When the wealthy Lois finds an inspection certificate for a revolver in her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s office she’s convinced he intends to murder her, and calls in her bit on the side – gruff homicide detective Ed Cullen, played by Lee J. Cobb – to protect her. She was right to be anxious, as shortly after Ed arrives to calm her down her husband springs his trap and promptly ends up dead. Ed covers up the crime, but when he and his wet-behind-the-ears kid brother Andy (John Dall) land the case, Andy proves alarmingly persistent and – more worryingly for Ed – a damn fine detective.
The murder that sets the film in motion is a deliciously nasty bit of business. We meet the husband briefly in the opening scene, using a poker to break in to his own balcony, hiding the gun, packing a suitcase – clearly setting up her murder without a word spoken – and bickering with his wife. There’s even something endearing about watching him execute his perfect master plan, of course doomed to failure as it must be. So as with all the best films noir there’s just the right combination of bad timing, coincidence and inescapable destiny when he does meet his fate.
The film has other similarly neat moments, most notably the tense scene when Lois and Ed try various tricks to distract Andy, who’s sitting next to a book that could give the whole game away. The moment it’s safely hidden is a perfect marriage of movement between the actors and camera, and director Felix E. Feist revels in such subtle dances throughout the picture.
Feist also makes truly excellent use of the San Francisco locations, allowing the camera considerable freedom to produce some great, fluid shots, and the film appears to have enjoyed a sizable budget. There’s even some solid stuntwork, and not all noirs can say that. The finale at a disused fort under the Golden Gate bridge is particularly impressive, the stark cinematography and sound design really coming into its own even on grainy Public Domain copies.
The performances from the two leads are excellent, helped greatly by a snappy script that bristles with witty, knowing dialogue (“This is my first case, how am I doing?” “Keep it up and I’ll be out of a job” being the film’s best exchange.) Their chemistry is believeable, which makes Ed’s distaste at what he’s doing, and Andy’s pain as the truth gradually sinks in all the more powerful. Ed knows on some level his brother’s too smart and too honest to let him get away with it, so he just digs himself in deeper as the walls close in.
On the debit side, Ed and Lois’ romance doesn’t really convince, even with the script hinting at their mutual history of poor choices in partners, and her shady past and general untrustworthiness. There’s no tenderness, and no sexual chemistry, and it’s hard to believe that their paths would ever meet, let alone that Ed is stupid enough to risk everything for her. It doesn’t help that Jane Wyatt isn’t exactly stellar in her role.
Overall though it’s a cracking little noir, with a sly final scene that ends with an unforgettable close-up of Cobb.
The Man Who Cheated Himself is in the Public Domain and can be viewed legally on sites like YouTube and InternetArchive.org.
Director: Felix E. Feist
Stars:Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt and John Dall
Runtime: 81 min