“You worked a whole day just to dance a minute at Dreamland?”
“It was worth it.”
Woody Allen’s most sentimental gesture comes at the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Mia Farrow, kicked around by men and by life, finds joy in the fleeting images of Fred and Ginger dancing across the screen. In that moment, so wonderfully free of dialogue, Allen speaks directly to the audience more poignantly than in all the times he ever tossed witticisms through the fourth wall. For me Tomorrow is Another Day, a film noir light on crime and laden with emotion, recalls that moment at the end of Allen’s film. There has been little written about this astonishing movie, and what there is criticizes the ending as too upbeat and “studio” to be taken seriously. I disagree. Like Mia’s Cecilia I find in movies entertainment and escapism; and like her I live vicariously through the characters, imagining myself in similar situations. That’s my personal attraction to film noir — watching flawed people in trouble try to get out from under, and hoping they’ll make it. There’s something so desperately American in that notion that it stands to reason the best film noirs (and Westerns) were made in that brief period after the war when America quite possibly stood its tallest. If movies can teach us about redemption there’s no better model than the morality plays of film noir.
Tomorrow is Another Day is an intelligent, very well acted film that explores paths to redemption — whether or not change is possible, if people are damned by their pasts, if grace even exists. It’s a movie about two troubled souls who somehow save one another. The first is Bill Lewis (Steve Cochran), who at thirteen shot his father and went to prison. Bill is a unique noir hero — he shot an abusive drunk in order to protect his mother, leaving his soul free of stain but suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Cochran is a surprise — what he lacks in physical expressiveness he makes up for through a deep understanding of character. There’s a moment in the opening scene, when Bill meets with the warden prior to his release, where this comes through loud and clear. Bill is nervous, fidgety — swimming in a cheap prison-issue suit. Though the warden is supportive, Bill’s got eighteen year’s worth of chips on his shoulder. When scolded to make good choices lest he end up back behind bars, Bill responds, “Nobody’ll ever put me in a stinkin’ cage again.” This is where Cochran shines — although trying to sound tough Bill can’t make eye contact with the older man — and pauses before summoning the guts to add the word “stinkin’.” Cochran understands that even though his character is now “free,” he remains a kid in a man’s body, mad at the world for punishing a guiltless crime, as terrified of returning to prison as he is of being set free. Bill’s standoffishness springs from his inability to grasp that the older man — an authority or father figure — may actually care for him. Cochran nails it: Bill reenters society with a bitter heart and little more maturity than when incarcerated.
The film convincingly depicts the first moments of freedom for such a man-child. Bill’s age is incalculably significant — in spending his formative years behind bars he missed out on the life experiences that slowly nudge boys into men, including the cataclysmic one in particular that defined his generation. Further, not only has Bill not kissed a girl; he’s never even spoken to one. He missed the vital school-age interactions that we take for granted, instead spending those years with hardened criminals. He’s never driven a car, played an organized sport, or taken a drink. He has no friends, no war record, and nothing in common with fellas his age. We see Bill’s first walk on the streets of his hometown through the eyes of a newshound who shadows him. He’s drawn first to automobiles — he can’t help but lean into a convertible and test the buttons and knobs. Then he notices a woman and does a quick one-eighty, falling into lockstep behind her. Again Cochran’s portrayal rings true. When she pauses to meet a friend Bill thrusts into her personal space, studying her as if she were a sculpture. She makes tracks, and Bill skulks into a hamburger joint, where he does what any kid would do: he orders not one, but three pieces of pie — and his very first beer. The following day, after the reporter digs up the old scandal, Bill sees his picture and life story splashed across the front page and flees for the anonymity of New York City.
In Manhattan we encounter the film’s other main character, peroxide blonde dime-a-dance girl Cay Higgins (Ruth Roman). Although Cay’s job as a taxi dancer at Dreamland is meant to suggest that she’s really a prostitute, I’ve long been fascinated by this precursor to the burlesque club and choose to interpret the scenario at face value. The taxi dance craze swept America between the wars and dance halls sprang up from coast to coast. Patrons bought a ticket for a dime, which entitled them to one dance with the hostess of their choice. The system was mutually beneficial: in keeping a nickel on each ticket, a girl could do well — provided she was pretty and light on her feet. For the customers, the dance halls afforded the chance for social outcasts to buy enough time with a girl to brush up their moves and maybe even feel good about themselves, at least for a ballad or two. As with all things that bring the sexes together it fell prey to vice, and by the early fifties the dance halls were fading. Nevertheless, a few remained in New York, and Tomorrow is Another Day portrays them accurately. Someone like Bill would naturally gravitate to a dance hall, which provided him access to girls he’d be denied if left to his own social skills.
