatal inability to resist a girl who’s no good. He sees it all clearly and still can’t help himself. Wasn’t Walter Neff the blueprint? When given a clear choice between a nice girl and vampire, Steve does the noir schmuck thing and chooses sex (and redheads).
But because Ellen is beyond redemption she’s killed, along with her cowardly and murderous husband. Steve is murdered too, but just for a little while. He traded an honest career for a fast buck and gambled the good girl for adultery with the bad. Fate holds Steve—what a dumbass—accountable for his choices. His career is kaput, but maybe with luck and early parole for good behavior Joan’ll be waiting for him outside the gates. In the movies at least, the good ones wait.
In spite of the title’s admonition, there’s still one question left as the end titles roll: When all is said and done, does Steve really get wise or is he the same sucker as before? With Ellen dead we’ll never know.
No Questions Asked (1951)
Directed by Harold Kress
(Also one of Hollywood’s legendary film editors, recipient of two Academy Awards*: 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
Story: Berne Giler
Screenplay: Sidney Sheldon
Starring: Barry Sullivan, Arlene Dahl, George Murphy, Jean Hagen.
Released by: MGM
Running time: 80 minutes