Saturday, August 10, 2019

Strange Impersonation (1946)

March 16, 1946, release date
Directed by Anthony Mann
Screenplay by Mindret Lord
Based on a story by Anne Wigton, Lewis Herman
Music by Alexander Laszlo
Edited by John F. Link, Sr.
Cinematography by Robert Pittack

Brenda Marshall as Dr. Nora Goodrich
William Gargan as Dr. Stephen Lindstrom
Hillary Brooke as Arline Cole
George Chandler as J. W. Rinse, attorney
Ruth Ford as the real Jane Karaski
H. B. Warner as Dr. Mansfield, plastic surgeon
Lyle Talbot as Inspector Malloy, chief interrogator
Mary Treen as the nurse
Cay Forester as Roper, receptionist and interrogation witness
Dick Scott as the detective

Distributed by Republic Pictures
Produced by W. Lee Wilder Productions

Strange Impersonation is a strange film on many levels. Even the title is a bit strange. The film is categorized as a dramatic film noir, but it borders on science fiction: The main character, Doctor Nora Goodrich, has invented a new anesthetic and needs to discover its effects on humans. She and her lab assistant, Arline Cole, conduct the latest experiment in Nora’s apartment—on Nora herself. (Did many scientists experiment on themselves in 1946?) The film has plenty of noir characteristics, however: a scheming femme fatale, blackmail, a fatal fall from Nora’s balcony, characters assuming false identities.

The opening credits are very simple: white type on a black background. Many films noir are low-budget B films, but this one took simplicity to the maximum. The film starts with an overhead shot of New York City, then cuts to an exterior shot of the Wilmott Institute for Chemical Research. (I did an online search for “Wilmott Institute” but couldn’t find anything in New York City, past or present.) The film then cuts to Doctor Nora Goodrich giving a presentation at the institute about her new anesthetic.

Stephen Lindstrom, Nora’s fiancĂ©, also works at the Wilmott Institute. He is in the audience and rushes to congratulate Nora on her presentation. Lindstrom is shown as the more ardent of the pair. He pursues Nora relentlessly and chides her about her professional demeanor. I can’t say that I blame him: There’s a rather comical scene in Nora’s living room, with Nora and Stephen sitting on her couch. He wants to steer the conversation to romance, but Nora responds to Stephen’s every conversation starter with intellectual prowess and knowledge.

Nora is focused on her science research (understatement!), and she sees no reason to include Stephen in her work. She would rather work with her lab assistant because the arrangement is much less complicated. In fact, Nora wants to keep her experiments secret from Stephen. The tension in the film comes partly from the romance versus science dichotomy: The film presents the choice as a pure dichotomy—for Nora. Stephen never faces this choice. He’s not a participant in the conversation when the subject comes up between Nora and Arline:
Arline: “. . . Oh, Nora?”
Nora: “Yes?”
Arline: “When are you and Stephen going to marry?”
Nora: “Oh, I don’t know. We haven’t made up our minds yet.”
Arline: “You want to marry him, don’t you?”
Nora: “Of course, I do. Why do you ask?”
Arline: “I was just wondering.”
Nora: “Why?”
Arline: “Oh, I was wondering if I’d like working in a lab so much that I’d delay my marriage. And I don’t think so.”
Nora: “Well, I guess that’s something we have to make up our own minds about. See you tonight, huh?”
Arline: “Okay.”

(This blog post about Strange Impersonation contains spoilers.)

Nora’s experiment, in which she and Arline inject her with her new, untested anesthetic, becomes a horrible nightmare—literally. Arline apparently attempts to botch the experiment and harm Nora because she has decided that she wants Stephen for herself, and she does everything possible to win him over. She lies to Stephen; she lies to Nora. She uses their love for one another and their good instincts about each other to manipulate them both. Her machinations are squirm-inducing, but I was hooked: With one plot twist after another, I had no idea what to expect.

Nora’s ordeal comes to an end when she wakes up on her living room couch and finds Stephen trying to rouse her. Arline left after Nora took the injection, at the same time that Stephen arrived. All of the nightmare was apparently the result of taking the anesthetic. Stephen tells Nora that she never should have tried the anesthetic on herself, which is obvious to everyone except Nora. But her nightmare taught her one valuable 1940s postwar lesson: Marry Stephen. Nora is now desperate to do just that.

This film seems incredibly dated to me, someone watching it from the perspective of life in 2019. I wondered about the title: Strange Impersonation. Nora undergoes plastic surgery in the film to take on the identity of another character, so that’s an obvious source for the title. But is it also a reference to Arline’s role in Nora’s anesthetic-induced nightmare? Is it a brief commentary on Nora’s wish to be a successful research scientist, which is a “strange impersonation” for a woman in the postwar era, whose only business should be finding a mate and bearing children?

With all that Nora goes through, the overarching theme seems to be that Nora needs to come to her senses and marry her boyfriend Stephen Goodrich because that is what women ought to do. They certainly were encouraged to do that after World War II. Returning service members needed jobs, and women taking these jobs during the war needed to leave them in peacetime and make room for the men, the veterans.

Blue Sky Metropolis, a four-part documentary on PBS, focuses specifically on wartime industrial production and the peacetime transition to the flight and aerospace industries in California, but it also mentions the effects of these changes and attitudes on women and children. Click here for more information.

Strange Impersonation shows women that they have only two choices: a professional career full of loneliness—maybe even danger—or marriage. The film has two female leads, and much of the plot centers on their work and their intrigues, but it all leads to Nora running to Stephen in the end. So maybe Strange Impersonation really is more noir than drama: It paints a rather bleak picture about women’s options after World War II.

Once Nora injects herself in her own experiment, the plot becomes a little more fantastic and unbelievable, but I found myself wondering how it would all end and what would happen to Nora. It certainly kept my interest. Believe it or not, watching the film in 2019 may add to the suspense: If you were a woman living in 1946, in the postwar United States, maybe you guessed the ending rather easily.

No comments:

Post a Comment