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‘A Life at Stake’ is a fun poke at the deadly implications of life insurance

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A Life at Stake

Written by Russ Bender, Hank McCune

Directed Paul Guilfoyle

U.S.A., 1954

Edward Shaw (Keith Andes) spends most of his days lumped on his chair, staring out the window from his cramped little apartment room. A scorned man, he was once a star on the rise in the real estate business, that is, until a former partner swindled him. An embittered and stubbornly honest man, Edward’s hope at redemption and to improve his name in the business arrives one morning when a lawyer presents him the opportunity to pay back his debts and make new headways in his line of profession. His first order of duty involves meeting Doris Hillman (Angela Lansbury), the business-savvy wife of a successful entrepreneur, Gus Hillman (Douglas Dumbrille). Doris knows her way around in the realm of real estate, not to mention how to allure men, both young and old. Once Edward signs an important life insurance policy, things eerily grow out of hand. For one, Doris’ younger sister Madge (Claudia Barrett) reveals how Doris became so wealthy through her previous marriage…when she benefitted from her former husband’s life insurance after his tragic ‘accident’. Edward begins to read between the lines, fearing for his life, or is he going completely mad?

There is a recurring motif in film noir, as several astute aficionados have undoubtedly discerned. If a protagonist stumbles upon a beautiful woman that encourages him into signing a lucrative business proposal requiring an important life insurance clause, then said protagonist should back off and run for his life, but of course he will not. The prospect of a perfect unison with the femme fatale, both for the money and for the sex, is far too strong a pull for the poor soul to possibly resist. Before he knows it, he is stuck in the spider’s web, trying to outwit his predator. Will she eat him or not? If she does, how much time does he have before the first bite?

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Yes, the macabre usage a life insurance policy comes around with relative frequency as a plot point in thrillers of the era, and why not? After all, what better plot point to turn on its head than one involving large sums of cash attached to the physical well being of one or many individuals. In film noir, people die untimely and often grisly deaths. The more money to be extracted from their demise, the sweeter the deal, and how better to sweeten the deal than by seducing the protagonist into a false sense of security through legal documentation that holds close to no value whatsoever for vile vixens and duplicitous crooks? A Life at Stake, directed by Paul Guilfoyle, can be added onto the increasingly high pile of sexually charged tales of betrayal and murder that borrow from the starting off point of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. To blame a film for copying a blueprint is hollow criticism however. What matters more than anything is how is plays with said blueprint. In that respect, Guilfoyle’s film is a commendable effort, albeit one lacking in a couple of key departments.

Arguably the movie’s most interesting, if possibly frustrating quality, is the development of Doris Hillman, lusciously portrayed by a very young Angela Lansbury. The actress, known today mostly for her late-career television series Murder, She Wrote, plays the most complex character in A Life at Stake. True to her impressive talents as a thespian, she comes away from the film having pulled off the most difficult role to ascertain of the bunch, even though one cannot help that, conversely, the script is not doing her many favours either. Her arc is muddled, ambiguous almost to a fault. It is obvious that in the early goings she is playing Edward for the fool, hoping to ensnare him just as she did her late husband. Lansbury brings pep to the part, sprinkled with some sex appeal, mixed in with a lot of confidence and knowledge about the ins and outs of real estate, thus making her a formidable foe for any male hero. As the story evolves, her emotions grow more conflicted, which ordinarily would be a good thing, although in A Life at Stake there are moments when it is unclear why she behaves the way she does. She seems to genuinely love Edward by the picture’s climax, yet goes ahead anyways with a plot to kill him. Lansbury is such a good actress that her talent mostly covers up for the suspect writing, but there are nonetheless aspects to her role that lack refinement. Even so, this element lends the film some thematic gravitas, such as that selfishness’s powerful hold can melt when confronted by love, sending the victim and perpetrator into a whirlwind of cluttered emotions.

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What’s more, most of the supporting cast is really swell. Douglas Dumbrille, as Doris’ seemingly docile husband Gus, is excellent in particular. Whether playing the part as a common sense businessman or a Machiavellian murderer, Dumbrille is both humorous and unexpectedly terrifying depending on what the given scene demands of his talents. His revelation as the ultimate mastermind behind the plot is all the more shocking because he comes across as such a quaint fellow at the start. Claudia Barrett, the film’s supporting female role, is not given the same amount of range to play with as Lansbury, yet she makes her presence known with sweetness mingled with sharp perseverance. A kind girl on the whole, yet when curiosity arouses her (and it certainly does when she becomes privy to her family’s backroom backstabbing), there is little point in trying to thwart her nosiness. Still, her curiosity is constantly driven by her good nature, making her a potent ally in the end.

With all the great co-leading and supporting performances, it is somewhat disheartening to report that Keith Andes, the center of all the attention, limps his way through the picture. A square-jawed, strikingly handsome fellow, his star power is disappointingly flaccid. Physically, he resembles Charlton Heston to a degree, but where Heston brought great verve to his roles (sometimes too much), Andes looks uncomfortable, unsure of himself and how to play the part. Had he been up to the task, A Life at Stake would be chalk full of gifted actors bringing a familiar yarn, rote even, to life in an exciting way. Granted, the picture is not far off from accomplishing the feat, yet it is lacking in the most important department: the lead role.

Technically, the film is a delight to watch. Director Guilfoyle and cinematographer Ted Allan make the most out of the more tension-filled scenes they have to work with. Edward’s nighttime drive down the mountain from Doris’ cottage whilst under the influence of a sleeping pill is brilliantly realized, as is the window view from said cottage, a shot that might give some viewers vertigo. In fact, the film often pits its characters, Edward chief among them, on higher ground areas overlooking the terrain far down below, each time the filmmakers perfectly capturing the sense of danger involved in the characters’ precarious position. On that note, it should be argued that the film is indeed very well packaged together.

With a more refined script and slightly better casting, Paul Guilfoyle’s A Life at Stake could have been an under-seen gem. As it stands, the film is an under-seen, decent romantic thriller. A lot of it looks great and it is gifted is with some great acting. A better leading man would have really hit the spot however. In that sense, the film could have used more work on its insurance policy.

-Edgar Chaput


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