The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947)
Directed by Henry Levin
Produced by Helen Deutsch (uncredited), Virginia Van Upp (uncredited)
Story by Lenore J. Coffee
Screenplay by Devery Freeman, Louella MacFarlane, Allen Rivkin
Cinematography by Joseph Walker
Kit Parker Films/Mill Creek Blu-ray (1:22)
Continuing my exploration of the Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954 box set, I ventured into The Guilt of Janet Ames, which begins well enough with a woman (Rosalind Russell) wandering the city streets at night. She’s in a daze, grasping a piece of paper and carrying some other object we can’t clearly see, when she’s suddenly struck by a car. After being rushed to the nearest hospital, the nurse on duty discovers that the piece of paper the woman’s holding contains a list of five men’s names. The other object? A Congressional Medal of Honor.
Hoping to discover the woman’s identity (and whether she might be suicidal), the hospital staff seeks to find at least one of the men on her list. One of those names is familiar to the staff, that of Smithfield Cobb. A cop seeking to find Cobb asks, “How will I find him?” The answer: “Drunk.”
As we might expect from such an exchange, we find Smitty Cobb (Melvyn Douglas) at a local bar, waiting for a drink, but the bartender refuses to serve him. This refusal comes not because Smitty is already drunk (he’s not), but because the bartender thinks Smitty will miss his trip to Chicago, where an opportunity as a reporter awaits him. “A wonderful fella,” the bartender says, “but he drinks.”
After some rapid-fire banter between Smitty and his other newspaper buddies/rivals, Smitty agrees to visit this woman in the hospital, thinking there might at least be a story in it. He discovers that the woman is Janet Ames, the wife of David Ames, a man Smitty served with during the war. Smitty’s name is on a list of men who also served with her husband, men who survived when her husband didn’t. Janet wants to meet them to see if they’re worthy of her husband’s sacrifice.
Now things begin to go south rapidly. Smitty seems to make a miraculous leap from hard-drinking newspaper reporter to armchair psychoanalyst in a heartbeat, diagnosing Janet’s problem as a combination of self-pity and guilt. He even takes Janet through a hypnotic trip (no doubt inspired by Salvador Dali’s dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound , but on a far thinner budget) in which Janet meets the first man on her list.
This initial dreamlike journey takes Janet to a club filled with shadows, odd angles, and strange music, where she meets Joe Burton (Richard Benedict) and his girlfriend Katie (Betsy Blair), who are planning to marry and build a house together. Janet, seeing that Joe is actually constructing a literal house of cards, blows down the structure in anger at Joe’s unworthiness in surviving the war when her husband David did not. Smitty immediately jumps back into full analytical mode, asking Janet if David had planned to build her a house.
If this sounds like a slog, consider the fact that we have three other men’s names to suffer through on Janet’s list. These remaining episodes become tiresome very quickly, as does Janet, who becomes more and more unlikable in every scene. (There’s also a subplot involving Janet’s confinement to a wheelchair when there’s nothing physically wrong with her legs, a plot line that also grows tiresome.) It’s like a bad version of A Christmas Carol that just won’t stop. Never have 82 minutes seemed so interminable.
Psychology was a huge subject in films from the 1940s including the aforementioned Spellbound, as well as Gaslight (both 1940 and 1944 versions), Rebecca (1940), Journey into Fear (1943), My Name is Julia Ross (1945), and many others, but none of those films display the heavy-handedness of The Guilt of Janet Ames. Although Douglas gives the role of Smitty his his best effort, Russell really can’t do much with such an unlikable character as Janet. Even the great Sid Caesar’s brief appearance in the film is almost painful to watch.
Let’s hope The Guilt of Janet Ames - a movie I wouldn't even classify as film noir - is the low point of this set. If you own this nine-film collection, you’ll no doubt want to watch all the films, and maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did, but I think I’ve had enough cinematic psychoanalysis for awhile.