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Look up the definition of lounge lizard in the dictionary and you'll see a picture of Zachary Scott. Okay, maybe not but you should. The actor made a career out of playing social parasites and sleazy gigolos, the type who preys on vulnerable, love starved women with disposable incomes. Scott's gallery of scoundrels were tailor-made for the numerous melodramas and film noirs that Warner Bros. churned out in the forties and fifties. In many ways, it was his debut performance as a despicable pimp turned murderer in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and his treacherous opportunist in Mildred Pierce (1945) that helped stereotype the actor for the rest of his career. Yet, these were basically supporting roles for Scott, and though they solidified his image as a loathsome character for filmgoers, it was Danger Signal (1945) that gave him his first major role. An ideal showcase for Scott's unctuous on-screen persona, the movie features the actor in a male version of the femme fatale role so synonymous with film noirs.
As Ronnie Mason, Scott plays a ne'er-do-well writer who is on the run from the police. Seen fleeing the scene of a possible murder, Mason escapes to Los Angeles where, under an assumed name, he finds refuge as a boarder in the Fenchurch household. Spinning a web of lies, Mason quickly charms both the landlady, Mrs. Fenchurch (Mary Servoss), and her daughter, Hilda (Faye Emerson), who finds herself falling in love with this stranger in her home. Predictably, Mason and Hilda begin dating but their romance is interrupted by a visit from Hilda's younger sister, Anne (Mona Freeman). Once Mason learns that Anne stands to inherit a large inheritance when she marries, he promptly dumps Hilda and begins squiring her teenage sister around town. But Hilda WON'T BE IGNORED and is soon shopping for botulism test samples at Dr. Lang's laboratory, where she works as a stenographer. It's that one special ingredient that's needed to make her farewell dinner to Mason a memorable event.
Although you could argue that Danger Signal is really Hilda's story, it's Scott's entertaining performance as the amoral Mason that dominates the film. From the smug look on his face as he watches his evil schemes fall into place to the undisguised glee he registers as the two sisters engage in a jealous rivalry for his affections, Scott has no peer when it comes to playing a smarmy seducer like Mason. The film is equally fascinating for its mixture of film noir techniques (James Wong Howe's atmospheric cinematography), psychological profiling (the introduction of female psychiatrist, Dr. Silla (Rosemary DeCamp), who tries to analyze Mason's character), and a not-so-subtle subtext about male-female relationships - that women prefer aggressive go-getters like Mason to decent but ordinary Joes like Anne's teenage beau, Bunkie Taylor (Richard Erdman). The absurdly happy ending spells it all out for us as Hilda's formerly Milquetoast boss, Dr. Lang (Bruce Bennett), turns assertive and demands that Hilda accompany him on a date, after missing his chance many times before because of his own reticent nature.
Danger Signal was directed by Robert Florey, who helmed such well regarded genre efforts as Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Face Behind the Mask (1941). Valued for his technical skill and quick turnaround time on projects, Florey was a master at turning out superior B-pictures and, as a result, Warner Bros. rarely gave him an opportunity to graduate to A-pictures. In the case of Danger Signal, he ran into some unexpected problems. For one thing, the Hays Office (Hollywood's own censorship organization) demanded that the film's ending - where Hilda poisons Mason - be changed. In fact, five years earlier the Hays Office had initially rejected a film treatment of Phyllis Bottome's original story as morally objectionable and it took more than twenty-five writers before the film finally reached the screen. Additional production delays were caused by the replacement of Ann Blyth, due to a back injury, in the role of Anne Fenchurch.
According to co-star Rosemary DeCamp, who cites Danger Signal as one of her favorite screen roles in Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry (McFarland & Company), Faye Emerson's engagement during the production to Brigadier General Elliott Roosevelt (the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt) also caused delays: "Every time [Elliott] flew over the sound stage we all had to turn out and wave, falling behind day after day. Then they - Faye and Elliott - went to Arizona for their wedding, adding another four days to the schedule. When filming resumed, our fabulous cinematographer, Jimmy Wong Howe, said he couldn't repair the honeymoon damage and Faye's face had to have a rest. Finally, we had almost caught up when President Roosevelt died, and Faye went off to Washington. In spite of all this, the film turned out very well - clever and interesting."
Producer: William Jacobs
Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: C. Graham Baker, based on the story by Phyllis Bottome
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: Frank Magee
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Faye Emerson (Hilda Fenchurch), Zachary Scott (Ronnie Mason/Marsh), Rosemary DeCamp (Dr. Silla), Bruce Bennett (Dr. Andrew Lang), Mona Freeman (Anne Fenchurch), John Ridgely (Thomas Turner), Mary Servoss (Mrs. Fenchurch).
by Jeff Stafford