Cay came to New York to pursue a ballet career. “I started out on my toes and ended up on my heels” (or back, if you prefer). Now she’s a taxi dancer with a cop boyfriend (pimp) when Bill enters her world. Cay sees him as a yokel and an easy mark, though she finds herself unexpectedly charmed by the naive young man. She accepts his gifts and even agrees to a sightseeing date, afterwards inviting him to her room. There they find detective George Conover, Cay’s beefy beau. In the ensuing fight Conover knocks Bill out before turning on Cay, who shoots him in self-defense. Injured, Conover shambles out in search of a clandestine physician. When Bill awakens, unaware that Conover was shot, he finds Cay leaving for her brother’s place in Jersey, where she intends to hole up. He only learns of the shooting later, via the evening newspaper, and heads south for a confrontation with Cay. It’s in New Jersey that the story takes a crucial turn. Bill confronts Cay with his knowledge of the shooting and asks, “How did it happen?” Cay realizes that he has no memory of the shooting she decides to dupe him into thinking that he pulled the trigger. She also drops the bombshell that Conover has died. This is the moment in the film where Cay becomes something close to a femme fatale. Her character displays the moral ambiguity central to film noir. Always the schemer, she figures that an innocent like Bill will fare better with the cops than she will — and that he’ll beat the rap anyway by claiming self-defense. Bill refuses this idea and shows Cay the recent clipping from his hometown paper, finally exposing his prison record. Realizing that the cops are unlikely to believe either of them, Bill and Cay decide to run. They borrow a car (Cay driving — Bill doesn’t know how.) and head for the state line.
The turning point in the film comes at a rural motor lodge, where the pair check in pretending to be married, though the jaded Cay recognizes that the proprietors couldn’t care less. This is the moment, far from Manhattan, when they have the chance to separate, yet choose not to. Bill departs for a time but returns with a cheap wedding ring. This romantic gesture causes Cay’s tough façade to crumble, and in a heartbeat their antagonistic relationship becomes tender. Bill then discovers that during his time away the blonde has become a brunette. Cay’s physical transformation is the climax of the middle of the film, and is symbolic of the deeper change in her character. The tramp from Dreamland is gone, replaced by a wholesome and demure portrait of fifties womanhood. Though this transition seems fatally abrupt on paper, Roman pulls it off — she makes us believe the old Cay was an illusion, easily discarded when Bill discovers the woman within.
Through marriage Bill experiences sex and intimacy, and he begins to open up. However Cay, fearing that she’ll lose him, remains unable to come clean about Conover’s shooting. The newlyweds’ Joad-ian odyssey ends at a California farm camp, where he finds work in the lettuce fields and she keeps house amidst a community of shanties. They ingratiate themselves with the other workers and begin to live a relatively normal life. It all comes crashing down when Bill’s mug shot and a substantial reward offer appear in a Confidential-style crime rag, and a neighbor in desperate need of cash reluctantly informs on the couple. Sensing their impending doom, Cay summons the courage to tell Bill that it was she who really shot Conover, but he doesn’t believe her. Whereas earlier Cay set Bill up as a fall guy because she thought he’d get off easy, he now thinks she’s trying to take the blame for the same reason — that her recently discovered pregnancy will rate a soft sentence. When the police come knocking Bill, remembering his vow to the warden, prepares an ambush. In one of the most ironic moments in all of film noir Cay grabs Conover’s revolver and shoots Bill with it. The symbolism here is critical — in shooting Conover Cay was selfishly trying to protect herself, but now she shoots Bill in order to save him. As the police take him away, Cay pleads, “I couldn’t let you get into more trouble on account of me.”
Tomorrow is Another Day is a film of mirrored halves, of repeated acts imbued with new meaning — it ends as it began, with an authority figure summoning Bill to his office through the intercom. In that first scene Bill moves from one prison to another — without walls, yes, but a prison just the same. The final time, with Cay, he is truly set free. The scene is the Manhattan DA’s, with Bill and Cay clumsily trying to take the blame for each other. In attempting to sacrifice herself for the man who loves her, Cay is able to overcome the sins of her past, while Bill is able to consummate adulthood by assuming responsibility for the life of another. Here is revealed possibly the most ironic twist in the entire story, but I’ll leave it up in the air. As I wrote earlier, the film ends well. Redemption indeed.
Tomorrow is Another Day (1951)
Director: Felix Feist
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Story: Art Cohn
Screenplay: Guy Endore
Starring: Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman
Released by: Warner Brothers Pictures
Running time: 89 minutes