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The postman only had to ring once to throw Loretta Young into a panic in Cause for Alarm, a 1951 domestic noir directed by Tay Garnett, the man behind one of the all-time great films noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Made as the old Hollywood was dying to be replaced by the new world of television, the film pointed to Young's successful move into the infant medium.
Young was at a career crossroads in the early '50s. Although still under 40 and widely acclaimed for her performance as a nun in Come to the Stable (1949), she was having trouble finding suitable roles in the face of changing times. With Cause for Alarm, she took a chance on a smaller scale film combining the film noir genre with a form of dramatic realism currently on display in European films of the era. To play a housewife victimized by an invalid husband who's been driven mad by the wrong heart medication she did away with glamour makeup and wore dresses straight off the rack. Of course, small scale at MGM still meant the best of everything. The film was shot by Joseph Ruttenberg, who would win his fourth Oscar® for the Technicolor confection Gigi (1958) and scored by rising young composer Andre Previn, another four-time Oscar®-winner.
The story had originated as a radio play that, like the classic radio drama Sorry, Wrong Number, unfolded in real time as its leading lady tried to intercept a letter that wrongly but convincingly accused her of her husband's murder. The often-underrated Young had generated similar tension two years earlier in The Accused (1949), as a college professor trying to cover up a murder committed in self-defense but under suspicious circumstances. She was aided greatly in the current film by co-writer Mel Dinelli, who also had written the suspense classic The Spiral Staircase (1946), and Tay Garnett, a master at just about every genre he tackled. In addition to his film noir credentials, he had also triumphed with such noted female-oriented dramas as Her Man (1930), with Helen Twelvetrees; One Way Passage (1932), with Kay Francis; and Mrs. Parkington (1944), with Greer Garson.
Shot quickly and economically, Cause for Alarm anticipated Young's coming success in television, a medium she would enter with her series A Letter for Loretta in 1953. The anthology series would reaffirm the popularity she seemed to have lost on the big screen while also bringing her three Emmys for her performance in a variety of roles, some of the best as harried housewives living through unbearable tension in 30-minute episodes.
Cause for Alarm anticipated her television success in more than just style and compactness, however. Garnett would become a regular director on the series as he, too, moved into the new medium. Husband Tom Lewis, who also produced and co-wrote this film, would serve as writer and producer on the series. And supporting actor Bruce Cowling, cast here as the doctor with whom her husband thinks she's having an affair, would guest star on the series six times.
Cause for Alarm did well at the box office, as did many of MGM's low-budget thrillers of the period. But it wasn't enough to rejuvenate Young's film career. After only four more features -- including another strong feminist thriller, Paula (1952) -- she would retire from the screen in 1953, never to return.
Producer: Tom Lewis
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Mel Dinelli, Tom Lewis, based on the story by Larry Marcus
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Arthur Lonergan
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Loretta Young (Ellen Jones), Barry Sullivan (George Jones), Bruce Cowling (Dr. Ranney Grahame), Margalo Gillmore (Mrs. Edwards), Irving Bacon (Joe Carston, Postman), Regis Toomey (Patrol Car Policeman), Kathleen Freeman (Woman), Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (Boy).
BW-74m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller