Today is troubled marriage day on TCM, with three movies in particular, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and Impact, topping the bill as the triumvirate of doomed love triangles mixed with murder and suspense. In the noir tales of the forties, husbands and wives often found themselves in danger from the other one. The biggest and best of these, Double Indemnity, leaves all competitors behind but it doesn’t mean these three don’t have plenty to offer as well, with Impact most likely being the least known. There’s a reason for that, or should I say several reasons, including a lackluster lead and rather dull direction but it has just enough going for it, just enough, that I think it deserves at least a little attention on this day of murderous marriages.
PLOT SPOILERS BEGIN
Impact begins with a quite silly and needless intro screen showing a dictionary while the word “impact” appears on the screen and a narrator intones its definition as it refers to two people impacting each other’s lives. The gears then shift to Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) talking to a board of directors about the factories he needs to keep the business humming. He’s going to drive to Denver to open some new factories that evening and wants to take his wife along for the ride. His wife, Irene (Helen Walker), doesn’t want to go because she has other, more nefarious, plans instead. See, she’s planning on killing her husband that evening.
Walter, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes his wife loves him and the only reason she doesn’t want to go with him to Denver is because she has a toothache, a toothache she’s faking so she can set her plan in motion. The plan is simple: Her lover, Jim Torrance (Tony Barrett), will pose as her cousin, Chip, who needs a ride to Denver. She’ll ask Walter to give him a lift and then, somewhere along the way, Jim will kill Walter and dump the body. Jim attempts to do this when he gets Walter out of the car under the guise of the car having a flat tire. At this point, if you have any familiarity at all with how these things work in noir you probably already know this murder doesn’t exactly go off without a hitch. In fact (and this is why there’s a spoiler alert up top) it doesn’t go off at all. Jim bashes Walter in the head with a tire iron but doesn’t land a good hit as another car comes around the corner just as it’s happening. Then he quickly dumps Walter’s body down the embankment when a Bekins moving truck shows up offering to help with the flat. Jim then races away and promptly hits a gas truck which explodes, killing him instantly and burning his body beyond recognition. Walter, meanwhile, pulls himself out of the embankment, temporarily confused as to where he is, sneaks a ride in the back of the moving truck.
At this point, the great Charles Coburn enters the movie as Detective Quincy who goes to tell Irene that her husband died in an explosion when he collided with a truck. Irene is not broken up at all, leading Quincy to remark on how well she’s taking it. The main thing she wants to know, but can’t say to the detective, is where in the hell is Jim. She figures Jim must have put Walter in the car and collided it with the truck, though she doesn’t know how. Walter, at this point in Nevada, reads about his death and figures he’ll stay dead since his wife clearly didn’t love him anyway and set him up for murder. Since the would be murderer died in the truck accident, he figures it’s even and starts a new life as Bill Walker. From there, believe it or not, it only gets more complicated (this is only about a third of the way into the movie) and the movie serves up twists, turns and a final act courtroom scene that brings the movie to its slightly heavy-handed but satisfying conclusion.
PLOT SPOILERS END
Like I said above, the movie isn’t as well known as other murderous marriage noirs out there and there’s a couple of reasons. One, and primarily, the direction, by Abbott and Costello director Arthur Lubin, is unimaginative and dull. His camera sits and watches, without interesting framing, while scenes scripted as tense are shot nonchalantly and edited in the same pacing and manner as other expository scenes containing no tension. I suspect the reason is the Abbott and Costello movies he directed. When you have comedic talents like those two, you don’t detract from their performance by adding anything to the equation but watching them. Here, though, a little more could have been used. The second reason ties in with the first. Brian Donlevy was a good actor but didn’t have the kind of screen presence or charisma necessary to carry a movie without some help. It’s why he was so good in so many supporting roles for most of his career. Here, Lubin bolts the camera down and watches, as if Donlevy’s antics are going to light up the screen like Abbott and Costello.
So why am I mildly recommending this one? Because of that plot! Because of the twists and turns. Because the story is a good one and should be better known. Because Charles Coburn is always a pleasure to watch. Because it has Anna May Wong in a seemingly inconsequential role as their maid that later turns out to be of grave consequence. Because whenever an evil wife plots to kill her husband and fails, there’s plenty of dark, seedy entertainment to be had. Impact isn’t a great noir but it’s a good one and a forgotten one. I’m glad TCM’s showing it.