Noirvember 2021, Episode 4: They Won't Believe Me (1947)
They Won’t Believe Me (RKO, 1947) directed by Irving Pichel
“He’s been a bad husband and a bad citizen. But did he commit murder?”
That’s the question Defense Attorney Cahil (Frank Ferguson) asks the jury during the trial of his client Larry Ballentine (Robert Young), charged with the murder of a woman named Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward).
In a series of flashbacks, we learn of Larry’s marriage to a wealthy woman named Greta (Rita Johnson, above), but he’s stepping out with Janice Bell (Jane Greer). Janice genuinely loves Larry and is waiting for him to divorce Greta, but we soon figure out that Larry can’t stay away from easy money (especially if it’s his wife’s) or other women.
Yet you have to hand it to Larry. He knows how to work it: He’s slick, charming, and absolutely rotten. When they handed out consciences, Larry was probably out chasing skirts. Yet the women love him. When Larry hems and haws about getting a divorce, Janice responds, “I’m an all-or-nothing girl. I’m in love, and it’s wrong.” Even his wife Greta knows what’s going on, but tells her philandering husband, “To be a good sport, you always have to lose.” Greta’s solution is to find a job for her husband on the other side of the country where she can provide him with a different atmosphere.
Good luck with that.
At his new brokerage job, Larry gets all worked up over a coworker named Verna (the one he’s accused on killing, remember). Verna seems interested, but the problem is (1) Larry is still married to Greta, and (2) Larry and Verna’s boss Trenton (Tom Powers) is courting Verna. I won’t disclose how the story plays out, but the ending was very much a shocker at the time and still carries a powerful punch, although once you’ve seen the film, you should seek out Eddie Muller’s intro and outro of the film from his showing of it on Noir Alley a few years ago.
They Won’t Believe Me features a terrific cast, but the people behind the camera are responsible for much of the film’s effectiveness. First, the screenplay was written by Jonathan Latimer, a terrific novelist and one of the finest screenwriters ever to work in Hollywood. Even if you’ve only seen a few film noir titles, you’ve probably run across his work in films such as this one, The Glass Key (1942), Nocturne (1946), The Big Clock (1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), and Alias Nick Beal (1949). Second, Joan Harrison was the film’s producer, and if you haven’t yet read Christina Lane’s Edgar Award-winning book Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, you should.
Harrison not only knew how to produce compelling films, she also knew how to portray complex and fascinating female characters. All of the women in the film know exactly what Larry is, but they all react in a slightly different manner because they’ve been written so well by Latimer, shaped by Harrison, and performed by terrific actresses. Even though Larry is a total louse, they all see something in him worth fighting for.
Larry is essentially an homme fatale, something see from time to time in film noir, and Robert Young’s portray of Larry is one of the best homme fatale performances you’ll see. This is not the Robert Young from later television shows, the squeaky-clean dad from Father Knows Best or the kindly Marcus Welby, M.D., but a real manipulator. Can Young’s Larry manipulate the jury the same way he manipulates women? You’ll have to see the movie to find out. It’s available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.