Barbara Stanwyck is the consummate femme fatale in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). She plays another femme fatale in The File on Thelma Jordon, but this time, she tries to turn herself around. Unfortunately for Thelma Jordon and the man she has ensnared, Cleve Marshall, it’s a little bit too late for both of them.
Click here for my article about The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
The File on Thelma Jordon starts with Cleve Marshall driving down a street to the front of an office building at night and walking into Miles Scott’s office. Miles Scott is the chief investigator for the district attorney’s office; Cleve Marshall is an assistant district attorney; Melvyn Pierce, district attorney, is their boss. Miles Scott is talking on the phone with Pamela Marshall, Cleve’s wife. She is worried about Cleve and also angry with him for not showing up for their anniversary party. Cleve complains to Miles about his father-in-law always coming first in his wife’s affections and starts drinking across the desk in Miles’s office. Meanwhile Miles tries to placate Pamela, Cleve’s wife. Viewers can see from the start why Cleve Marshall would start an affair, which is what he does soon after this setup.
Miles leaves his office on a work assignment, and Cleve is left on his own to continue drinking. Thelma Jordon arrives because she had an appointment with Miles. She mistakes Cleve for Miles and starts talking about an attempted burglary at her aunt’s home. Cleve doesn’t correct her right away. When he does, he also tries to convince Thelma to go out for a drink with him. Thelma Jordon may have a plan for Cleve, and she does go out for a drink with him, but they don’t start their affair on this first date—not yet. Viewers can assume that Thelma is playing hard to get, but she is really getting all the details right before she plunges ahead with her scheme.
The File on Thelma Jordon is available online for free. Click here to see it at the Internet Archive.
A femme fatale like Thelma Jordon can’t foresee everything in her way. Here are some examples. A man, Tony Laredo, spots Thelma and Cleve kissing outside the gate to her aunt’s house. He surprises Thelma after Cleve leaves, but she knows him already. He’s an old friend, a partner in her illegal schemes. He has every intention of joining her in her current plans. On her second date with Cleve, she and Cleve drive to a lookout spot. They are followed by another man and woman, who are also supposedly on a date, but the man writes down Cleve’s license plate number. It doesn’t look like Tony Laredo, so someone else is keeping tabs on Thelma Jordon. She also doesn’t suspect how much Sidney, the caretaker on her aunt’s property, knows about her comings and goings. The phone extension put in Sidney’s residence, which is on the property, was put in for Aunt Vera’s safety, and it becomes a liability for Thelma. Sidney knows that Thelma has been getting calls from one or more men using different names, but he doesn’t know who. This mystery man eventually becomes Mr. X.
(This article about The File on Thelma Jordon contains almost all the spoilers.)
Things really get sticky for Cleve when Thelma’s Aunt Vera is shot in what looks at first like an attempted burglary. Thelma is frantic, and she convinces Cleve to help her with the crime scene. She tells Cleve that she now suspects Tony Laredo of burglary. Cleve leaves before the aunt’s body is discovered. Miles Scott calls Cleve while he is vacationing with his family about the Vera Edwards burglary and murder. Before he leaves his family, Cleve admits to his wife that he’s been seeing someone else; he also tells his wife that he still loves her. But his troubles are just beginning. Now Thelma wants Cleve to help her during the police investigation, too.
The police discover that Thelma Jordon is not married to Tony Laredo and that Tony called Thelma recently. She is now the prime suspect in the burglary and the murder, not Tony. Miles Scott, the chief investigator for the district attorney’s office, is leading an investigation because Thelma is the prime suspect. Cleve must now protect himself personally and professionally, a seemingly impossible task for an assistant district attorney who has crossed ethical and professional lines and could very likely be charged as an accessory to murder himself.
Thelma Jordon is eventually found not guilty, and Cleve Marshall starts to believe his troubles are over, but he is wrong once again. Tony Laredo is back in Thelma’s life after hearing the not guilty verdict himself in the courtroom. He is with Thelma when Cleve arrives to talk to her about their future together. Thelma admits to killing her aunt and tells Cleve that Miles Scott was supposed to be the patsy. Cleve was just a convenient stand-in. And now Cleve is the object of blackmail: Tony Laredo knows who Mr. X is.
