Noirvember 2021, Episode 3: A Life at Stake (1955)
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
A Life at Stake (Hank McCune Productions, 1955) directed by Paul Guilfoyle
“Aren’t you getting a little fresh, Mr. Shaw?”
“Yeah, maybe I am.”
If you’ve never heard of A Life at Stake prior to the recent Blu-ray release from The Film Detective, you can be forgiven. The picture is one of many that faded into obscurity in the mid-1950s when theatrical double features were on the way out and people were staying home to watch their televisions.
Angela Lansbury as a femme fatale? Murder, She Wrote indeed…
But first things first. Keith Andes plays Edward, a struggling young architect/builder who recently lost his business. Although Edward can’t seem to get back on his feet, he refuses to use the framed $1,000 bill he earned from his previous business ventures.
Then he falls for a woman named Doris Hillman (Lansbury). Meeting Doris as she lounges around a swimming pool in a bathing suit is quite an introduction, but Doris has business on her mind. (Well, at least initially.) If she and her entrepreneur husband Gus (Douglass Dumbrille) can purchase some promising-looking land, Edward can build on it, and she (a former real estate broker) can sell it. You don’t have to be a film noir expert to know that a business deal isn’t Doris’s only interest.
But what about the mysterious disappearance of Gus’s former business partner? And there’s an insurance policy that comes into play as well as Doris’s younger sister Madge (Claudia Barrett), who befriends Edward, sharing some very interesting information about her sibling.
If all this sounds like a poor man’s Double Indemnity, you’d be right, although A Life at Stake isn’t a strict rip-off of Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece. The characters are moderately compelling, simply because the acting is generally better than what we might expect from a low-budget production.
Of course Lansbury would become a major star, and after an Oscar nomination for her film debut in Gaslight (1944), she had a rough period in the mid-1950s when she was trying on different roles. She’s not totally comfortable as a femme fatale, but she’s still very good.
Keith Andes, who is perhaps most famous for his role as the villager Akuta from the Star Trek original series episode “The Apple,” is better than you might think in this role.
While the acting is generally good, the film’s major problems show up in the form of a weak script and significant budget limitations. Also consider that the shooting schedule was only 11 days, seven of which involved Lansbury. While certainly not a lost classic, A Life at Stake is enjoyable with some nice touches, especially as we approach the conclusion.
Produced by Hank McCune Productions and distributed by Gibraltar Motion Picture Distributors, the film was eventually sold as part of an 12-movie package deal to The Filmakers (of Ida Lupino and Collier Young fame), who were trying to stay afloat at the time. This connection explains why the Blu-ray contains a nice 11-minute supplement on The Filmakers, which joins the Jason A. Ney commentary as the disc’s only extras. I haven’t listened to Ney’s commentary yet, but his essay in the release’s booklet is quite good.
The film itself looks surprisingly good with only a couple of “skips,” certainly not a deal-breaker. The Blu-ray is worth owning, not only for a look at Lansbury fairly early in her career, but also as an enjoyable film noir. With a nice 4K restoration and some limited yet good supplements, The Film Detective has given noir fans a nice little treat with more than a moderate level of rewatchability. Definitely worth a look.
All photos from the film come from DVD Beaver.