Vincent Sherman | Backfire
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We do not even see the killer till the end of the film. In this it resembles Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945). The older woman who scrubs floors also resembles the scrub woman in Hathaway's Call Northside 777 (1947).
In the Welles and Siodmak films the character appearing in the flashbacks dies at the start of the film. Here, however, the central figure of the flashbacks merely goes missing at the film opening; the hero is trying to track him down and save his life. It makes the film be more optimistic and less fatalistic than the Welles and Siodmak films, which are about characters who have already died, and whose lives are now frozen for all eternity. Here, the missing man has a chance at redemption and a new start. I welcome this optimism, it has real appeal. Optimism is good for people.
The detective hero here also has a major role. This is closer to the Siodmak film, in which the insurance investigator was a major character, rather than the Welles film, whose reporter is little more than a frame holder for the flashbacks. The detective's role is further built up here by giving him a love interest, something neither detective character had in the Welles or Siodmak films. Both of those characters were disinterested seekers after truth: pure investigative figures. This man is trying to help a friend, and is a full character with romance, feelings and a life story of his own.
The police station scenes in the film have a "level set" approach: everyone gets together, and pool all they know. These scenes are always enlightening. Meetings with the police do not always take this approach in noir films; it seems unique to Backfire.
The scrub woman also criticizes the gambler for keeping his shoes too shiny. Once again, flash is associated with a lack of respectability.
One also notes the scene in the night and the rain at the suburban home. This combination was standard in noir. Here it really rains hard, in the best noir tradition.
The home looks like part of a standard suburb, otherwise. Many scenes in this film do. It is far less urban than much noir. Many scenes take place in the daytime, and in perfectly ordinary, respectable suburban locations, compared to typical film noir.
There are also some deep focus shots in the hotel lobby, notably when the hero goes into the glass phone booth, and we see the rest of the lobby in the background.
Many of the scenes in Backfire have a visionary quality, that perhaps comes from the noir tradition. The early scene in the hospital room piles on every possible "altered state" aspect: illness, sleep, dreams, mirrors, photographs, medication, Christmas Eve, shadows, blurred vision. These are all things that change perception and give a hallucinatory quality to the scene. The use of jewels also tends to suggest otherworldly dimensions to the experience. Later the scriptwriters conveniently provide a whole explanation of the scene in terms of a psychological aberration, as stated by the doctor. There is no truth to this, but it does give a whole other dimension to the scene. Unstated by everyone is another "explanation" that the two men are linked by a deep emotional bond, and that when one is in trouble, this woman comes out as a supernatural emissary to warn the other. This explanation is not true either, in the literal sense, but it is close to the deep underlying meaning of the event. These three versions, the literal reality, the psychological aberration, the deep connection, all coincide in the scene.
Other visionary scenes in Backfire draw on architecture. The murder scene flashback is unusual in that it takes place entirely outside the victim's home, in his front yard. It never goes inside his house. This is not a matter of saving on sets: later scenes in the film take place inside the house. The scene draws a very unusual feel from its architectural setting.
Similarly, when the cleaning woman is introduced, we see her high on the stairs, working in the background. This position suggests she is almost a supernatural being. She too will have unusual ways of seeing in her flashback: first on the floor showing the men's shoes; later through a keyhole.
The way the police pick up MacRae for questioning right after his release from the hospital is also strange. There is a bildungsroman quality to this. MacRae looks like a young man who is leaving home and going out into the world for the first time. His walking along with a small bag seems symbolic of a journey on the road of life. The way he is suddenly swallowed up by the police has a quality of capture. It seems like a surreal event. Whap! Just two steps, then engulfment by these strange men.