Chuck looks down and spots a wallet. He rifles through it, finding a fair bit of money, and takes himself to the most important meal of the day. When finished, and because he’s such a stand-up guy, he delivers the wallet to its owner at the fellow’s home address, which happens to be a hulking Miami mansion with a lot of ostentatious statues and fancy plants. Yep – our good friend Scotty’s steered himself straight into the home of a gangster.
The gangster in question is Eddie Roman – a marvelous Steve Cochran – who’s eerie in his politeness – he’s glamorous, he’s friendly, and he might be a total psycho. I mean, in our intro to him, he slaps his manicurist for doing a poor job:
Directly following that, he’s really quite genial to Scotty, recognizing Scotty to be an honest guy with a trustworthy face. And who’s that in the background? Why, it’s the great Peter Lorre, who wanted to take some non-bad guy roles at this point in his career, but allegedly took the part of Gino, Eddie’s right hand man, as a favor to producer Seymour Nebenzel who worked on Lorre’s breakout film, (and all-around masterpiece) M. Lorre’s a total hoot as an American – he’s got a tan, his shirt’s open, his hair’s slicked back, his unmistakable voice has been smoothed out and doesn’t really sound like it’s from anywhere. If you’re used to seeing Lorre in his urbane European weirdo roles, it’s a treat. Relaxed and American or not, he’s still one of the best villains around.
Eddie offers Scotty a job as a chauffeur, after a bizarre test-drive where he introduces Scotty to a device in his car which allows him to accelerate from the backseat while the driver steers from the front. As you can imagine, this is probably an ill-advised toy for a psycho gangster to have, and Eddie nearly accelerates them into an oncoming train.
Eddie also happens to have a beautiful wife, Lorna – gorgeous Michele Morgan and her perfect bone structure. It’s apparent that their relationship has degenerated to the point where he keeps her like an exotic bird, trapped in his flashy gangster house, and she’s perpetually sullen and wounded. Uh-oh. Gangster husband, unhappy wife, strapping good-guy ex-GI chauffeur? Looks like Scotty’s got himself in a whole pack of noir trouble.
Lorna’s in the habit of taking evening drives out to the beach in opulent evening wear, and on one of these occasions, she offers Scott $1000 to help her get to Havana and away from Eddie. Scotty agrees instantly because A. She’s totally irresistible and he definitely wants in her pants and B. He’s a white knight and C. He could use $1000. He buys them two tickets on the evening ship and they make plans to steal away during her routine evening beach drive.
In their stateroom on the boat, things get super-sexy after Lorna learns Scotty can play piano and stares out the window meaningfully at the life she’s leaving behind. Then, they stare at each other for an uncomfortably long time, a shadow falls, and Scotty walks to the window and very deliberately draws the curtains. But hey, it’s 1946, I’m sure he was just teaching her to play chopsticks.
Everything is going well for Scotty and Lorna until they’re in a bar – it’s the next evening, they’re in Havana, and we, the audience, have lost a day. Suffice to say, I’m not going too much further into the plot. Scotty is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and spends a period of time in a somewhat Lynch-ian Twilight Zone where he soon finds the events of the day didn’t happen to way he thought. He’s chased by the police through the shadowy night streets, and then… well, best watch Scotty’s multilayer, continuously spiraling nightmare for yourself.
Clocking in at a lean 86 minutes, The Chase spends just enough time on each of the three movements of the story, with enough clues for the audience so that the ending is rewarding and structurally sound. The Chase leans on Franz Planer’s expressionistic cinematography, as well as its curious visual motifs (a set of daggers with jade See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak of Evil monkeys, the device in the car that allows a madman to control the speed, a particularly odd moment where Scotty hides in the apartment of a local girl, who is face down on a table, sobbing, and, oh yeah , if you piss Eddie off, you may earn a trip to his special wine cellar. Until he sends his vicious, man-eating dog after you) to maintain a sense of claustrophobic strangeness.
Also of note – keep an ear to the ground for its subtle treatment of Scotty being ex-army. The screwed-up ex-solider in Blue Dahlia was more than enough to have the original ending sacked the the production code, but The Chase is able to calmly work in the idea that Scotty’s problems stem from (army) “shock”. Classy work, Philip Yordan.
Always a measure of quality, The Chase is based on the story “The Black Path of Fear” by noir mainstay Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich stories are the basis for a ton of fantastic films (Rear Window, Black Angel, Phantom Lady, Bride Wore Black), and The Chase is no exception – the story is full of so many distinctive, nightmarish images that it’s a natural fit for the screen.
The Chase is public domain, so by all means, check it out on YouTube, or if you’re in Vancouver, you can see it on glorious 35 mm at Pacific CInematheque today and tomorrow. It’s a part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation, along with Joseph’s Lewis hyper-sexual, murderous couple road movie GUN CRAZY.
‘Til next time, maybe it’s best to just keep the wallet.