Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. Valentine (1946)

Republic Pictures was most famous for its Saturday morning serials, but also churned out a long series of 60-minute programmers in a variety of genres. Among the most interesting, and certainly the most curious, of these brief films is Philip Ford’s The Mysterious Mr. Valentine. Republic’s noirs were always fatalistic, dense, and claustrophobic, and the first minutes of The Mysterious Mr. Valentine are so crammed with narrative coincidence as to almost defy description. Philip Ford, (1900 - 1976) the son of actor/director Francis Ford and the nephew of the celebrated director John Ford, was just one of many unsung craftsmen who worked at Republic in the 1940s, and his other films during this period, such as The Timber Trail (1948), The Bold Frontiersman (1948), California Firebrand (1948) and Bandits of Dark Canyon (1947) were mostly program westerns. But when given a darker subject to deal with, as in The Mysterious Mr. Valentine and the interesting horror/noir Valley of the Zombies (1946), Ford more than rose to the occasion.

The Mysterious Mr. Valentine opens up with a whirlwind of narrative frenzy, and then never lets up until the final moments of the film. While driving home on a lonely road late at night, a young woman, Janet Spencer (Republic regular Linda Stirling) has an unexpected flat tire. Walking along the dimly lit road, Janet sights a chemical factory. Entering the building, Janet discovers research chemist John Armstrong (Tristram Coffin), and asks permission to use his telephone to call a garage. Unbeknownst to Janet, John Armstrong has just murdered his partner, and left the body in the back room. While Janet is on the phone trying to get help, Armstrong returns to the back room to discover that the body of his supposed victim has disappeared.

To relax his nerves, Armstrong suggests to Janet that they both have a drink. Moments later, Armstrong’s wife and a police photographer break into the factory and photograph Janet and Armstrong in a seemingly compromising position. Janet flees, stealing Armstrong’s wife’s car. Driving away at high speed, Janet is blinded by the glare of oncoming headlights, and accidentally runs down a pedestrian. The driver of the other car emerges with an associate and offers to dispose of the body at the local hospital, telling Janet to go home and forget the whole thing. Frantic, Janet drives wildly through the streets in the stolen vehicle, sideswiping the car of private eye Steve Morgan (William Henry). Returning at last to her home, Janet discovers the first of a series of blackmail notes from a “Mr. Valentine,” demanding $25,000 for the return of her car, and for not implicating her in the hit and run fatality.

That’s just the first 6 minutes of this 56-minute wonder, which grows more complex with each passing second. In Janet’s quest to extricate herself from the blackmail plot, she enlists the help of Steve Morgan, who has followed her home to collect on the damages to his car. However, Steve operates on the thinnest edge of the law, playing off the protagonists against each other in a series of jaw dropping triple-crosses. These deceptions are all the more disturbing because of the breezy self-assurance with which Steve lies to each character to preserve his own interests.


As Steve weaves his way through the increasingly Byzantine case, he repeatedly informs his prospective victims “You know, I could use you . . . I mean, as a client.” At last, after numerous plot twists, insurance agent Sam Priestley (Kenne Duncan) is unmasked as the mysterious Mr. Valentine; the whole affair has been an elaborate insurance scam. In a final moment of what can only be described as heterotopic insanity, Janet agrees to marry Steve, despite the fact that he has been working against her interests (or, perhaps more accurately, only in his own interests) throughout the entire film.

Unlike PRC, the Republic lot occasionally served as a production facility for John Ford, Fritz Lang, and other “A” list directors, but the bulk of their output consisted of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry westerns, the aforementioned children’s serials, and a modest series of program pictures. Yet the superior production capabilities of Republic lent a sheen to even their most pedestrian work, and yet managed to retain the true fatalism inherent in the noir genre. Not available on DVD, Philip Ford’s The Mysterious Mr. Valentine is a one-of-a-kind film, and certainly a valuable addition to the 1940s noir canon. In 1952, after directing some 40 feature films for Republic, Ford moved to television, where he helmed episodes of such shows as Lassie and The Adventures of Superman, as well as serving an assistant director on 29 more films, and as an actor in silent films, going back to 1916. Thus, The Mysterious Mr. Valentine is the work of a seasoned craftsman, and one whose career spanned more than four decades of cinema history.


video


Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009): A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008). His newest book, A History of Horror, (Rutgers University Press), is forthcoming in 2010. As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective in 2003.




3 comments:

  1. This looks like a "must see." Way more entertaining than today's so called "blockbusters."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great work ... just added the NEW article to Wikipedia ...including this link (meets the criteria). Thx --Luigibob

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post!

    Do you know where i can find this on dvd? Searched ebay and ioffer but no luck yet. Also been looking for Bluebeards Ten Honeymoons and the Phantom Speaks if anyone has them :)

    monsteragogo@hotmail.com

    ReplyDelete

Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley Noir.com