Directed by Vincent Sherman
Written by Larry Marcus, Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff
Reviewing movies with the benefit of hindsight offers ample opportunity to discover, analyze and extrapolate the several issues of the day their stories were concerned with. It puts such films into historical context, awarding them a sense of worth perhaps movie goers at the time overlooked. Film Noir is frequently cited as being specific in relating to the American post-Second World War experience, a time during which the innocence of a large and powerful country was shaken, the disillusionment created by mankind’s unhinged ferocious nature exposed during combat having deeply affected returning veterans. People fell on hard times, forced to strive to earn a living all the while reckoning with the truth of human nature. Backfire, from director Vincent Sherman, exposes the down and dirty side of people’s desperation through the thin shiny veneer of glitz and glamour, not to mention being poorly received upon its release in 1950.
At a hospital for war veterans somewhere not too removed from Los Angeles, California, Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) is resting his badly injured back. What little respite his currently humdrum life is given comes in the form of visits from his old pal Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien), with whom he has begun to plan a ranch business for some time down the road, as well as the delightful presence of nurse Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo). Bob has taken a liking to her, and she to him, and while they do not give in to their inhibitions at the medical centre, it is pretty obvious they shall be seeing each other once Bob has fully recovered. Good news about Bob’s back and his fast approaching final day in bed coincides with the commencement of a shocking mystery. Steve has inexplicably ceased his recurring visits. Then there is the mysterious nocturnal visitor (Viveca Lindfors) who, while Bob is wrestling with a drug induced sleep one night, reveals that his old friend Steve is contemplating suicide following a terrible accident. The woman vanishes like a dream, but for Bob, the peculiar clues as to his friend’s whereabouts are piled on days later when he finally leaves the hospital, only to be immediately accosted by the L.A. Police, who warn him that Steve is the prime suspect in a murder case…and on the run! Is Bob’s old friend a fugitive or a wrongfully accused man?
What viewers get with Backfire is, for lack of a better term, a tight little package. It never goes for anything too bombastic or grand in scale. The story, which shifts between the protagonist’s investigation and the many points of views of the characters who, at one point or another, came across the missing Steve Connelly in the past days and weeks, is tremendously character-based. The script and direction deliberately entertain the idea that everyone in the picture, even those whom the audience sees for but a few minutes, can ultimately be accepted as three-dimensional, which is a credit to the effort put into making the picture as complete as possible. Through this entertaining yarn of a mystery is conveyed a gripping, even maddening tale of how one man’s poor decision making led him astray, nearly nullifying any chances at happiness.
What in part makes the film all the more impressive that is it does not hammer home its points about the financial trials and tribulations of veterans in the post-war world, it all comes together organically out of the plot, which itself is terrifically amusing from start to finish. Bob’s journey from the hospital bed all the way to the thrilling climax is replete with a cast of colourful characters which enriches the ‘connect the dots’ type plot. Every actor and actress gives their individual roles real gusto and personality, thus ensuring that each of Bob’s successive encounters, and those of nurse Julie’s (who commits herself to aiding her new lover on his quest) is given a new and unique flavor. From captain Garcia’s loud, commandeering brashness, to Bonnie’s happy-go-lucky, inquisitive persona, and Ben Arno’s affable, charming businessman type demeanor, everybody brings life in their scenes. It also helps in having the viewer believe that the protagonist’s self-ascribed mission takes him to a great many places with a great many little mysteries added onto the original. With the arrival of the climax, one feels as though Bob has truly earned the right to find what who or what is behind Steve’s sudden incognito lifestyle.
The cast understandably deserves mention. Interestingly enough, if there is a weaker link, albeit not a weak one per say, it might be the man in the central role, Gordon MacRae. He is a handsome looking fellow, with those manicured good looks which appeared to be a staple of heroes in movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s. The performance itself speaks to the bewilderment of the role. Bob is, after all, perplexed and inundated with mountains of queries. Yet, when attempts are made to go for a rougher edge, however slight it may be, the delivery never lands with the anticipated heft. When the receptionist of the hotel Steve stayed at is taking too long to look up the phone numbers Bob’s friend called during his stay, the protagonist cries something along the lines of ‘Hey mumbles, speed it up!’ but it comes out so awkwardly. MacRae is a little too nice for lines such as that and it does hold the overall performance back a little bit, but one can nevertheless argue that the actor is serviceable. Virginia Mayo, on the other hand, is a real gem, proving to be a smart, dynamic performer who can inject a lot of energy and nuance into her role of nurse Julia, one that does not ask too much of her as she is unfortunately sidelined for long stretches as the film concentrates on Bob and various flashbacks involving Steve’s journey. Dane Clark, as Bob’s former army buddy and now mortician is really, really cool. The man knows how to give a winning smile and deliver a funny, punchy line like the best of them. Clark has screen presence and a powerfully compelling persona to boot, making him the clear standout, which is something in a movie filled with memorable small bits. It would be a shame to overlook Viveca Lindfors for her stylish role. A real treat of an actress, although the less said about her role, the better, for fear of revealing too much.
As the multilayered investigation develops, the story’s pathos comes into light. Each eye witness tale relating to Steve’s whereabouts speaks to the man’s troubled financial status. At the start of the picture, he and Bob, at that point still relegated to a hospital bed, had, one would say, moderately high hopes of building their own ranch business. Home on the range, if you will. As the stories of who saw Steve do what multiply, it becomes clear as daylight that the man’s situation was far dire than Bob had envisioned, which prompted the desperate soul to venture into money-making schemes that did not also suit his strong points, like boxing. A boxing match is one thing, it is another to get entangled with racketeers and sleazy gamblers, the direction in which Steve’s path ultimately leads. Steve was a decent fellow on the whole, but through an unhealthy cocktail of foolishness and other betraying his trust, things did not work out as well as they should have considering that together with Bob, he had enough money to start the business they dreamed of. Where once were dreams, now there is but slavery towards the people who can help him get back what little money he had to begin with
Pinpointing any significant faults is a challenge. If there is one element that could have been quite amusing, although it would have changed the nature of the story, it would have been to continuously challenge Bob’s and the viewers’ opinion Steve depending on the stories shared by the eye witnesses. Having one’s conclusions about what sort of a man he is oscillate throughout the picture could have proven to be quite the little game. As it stands, there are clues which point to the notion that Steve may have been the culprit in a heinous crime, but further evidence is quickly brought to light which squashes any such notion. As previously stated, it would have shifted the aim of the story to something resembling more of a guessing game for the viewer. As it stands, Backfire is sadder and thus emotionally richer.