Impact - 1949

A fiendish wife plots the murder of her unaware husband, only to have the plan twist around in a completely unexpected direction.

Barrel-chested Brian Donlevy (as businessman Walter Williams) pushes his way through the topsy-turvy noir of Impact where he gets betrayed by wife Irene (a perfectly cold-blooded Helen Walker), clonked on the head by her boyfriend (Tony Barrett), and left for dead in a gully by the side of road. With a concussion and the brief, echoing words "from Irene and me, sucker!" in his foggy head, Donlevy wakes up much later and wanders away on foot, ending up in the small town of Larkspur, Idaho. Looking like a wandering derelict, but with a serious head wound, Donlevy's character gets showered with human kindness in the little town and this puts him back on his feet again.

But there's a nagging little problem: he's officially considered dead. His wife's tooth-pick chewing boyfriend, after hitting Donlevy with a lug wrench, fled up the highway in the car Donlevy had been driving at high speed right into a truck helpfully labeled "high octane" and blew himself up in a fireball down the side of a cliff. The unrecognizable body found in the wreckage is assumed, according to the newspaper accounts, to be that of businessman Walter Williams. With a deep pessimism in his mind from his wife's betrayal, Donlevy's character adopts the new name of Bill Walker, reluctantly takes on the job of mechanic at a filling station run by Ella Raines, and slips into an anonymous life in the warm embrace of the people of Lakespur.

Following the continuing story in the newspaper he learns his murderous wife has been indicted for his death, and with a kind of grim satisfaction at this turn of events, he learns she is convicted and to be given the death penalty. This might strike him as a kind of ironic justice, but when he tells his whole story to Ella Raines (who he calls "boss" and with whom he has of course now fallen in love), she can't stand that he'll let his unfaithful wife go to her doom under false pretenses, and she insists he go to the police. In a series of missteps and with pretty tricky wordsmanship from his jailed and lethally clever wife, the death of the dead boyfriend is soon pinned on the resurrected Walter Williams and he is now jailed and in a fight for his life in court.

I've seen Impact described as a legitimate noir from the genre's classic era, but with a streak of Frank Capra down the middle, which is a fair appraisal. When Donlevy's character ends up in the idyllic Larkspur, Idaho, its not unlike Gene Kelly ending up in Brigadoon, a place so completely unlike where the main character started that its sort of a faery tale twist, especially in a murder-drama like Impact. And, like a Capra film (but not necessarily a Robert Riskin-Frank Capra film) we get some small town humor that could have been composed during the silent film era, with volunteer firemen running to their engine with their faces smeared with shaving cream, and a young father in a jalopy running about like a headless-chicken handing out cigars on account of a new baby.

But outside of Larkspur, the world is a much tougher place and with Donlevy's Walter Williams in jail and going to trial for the murder of the dead boyfriend, with the police almost lazily convinced of Williams' guilt, it is up to Ella Rains and Anna May Wong, plus Charles Coburn as an old investigator on the verge of retirement, to dig around and come up with a way out.

In Impact, maybe human decency has a lock on Larkspur, but it also seems to have space in San Francisco's Chinatown and in the heart of Charles Coburn's police investigator. Coburn's portryal uses a strong Irish accent, he uses a cigarette-holder like Poli Negri, and he adds some jovial humor that seems transported in from an earlier era in Hollywood, but in the essentials Impact is as rough as other late-40s noirs.

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Original Page March 18, 2024