Tuesday, June 18, 2013

COOL FLICKS: A Life at Stake (1954)

Crime and noir film devotees know the insurance policy plot is as old as Double Indemnity. Probably even older. A Life at Stake is yet another spin on the hapless mark duped into taking out a life insurance policy and realizing almost too late he's put a bullseye on his back. Just who is being duped in this story is something that is not all that clear at first. Screenwriter Russ Bender provides more than an ample amount of twists to what could have been a tired story.

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.


  1. This sounds like a real treat and I've never even heard of it before - cheers John. I know going on about typos is a bit rich coming from me, but I think you may have got your he-men slightly mixed up - the score is by Les Baxter, not Lex Barker!


    1. This movie was mentioned in passing in an article about "insurance noir" movies you can read here here. Jeff Pierce linked to it on The Rap Sheet back in May, otherwise I'd never have seen the post. I had seen A LIFE AT STAKE prior to reading the post and I defended it in a comment because the author chose to poke fun at it (as most people do) rather than point out its very entertaining qualities and its strengths. It's not a cinema masterpiece by any means, but it can be enjoyed if you're not a complete film snob while watching.

      And what an embarrassing gaffe with the film composer! Made me laugh first thing in the morning, though. I've fixed Les' name. I guess posting Andes in all his torsorial splendor got my brain thinking of movie Tarzans.

  2. This is new to me. Good hunting. I will put it on my TCM list just in case.

  3. Is he driving a Kaiser Darrin? Because that would be ueber-cool !

    1. I went to the scene in the movie (0:34:23 in the YouTube uploaded video) and by God you're right! It matches exactly the photos I pulled up in a Google search for Kaiser Darrin. Grill design, unusual door panels and door handles, rear fender -- all the same. It's a Kaiser Darrin, all right. Did you get that car make based on the door handle alone? That is some detective work!

  4. I sure did, but it is such a unique sliding door design that it wasn't terribly hard. I saw one of these in person once and the beautiful lines of the car stayed etched in my memory. Now I have to watch the film for sure! I enjoy picking out interesting sports cars in old movies.