November 20, 2008


With some writing credit due to Samuel Fuller and direction by Douglas Sirk, the quizzically titled Shockproof will always receive more than its fair share of attention from film buffs. However, this oft-told tale of the parole officer who falls for the beautiful parolee doesn’t cry out for attention and barely rates as a film noir. Let’s not blame Sirk and Fuller too much though—Shockproof went through the studio ringer after its script wasnrewritten (and mangled) by frothy screenwriter Helen Deutsch (Valley of the Dolls). If nothing else this stands as a testament to what goes wrong when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, in spite of the overwhelmingly collaborative nature of movie-making. 

Shockproof stars Cornell Wilde as parole officer and wannabe politician Griff Marat. Marat is a decent guy and a square, barely smart enough to avoid being an easy dupe. I couldn’t keep myself from imagining how much better this film could have been with an actor like John Garfield in Wilde’s part. The role of the damaged goods is filled by Wilde’s real life wife Patricia Knight. It is hard to imagine that Wilde’s namesake in the film isn’t meant to be symbolic, but if it is, Knight falls well short of making Jenny Marsh into a film noir Charlotte Corday. Instead she looks like a vamped-up Katharine Hepburn with acting chops that fall well short of Jeanne Crain.

The most interesting aspect of Shockproof, though not surprising considering the Fuller / Sirk collaboration, is how the lion’s share of internal conflict is centered on the female. While Marat’s self assuredness is antithetical to the typical noir anti-hero, Jenny Marsh undergoes a steady transformation through the course of the film, that while primarily internal eventually manifests itself in her outward appearance. As opposed to the typical noir formula of a good man who is corrupted by a bad woman, Shockproof gives us a bad woman who finds grace through her relationship with a good man. And while Marat is certainly drawn deep down into the mud, his circumstances pale in comparison to those of Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man or John Payne’s in 99 River Street. Marat’s heart may have been in the proper place, but he asked for this.

Furthermore, the world view of Shockproof isn’t bleak — examples of goodness abound, and love eventually wins out courtesy of a contrived Hollywood ending. Marat’s downfall, superficial as it is, isn’t a result of his lustful obsession with a manipulative femme fatale. Instead he’s motivated by love, and his love is eventually returned by a woman who may not be perfect, but knows a thing or two about loyalty. Circumstance is the culprit in Shockproof, and while Griff Marat and Jenny Marsh make several awful decisions, none of them are so selfish that we believe they are beyond redemption.

Still though, it’s good fun to see Wilde and Knight “corrode” as they are forced to take it on the lam in the final third of the film. Their marriage adds up to parole violation, and it marks the beginning of a cataclysm of happenstance that eventually brings their relationship to the breaking point. As Jenny’s old life resurfaces and tries to wrest her from domesticity and happiness with Marat, she acts decisively in an attempt to escape. Eventually she and Marat steal cars, hop freight trains, shoplift sandwiches, and finally committ the ultimate break with social mores of postwar conformity: they litter. It’s only against the final backdrop of endless oil derricks (and the only truly noirish set piece in the film) that the newlyweds realize that their ordeal will only end when they give themselves up to the authorities.

 Main Title
 Patricia Knight
 Knight and Wilde
 Knight (as Laura?)
 On the run

Shockproof (1949)

Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch and Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr. 
Starring: Cornell Wilde and Patricia Knight
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 79 minutes


1 comment:

  1. Mark, I just read about your blogsite at LAMB, and I must say I'm impressed by the quality of your writing. In this post, you make a good case that "Shockproof" does not fit the strict definition of film noir. I would say, however, that it does at least have noirish elements. And noir is a pretty broad category, with some arguing that it is more a question of style and sensibility than of specific characteristics (although I'm not sure that even on this basis it would qualify as noir). I saw this film not too long ago, and what surprised me most was that such a movie was directed by Sirk. Your interesting point about the Marsh character being so different from the typical noir femme fatale and being such a focus of internal conflict makes me think that the film might make more sense if considered as a darker variation of Sirk's women's pictures of the 50s. In either case, you're sure right about that ending being so inconsistent with the rest of the movie. I'm also leaving a comment on your post on "Plunder Road."