Written by Ketti Frings
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Cleve Marshal (Wendell Corey), assistant district attorney, arrives at the office of colleague and close friend Miles Scott (Paul Kelley) as the latter converses on the phone with Cleve’s wife Pamela (Joan Tetzel). The Marshals are experiencing rocky waters in their marriage, what with Cleve intentionally ducking frequent visits with his influential father-in-law, with whom he shares a strained relationship, a strain which has now soured life with his wife. His attempt to leave the frying pan lands him straight into the fire, however, as later that night, while drunk, Cleve is visited in the office by a beautiful woman named Thelma Jordan (Barbara Stanwyck). The visitor, under the impression that Cleve is actually Miles, explains that she and her wealthy aunt are regularly visited by burglars at night. This proves too great an opportunity for dissatisfied, frustrated Cleve, who quickly woos Thelma whilst offering his help. When Thelma’s aunt is murdered one night, things get complicated very quickly, especially when Cleve chooses to assist a terrified Thelma in not-so-kosher ways according to the law…
Viewers approaching Robert Siodmak’s The File on Thelma Jordon may be reminded of one of the all-time great American thrillers, Double Indemnity, from 1944 and directed by Billy Wilder. Apart from also starring the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck, Siodmak’s 1950 venture concerns two lovers doing their utmost to save their skins from the law after a dreadful murder has been committed. The difference here is that the viewer is unaware if the titular dame played a role in the demise of her rich aunt or not. It appears as if not, but there are a few glaring concerns about her that Cleve can’t quite make out at first, not the least of which is her brutish husband Tony (Richard Rober), who looks to have a mean streak. Part of the motion picture’s fun goes beyond discovering to what lengths Cleve goes to help ensure that Thelma, the primary suspect in the case, is not convicted of the crime but the constant mystery surrounding the entire affair. As the defense attorney defiantly asks during the film’s exhilarating courtroom sequence, if Thelma did not kill the elder Jordan, then who did?
Rather than fall prey to familiarity, The File on Thelma Jordon succeeds because of its excellent idiosyncrasies. For one, Siodmak puts a great amount of emphasis on the juxtaposed facets of Cleve’s personal life, part of which is seduced by the delightful Thelma, the other part of which must deal with the reality of marriage. The film never skirts the issue of the protagonist’s infidelity, constantly reminding the viewer, and by extension the character, that there is an entire part of him tethered to what was a blissful partnership only some time ago. Furthermore, his wife’s behavior is unorthodox in how measured and composed it is. By no means is she content with her husband’s promiscuity but nor she rip him to shreds. She is still devoted to him in spite their recent misgivings thus making Cleve come off even worse.
Naturally, the majority of the film concentrates itself with the dynamic between Cleve and Thelma and their treacherous defiance in the face of the law, an gamble that may prove extremely costly to Cleve depending on what the truth is. After a relatively slow start, things kick into top gear once Thelma’s aunt bites the dust. In fact, the scene where the murder occurs is very well directed, Siodmak presenting the event with taut suspense as well as leaving the viewer in the dark as to who the guilty party is. Immediately afterwards is a scintillating scene in which Cleve and Thelma frantically cover up whatever evidence might point towards the latter as the murderer as a nearby groundskeeper makes his way over to the house to investigate the disturbance. It puts an exciting twist on a scene fans of the genre have probably viewed a number of times, putting considerably more pressure on the lovers as they devise a strategy than if they were left to their own doing.
In what can be considered the film’s highlight, despite how brazen it sometimes comes across as, the courtroom sequence is where Cleve and Thelma pull a terrific number of strings to place the odds their way, primarily with Cleve successfully calling in a favour to have the district attorney relegated to the sidelines, replaced by Cleve who goes on to do his best to intentionally lose the case. It is absolutely far-fetched and certainly stretches believability yet in the hands of Siodmak, already an accomplished director by 1950, it works nonetheless from a purely a dramatic perspective level.
The crux of the picture is, obviously, the story of a man who forsakes his principles for the sake of love. Where The File on Thelma Jordon plays its cards a little bit differently is in showcasing, through the protagonist’s behavior in the early scenes, his willingness to give in to vice. Instead of having a completely virtuous individual sucked into danger, Siodmak’s picture makes it clear from the start that Cleve is already tempted by the idea of renouncing his duties, initially those concerning his familial life but soon those tied to his profession as well. Wendell Corey gives a dynamic performance, showing his character’s weaker side as he feels sorry for himself before demonstrating rejuvenation predicated on unethical temptations. In turn, Stanwyck is her usual talented self. It can argued that Thelma Jordan is not her most challenging role, the entire complexities of which are in full effect only at the very end of the story, when light is finally shed on a series of questions that haunt the film up until then. For the most part, she plays the part of a woman in desperate need of protection, then rattled by what looks to be the unexpected death of a loved one. To be honest, it is very much a damsel-in-distress role but in Stanwyck’s hands, it is at least a very, very good take on the role.
The File on Thelma Jordon’s quality is a testament to that of its director, Robert Siodmak. Handling material that does lack originality in some departments, he produces an occasionally rousing and always engaging drama about two people doing bad, one potentially despite herself, another because of the opportunity of freedom it can award him provided everything goes as planned. Anchored by two strong leads, the film should not be overlooked by astute fans of noir.
— Edgar Chaput