Don't Bother · Film Noir

The Man Who Cheated Everybody

Lee J. Cobb (standing) grills a suspect for the murder he himself committed.
Crooked cop Lee J. Cobb (standing) grills a man for a murder he himself is involved in.

Do you ever wish you could make studios re-do certain movies? Well, we certainly do!

We just watched a film noir that left us feeling so dissatisfied, we’re placing a call to Warner Brothers.

In fact, we’re feeling so ripped off that – *SPOILER ALERT!* – we’re going to tell you how the movie ends to spare you the trouble of watching it. (You’re welcome.)

The movie is 1950’s The Man Who Cheated Himself, but it would be more appropriately titled, The Movie that Ripped You Off.

Before we launch into our tirade, it’s only fair to give you a brief rundown of the plot and, as far as plots go, it’s pretty juicy.

A San Francisco police detective arrives at his married mistress’ house just as she shoots and kills her husband. Instead of arresting her, the detective loads the husband’s body into his car and dumps it.

But here’s the thing: the detective’s kid brother, who is also on the police force, is assigned, along with the detective, to investigate the murder. Get this: The kid brother so keen to solve the murder, he delays his honeymoon to focus on the case.

There is a fabulous cast attached to this film. Lee J. Cobb is the seasoned, crusty detective who expects the worst of people. His dialogue is sparse and packed with meaning; nothing is wasted. For example, after his mistress shoots her husband and asks if they should call a doctor, Cobb replies, “Two slugs in the chest.” The way he says it, you know the man is dead.

John Dall is Cobb’s idealistic younger brother who is a little too smart for Cobb’s comfort level. He idealizes Cobb, until the moment it dawns on him that Cobb might involved in the murder.

And then we have Jane Wyatt, Cobb’s mistress, who is a perfect noir dame – beautiful, selfish and manipulative. Her charm appears as suddenly as it vanishes.

So. How can this premise, paired with this cast, end up in such a mess?

Here’s how: the script.

Now, Dear Reader, we are not a screenwriter and it’s very easy for us to criticize something we know little about. So our opinion is based on our belief that the scriptwriting team was capable of doing better. But maybe the scriptwriters aren’t to blame; perhaps there was too much studio interference.

Here’s what we have: (A) A crooked cop tries to cover up his mistress’s crime; and (B) an adoring brother who is keen to solve this murder to please him. Instead of exploring this sibling relationship, the movie merely pays lip service to it. If you blinked, you would miss the scene where Dall realizes, with horror, that his brother is not who he claims to be. Whoa! That is one callous script.

No, let’s not put our energies into philosophic possibilities. Here’s a better idea for the script! Let’s waste the final 20 minutes of the film in an empty, windy San Francisco fortress with no dialogue and no tension and no point! Let’s give Cobb and Wyatt the bright idea to hide in a corner of this fortress. Then let’s bring Dall, in frantic pursuit, and make him run around the fortress like an idiot, searching for these two.

This – THIS! – is the climax of The Man Who Cheated Himself:

  • shot of Cobb and Wyatt huddled together, looking nervous
  • cut to Dall, running
  • cut to Cobb and Wyatt, still looking nervous
  • cut to Dall, still running
  • repeat for 20 minutes

It is so annoying.

However, the film’s last scene is a redemption of sorts. Cobb, under police guard at the courthouse, spots Wyatt and her defence attorney walking through the corridor. Wyatt is fervently promising her lawyer that she will do Anything if he keeps her out of prison. Cobb overhears this conversation but, being the cynic he is, isn’t surprised or troubled by it. On the contrary, he gives her a look that says, It was worth it.

We have to admit it’s a bit satisfying to see Cobb smug and unrepentant at the end – if only to make up for that dreary fortress scene.

There. Let us never speak of this movie again.

The Man Who Cheated Himself: Starring Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall. Directed by Felix E. Feist. Written by Seton I. Miller & Philip MacDonald. Warner Bros. Pictures, B&W, 1950, 81 mins.

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26 thoughts on “The Man Who Cheated Everybody

  1. What does it say about me, as a movie fan, that I want to watch this film just to enjoy the awfulness. I fully believe that it is a bad movie and for some reason, that I just can’t understand, I want to experience it for myself. There might be something wrong with me.

