The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Chase.

criterion logoA broken-down ex-GI, Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), returns a wallet to a Miami racketeer (Steve Cochran) and lands a job as his chauffeur, only to find himself in love with his boss’s wife (Michèle Morgan) and planning their escape to Cuba.  Yet however familiar its plot may seem, Arthur Ripley’s The Chase, based on Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear, is no conventional crime melodrama and Scott is quickly ensnared in the movie’s nightmarish logic and the unreliability of its surrealist narrative, taking him and audiences on a wild ride out of film noir and into even darker reaches.  Co-starring Peter Lorre (doing a favor for producer Seymour Nebenzal), The Chase is an idiosyncratic crime classic boasting expressionistic cinematography, a desperately haunted atmosphere, and one the most audacious twists in American cinema.

Disc Features:

  • New digital master from the Film Foundation’s 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by film noir scholar Eddie Muller
  • Woolrich’s World, an interview with film critic Richard Corliss on novelist Cornell Woolrich
  • The Philip Yordan Story, an interview with film historian Alan K. Rode on the screenwriter of The Chase
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by filmmaker Guy Maddin and a new paperback edition of Woolrich’s source novel, The Black Path of Fear

Like all good film fans, MMC! loves its film noir.  In fact, the only thing that fascinates us more than a great noir from the ’40s or ’50s are those strange instances where something else gets grafted into the genre to create some kind of strange hybrid, such as horror-noir, sci-fi noir, or, as in the case of Arthur Ripley’s The Chase, a strange concoction we might call dream-noir.  One of 3 film adaptations of Cornell Woolrich in 1946, The Chase was inspired by The Black Path of Fear, although Eddie Muller states that screenwriter Philip Yordan “threw out the map … in the middle of the trip, and seemed happy to arbitrarily change destinations thereafter.”  Woolrich, a near pathological liar who lived the vast majority of his life in seclusion with his mother in Manhattan while writing frantic, fatalistic crime fiction, was the “preeminent scribe of noir suspense.”  Yet despite Yordan’s deviations from his source material, Muller maintains that “The Chase perfectly evokes Woolrich’s world of doomed romance and terrifying helplessness” and “mocks the implausible set-ups and lapses of logic required to sustain that special brand of mental illness.”  The Chase is an uncommonly loopy example of film noir held aloft by the sheer momentum of the genre and its own paranoid fantasies.  As Guy Maddin calls it, The Chase is “the most surrealism-propelled crime film ever to sleepwalk out of the Dark City.”

Chuck Scott is a WWII vet kicking around Miami, Florida, hungry and penniless until he finds a wallet stuffed with cash.  After rewarding himself to breakfast and a new cigar, Scott returns the wallet to its owner, a vicious gangster named Eddie Roman.  Roman, impressed by “Scotty’s” honesty promptly hires him as his new chauffeur, much to the disdain of his cynical right-hand, Gino (Peter Lorre), who is unimpressed by this “law-abiding jerk.”  Scotty further ingratiates himself to Roman when he holds his nerve steering Roman’s specially equipped car that allows him to control the vehicle’s speed from the back seat.  While Roman and Gino carry on their business of intimidation and death, Scotty falls in love with Roman’s captive wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan), and the pair escape to Havana, until Lorna is killed in a nightclub and Scotty is framed for the murder.  Scotty escapes from the police long enough to discover Gino is behind the frame-up, but he is shot dead and disposed of by Roman’s henchman before being able to do anything about it … except The Chase still has a third left to go.

Scotty suddenly awakens in his room in Roman’s mansion, his travails in Havana proving to be one of the many fever dreams that plagues the ex-GI.  He downs some medication (for PTSD?  Malaria?) and seeks treatment by Commander Davidson (Jack Holt), his doctor at a nearby naval hospital.  Scotty has no recollection of Roman or Lorna and no explanation for his chauffeur’s uniform.  Davidson takes Scotty to the Florida Club for a drink to unwind and runs into Roman and Gino who are there on business (after having locked up Lorna in the mansion).  Davidson realizes that it is Roman’s wife Scotty is in love with, but Scotty comes to the same realization on his own and leaves the Florida Club before Davidson can impart that Lorna is another of his patients and her husband is not one to tolerate their plans.  While Scotty races to Roman’s mansion to free Lorna and carry through their planned escape to Cuba, Roman and Gino discover their plot when a business associate mentions observing Scotty buying passage to Havana on a steamship.  The gangsters race back to their mansion but die in a fiery crash when Roman assumes control of the vehicle’s accelerator and Gino buckles at the wheel.  Scotty and Lorna make it to Havana, their happily ever after ending reversing the dreamt arrival to Cuba that ended in tragedy.

It is the strange logics of The Chase that most fans consider notable, epitomized in the sudden reversal of Scotty’s death and his awakening that reveals nearly a third of the film to have been an unforeseen dream sequence.  In the spirit of Scotty’s adventure, we’ll come back around to that topic shortly, but there are other aspects of The Chase that deserve celebration as well.  The film is well performed, with Morgan’s tragic beauty and Cochran’s predatory mania standing out.  Plus, the simple presence of Peter Lorre elevates The Chase to a special class of noir.  Set and production design are a wonder at B-movie scale, with Roman’s mansion being an edifice to venetian blind shadows and fearsome opulence, while the film’s version of Havana is a crowded, seedy nest of perils – credit cinematographer Franz Planer’s skillful eye and hand for The Chase‘s expressive look.  Yet, more than anything, it is Ripley’s highly economical storytelling that deserves the most acclaim.  Arthur Ripley, a former gag-writer for Mack Sennett, is an unusual candidate for film noir master, but The Chase exhibits an all too keen understanding of the genre’s syntax and semantics to be denied.  The death of Roman’s rival, Emmerrich Johnson (Lloyd Corrigan), is an exquisite example of Ripley’s narrative efficiency.  Johnson is abandoned in Roman’s wine cellar and mauled to death by the gangster’s killer pooch, with only his screams and a crashing bottle of brandy to signify his demise.  The shot of the bottle’s contents sloshing onto the stone floor and flowing away occurs so quickly and so gratuitously that it is indistinguishable in the moment from Johnson’s actual blood.

Ripley regularly makes more from less with an adeptness so quick that the sensation of narrative progress becomes more valuable than actual cause and effect.  The opening sequence of The Chase expresses this perfectly.  Scotty stands outside a diner hungrily watching a short order cook work a griddle.  Suddenly, he discovers a wallet at his feet loaded with cash.  He looks around for the owner, hoping on one hand to return it to a wondering pedestrian and hoping on the other to find no one and keep his new found wealth.  Cut to Scotty leaving the restaurant picking his teeth from a hearty lunch and enjoying a fresh cigar.  He’ll make his way to Roman’s mansion to return his wallet (less the cost of his meal), but we already know everything we need of Scotty without a word of dialogue being spoken.  He’s down on his luck and he’s honest, but not too honest to deny his own essential needs – the perfect noir protagonist.  It’s an exceptionally efficient introduction to The Chase‘s main character, but there’s more to the sequence that a pointed demonstration of Scotty’s nature.  The discovery of the wallet seems to be more than happenstance.  It’s as if it appears to him because both he and the film need it to, and this quirk of generic predestination sets a tone for The Chase, establishing a narrative efficiency that propels its dreamy noir-logic with Detour-like fatalism.  The chauffeur job and his affair with Lorna appear almost pre-packaged, and by the time Lorna is killed in Havana and Scotty is implausibly framed for the murder (the impromptu knife purchase from an accomplice of Gino somehow launches into a murder weapon switcheroo, a plotting horsecart driver, and a covertly executed assassination), The Chase already has us firmly buckled into the ride and, much like Roman stepping on the gas from the back seat, we’re too busy racing forward to think about how bizarre are its circumstances.  Ripley uses film noir syntax like high-test fuel, rocketing the film over rationality to speeds where conventional crime cinema distorts into something strange and wonderful.  We race over the landscape of noir, never actually touching pavement and so never being weighed down by its material demands.  We move so quickly through the atmosphere of noir that we overshoot our destination, needing to come back around to our last point of narrative ingress and start over.  It’s noir with something unusual goat-grafted into it, something uncanny that might be described as proto-Lynchian, that transforms The Chase into something too flawed to be a masterpiece, yet too remarkable to be denied.

Pat McEown DHPThe Chase is something of a film noir cult classic that has normally been reduced to poor public domain disc editions, but with a recent restoration of the film by the Film Foundation, a Criterion quality edition seems certainly possible and Pat McEown would be our choice for a cover and package designer.  McEown’s style is versatile, but we’re most fond of his noir-ish vision in “Wanted Man” for Dark Horse Presents which mixes classic East Coast cartoon-style with ’50s horror and exploitation content and the occasional experimental flourish.  McEown understands noir conventions but, more importantly, has precisely the inventiveness necessary to contain the loopy excess of Ripley’s film.  The Chase is so thoroughly noir that it stops being noir and McEown’s irreverently indulgent style is admirably suited to expressing its paradoxical success.

Pat McEown DHP pageCredits:  Eddie Muller is a revered noir expert, provides excellent commentaries for various Fox titles, and gets the wonderful weirdness of The Chase.  The Collection notably lacks Muller’s expertise and The Chase both needs and deserves his authority, making his inclusion opportune in a variety of ways.  Richard Corliss was chosen for his piece on Cornell Woolrich for Time Magazine, while Alan K. Rode was selected for his Noir City Sentinel piece on Philip Yordan for the Film Noir Foundation.  Both Woolrich and Yordan are fascinating figures deserving of further exploration and thankfully the Collection provides such spaces in their editions.  Guy Maddin is an avowed fan of The Chase and of all things dreamy and unconventional.  We’re fans of Maddin as well and, as an occasional essay contributor to the Collection, we’d be happy to read his eccentric brand of cinephilia.

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