Vincent Sherman | Backfire

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Vincent Sherman

Vincent Sherman was a Hollywood film director.

Backfire

Backfire (1950) is a mystery film. It has a whodunit plot. It is not simply a crime thriller; rather it has a puzzle to be solved.

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).

Flashbacks

Backfire has the same structure or architecture as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) and Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946). A similar structure will be used in much of the first half of Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952). All of these films consist of a series of flashbacks; each flashback is narrated by a different character. Together the flashbacks tell the story of one character's past history. Tying them all together is another character who serves as a detective. He goes around in the present, interviewing people and tracking down leads. Each person he encounters tells him a flashback story about the man whose life he is investigating.

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 Detective: Actor and Character

The detective in Backfire is played by Gordon MacRae. One tends to associate its lead actor Gordon MacRae with the dozen or so musicals he made during 1949 - 1956. He also made TV appearances during this era. He is the last person I would have associated with film noir, but here he is. He wears the typical contemporary suit, tie and hat of the noir hero. I am used to seeing him in period costumes for his color film musicals; he looks very different in black and white and a suit. He comes across as a boyish, naive hero, rather like the young leads of such Anthony Mann films as Desperate (1947) and Side Street (1950). Unlike them, he is not manipulated by the bad guys, or put on the run, however. Instead, he functions as a genuine detective, following up clues, tracing down leads, and eventually solving the crime. He is an amateur sleuth, a veteran tracking down his missing friend, and not a private eye. But he is a full detective character, one who shows admirable persistence and courage throughout the film.

Costumes

MacRae spends the film is a series of modest looking single-breasted suits. These are in keeping with his youth and poverty. The well to do gamblers he meets are in sharp double-breasted numbers, however. The film has a two tier approach to men's clothes, with double breasted suits being worn by flashy, affluent men. There was a similar approach used in Side Street.

The scrub woman also criticizes the gambler for keeping his shoes too shiny. Once again, flash is associated with a lack of respectability.

Attitudes to Men and Women

Backfire is much more sympathetic to women than are many noir films. Here it is women who are normal, and men who are obsessed and sick. The villain who jealously stalks a woman in the film anticipates modern feminist concerns about such men. He is painted as truly evil. The film also suggests that this is a fairly widespread phenomenon.

Locations

The most noir like location in the film is the cheap hotel. This is built on a corner, and has a highly unusual front porch, curving around the corner. The film keeps talking about how cheap this hotel is - cheap hotels were part of noir tradition. The hotel is also on a hill, and we see a huge urban cityscape stretching away in the distance below it. The whole effect is architecturally striking. Sherman also gets mileage out of the Veteran's hospital, and its series of ramps. Such unusual architectural locations were frequently seen in noir films, to add to their visual complexity.

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.

Deep Focus

Sherman goes in for depth of field in these landscapes.

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.

Visionary Fire

SPOILERS AHEAD.

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.