‘The File on Thelma Jordon’ – Barbara Stanwyck plays her mark on Criterion Channel

Robert Siodmak’s The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) is one of the most low key film noir dramas of its era.

Barbara Stanwyck in fine form as a gentle seductress who targets assistant D.A. and married man Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), playing into his self-pity during a drunken night out. When she becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her aunt, a high society matron who names her in her will, the self-pitying Cleve doesn’t just miss the signs that she’s playing him, he blatantly ignores them to cover up incriminating evidence and game the system.

The mix of women’s picture and crime conspiracy is really quite subtle and Siodmak generates more sympathy for Thelma, the poor cousin to a rich relative pressured into crime by a predatory crook of an ex-husband (Richard Rober), than for Cleve. Bitter and resentful of his powerful father-in-law, who greased the wheels for his position, Cleve is surely one of the most weak-willed and deluded patsies in the history of the genre. While Thelma comes off as victim as much as victimizer, Cleve can never quite justify his corruption of the office apart from his obsession. But its most mature triumph is refusing to let Cleve off the hook for his betrayals and misdeeds: there is a price to pay in his career and his life for every decision and action.

It makes for an understated noir, slower and more subdued than such classics as The Maltese Falcon or Siodmak’s own The Killers, but elegant and compelling and even genuinely tragic in its own right, in large part thanks to a superb performance by Stanwyck.

Paul Kelly plays as the stalwart District Attorney, ever suspicious of his suddenly hapless assistant DA, and Joan Tetzel and Stanley Ridges costar.

Black and white

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The File on Thelma Jordon [Blu-ray]
The File on Thelma Jordon [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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