In the opening moments of RKO’s 1949 second feature Strange Bargain, everyman husband and father Sam Wilson ducks a well-aimed daily newspaper as he reaches to grab the milk from his suburban front porch. It’s a slick bit of foreshadowing: take but a step outside your front door, and you never know what might happen to you. (Yes, I know Bilbo Baggins said just about the same thing.) Hobbits aside, the indifference of fate is a common film noir theme, even though this is a picture that doesn’t merit much consideration in that regard. The setup is there but the execution isn’t, and neither is the payoff. Instead one gets the impression of a teleplay or a TV movie of the week, almost as if the producers of the Donna Reed program decided to see how it would go over if they did a murder mystery special. There’s some irony in this — considering the three leads (Scott, Lynn, Morgan) would recreate their roles some forty years later on an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Back to the setup. Wilson is a schmuck of the first order. Get a read on his mug in the poster: confused. He’s the guy who never manages to get ahead, because unlike everyone else it never occurs to him to even try. He just falls out of the sack each morning, vacant smile on his face, and pours himself into one of his three Woolworth suits. He eats the same breakfast every day, pats his two kids on the head, and heads off to his job as the “assistant bookkeeper” at a small town financial firm. Make a picture of him in your head — I bet he nods a lot. He's happy enough at his job, but doesn't realize it’s the pits. (Just maybe though, he does know and is punishing himself for not fighting in the war.) The two owners are at each others throats, the secretaries treat him like a coat rack, and since Sam tallies the numbers he knows the joint is down $50,000 a year for the past four and a half years — yet in spite of all this he doesn’t have the good sense to go look for a position elsewhere. Instead, what’s he do? On the urging of his wife he asks for a raise. And what happens? You got it: pink slip.

And then things get weird.

In the real world Sam might throw a tantrum, make like Johnny Paycheck, and then head home to mope and collect a few unemployment checks before finding another gig — maybe even a better one. That’s not what happens though. Instead Mr. Jarvis, amped from the firing, decides to make Sam a proposition. After all Jarvis is the one who’s really losing his shirt. He tells Sam he needs a favor: He’s decided to cash in all his chips and score a big life insurance check for his wife and his kid by smoking the barrel of his .38 revolver, but the insurance company won’t pay off on a suicide. He needs somebody to come over and make it look like a murder, and he’s willing to pay Sam $10,000 if he’ll do the dirty work. You have to give this Jarvis some credit: he may have run his own company into the ground, but he recognizes a patsy just as quick as the next guy. Of course Sam comes across with the “you have so much to live for” shtick, but his eyes go a little buggy at the mention of the ten grand.

Later that night Sam gets a call from Jarvis, hand on the trigger. Sam rushes over, ostensibly to save him, but instead finds him dead on the floor. He discovers the promised bankroll along with the strangest thank-you note any guy ever got, and decides that since Jarvis is already dead, there’s no harm in taking the wad and following through on the titular deal. Sam takes the revolver and fires a shot through one of the windows — shielding his face from the gun with the crook of his elbow. Read: he’s scared of the gun — no way was he in the war. He beats it home, hides the money, and feigns shock the following day when Jarvis’s death hits the papers: Murder!

The cop on the case is Harry Morgan, believe it or not playing a Lieutenant Webb, who was a big hero in the war and now walks with a cane. He has a reputation for always getting his man. Webb’s arrival makes Sam into even more of a putz: it turns out his son worships the celebrity cop — more proof dad sat out the fighting. (They really pour it on in Strange Bargain — Jeffrey Lynn either really needed to work or he’s as much a dunderhead as his character. His on-screen wife, Martha Scott, even gets higher billing.) The second half of the film deteriorates into a run of the mill whodunit, with a few possible suspects, and a not-so-surprising twist ending. At only 68 minutes it’s a fun ride, and admittedly provides the chance to see Morgan in the kind of part he didn’t get to play very often.

By far the most interesting aspect of Strange Bargain is the development of the main character. The film is greatly concerned with where Sam Wilson stands in his own community and domestic arrangement, his lack of power in both arenas, and how he copes when his livelihood and freedom are threatened. Yet while the majority of mid century Hollywood pictures feature characters relying on family, community, or perseverance to overcome adversity, Strange Bargain doesn’t. It can boast a happy ending, but not one that comes about through the actions of Sam, who is as passive getting into his mess as he is getting out of it. He’s a ping pong ball dropped into a pinball machine. The character’s very name, Sam Wilson (Uncle Sam), suggests that he is the definitive American man — so why make such milquetoast out of him?

It’s would be easy to write off Strange Bargain as a “it could happen to you” type of cautionary tale, if it didn’t take such drastic steps to drag Wilson through the dirt. In a sense he is the wrong man type, having done nothing to warrant his situation, which makes the development of his character all the more baffling — why not make him a winner? In the end we’ll be happier with triumph than we will with mere relief. Nobody in the theater is at risk of imagining themselves in similar circumstances, because nobody really believes they’re as pathetic as Sam. Even though he eventually gets off the hook, the movie wants us to ponder how he got on it, and it tries desperately to give us a reason to blame him. We are prodded to wonder if it because he was so pathetic, quintessentially American, or so banal?

The real question is whether or not the film wants us to believe those conditions are synonymous.

Strange Bargain (1949)

Directed by Will Price
Produced by Sid Rogell
Cinematography by Harry Wild
Written by Lillie Hayward and J.H. Wallis
Art Direction by Carroll Clark and Albert D’Agostino
Starring Jeffrey Lynn, Marthat Scott, and Harry Morgan
Released by RKO
Running time: 68 minutes.

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