Monday, March 29, 2010

Two of a Kind (1951)

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 completely derail a promising film noir. The premise is enticing — three grifters try to work a complicated 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 Wilson himself, Alexander Knox. It opens with a snappy pace and is characterized by tough dialogue 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 dialogue. 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 fails to deliver on its dark promises — instead it curtains like an MGM musical, where boy and girl hop in the ragtop and ride off into the setting Pacific sun, leaving a skeptical audience jilted and angry.

The film opens with Brandy (Lizabeth Scott), desperately searching from coast to coast for a man she’s never met — a special man who neatly fits the requirements that she and Vincent (Alexander Knox) need in order to orchestrate a swindle of gigantic proportions. Here’s why: A wealthy California couple, the McIntyres, lost a son many years ago during a trip to the windy city. Mom gets dizzy on and cracks her head on the sidewalk outside Marshall Field’s, and wakes to discover her three-year old son missing. She’s not without hope though — the little fellow has a curious wound, one that Two of a Kind hinges on: the tip of his left little finger has been lopped off. Yet despite this the McIntyres are unable to recover the boy, though their search has lasted for more than three decades. The McIntyre family attorney, who turns out to be none other than Brandy’s partner Vincent himself, is charged with maintaining investigation on behalf of the family. And it’s Vincent who first sees the opportunity to make a grab at the McIntyre family fortune — he and Brandy just need to find the right man to play the part of the prodigal son: white male, early thirties, from the greater Chicago land area, raised in an orphanage, and finally: willing to sacrifice a digit 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 plenty compelling. The scene occurs about fifteen minutes in, just after Brandy finally locates Mike working as a card checker 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 calls for 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. It still remains Two of a Kind’s best moment — though it’s the dialogue, specifically through how it portrays Mike as condemned, which makes the scene work so well. The outcome is never in doubt — we know the finger has to come off for the story to move forward, but the film squeezes out as much character development as possible 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 that she is clearly in control of the situation but that Mike is out of his league. Her final warning, “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 sexually-charged violence of the moment are quintessentially noirish, and ensure the scene would be much better-remembered if only the film didn’t shoot itself in the foot after chopping off Mike’s finger.

Two of a Kind is further compounded by the fact that its stakes are so low. One of the reasons the car door scene resonates is because it’s the only truly exciting moment in the movie — and all it involves is a busted up pinky finger! On casual inspection there are no real crimes to mention here — the inheritance scheme fails miserably. No one gets killed, and when the plan is unraveled Mr. McIntyre doesn’t even press charges, despite the fact that Vincent was hoping to kill him. He 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 Mrs. McIntyre’s good cheer. 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 suffered a guilty inheritance. Considering that the McIntyres had no other potential heirs, the only real losers would have been the charitable organizations that would have received the funds in Mike’s place.

Yet if a deeper reading of the film is made an important question begs to be considered, though it’s one of profound repercussions that potentially destroys the film, or at least make 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. Postwar audiences were as aware as any of the potential for horror in the world, and the details of the Lindbergh case would have 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 cases of the period. In giving Two of a Kind such a happy denouement, fate is denied the chance to mete out the justice required by the noir universe. Sometimes the happy ending is an important part of the noir journey, such as in a redemption-oriented film like Tomorrow is Another Day. Yet here Vincent, Brandy, and Mike commit a terrible crime, even if left unconsummated: they casually and unremorsefully conspire to cash in on the grief and hope of a decent family that has lost its only child, in all likelihood to a sad and untimely death. The film trades justice for romance, and no two stars, especially O’Brien and Scott, possess screen chemistry in sufficient quantity for us to forgive a crime that involves preying on the heart of a bereaved mother. We are left to ponder the title, Two of a Kind, which more than likely refers to Brandy and Mike — but in some dark, accidental way conjures thoughts of Mike and some desperately missed child, here nothing more than a plot device, of so little consequence that he’s denied even a name.

Written by The Professor

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  1. Liz Scott has a cute squeaky laugh in this...

  2. Edmond O'Brien's facial expression in the poster is very reminiscent of his look on the poster for "Shield For Murder".

  3. Watched this last night from the Bad Girls of Film Noir set. I fully agree that they blew the last reel of the movie. There was the potential for this to go in several more noirish directions. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and didn't feel the "happy" ending was handled all that badly. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it!


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