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  2. I am sitting here LOLing at this review. I love it! Of course, I had to go look to see if this movie was included in my new San Francisco Noir book….it was, but the review is nowhere near as entertaining! Like the previous commenter, now that I’ve read your take on it, I want to see it too!

    This is great R.A. I loved reading this. I do have a case of the giggles now though, lol.

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  3. Very much enjoyed your take. I quite liked it. Good to see Lee J Cobb in unusual role for him. And who would have expected Jane Wyatt in femme fatale mode.

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  4. I have never heard of this movie, but I have to tell you, the thought of Jane Wyatt as a femme fatale is intriguing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her play anything but a “good girl.” Lee J. Cobb is an amazing actor. I’m sure he turned in a super performance.

    It’s so frustrating when a film has a cast you love and you’re really looking forward to watching it, only to discover that it has let you down. That has happened to me on so many occasions.

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  5. I like the movie better than you did. But I have a “thing” for classic ‘B’ films.

    I thought Lee J. Cobb and John Dall gave wonderful performances in this noir thriller. It is also nice to see a 20 year-old Lisa Howard, in a supporting role as Dall’s new wife. I also thought that Jane Wyatt gave a wonderful performance playing the femme fatale.

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  6. SS,
    You gave me such a laugh with this one!

    Now, if I were to read the tagline for a film that went “A San Francisco police detective arrives at his married mistress’ house just as she shoots and kills her husband. Instead of arresting her, the detective loads the husband’s body into his car and dumps it.” I would be pretty excited about seeing that film. Even if it were a tagline for a film out today. Too bad the tagline was the only interesting part of this fiasco! lol

    Even the title is stupid but it does make me smile! I immediately think “Way, to phone in the title, way to get us interested in your little project.”

    If only they had tried harder since it was a decent concept with potential.

    I really enjoyed your honest review of it without sugar coating anything. I’ve read so many reviews were the writers goes on about how great a film is and ‘don’t miss it!’ when I’m sitting here saying.. “No it wasn’t and no, Oh I plan to miss it!” ha ha

    Have a great weekend!
    Page

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Page. I laughed at your “Way to phone in the title” = EXACTLY!

      I was a bit hard on this film but I think that if you come up with a great premise, you’ve gotta see it through. Audiences are owed that much.

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  7. Oh my – I think your review is far superior to the film! Very funny and, sadly, so true. I hate when writers keep you enthralled and then plop a bad ending in your lap. Good endings are the hardest things to come up with. Thanks for a great post and a good laugh.

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  8. How depressing! The plot sounds intriguing and I’m a big fan of both Cobb and Dall. Seton I. Miller was a respectable screenwriter (well, except for PETE’S DRAGON), so it’s a shame all-around.

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    1. If it weren’t such a great premise, then we as an audience wouldn’t feel so let down.

      I didn’t realize Seton I. Miller wrote “Pete’s Dragon”. It really isn’t such a bad film… It does have a kind of charm, no?

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      1. Yes, made in 76 for an ABC Movie of the Week. I found it on dvd at our local library, and since we would be vacationing with my husband’s sister, brother,and sister-in-law, all teens in the 1970s, I knew they’d remember this -ahem- gem! It became a great movie watching moment, with a lot of laughs on our part.

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  9. Ruth, your review of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF cracked me up! That “Huh?” fortress scene sounds worth it, in bad-movie terms! 🙂 Your zingers are always great fun to read! Furthermore, I can feel your pain, because I was similarly frustrated, yet strangely obsessed, by a similar movie that could have been great but failed miserably despite a few good moments: Robert Benton’s 1982 Hitchcockian would-be thriller STILL OF THE NIGHT! If you’re at all interested in my two-part post about it (and if you don’t, I understand; life is too short to dwell on bad movies :-)), here are the links. Read them at your own risk! 🙂

    Part One – http://doriantb.blogspot.com/2010/09/movies-that-need-remaking-how-still-of.html

    Part Two – http://doriantb.blogspot.com/2010/09/movies-that-need-remaking-how-still-of_17.html

    Great post, Ruth, as always, and thanks for letting me vent on your ever-wonderful Silver Screenings! 😀

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  10. Sorry I can’t abide by your request to never speak of this film again. I love John Dall enough to perhaps overlook the film’s weak points. Sounds like the film was running 20 min. short, so they needed to pad out the conclusion.

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