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Blind Alley looks and sounds a bit stilted by today's standards, but in 1939 it was ahead of the sociocultural curve, thanks to its use of psychoanalysis as a fundamental plot device. Sigmund Freud's innovative "talking cure" was only a few decades old, and while Freud himself wanted nothing to do with movies he turned down an offer to consult on Secrets of a Soul, directed by G.W. Pabst in 1926 the new approach to psychology would eventually capture Hollywood's imagination. Cinematic psychoanalysis didn't reach its peak until the traumas of World War II found an outlet in the shadowy expressionism of film noir, but the prewar Blind Alley is a dress rehearsal for The Dark Past, a 1948 noir adapted by the same screenwriters from the same play. And its psychological "breakthrough" scene is a precursor of the big dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's noirish Spellbound of 1945.
Blind Alley stars Chester Morris as crazed killer Hal Wilson, who's just busted out of jail, taking the warden as a hostage (Morris's crime-movie credentials include a gazillion Boston Blackie pictures in the '40s). We know he's a killer when he guns the warden down, and we know he's crazed when he gazes at the corpse with a weird expression on his face. A well-organized psychopath, Wilson has a getaway plan a boat will spirit him to a distant hideout and several henchmen, plus a girlfriend, to help him pull it off. All he needs now is a safe place to wait, and the best one available is the waterfront house of Dr. Shelby, a professor of psychiatry played by Ralph Bellamy with his usual suave confidence. The good doctor is spending the evening with various high-toned guests, but Wilson barges right in, herds most of those present into an upstairs bedroom, and shoots a late arrival in cold blood.
The one thing Wilson didn't anticipate is having to match his highly inadequate wits against those of a professor of psychiatry. At first Dr. Shelby humors him, figuring that if the criminal's plan goes as expected, he'll be out of everyone's hair before long. But the getaway boat is way behind schedule, and Wilson starts to get under the psychiatrist's skin, pushing everyone around and saying intellectuals are nuts. To put the creep in his place, Dr. Shelby decides to "take his mind apart and let him see the pieces." This isn't a very hard job Wilson's mind doesn't appear to have many pieces and soon the prof has lured him into talking about his past. Wilson resists, but not very hard, and before you can say "psychopathological" he's vividly describing a recurrent dream about hiding from a rainstorm under an umbrella surrounded by disembodied legs. Analyzing this in a flash, Shelby helps Wilson remember the repressed trauma that's responsible for his murderous nature: After suffering childhood abuse, he betrayed his father to the cops, then cowered under a table as dad's blood dripped down through a hole. Now that his pesky Oedipus complex is neutralized, Wilson is no longer crazed. But he's killed a lot of people, and for 1930s censors that mandated a death sentence, so he doesn't quite make it to the end of the picture. Freud said the superego keeps watch on our morals, and Hollywood had a mighty strong superego back then.
Blind Alley was written by Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort, and Albert Duffy, based on a 1935 play by James Warwick, who never had another Broadway success but managed to parlay this story into both the 1939 movie and a 1941 television drama with a different cast, broadcast live from New York when TV was in its infancy. Warwick's play may have been an influence on the 1936 movie The Petrified Forest, which is also about mismatched adversaries stuck together in an isolated place, and The Petrified Forest surely influenced Blind Alley director Charles Vidor when he directed the noir classic Gilda (1946) a few years later. Movies descended from Blind Alley include the 1954 thriller Suddenly, with Frank Sinatra as a would-be presidential assassin who sets up his gun in an innocent widow's house; the 1955 noir The Desperate Hours, directed by William Wyler; and, more tenuously, numerous entries in the home-invasion subgenre.
Blind Alley is weakened by story elements that make as little sense as the surface content of Wilson's dream. Why doesn't Wilson bother to tie up his multiple hostages in Dr. Shelby's home? After forcing them into a bedroom with a thug standing guard, why does he let Dr. Shelby stay in the living room as if he were an old pal? Why doesn't his hostility to brainy people keep him from having a long chat with the conspicuously brainy doc? When a latecomer arrives, why doesn't Wilson just shove him into the bedroom with everyone else, instead of shooting him dead? Why does he tie up the household maids in the basement with nobody making sure they don't escape and call the cops, which is exactly what they do? Et cetera. And if you've had a single day of Psych 101, you'll hoot at Dr. Shelby's explanation of the human mind it's like watching Freud do a guest spot on Oprah.
But silliness like this is one of the pleasures to be found in 69-minute quickies from the late '30s. Deeper pleasures come from the crisp cinematography by Lucien Ballard, who was only a few years into his legendary career. The movie's most visually striking moments are Wilson's dream, which is shown on negative film, and the reenactment of his childhood trauma, which avoids the usual Hollywood gimmicks blurry focus, wobbly compositions in favor of sharply etched images and hallucinatory set design, both of which anticipate Hitchcock's approach in Spellbound. In its review of Blind Alley on New Year's Day of 1939, the trade paper Variety praised Morris as "vigorous" and Bellamy as "quiet and self-assured," and said Vidor's directing, "although slow in several spots, is okay." That's about right, but add a couple of stars if your Oedipus complex has been kicking up lately.
Director: Charles Vidor
Associate Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Screenplay: Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort, Albert Duffy, based on the play by James Warwick
Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard
Film Editing: Otto Meyer
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Cast: Chester Morris (Hal Wilson), Ralph Bellamy (Dr. Shelby), Ann Dvorak (Mary), Joan Perry (Linda Curtis), Melville Cooper (George Curtis), Rose Stradner (Doris Shelby), John Eldredge (Dick Holbrook), Ann Doran (Agnes), Marc Lawrence (Buck), Stanley Brown (Fred Landis), Scotty Beckett (Davy), Milburn Stone (Nick), Marie Blake (Harriet).
by David Sterritt