Curtis Bernhardt, 1945
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Alexis Smith
“A thought can be like a malignant disease.”
While Richard and Kathryn seem to be happily married, Kathryn knows that he is in love with her sister, the younger, pretty Evelyn. Kathryn, who nags and bosses him about in private, declares that she will never give him a divorce. Soon after, Richard, Evelyn, and Kathryn are all in a car accident, though only Richard is injured and suffers from a broken leg. He uses this to his advantage to set up an elaborate alibi. He has Kathryn drive to their country home by herself, but drives ahead of her, while everyone thinks he is wheelchair bound. He kills Kathryn, pushing her car down the cliff, and leaves no evidence. He appears distraught, but begins to woo Evelyn, despite the interruptions of their psychologist friend, Professor Holdsworth. Unfortunately for Richard, it seems that Kathryn is still alive and he grows increasingly paranoid…
Though not widely known, this middle of the road Humphrey Bogart effort came out around the same time as Casablanca, but just before the actor’s major rise to fame. A strong performance from Bogie, great atmosphere, and some interesting noir elements make the film worth watching, despite some fairly obvious plot flaws. Conflict would have been a more successful film if the script had been more complex and the characters more fleshed out. Early after Kathryn’s murder, there is the hint that she might be a ghost returned to haunt Richard (the scene with the perfume), but more of this would have gone a long way. Four other interesting possibilities include:
A) A reason to believe that someone might be blackmailing Bogie
B) A reason to believe that the wife might still be alive a la Diabolique
C) If it seemed like Bogie’s character was really going mad, or
D) If Evelyn was involved in the scheme in some way
The plot is both full of holes and incredibly far-fetched. In order to catch a killer, the police set up a complicated sting involving a network of people and follow the orders of a psychologist? This seems unlikely. The police obviously don’t have to be involved, as there are plenty of other films from this period where a civilian discovers a murderer.
None of the characters are remotely developed, which really hurts the film. No one’s motivations are clear. Did Richard really kill his wife just because she nags him and said she wouldn’t get a divorce? This seems like a thin excuse, unless there are other scenes (like In a Lonely Place) that make Bogart’s character seem like a deeply unhinged psychopath. And why does he love Evelyn? Even one scene establishing this relationship would have been helpful, rather than an expository moment where the wife tells us that she knows about Richard’s secret feelings. I feel like I’ve spent most of the review so far re-writing the script for Conflict, but it really is a frustrating effort that has potential it never quite delivers. There are a few moments where the film feels almost Hitchcockian and more of these would have made it a classic entry in the Bogart canon.
Probably the most effective scene in the film is the murder, where a menacing-looking Bogart steps out from behind the trees and walks up an isolated, mist-covered mountain road to kill his panicking wife. Curiously, Bogart and co-star Alexis Smith (Evelyn) also appeared together in another spousal murder-fueled noir, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, a similarly plotted tale where Bogart murders his wife to pursue Smith’s character.
Though Smith is lovely, she isn’t given a lot to do. Her expressions range from concerned to contrite, to innocent, and I suspect she would have had a lot more to offer with a meatier script. Charles Drake (Star Trek) barely appears on screen as her wholesome suitor and it’s a shame that the script didn’t bother developing why she would prefer one man over another, or really what her feelings are at all.
Next to Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet makes the film worth checking out, even though he has an equally bland role as the sympathetic psychologist. He manages to shine in one his only good guy roles opposite Bogart, and imparts some of his unique brand of droll, if slightly suggestive humor.
Like so many Hollywood directors during the ‘40s and ‘50s, director Curtis Bernhardt was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. in the ‘30s after fleeing the Nazis. He directed Bette Davis in A Stolen Life and Joan Crawford in Possessed. Crawford was initially intended to star as Kathryn in Conflict, but when she read the script, Crawford allegedly responded that she never dies in movies and never loses her man. And speaking of Germans, this story is oddly based on “The Pentacle,” by noir director Robert Siodmak and German writer Alfred Neumann. I’ve never read the original, but there is certainly some ridiculous Freudianism at work in the film.
On a final note, there was an interesting overlap in Bogart’s personal life with Conflict. During shooting, Bogart was married to the violent, drunken Mayo Methot. Within a year or so, he would meet the love of his life and divorce Methor for Lauren Bacall. Bogie and Bacall kept their early relationship secret, as his fights with Methor were legendary around Hollywood. She was incredibly abusive towards Bogart and went so far as to stab him, set their house on fire, and attempted to kill herself several times.
Though Conflict isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off, it’s an interesting effort with some great atmosphere. It also has Bogie in one of his few bad guy roles and Greenstreet as a rare good guy. After a number of years, the film is finally available on a barebones DVD. It’s sold on Amazon -- I had a hell of a time renting it and simply had to buy it.