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‘Cause for Alarm’ is a gripping depiction of marital bliss gone awry

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Cause for Alarm

Written by Mel Dinelli and Tom Lewis

Directed by Tay Garnett

U.S.A., 1951

The greater and sweeter love is at its inception, the more bitter the pill to swallow when said sweetness turns sour. This is the lesson unfortunate Ellen Jones (Loretta Young) learns as her marriage to former army man George Jones (Barry Sullivan) has her trapped, confined to her house as she dutifully takes care of her gravely ill husband in addition to being emotionally and psychologically confined. Things started off swimmingly however when a few years back George swept her off her feat, much to the disappointment of potential lover Dr Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling). As time elapses George’s brash charm morphs into a terrible mood, compounded by his paranoid fear that not only are Ellen and Ranney cuddling behind his back, but are in all likelihood trying to kill him.  The strain this puts on Ellen is unbearable and only grows worse the day George dies of a heart attack, for he had just sent a letter to the district attorney elaborating his delusions as facts. Ellen can’t let that letter reach its destination, not with so many details of her life inadvertently pointing to the fact that she may in fact have wanted George dead all along…

Here is a film operating on a simple enough premise that successfully winds up the tension with the greatest of ease. Just like little mechanical toys start performing their carefully programmed routines when wound up, so do the wonderfully suspenseful elements of Tay Gernett’s Cause for Alarm add on to the stress Ellen lives through in order to protect her innocence all the while preventing anyone from discovering her husband’s dead body in the bedroom upstairs. In contrast to many films of this genre, Cause for Alarm opts to set all of its hoopla in a sleepy suburban neighbourhood on a frightfully hot day. Just as David Lynch would demonstrate some decades later in his take on noir, Blue Velvet, the smiley suburban setting is in actuality the perfect location to explore the tensions that can arise when the road to living the American dream takes a wrong turn. A common theme that runs through film noir is the destructive nature of obsessiveness. A character is truck by the notion that something must be obtained, said or prevented at all costs and very often their one track mind does them in. For example, George is possessed by the idea that his wife and good friend are plotting an unspeakable evil as he lies helpless in bed. This feeds his vile demeanour and, in turn, virtually destroys Ellen who obsessively tries to ease her husband’s pains, clinging to the idea that maybe, just maybe, things will work out in the end. The viewer knows this is no more than a fool’s hope, yet witnessing Ellen’s emotional turmoil, played with utter conviction and grace by Loretta Young, one wants her to be right, if mostly only for her sake

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Of course, this being the world of film noir, things can never go as planned, neither for George nor for poor Ellen.  The former drops dead in a fit of rage just before he can pull the trigger of a pistol to murder Ellen, whereas the latter is left to scramble madly to and fro so as to not become the condemned victim of her late husband’s machinations. Further entrenching the picture in the noir atmosphere is its adherence to a plot structure that exemplifies the inexorability of fate. Nearly everything that could go wrong and thwart Ellen’s attempts to save herself does in fact go wrong, further testing her psychological and emotional metal. The protagonist’s efforts in trying to intercept George’s fateful letter and prevent anyone from visiting him (and there’s a decent few) are directed with aplomb by Tay Garnett, making the film’s second half very juicy as far as thrills are concerned. As brave and determined as Ellen tries to be while stretching herself as much as possible, it always feels as though the next unfortunate development might be the one that completely breaks her spirit.

Another fortuitous ingredient to the film’s success are the performances, from their variety to their quality. The number of central and supporting roles featured throughout that leave an indelible mark is incredible. The starting off point is undoubtedly Loretta Young, who turns in a staunchly emotional, gripping display of acting. An actor’s talent can not only be measured in what they communicate directly through their performance but in the depth in what they convey more subtly. There is an underlying and undeniable sweetness to her character, one that encourages the deepest empathy on the part of the viewer. In some scenes her joyous and generous nature is more evident, as when she entertains young Billy (Bradley Mora) for brief spells, but that streak is ever present, even when she speaks and acts with feverish desperation. Loretta Young brilliantly taps into her character’s psychological whirlwind all the while preserving the sense she remains an all around decent human being. Because of that, the viewer very easily cheers her on, feels her pain and wishes her the best.

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The leading lady is far from the only individual to add colour to the proceedings however. Nay, nearly everyone who shows up on screen, be it in a strong supporting role or only for a few minutes, excels at the tasks asked of them. Barry Sullivan is skin-crawling creepy even though he is restricted to sitting or lying in bed, vengeful paranoia oozing out of every pore of his body. Margalo Gilmore has a memorable scene as George’s aunt Clara who comes to pay a visit to her sick nephew and offer some home made pie. Chatty to the point of annoyance and irksome in her determination to go upstairs and reconvene with George, she is a terrific foil Ellen must contend with even if it’s only for a single scene. Arguably the best supporting role and actor is the postman Joe Carston, astutely played by Irving Bacon. Joe is the sort of employee who just loves to chat with his clients, regardless of how little interested the latter may be in whatever random tidbits he simply cannot help but share. Not only that, but he is resolute in his adherence to the rules and regulations that dictate how he must go about his job and the inner workings of the overall postal service. Ellen pleads with him to hand over the letter she gave him only minutes ago, but he simply cannot acquiesce for the rules forbid it. One could not come across a more affable fellow who also proved to be the greatest detriment to reaching one’s objective.

Cause for Alarm is not interested in flash or panache. For all intents and purposes it is a smartly directed picture for how it gets the most out of its script, social setting and cast, not for any jaw dropping cinematography or camera trickery. It is an example of a movie that gets all the little things right, and that amounts to a whole lot.

-Edgar Chaput


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