Nora Prentiss (1947)
Directed by Vincent Sherman
Produced by William Jacobs
Screenplay by N. Richard Nash
Based on a story by Paul Webster, Jack Sobell
Cinematography by James Wong Howe
Music by Franz Waxman
Edited by Owen Marks
(1:51) Warner Archive DVD-R
Nora Prentiss doesn’t appear on many lists of film noir titles and some don’t consider it film noir at all. The terms “melodrama” and “a woman’s picture” are dropped during the rare occasions the film comes up in conversation among noir folks, perhaps in an attempt to remove it from the table. I’ve heard others grudgingly assign it a lower place in the canon, designating it as “loser noir,” which actually carries some credence, not due to the film being a loser, but one of its major characters. Still others are quick to point out that the movie tried to ride the coattails of Mildred Pierce (1945) by using the protagonist’s name as the title. Who’s right and who’s wrong? You can make a case for all of the above, but Nora Prentiss, despite its weaknesses and problems (some of which I’ll explore below), is a film worth discovering and celebrating.
We see a man under heavy guard, taken to a San Francisco jail. A flock or reporters shout questions at the man, his head bowed in shame. “Did you kill Dr. Talbot? Why did you kill him?” Inside a prison cell, he’s interrogated by the police, but the man won’t answer. One of his interrogators mulls over the plight of the mysterious prisoner: What was he hiding? What did he do? What was his hold over Talbot? Seasoned noir fans know that now is the perfect time for our good friend, the flashback.
From his very first frame in the film, Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) looks like part of the furniture, wearing an old-fashioned, conservative suit, but actually clothed in an awkward shyness, as mild-mannered as a block of wood. He speaks softly, that is, when he gets the chance. His teenage children Bunny (Wanda Hendrix, from Ride the Pink Horse ) and Gregory (Robert Arthur, Ace in the Hole ) are filled with all the energy and passion Talbot lacks. They’re probably not quite old enough to rebel against their parents’ lack of drive and enthusiasm, but we know that day isn’t far off.
Talbot’s wife Lucy (Rosemary de Camp, Scandal Sheet ) is blanketed by an obsession with rules and propriety, supplying on a stream of superficial dinner table chatter that serves to inform the audience that the fire in this marriage ended long ago. Lucy tells Talbot what time to be home and he complies, knowing there’s absolutely no chance either of them will find even one moment of engagement or levity once he walks through that door.
That same night after work, as Talbot is dutifully following Lucy’s orders not to be late, he witnesses a street accident. After a woman is struck by a car, Talbot takes her to his office to access her injuries. The damage seems superficial, only a minor injury below the knee, which Talbot examines, becoming a bit embarrassed by touching the leg of such a lovely young woman. She thinks such a quaint response is amusing.
“It doesn’t look bad,” Talbot informs her.
“The bandage or the leg?” the woman replies.
Talbot learns that the woman’s name is Nora Prentiss, a San Francisco nightclub singer. In no time at all, we get Nora’s story, not so much from Nora, as from Ann Sheridan’s portrayal of her. Nora has been around the block a few times, coming away with a jaundiced view of life. When Talbot mentions that he’s writing a paper on ailments of the heart, Nora responds, “A paper? I could write a book!” She flirts with Talbot, even mentioning that she’s seen him coming and going to and from his office for quite awhile, but her flirting is second-nature for any nightclub singer, only Talbot probably hasn’t frequented nightclubs enough to understand that. He likes the attention. And he wants more.
At this point, we might be tempted to think that Nora is a femme fatale, but she’s not. She’s no man-eater, determined to whisk Talbot away from his wife and enjoy spending his money. In fact, Nora is honest, hiding nothing of herself, and seemingly with no intentions of conniving. This is where the film suffers in the believability of its character motivations. Yes, Nora is showing Talbot some much-needed attention, but she’s not leading him on, at least not in her mind. But in Talbot’s mind, she’s practically giving him the keys to the vault. This can’t be the first time Talbot has treated a beautiful woman and maybe even one who’s flirted with him a bit. So what is it about Nora that leads him to want to keep seeing her? I have to believe that part of the attraction comes from the fact that they’re in his office after hours at night, in secrecy, during a time when he’s supposed to be dutifully at home with his wife and family. Thankfully Talbot never articulates this for Nora (and for us), but it has to be running through his mind. Maybe the secrecy of this moment (although it is totally professional and innocent, at least on the surface) is what appeals to Talbot just as much as Nora’s beauty and charisma.
Soon, they’re seeing each other while Talbot ignores both his family and his practice. Phil Dinardo (Robert Alda), the owner of the club where Nora sings, obviously has eyes for her, but he’s not a jerk. He doesn’t even feel threatened when Nora introduces Talbot as “Mr. Thompson.” This little subplot with Dinardo points out the fact that he’s not lecherous and Nora isn’t a gold digger. In fact, had Talbot not entered the picture, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Dinardo and Nora could’ve had a normal life together. But Talbot is there, and if you think about it, Nora Prentiss is primarily Talbot’s story. He’s the one who goes through a major character change, not Nora.
