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.

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

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