Angela Lansbury turns in a neat performance as an unlikely temptress. She shows a glimmer of her monstrously manipulative mother soon to be unleashed in The Manchurian Candidate, a performance that earned her a third Academy Award nomination. As Doris Hillman she can flip the switch from sexy dame with dulcet voice and shapely gams to terrible termagant ready to slap a man's face and scream a torrent of abuse.
He-man hunk Keith Andes is Edward, the mark with a love of money and booze. In a gratuitous shirtless scene the viewer knows our hero is a manly man from the get-go. As the movie unfolds we may be watching him slowly wrapped around Doris' fingers but the director wants us to know that though he's weak of mind he's no Casper Milquetoast in the physique department. We also get to watch him fall in love with his framed $1000 bill, a chunk of cash that will come back to haunt him repeatedly.
As Doris' kid sister Madge, Claudia Barrett proves to be the biggest surprise of the movie. At first we think she's just hanging on to the muscular, lantern-jawed hero for a little thrill, stir up some sisterly jealousy. By the midpoint, however, she'll prove to be every bit as wily as Doris and her scheming husband. She adds a double dose of the twists to the plot with schemes of her own. The $1000 is released from its prison of a picture frame transforming itself from prop to a sort of a supporting character.
I liked this movie a lot. The plot seems heavily borrowed from Cain's novel but there's a delicious quirkiness to this movie's self-conscious low budget attitude. Offsetting Andes' mostly wooden monotone acting is the polished and sparkling performance from Lansbury and occasional inspired bits from Barrett combined with several expertly shot noirish scenes that lift A Life at Stake out of the realm of forgettable B flicks to make it something of a cult classic.
Jane Darwell: "He's a weird one. Him and his thousand dollar bill.
Framed like a picture and a-settin' on the table."
Douglass Dumbrille as Gus reminds his wife who's in charge
Other highlights include Jane Darwell in a cameo as a suspicious landlady and Douglass Dumbrille as Doris' urbanely menacing husband Gus. The melodramatic score is by Les Baxter and the clever script by B movie actor turned screenwriter Russ Bender. Another B movie stalwart, Paul Guilfoyle (dozens of character parts in films like The Grapes of Wrath, Mighty Joe Young, The Mark of the Whistler, Mad Miss Manton and White Heat) does a fine job in his directing debut. Guilfoyle teams up with neophyte cameraman Ted Allen (also his debut as Cinematographer) in creating some moody shots heavily influenced by classic noir movies of the 1940s and getting the most out of his capable cast. Maybe Guilfoyle could have cracked the whip a bit more on Andes. His strongman body deserved and could've taken the blows.
There are a couple of absurdities in the story (like a cabin in the woods with French windows that open onto a cliff side deck that was never finished) and the acting sometimes slips over into grandiose scenery chewing and posing for the camera, but it's such an odd film I was willing to overlook the few faults. In fact, by the midpoint when I realized the plot was headed straight into the land of weirdness I almost wanted more of the absurd and surreal. This is a little known movie that deserves full fledged cult status. It can be seen in its entirety on several streaming websites for free. As it's one of several movies that has slipped into the public domain you should feel no guilt about watching it on YouTube or downloading it as I did. I've watched it about four times in the past few months and as derivative and hokey as it may be I still find things to enjoy about A Life at Stake.
"I feel just luscious. Uh...how much insurance do you have?"
Gus Hillman's coffee will send you to sleep rather than keep you awake.
Madge (Claudia Barrett) and Edward discuss putting to good use his treasured $1000.
Doris asks Edward to admire the view from the porch-less French windows.
That's quite a drop. Hmm...
The battle for Edward between two scheming sisters.