Darling, you used to be so fun before you faked your own death

Kent Smith and Ann Sheridan grapple with the ethics of faking your own death.

Watching the story of a man’s untimely death is always fascinating, isn’t it?

We’ve all seen movies like this, where the circumstances surrounding a person’s demise is told in flashbacks. The inevitable death is no surprise; you watch events unravel until the individual finally kicks the bucket.

However, the 1947 film noir Nora Prentiss has a plot twist that you won’t see coming. You’ll think you have the movie figured out, but you won’t. Trust us.

Basic storyline: A straight-laced married doctor (Kent Smith) becomes involved with a nightclub singer (Ann Sheridan). They meet innocently enough; Sheridan is hit by a car outside Smith’s office. Smith treats her minor injuries like the no-nonsense professional he is, but Sheridan is an aggressive flirt. Ever the gentleman, he escorts her to her apartment, but makes a beeline home to his family.

The thing is, Smith is secretly sick of domestic life. His wife is a decent, pillar-of-society woman, but she’s dull and over-scheduled. Smith quickly becomes involved with Sheridan, and we see how the affair affects his family and his own personality. For example, he forgets his daughter’s sixteenth birthday because he’s so preoccupied with Sheridan.

Sheridan is not a homewrecker without a conscience. Unlike Smith, she feels it’s unfair to continue the relationship while he is still married. She begs him to go back to his family, but he refuses. He says he’ll ask for a divorce, but he doesn’t do that either. Smith, it seems, cannot be fair to either woman.

Then. One day a bizarre circumstance occurs and Smith realizes he can fake his own death and get away with it. He can drop his wife and children, drain his bank account and start over in a new city with Sheridan. Woo hoo! Get this party started!

Nora Prentiss is often regarded as “film noir for women”, which puzzles us. Never mind the fact we don’t know what that statement actually means, the movie is more about Smith’s character than Sheridan’s. (If you know what “film noir for women” means, please let us know.)

This film cleverly plays with traditional movie stereotypes. At the onset, we assume Smith the doctor is an upstanding citizen. By contrast, we are introduced to nightclub owner Phil Dinardo (Robert Alda), Sheridan’s boss. At first we think Alda is a bit sleazy and, perhaps, associated with the Mob. But, as the movie progresses, we realize Alda really is a decent person and Smith is the one without scruples.

As much as we grow to dislike Smith’s character, we admire his acting. He portrays a weak man who desperately wants a happy life but makes all the wrong decisions. He is completely credible as a man caught in a desperate situation of his own doing.

Truthfully, we were a bit unsure of Ann Sheridan’s ability to carry the movie; we sometimes feel ambivalent about her acting ability. However, in Nora Prentiss, she seems more skilled in each successive scene. In fact, she is exquisite when Smith calls her to say he didn’t ask his wife for a divorce. Sheridan’s face reveals an incredible depth of emotion; you can feel the sucker punch Smith gives her.

Have we convinced you to see this so-called “women’s film noir”? You really should, you know. It’s regarded as one of Ann Sheridan’s best performances, and it’s paired with a very smart script.

Nora Prentiss: starring Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith, Robert Alda. Directed by Vincent Sherman. Written by Arthur Weiss. Warner Brothers, 1947, B&W, 110 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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