Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Arnelo Affair (1947)

John Hodiak is the kind of actor who grows on you. He was never a great thespian, nor was he possessed of a great movie star aura. He was always a decidedly second-string kind of leading man, and even in the relatively small world of film noirs (and Hodiak was in three film noirs in 1947 alone) he didn’t make much of an impact. Honestly, the guy was just a pretty bland actor.

Yet, somehow he grows on you. Take Arch Oboler’s The Arnelo Affiar. This is good little film, well shot and well acted. Hodiak plays Tony Arnelo, a shady nightclub owner who lures Anne Parkson, the wife of his lawyer, into a possible affair. The affair is never consummated, but Mrs. Parkson (Frances Gifford) soon finds herself implicated in a murder because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Arnelo has possession of a note Mrs. Parkson wrote to him in an angry moment, and this note makes it look as if she might have killed Arnelo’s girlfriend. Arnelo wants Mrs. Parkson to abandon her clueless husband (George Murphy) and their refreshingly not-annoying son (played by a ten year old Dean Stockwell, already a good actor). Now Mrs. Parkson is in trouble. The cops are closing in, Arnelo is threatening to frame her if she doesn’t leave her family, and even her husband is beginning to get suspicious.

The movie makes for an nice addition to the small collection of noirs centered around female protagonists, and, as such, it really belongs to lovely Frances Gifford as the beleaguered Mrs. Parkson. Gifford was a gifted actress, and she carries the kind of movie that is usually told from the point of view of a man (it’s extremely rare in classic noir that we see a woman lured away from her family by the promise of sex with another man). Gifford gives the character a real core—she’s not just a desperate housewife, but a genuinely conflicted woman. She’s drawn to Arnelo’s insistent gaze and his promise of even more attention, but she still loves her husband and son. It’s sad that this performance didn’t lead to better things for Gifford, but a year after this movie was made she was in a terrible car accident that left her severely impaired for the next twenty-five years. She eventually made a recovery and went to work for the California library system. She died in 1994.

John Hodiak was even more unlucky. He had been a replacement for the Hollywood stars who were off fighting World War II—kind of like a poor man’s Clark Gable, if you will. And one reason why he started appearing in so many noirs in the late forties is that the bigger roles were starting to dry up as the real Clark Gables of the world began showing up to reclaim them. Hodiak kept acting in films and started doing stage work in the fifties, but in 1955, at the age of 41, he died suddenly of a heart attack.

Hodiak had a minimal impact onscreen, but as I said before, the more you see him the more accepting you are of his limitations. His performance here isn’t stellar, but as he fixes Frances Gifford with his unblinking, unsmiling stare, you do start to worry a little for her. He’s playing an unscrupulous nightclub owner, which is as basic a noir archetype as the private eye. Nightclub owners, at least in forties and fifties crime dramas, are usually one rung up from child molesters, but writer-director Arch Oboler gives the role an added layer of complication—Arnelo isn’t just a simple hood. He actually does want Mrs. Parkson for himself, and for a brief moment he is better to her than her husband. Hodiak's good in the role without ever being great—which is not a bad way to describe his place in noir overall, really. He’s no Robert Ryan or Dana Andrews, but when you see that he’s in a movie, you know he’ll be okay. That pretty much sums up his entire career.

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