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Shockproof

Shockproof(1949)

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teaser Shockproof (1949)

Shockproof (1949) belongs to a minority of crime films that are all about the love. As in Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1948), Harold Daniels' Roadblock (1951) and Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy (1950), the hardcases of Shockproof are, however steely in the face of danger, powerless in the palm of their passions. Given the film's extremes of emotion and behavior and the ever lowering clouds of Fate, it should come as no surprise that Douglas Sirk was at the helm, even if its noirish curlicues may seem like foreign soil for the director of such florid weepies as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959). Although Cornel Wilde was the nominal star of this Columbia Pictures production, the film belongs to leading lady (and then-wife) Patricia Knight. Wilde lobbied to get Knight work in movies but her inexperience lost her the title role in Otto Preminger's Forever Amber in 1947. (The studio chose another newcomer instead - Peggy Cummins - but then decided she too lacked sufficient experience and replaced her after six weeks with Linda Darnell.)

Knight made her film debut without Wilde beside her in Fox's Roses Are Red (1947). Critical response to the acting of the hazel-eyed platinum blonde is often unkind but Knight brings an invigorating edginess to Shockproof, the combination of a lack of polish and the "angular handsomeness" (as Sirk put it) of her looks which distinguished the Boston-born actress from the dewier likes of Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. While Wilde plays his righteous parole officer by the book, Knight's femme fatale (who has spent five years in prison after taking a murder rap for her gambler boyfriend) is enigmatic, capricious, breathless and cruel...just the cocktail for making good guys go bad.

Shockproof was an early script by Sam Fuller, still fresh from his experiences with the 16th Infantry in World War II and having just turned down a seven year contract with MGM. Although the title seems like vintage Fuller (given that he wrote and directed the 1963 film Shock Corridor), the original screenplay was titled The Lovers, as Wilde's and Knight's outlaw couple (who have married in secret and in so doing have violated the conditions of her parole) are labeled by the tabloids in the film's third act. The executives at Columbia not only ordered the title change but trucked in writer Helen Deutsch to soften the sharp edges of Fuller's "gutty" (Sirk's word) scenario. (Deutsch later adapted Lillian Roth's biography I'll Cry Tomorrow and Jacqueline Susann's trash classic Valley of the Dolls for the big screen.)

Lost in the rewriting was a more violent conclusion, in which Wilde's compromised Griff Marat (Fuller recycled the name Griff for The Naked Kiss in 1964) proves his love for Knight by taking on the police in a pitched gun battle. In its place, Deutsch had the fugitives simply give themselves up to the authorities following the unhappy realization that they can't make a go of it in a world of decent people. In a final scene not directed by Sirk, the lovers are saved at the last minute when villain John Baragrey (whom Knight has gunned down, an act of desperation meant to protect Wilde but which instead precipitates his moral tumble) lies to the police to clear the protagonists of wrongdoing, thus altruistically paving the way for their happiness as a proper man and wife. It's an unlikely, even laughable denouement that nonetheless supports the film's central theme that anyone, no matter how straight-shooting, can become a criminal if the breaks are against them.

Douglas Sirk was unhappy with the experience of making Shockproof and left Columbia and the United States shortly after completing the picture to return to Germany. The homecoming, however, proved to be far from sweet and Sirk would beat a retreat back to American shores after only a year abroad. For United Artists, he threw himself into making The First Legion (1951) starring Charles Boyer. The film is widely considered to be the first of Sirk's masterpieces and the filmmaker himself rarely looked back to the debacle of Shockproof. That's too bad, as the film has, for all its shortcomings, much to recommend it. Location shooting in and around downtown Los Angeles (in particular, the Bunker Hill section seen in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly [1955] and the landmark Bradbury Building, used in films from Double Indemnity [1944] to Blade Runner [1982]) gives the proceedings an open air freshness that never quite steps over into the docu-drama verit of Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann's He Walked by Night (1948) and Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948).

Shockproof is seductively photographed by Charles Lawton, Jr. (The Lady from Shanghai, 1947) and proud in vivid character work by such familiar faces as King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956), Ann Shoemaker (Alice Adams, 1935), James Flavin (Armored Car Robbery, 1950) and Esther Minciotti (Marty, 1955), as Wilde's Italian "mama mia" who, though blind, can tell from a single shake of Knight's hand that collar and cuffs don't match.

Producers: Helen Deutsch, S. Sylvan Simon
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch, Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Cast: Cornel Wilde (Griff Marat), Patricia Knight (Jenny Marsh), John Baragrey (Harry Wesson), Esther Minciotti (Mrs. Marat), Howard St. John (Sam Brooks), Russell Collins (Frederick Bauer), Charles Bates (Tommy Marat)
BW-75m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with Jon Halliday
The Third Face by Sam Fuller
Cornel Wilde interview by David Del Valle, Psychotronic Video No. 29

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