The Chase (1946) is one of the many films to sport this rather generic title and it is, shall we say, a rather inaccurate description of this nightmare noir adapted from the Cornell Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear.
Robert Cummings stars as a shell-shocked World War II vet Chuck Scott who, hungry and broke and down-on-his-luck, finds a lost wallet and returns it to the owner, who happens to be Miami mobster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran in a pencil mustache). Eddie is a guy with a soft spot for vets and a blind spot when it comes to his wife Lorna (Michele Morgan), who is plotting her escape form Eddie’s smothering clutches. Chuck’s job is ostensibly to chauffeur Lorna around, but it’s really to keep tabs on her, and the perpetual look of misery and anxiety on her face persuades Chuck to switch allegiances and help her flee to Havana.
The stories of Woolrich were a rich source for film noir and paranoid thrillers—literally dozens of movies and TV shows were made from his work—and this is one of the most Woolrich-ian as it slips from dreamy romantic thriller to paranoid nightmare noir. Director Arthur Ripley, working from an adaptation credited to Philip Yordan, turns Havana into network of underworld operatives just waiting to send the next unwitting victim into a web of terror. The great director of photography Franz Planer plunges this sequence into the darkest nocturnal urban jungle you’ve ever seen, a mad city playing upon your worst fears.
Fighting his way through it all is the most unlikely of noir heroes. Cummings’ Chuck is the affable, good-natured guy next door suddenly dropped into a crime story who has to play the part just to survive it. He never comes off as tough, knocked about, or even street smart (something Dick Powell managed to pull off very nicely with his deadpan approach), but you can’t help but root for him to come out all right. Cochran’s gangster is your usual two-bit thug with money and style and more ego than brains and Peter Lorre has a supporting role around the edges and delivers more personality and character than all the leads put together.
If you think of movie narratives like Edward G. Robinson describes a murder in Double Indemnity, as a train ride you can’t get off until the end of the line (“it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”), The Chase veers off on a side-line without the passengers ever realizing, taking them into a dark, twisted route that finally crashes into a dead-end. Which, as it turns out, isn’t even the end of the movie. In fact, it practically comes to an abrupt halt and gets a jumpstart, grounding it back in a more familiar world while sending it off on another bout of madness and a conclusion that ostensibly plays as a “happy ending” yet could be the beginning of a whole new nightmare. Just look carefully at the film’s last image and remember that you’ve been it before….
Black and white
The film fell into the public domain and has been available in poor quality editions for decades. The Film Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored the film 2012. That restored version is available on Kanopy, which is available through most public and college library systems. Be wary of other editions.
The Chase has been around for decades on VHS and DVD in inferior (and some downright miserable) editions. Kino Classics presents a restoration funded by The Film Foundation funded and undertaken by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in 2012. The results are a quantum leap in quality from those earlier versions. While it will likely never look as good as the great studio noirs, it is clean and clear and damage free, with restored contrasts that pulls the sea of shadow of the film’s nightmarish from the swamp of earlier versions and reveals the gorgeous photography of Planer.
The Kino Blu-ray and DVD features commentary by filmmaker Guy Maddin, who provides appreciation along with a little background on the film and the players, and two radio adaptations of the story (one of them starring Cary Grant!).