Thelma leaves town with Laredo, but she forces Tony off the road while he is driving. They crash into a fiery wreck and Tony dies, but Thelma survives long enough in the hospital to tell Miles Scott everything, except the identity of Mr. X. She tells Cleve that she always loved Mr. X, which saves her from revealing his identity. She then dies on the hospital gurney. As I said, it’s all a bit late for Cleve Marshall. His life is already ruined and he has to start all over again.
I was dissatisfied with Thelma’s deathbed confession. I suppose that she was sincere with Cleve and that she really did love him. But something about it rang hollow for me. Maybe it was rushed in the context of the story. Maybe it is hard to believe Barbara Stanwyck as a femme fatale turned romantic. The confession on her deathbed may be too much of a romantic drama trope for this film noir or maybe for any Barbara Stanwyck femme fatale. Maybe it’s all three. I have already seen the film twice, and each time, I think Thelma would have been more believable if she hadn’t made such an abrupt turnaround.
The film still has its noir ending, though. Believe it or not, the film doesn’t end with Thelma’s deathbed scene. I haven’t given away everything!
Barbara Stanwyck, femme fatale, is back to some of her old tricks in The File in Thelma Jordon, but the narrative doesn’t make it easy for viewers to guess that right away. The first half hour or so is more like a romance than a film noir: It depicts the start of an affair between Thelma Jordon, who is new in town visiting her Aunt Vera, and Cleve Marshall, the town’s married assistant district attorney. When I saw the film a second time, I realized that some hints about the budding romance heading for disaster were there, even in the first half hour. There’s the appearance of the mysterious Tony, which viewers see and wonder about, but not Thelma Jordon—and not Cleve Marshall, who doesn’t meet him for some time in the storyline. The man who follows Thelma and Cleve Marshall on one of their clandestine dates and notes Cleve’s license plate number is the detective from Miles Scott’s office. Although viewers don’t learn that fact right away, it certainly adds some mystery and danger to the story.
And there is the title: Who is keeping a file on Thelma Jordon? Why would they want to know anything about her? Miles Scott is very likely the one keeping the file on Thelma; he doesn’t let anything get by him in this film. The storyline never states the meaning of the title directly, but he is the one who has been investigating the murder of Thelma’s aunt, the one tailing Thelma and thus Cleve Marshall.
Unlike Martha Ivers in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Thelma Jordon tries to atone for her crimes and to reaffirm her love for Cleve Marshall at the end of the film. As I said, I’m not sure Thelma’s deathbed scene is completely believable, but The File on Thelma Jordon is still a good chance to see Barbara Stanwyck in the femme fatale role, one that she plays so well. Thelma may regret her crimes and she may really love Cleve Marshall, but she spends most of the narrative lying and getting everyone, including herself, into very serious trouble. And this is a role Barbara Stanwyck does so well.
January 5, 1950, release date • Directed by Robert Siodmak • Screenplay by Ketti Frings • Based on a story by Marty Holland • Music by Victor Young • Edited by Warren Low • Cinematography by George Barnes
Barbara Stanwyck as Thelma Jordon • Wendell Corey as Cleve Marshall • Paul Kelly as Miles Scott • Joan Tetzel as Pamela Marshall • Stanley Ridges as Kingsley Willis • Richard Rober as Tony Laredo • Gertrude W. Hoffman as Aunt Vera Edwards • Harry Antrim as Sidney • Barry Kelley as District Attorney Melvyn Pierce • Minor Watson as Judge Calvin H. Blackwell • Jane Novak as Mrs. Blackwell • Laura Elliot as Dolly • Kate Lawson as Clara • Theresa Harris as Ester • Geraldine Wall as the prison matron • Jonathan Corey as Timmy Marshall • Robin Corey as Joan Marshall • Basil Ruysdael as Judge Jonathan David Hancock • Kenneth Tobey as the police photographer
Distributed by Paramount Pictures • Produced by Wallis-Hazen
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