Jack Conway, 1942
Starring: William Powell, Hedy Lamarr, Basil Rathbone, Claire Trevor
David Talbot, a newly married French diplomat, is suddenly sent a letter demanding a million francs from a mysterious man demanding that it be delivered late at night in an isolated garden. Talbot has him arrested for extortion and the case goes to trial. There the man, Carlos Le Duc, reveals that David Talbot is actually a crook named Jean Pelletier and the request for money was not extortion, but a legitimate claim. Talbot cannot prove that he is or isn’t Pelletier, because more than a decade prior, he was in a train accident and suffered from amnesia. Le Duc is joined at the trial by a man named Henri Sarrou and a nightclub singer, Michelle. They both claim that Talbot is Pelletier, but recant their statements and the trial ends in Talbot’s favor. But just when he thinks his life is getting back to normal, Sarrou and Michelle attempt to blackmail him, insisting that he is Pelletier and that all three were involved in a murder…
While Crossroads isn’t really a noir film, it is an interesting transitional piece between the light-hearted, comedic detective films of the ‘30s – such as The Thin Man series, where star William Powell made his name – to the darker, more nihilistic noir fare of the ‘40s. Overall, Crossroads is not quite a comedy, but it ends on a light and airy note of positive resolution. It does, however, share some themes with the then developing noir genre. Amnesia – whether real or faked – was used, primarily because identity was such a major issue in noir films. Crossroads could easily have become a noir film if the script had handled Talbot’s amnesia and identity issues slightly differently, though, to the film’s benefit things are kept ambiguous and not resolved until the last few minutes.
Another noir-like element is the inclusion of a femme fatale. Beautiful nightclub singer Michelle is slightly washed up, slightly seedy. She blackmails Talbot and pretends they had a sexual and romantic past, with just enough touch of a broken heart that would make femme fatale stars like Lizabeth Scott and Barbara Stanwyck famous. The film’s handling of sex is practically non-existent outside from the character of Michelle, though there is a somewhat racy opening scene where a beautiful woman interrupts Talbot’s lecture and later gets into his cab and propositions him. It turns out that this is Mrs. Talbot and the two are newly married and very much in love.
Director Jack Conway was known for romantic comedies like The Libeled Lady (1936) and adventures like Boom Town (1940), though literary adaptation A Tale of Two Cities (1935) was his most famous. There are certainly hints of the romantic comedy here. He also made Jean Harlow (Powell’s fiancée until her death) famous with the scandalous Red-Headed Woman (1932). He worked with stars William Powell and Hedy Lamarr multiple times, and they carry the film here. Conway wasn’t known for a large output of mystery or noir films, though he made an early talkie mystery, Arsène Lupin (1932), an adaptation of the famous French novel starring John Barrymore.
I can’t say anything bad about star William Powell, as he is one of my favorite actors of all time. I do think that a more unknown actor would have made the proceedings a bit more anxiety-inducing. I knew for the entire film that nothing bad would possibly happen to Powell. There would undoubtedly be a happy ending where he fires off some sort of cheeky one liner and everything returns to the status quo – and of course this is exactly what happens. On the other hand (SPOILER), if it turned out that Talbot really was Pelletier and/or was faking his amnesia, it would have been a far riskier, much more interesting film. Instead, it is a pleasant, if run-of-the-mill mystery with elements of the noir film, but it’s not quite bleak enough or exciting enough to be considered a classic.
Hedy Lamarr is lovely and assured in the role of Talbot’s wife Lucienne, she just doesn’t have very much to do. Her belief in Talbot is endearing, but it would have been nice if she was given a scene or two where she got to do some detective work on her own. Instead, she is little more than a lovely prop and can’t quite compare with Powell’s long running on-screen partner, another dark-haired exotic looking beauty, Myrna Loy. Lamarr and Powell would reunite for romantic comedy The Heavenly Body (1944) a year later.
Noir queen Claire Trevor (Murder My Sweet) puts in a nice appearance as Michelle. As with Lamarr, she isn’t given quite enough to do, but does impart some menace and sleazy charm into her role. This part was allegedly supposed to be played by Marlene Dietrich – what a sight that would have been. Basil Rathbone is fantastic, as always, and handles his slimy, villainous role as the head blackmailer well. During this period, he was mostly known for playing Sherlock Holmes in a series of films for Universal, so it’s a welcome change.
Writer John Kafka’s (no relation) story had already been filmed in France as the superior Carrefour (1938) with the delightful, versatile Charles Vanel (The Wages of Fear), who looks far more like a scoundrel than William Powell. Unfortunately, Crossroads ends up feeling like a subdued, talkier remake of that film. The script is overflowing with plot holes and drags due to some long, talky scenes, but it ultimately winds up being an entertaining, worthwhile effort thanks to Powell, Lamarr, and Rathbone. Crossroads is available on DVD, though I would recommend a rental or download first.
Finally, I’d like to include a note about the incredible Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000). Born Hedwig Kiesler in Austria, her life story is the stuff of legends or fiction. Though ultimately known as one of the most beautiful women of her generation and a star of MGM’s Golden Age, Lamarr’s life is far more complex. At 18, she starred in German-Czech film Ecstasy (1933), where she shockingly appeared nude and simulated an orgasm. Soon after, she married the industrialist and munitions manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, who worked closely with the Nazi party and Italian fascist government, despite being half-Jewish. He became so jealous and controlling that Lamarr disguised herself as a maid and fled their castle home to Paris and then London. She met Louis B. Mayer and changed her name to Hedy Lamarr, which began her Hollywood career. She starred in more than two dozen films -- everything from Boom Town (1940), Tortilla Flat (1942), White Cargo (1942), and Samson and Delilah (1945) -- before her acting career began to decline in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
She wasn’t just a sex symbol – during the war, Lamarr and the wonderful avant garde composer George Antheil teamed up to invent a major communications breakthrough. Known as spread spectrum, they devised a secret communications system meant to bypass the radio frequencies used to send signals and control torpedoes. The radio frequency could be jammed and they wanted to be able to send a signal that could not be tampered with. The Navy did not use this during WWII, but adopted it in 1962 during the Cuban conflict. Though essentially ignored by the scientific community during the War, Lamarr was eventually honored for this achievement and her work has gone on to be the basis for Bluetooth and other wi-fi and wireless forms of communication. Truly incredible. Learn more about her here.