Talk about a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Two of a Kind, released by Columbia in 1951, is a perfect example of how a Hollywood ending can derail a promising noir. The premise is enticing: three grifters try to work an inheritance scam on an elderly California couple. They plan to pass off a fellow con-artist as the couple’s long-lost son and claim a huge inheritance when the aged millionaires finally kick over. The cast is rock-solid, and includes noir icons Edmond O’Brien and Lizabeth Scott, as well as President Woodrow Wilson himself, Alexander Knox.
Two of a Kind moves with verve and is characterized by tough talk and slick Burnett Guffey photography. It establishes itself as a noir early on, with a wonderfully memorable scene involving the two leads, a car door, and some great banter. Two of a Kind also foreshadows doom in half a dozen different ways, including a slew of references to the game of craps, yet in the end it fails to deliver on its dark promises — instead wrapping up like an MGM musical, where boy and girl hop into a ragtop and ride off into the setting Pacific sun, leaving the audience jilted and angry.
The opening finds Brandy (Lizabeth Scott), searching for a man she’s never met, a very specific kind of a man who fits the requirements that she and her accomplice Vincent (Alexander Knox) require to orchestrate a swindle of gigantic proportions. It seems that many years ago, a wealthy California couple, the McIntyres, lost their son during a trip to Chicago. Mrs. McIntyre had a dizzy spell and cracked her head on the sidewalk outside Marshall Fields. When she woke up her toddler son was gone. She wasn’t without hope though — the tip of little fellow’s left little finger is missing, making him easy to recognize. Yet despite this unusual telltale, after more than three decades the McIntyres have never been able to locate their son.
The McIntyre family attorney, who turns out to be none other than Brandy’s partner Vincent, has long been in charge of the search for the boy. And it’s Vincent who first sees the opportunity to make a grab at the McIntyre family millions; he and Brandy just need to find the right man to play the part of the prodigal son: white male, early thirties, from the Chicagoland area, raised in an orphanage, and finally: willing to pare his pinky for a big payoff. Enter Mike ‘Lefty’ Farrell (Edmond O’Brien).
Throughout film history there have been countless scenes when a character loses some limb or another, and most such films exploit the suspense-filled moments before the axe falls, the knife slashes, or the chainsaw rattles to life. In this case the exchange between Brandy and Mike leading up to the “ouch” is just as compelling. The scene occurs early on, just after Brandy discovers Mike drearily checking cards at an L.A. bingo joint. In a brief sequence of impressive narrative economy, Brandy manages to catch Mike’s eye, test his mettle against a hired thug, get him arrested and bailed out, clue him in on the potential scam, and convince him to put his little finger in the path of a car door. Considering the pair just met, Mike seems too eager to go along with her plan. It’s a weak point in the story that relies on the seductive power of the femme fatale to make believable — after all, how many men will maim themselves for a woman they’ve just met? It’s a hard pill to swallow, and Liz Scott isn’t the girl to help it go down any easier. Scott was certainly a wonderful actress — she could outperform most fifties crime pic ingénues with her eyes alone, but she lacked that Rita-esque brand of raw sexuality necessary to close this deal.
Nevertheless the sequence is Two of a Kind’s best — though it’s the doom and gloom dialogue which brings the whole thing off. The outcome is never in doubt; we know the finger has to come off for the story to move forward, but the film carves out mucho character development before the big moment. Brandi pulls up to a shadowy curb, the emergency hospital quietly looming a block ahead. She cuts to the chase: “It has to look like an accident — you walk in with a smashed finger and tell them you caught it in a car door.” “And how does it really get smashed?” Mike asks, to which she deadpans, “In a car door.” Brandi leans across Mike’s chest and pushes open his door, while he eyes her warily for the first time. She removes the lipstick from her handbag and paints an aiming line on his little finger before announcing, “You’d better have a cigarette.” Still gregarious, Mike asks, “Who gets to make with the door?” To which Brandy’s curt “I do” not only establishes her clear control of the situation but also that Mike (like other noir protagonists) is in way over his head. Her final admonition, “Look the other way” comes just a second before she crushes his finger. The scene is certainly the most noirish in the film, particularly in how it parallels Mike’s predicament with that of a man about to be executed. The cigarette, the turning of the head, the willing submission, and finally, the moment’s sexually-charged, emasculating violence are quintessentially noirish, and ensure that Two of a Kind would be much better-remembered if only it didn’t shoot itself in the foot so soon after chopping off Mike’s finger.
But the stakes are so low! One of the reasons the car door scene resonates is because it’s the only exciting moment in the movie — and all it involves is a busted up little finger! The film is otherwise light on crime, and the inheritance scheme fails miserably. No one gets killed, and when the plan is unraveled Mr. McIntyre doesn’t even press charges, even knowing that Vincent secretly hoped to kill him in order to get rich even quicker. McIntyre simply demands that the larcenous lawyer close up shop and leave town, while he actually invites the repentant Mike to perpetuate the ruse for the sake of the forlorn Mrs. McIntyre’s newfound happiness. As a matter of fact, the stakes are so low that everyone would likely have been better off if the hustle had succeeded: The McIntyres would have lived out their final years in the happy knowledge that their son had returned, while the already-rich Vincent and Brandi would have just gotten richer and Mike would have endured a guilty inheritance. Considering that the McIntyres had no other potential heirs, perhaps the only real losers would have been the charitable organizations that would have otherwise inherited the funds.
Yet if a deeper reading is made, an important question comes to mind, though it’s one that potentially destroys the film, or at least makes it awfully difficult to like: What about the McIntyre’s real son? It’s not that viewers would expect this lost child to joyously reappear after thirty years to throw a monkey wrench into Brandy and Mike’s plans (though that may have made for an interesting twist). Postwar audiences were as aware as any of the potential for horror in the world, and the details of the Lindbergh case still lingered in the public mind, as would the circumstances of the Wineville Chicken Murders (known to contemporary audiences thanks to Clint Eastwood’s Changeling) and many other newswire scandals of the period. In giving Two of a Kind such a happy denouement, fate can’t mete out the justice required by the noir universe. Sometimes the happy ending is an important part of the noir journey, as in the redemption-oriented Tomorrow is Another Day. Yet here Vincent, Brandy, and Mike contrive a terrible crime: they casually and unremorsefully attempt to cash in on the grief and hope of a decent family that has lost its only child, in all likelihood to a horrible death. The film trades justice for romance, and no two stars, even O’Brien and Scott, possess screen chemistry sufficient for us to forgive a crime that involves preying on the heart of a bereaved mother. We are left to wonder how the title, Two of a Kind, is intended to represent Brandy and Mike, though in some dark, accidental way conjures thoughts of Mike and that vanished little boy, a plot device of so little consequence to the film that he’s denied even the human dignity of a name.
Two of a Kind (1951)
Director: Henry Levin
Producer: William Dozier
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Screenplay: James Edward Grant, James Gunn and Lawrence Kimble
Starring: Edmond O’Brien and Lizabeth Scott
Released by: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Running Time: 75 minutes