Guilty Bystander (Joseph Lerner, USA, 1950)



One of the reasons I love noir is because it puts failure front and centre, as theme, plot, setting, characterisation. In noir we see men who can´t cope with the aftereffects of the war, social ideals of who they should be, women who are smarter than they are, feelings they should be able to control but can´t. Noir understands and heroicises failure without ever quite redeeming it

. In Guilty Bystander, Max Thursday (Zachary Scott) used to be a cop but took to drink. Now he´s working in a fleabag hotel, ostensibly as a house detective but really just dossing in between drinks. His ex-wife (Faye Emerson) turns up to tell him their son´s been kidnapped. Will he be able to put the drink aside and save his son?

The narrative takes us through dimly lit corridors, passageways, subway stations and what used to be called the tenderloin: cheap dives, doss houses, docks, abandoned warehouses. The underbelly, dimly lit.

Zachary Scott, probably best remembered as Mildred Pierce´s weak, amoral and incestuous lover, is perfectly cast here. That handsome face and velvety eyes, but slight, weak willed, his hands shaking due to drink and his mind flitting from desire to oblivion, The plot is pulpy, and not very well conveyed, I got lost in bits of it. But it doesn´t matter. What makes this film are the way it´s lit, the shadows and bars, the hard-boiled dialogue that sometimes crosses over into the risible, a surprising villain, and a last great performance from Mary Boland as Smitty. The film ends with happy families that are easy to ignore and easier to forget. What one remembers is the trembling, the shadows, the bars that symbolically convey the protagonists many and varied forms of imprisonment, A true B, newly restored, and worth seeing.

Image-notes in chronological order:

José Arroyo

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