Even so, Nora Prentiss is often called a “woman’s picture,” as is Mildred Pierce, but the parallels end quickly. Nora’s character isn’t as strong as Mildred Pierce, and neither does she undergo the same types of change that Mildred does. Again, this is about Talbot and his sexual obsession, which is nothing new. We’ve seen sexual obsession in plenty of film noir titles, such as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Pitfall, and countless others. But the destructive nature of sexual obsession threatens to turn Nora Prentiss into a horror film. (Although the 1950 film No Man of Her Own, another often neglected “woman’s picture,” is less based on sexual obsession, it also turns into a horrific nightmare.) Despite those who relegate it to straight melodrama, the sense of hopelessness in Nora Prentiss keeps the film planted firmly in noir territory.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe creates scenes of confinement (if not entrapment) both early in the prison interrogation scene and in the cramped hotel room Nora and Talbot share later in the film. Ironically, Talbot’s scenes with his family in his home, while not confined at all physically, seem just as claustrophobic as if they contained iron bars in an 8’x8’ room. Talbot is, for all practical purposes, bound and chained, unable to ask his wife for a divorce, and unable to go on living without Nora. How he finally manages to break free (or thinks he does) shows just how desperate he is to have her.
The weaknesses in the film begin to stack up during its second half. After Talbot’s reveal to Nora what he did to get them together in New York (and after much time has passed), we simply can’t buy the fact that she wouldn’t have figured this out for herself. Once she does find out, there’s really not much for her to do. Nora is so smart and sharp in the first half of the film, we find it hard to believe she couldn’t see what’s right in front of her during the second half. And during the final moments of the film (no real spoilers here), Nora could have taken a specific action, but doesn’t. Regardless of whether or not she is convinced of the intentional (or unintentional) deception as we near the conclusion, the film stumbles.
The problems with Nora Prentiss should not keep you from watching and enjoying it. Ann Sheridan’s performance in the title role is spectacular, even if the part isn’t written as strongly as it could’ve been. Nora has a hard edge, but she’s human. More than that, she’s both gorgeous, talented, and knows the ways of the world, not really with any intention to use this knowledge to her advantage by deceiving someone else, but as a tool of self-preservation. This is a wonderfully layered performance, and Sheridan makes Nora a multifaceted woman, full of confidence and caution, sympathy and snark, level-headedness and perhaps even love.
Kent Smith plays Talbot as a man who, despite having fathered two children, is woefully inexperienced sexually. He has no idea how to handle a beautiful woman (who is not his wife) who happens to pay attention to him. Maybe he does have an idea about the consequences of such a pursuit, but it doesn’t matter: like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity or Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past, one brief encounter (no pun intended) and he’s done. But interestingly, the script makes no apology for Talbot’s actions. Like Neff and Bailey, Talbot didn’t go looking for trouble, but it sure found him. And while the motivations of Phillis Dietrichson and Kathie Moffat (respectively) are similar, Nora’s is not. Again, both of these women are clearly femmes fatales; Nora isn’t. Plain and simple, Talbot is hooked and there’s no turning back.
Of course, if Talbot doesn’t cheat on Lucy, we don’t have a film, but when you think about why men (or, for that matter, women) cheat, both in the movies and in the real world, it’s usually due to dissatisfaction, boredom, or both. Maybe people think they deserve more, or maybe something (someone) else looks better than what they have. Perhaps people feel they’re in a rut, that nothing will ever change, that they need some type of excitement or simply an acknowledgment that they’re still attractive and, on some level, desirable. Yet that commitment, that vow, that covenant, is there, whether it’s displayed in your home as a wedding photo, on your hand as a ring, or a document gathering dust somewhere, it’s there. Nora Prentiss doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with how Talbot’s actions affect his wife and family, but the implication is that Talbot has ruined more than his own life.
One of the few films that deals with this devastation honestly is André De Toth’s Pitfall (1948). At the end of that film (spoilers), John Forbes (Dick Powell), after cheating on his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) with a model named Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), comes back to Sue after a full confession of what he’s done. We’re left to wonder if the marriage can survive, even though Sue articulates her forgiveness of John with a cautious eye. (It’s interesting that in this scene, Sue is driving the car, signifying that she’s in control, literally in the driver’s seat.)
Could Dr. Talbot have arrived at this moment? At what point does repentance bypass pride and ask for forgiveness, a second chance? Maybe that’s not what Talbot is after. Maybe the torment he’d face by going back to Lucy and his family is worse than paying the ultimate price for everything he’s done. Perhaps he understands that he’s made his choice and has to live (or die) with it.
The level of darkness in Nora Prentiss runs deep and although it contains weak elements, it is a film filled with examples of fallen humanity, broken lives, and dark alleys that lead to the same sorry end. It’s definitely a film noir you should see.
I viewed this film on a DVD from Warner Archive, a DVD which I was fortunate enough to win by successfully completing Raquel Stecher’s 2019 Summer Reading Challenge, and having my name drawn at random for a DVD prize. Good things can happen when you read, so make sure you sign up for Raquel’s Summer Reading Challenge in 2020.
Photos: IMDb, DVD Beaver, Down These Mean Streets, Times Tribune