Sunday, January 27, 2019
Some Thoughts on I, JANE DOE (1948)
The University of Chicago's Doc Films, the oldest student-run film society in America, is doing a series this semester on the "Women's Picture Noir." Programmed by Kathleen Geier, they're showing an impressive run of films. Today, I got to see the new restoration of John Auer's I, JANE DOE, and it's fantastic.
I'm pretty busy these days, so I don't have time to sit down a write a full piece on the film, but I did want to record a few thoughts.
First off, the restoration of the film is beautiful. The format I saw the movie in was DCP, and while I don't know the status of the film's negative, I can report that the restoration gleams and shimmers.
Of course, the restoration wouldn't mean much if the film itself didn't bring the goods, and I, JANE DOE is a noir buff's delight. John Auer isn't a director who has gotten a lot of love from critics, but noir geeks are well advised to seek out his work in the genre. He was a contract man at Republic studios, although he was just about the only director on the lot who didn't make westerns. Instead, the Hungarian-born director focused on musicals, war films, and crime flicks. His work in noir is notable for atmosphere and tension. He wasn't one to expend a lot of energy forcing a silly script to make sense (JANE DOE'S plot is pretty screwy), but his films--from the Hawaii-set HELL's HALF ACRE to the ode-to-Chicago THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS--are always beautifully composed and plenty of fun.
I, JANE DOE is certainly good fun. It follows a twisty plot about a French immigrant (Vera Ralston) who is put on trial for gunning down her married American lover. She refuses to give her real name and is tried as "Jane Doe." She's convicted of murder, but then her dead lover's wife (Ruth Hussey)--who is, as luck would have it, a successful defense lawyer--decides that there is more to the murder than she first suspected and takes Jane Doe's case.
For this movie to work for you, you have to know yourself. Either you can ride out the zigs and zags of a truly ludicrous plot or you can't. If you can, though, what you'll find is a film rich with noir style. With cinematographer Reggie Lanning (who also worked with the director on 1947's THE FLAME) Auer gives the picture plenty of visual zing. From the opening shot that puts us at a odd low angle as we follow Jane Doe on her way to the murder, we know we're in good hands.
Beyond the style, you'll find an uncommonly feminist take on the 40s courtroom thriller, a film that privileges the perspective of women and develops that perspective with sensitive performances by everyone involved. Like most of the films that Doc Films is showing in its series, I, JANE DOE is a domestic thriller. In the noir melodramas of the 40s, which largely dealt with the lives of women, the sphere of action tends to be the domestic space. That's true, in part, of JANE DOE, but the film also plays with it a bit by giving us a female protagonist who is a lawyer. (Her firm seems to be exclusively run by women, in fact.) Like many "women's picture noirs" the film also flips the whole femme fatale trope on its head. It might look like Jane Doe is another dangerous woman, but the film, like Ruth Hussey's crusading lawyer, knows the truth is more complicated.