A Douglas Sirk film noir scripted by Sam Fuller sounds like an enticing proposition for anyone familiar with some of the more unique directors of Golden Age Hollywood. Sirk’s talent for melodrama and sense of craft combined with Fuller’s grasp of the darker, seedier stories that made Hollywood executives nervous lest they fall foul of the Hays Code has the potential to make for a great piece of cult cinema. Shockproof doesn’t quite deliver on the potential of its names (as it is, Shockproof was made relatively early in both Sirk’s and Fuller’s career) but it remains a strong, well-crafted film noir, at least until the preposterously sickly sweet ending, which was supposedly a case of studio interference rather than any sudden attack of sentimentality on the part of Sirk or Fuller.
The story follows Jenny (Patricia Knight), released from prison on parole after five years for murder. Introduced to her parole officer, Griff (Cornel Wilde), she is told, in no uncertain terms, that if she associates with Harry Wesson (John Baragrey), her criminal lover and the man she went to prison for, she will be sent back to jail. Almost immediately, she is picked up in a raid at a bookie’s along with Wesson, but Griff lets her off out of sympathy and a glimmer of romantic attraction; so begins a tug of war between Griff and Wesson as to Jenny’s future. Does she go back to her life of crime or can she remain on the straight and narrow?
One of the defining features of film noir has always been that its (usually male) protagonists are fallible and weighed down by the mistakes of their past, giving in to temptation easily, often at the heels of a femme fatale. In the case of Shockproof, it is the female lead who is chased by her past demons; her former life as a gangster’s lover is hard to escape, and she is unsure herself whether she wants to escape it. Wesson’s lifestyle—nice cars, nice jewellery, plenty of drink and luxury—is the polar opposite of Griff’s homely Catholic world, all homemade cooking and familial reliance.
Though comfortable, it’s hard to begrudge Jenny for initially finding it boring when Griff puts her up as a live-in maid to help his blind mother as a way of keeping her away from Wesson. The opposing nature of the two worlds plays out in Jenny, as she swings from one to the other; eventually there is a rupture and she decides the only way out from her criminal past is to face it head on, whatever the consequences. The result is a cross-country chase with Griff in the driver’s seat; the kind of classic noir set-up where doomed lovers go on the run across the wide-open spaces of America, only to find that its vast plains are smaller than they seem.
Shockproof lacks the doomed poetics of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, a film it closely resembles in structure; the convict trying to go good, the lovers on the lam being chased down, but it makes up for it with sturdy craftsmanship: Sirk handles the material with confidence, with a brisk pace to the film that ensures its lesser elements don’t become to glaring—the performances are fine, if mostly functional, and the script is much the same, giving the feel of a watered-down Fuller script (which it was). The cinematography isn’t as ostentatiously gloomy as other film noirs but the shadows don’t go to waste; Sirk always knew how to use a camera. Shockproof looks crisp and smart, with weight given to its images. The most glaring error, as already mentioned, is the film’s ending, but the final scene constitutes barely two minutes of running time: one can easily just pretend it finishes a tad sooner. It might not have anything particularly explosive as far as the genre is concerned, but then, it doesn’t have to. Fine noir is always good noir.