January Blus: The Accused (1949)
Did you take advantage of Kino's Winter Wonderland sale? We certainly did, so we decided to give our takes on the disks we bought in common. This month is a grab bag of blu-rays to help you chase away the January blues. Today Rodney and Samantha deliberate over The Accused.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Dr. Wilma Tuttle (Loretta Young) is a buttoned-up college psychology professor. She is devoted to her work so she doesn't have an active social life. One of her students is an arrogant, brash young man named Bill Perry (Douglas Dick). His behavior during an exam prompts Dr. Tuttle to ask to speak with him after class, and what begins as an admonishment turns into an extended lunch date. She learns about his childhood-- he is the product of a divorce-- and begins to analyze him, letting her guard down. He uses the opportunity to try to take advantage of her, and she fights back, accidentally killing him. Instead of going to the police and pleading self-defense, she covers up the crime and tries to let her life return to normal, but the guilt is overwhelming. When Warren (Robert Cummings), a relative of Perry's, and inspector Lt. Dorgan (Wendall Corey) enter the scene her torment only increases.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Okay. So this is one of those cases, where you don’t really realize how absurd the proceedings are until you actually read them, or type them. I readily will admit to asking myself multiple times, “Why are you going here with him? Why are you still with him?” It didn’t make much sense to me. I know I should learn to suspend belief with this sort of thing, but I can’t help it. Normal sensibilities creep in sometimes.
SG: I think she was intrigued by him. She wanted to figure him out. She thought of him as a child, a student, so she assumed he saw her the same way. Obviously he felt the opposite, that she was an inferior person that he could overpower.
Photoplay reviewer Elsa Branden wrote, "If ever there was a lovely lady in distress who needed a chivalrous male to defend her, it's schoolmarm Loretta Young. Since he is attorney Robert Cummings, as clever as he's likable, Loretta and the audience can rest assured that all will end well." This old-fashioned viewpoint is troublesome, especially considering the fact that Dr. Tuttle has achieved a doctorate degree and earned a position at a good college, assumedly without any male interferences, she lives alone, and was able to defend herself physically from an attacker. Aside from poor judgment in the heat of the moment, I'd say she was pretty self-sufficient. However, this is an interesting film to view with modern eyes, because our takeaways are probably vastly different than those of the contemporaries who saw it upon first release.
RB: I don’t know that I agree with the Photoplay reviewer here. We know she committed the murder. We saw it happen. We also know that it was self-defense and that she shouldn’t be punished for said murder (at least that’s how I feel). BUT…we also know that the production code was in effect, and she must be punished for her crime, no matter how justified it was. So, no, I didn’t know that it all would end well. In fact, I spent the bulk of the film trying to figure out just how they were going to get around all of this.
I do agree with you wholeheartedly that I don’t see Young’s character as “needing” a man to take care of her at all. She seems perfectly competent and able to handle herself, with one exception which I suspect we’ll get to shortly. I would suspect that to a 1949 audience, she was in her 30’s and unmarried and therefore was missing out on a critical part of life. We view that differently today, but I don’t think that this sort of thinking affects the film negatively, as long as one accepts it as a trait of the time of the filmmaking.
SG: The attack scene is all the more potent and disturbing knowing Young's own history. In 1935, while on location making Call of the Wild, she was date-raped by Clark Gable, became pregnant, and had to participate in an elaborate publicity coverup to conceal the baby, and then adopt her own daughter. It wasn't until later in her life that she acknowledged the attack might not have been her fault. Those same turbulent emotions and societal expectations Young experienced in her own life influenced her character in The Accused. I don't doubt Dr. Tuttle was in shock and acted erratically by attempting to conceal the murder. What I couldn't understand, and which prompted me to yell out at the TV ("What are you doing?) is why she felt the need to plant evidence and fiddle with the case. Had she left well enough alone, she would have been in a better position.
RB: Yup. Here we go. WHY did she actually pump water into his lungs and then toss him over the cliff? It makes no sense to me, and really doesn’t add much to the film at all. It’s just the one completely ludicrous thing that Young does. I get your defense that she was in shock, but even that only goes so far. The behavior of her attacker is so gross and so creepy that we’d be rooting for her no matter what lengths she goes to in order to cover up the murder. I don’t know how necessary it was to add these steps. My stomach turned as is.
SG: She is an educated woman who knows a lot about science, so seemingly she thought she could cover up any assumed indiscretion by removing herself from the situation altogether. Again, it was a different day. She could lose her job if the school thought she was having dalliances with students. My problem was with her decision to plant letters.
The classroom actors actually look like young college students, which serves to make Young, who was only 36 at the time, look sufficiently older than them. Her transformation from the prudish old maid to the soft romantic interest works quite well (thank you Edith Head). It is funny how much the change throws off the only eye witness, the truck driver who is certain he can identify the woman and her voice if he sees and hears her again.
RB: The transformation was especially noteworthy to me because it happened gradually, and you had to be really paying attention to notice it. It wasn’t just THERE, for lack of a better term.
SG: Yeah, this is well before the 80s established the trope of the musical montage where by the end, the subject is suitably transformed.
Each of the characters we see in this film are layered and interesting and would make worthy subjects for psychoanalysis. Dick's boyish good looks contrast sharply with his selfish character. Warren humorously admits he has a thing for killers. He once defended a murderess and developed a crush on her. It is an odd personality quirk and an especially dangerous one for an attorney to have. Corey is especially good, both menacing and malicious. Christopher Kane for Modern Screen agreed, "The picture's routinely suspenseful... Wendell Corey is the best actor to hit Hollywood in months."
RB: Casting is quite solid, including Corey, who pops up in a lot of Hal Wallis related films around this time period. I’ve read that Wallace wanted to make a leading man out of him, but that never really happened (nor does it seem like something that ever could’ve). But, man, he’s good in these sorts of roles.
SG: He doesn't quite have leading man looks, but he has a magnetism that some of the great noir heroes had. "In hands less experienced than those of Hal Wallis as producer and William Dieterle as director, 'The Accused' undoubtedly would have been another one of those things," wrote Red Kann for Motion Picture Herald. "Happily, it isn't. Rather it is an interesting, well-integrated and almost always believable drama into which an added breath of life is inculcated by the first-rate performances of its principal players."
The print isn't pristine, and some of the scenes are rather dark, especially in the beginning. The film was shot to look raw and natural rather than artistic.
Although I didn't latch onto any of the characters specifically, I think there is enough depth to each one to merit repeated viewings of The Accused. Three stars.
RB: I think this is a good film, and one that’s been difficult to see for many years, as so many Paramount films are. I was initially quite taken with this film, but writing this two days later has softened my enthusiasm for it a bit. It’s still quite good, and the Kino presentation is really nice, with an appropriate amount of grain and most scratches and blemishes removed. However, 48 hours ago, I would’ve given this four stars, and heralded it as a forgotten near-classic. Instead, I grant this three stars. It’s well made and well cast and definitely worth seeing, but there are a few too many peculiarities to bump it higher than that.