What pungent filmic movements can do for flavorless craftsmen -- versatility alone can't explain the habitually meek Robert Wise's switch to jazzed-up misanthropy in this nasty noir melodrama. The main vipers on display here are Lawrence Tierney's blithely murdering thug and Claire Trevor's randy socialite, both braided together by each other's lowdown wiles. The action shoots from seedy Reno to moneyed San Francisco, where Tierney marries Trevor's newspaper heiress sister (Audrey Long) mostly as a way to remain within screwing distance of his perverse "soul mate," whose lust hardly diminishes upon discovery of his throttling, stabbing past. At the time still a contender for Manny Farber's underground "hack-artist" pantheon, Wise swims in the zeitgeist's amorality, underscoring a kitchen brawl to big-band radio tunes, terrorizing a soused matron at a nightly beach skirmish, and leaving the last word for Walter Slezak's jovially corrupt detective. In fact, the blowzy slattern (Esther Howard) who nearly gets offed at her midnight rendezvous with invaluable genre standby Elisha Cook, Jr., is the closest the film comes to a moral center, sticking by her murdered friend's dubious honor before spitting disgustedly on Trevor. (Howard also gets the film's funniest line, eulogizing her late, loose gal pal: "I hope she's in Heaven now, though I don't know if she'd have much fun up there.") The title of the source material, James Gunn's novel Deadlier Than the Male, suggests another dark jewel, Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy -- Wise could have used some of that film's l'amour fou, though its nastiness is still much more interesting than the director's usual brand of chameleonic good taste. With Phillip Terry, and Isabel Jewell. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce