Impact (1949)

Impact (1949) is a film noir classic of confusion, plot twists, identity and love and follows the mishaps and fateful fortunes of industrialist Walter Williams, played by Brian Donlevy.

What makes Impact an impactful film noir as opposed to a plain old drama, is the twisted plot around the successful industrialist's marriage. 

As grouchy as an old bear, his wife sits around at home, the very epitome of the scheming wife, out for what she can get, and of course plotting murder.

A marriage made of monogrammed shirts and pyjamas is helpful for plots like this. Much is made of the bizarre accidentals which lead poor Walter Williams from the heights of success to the lows of small-town isolation, such as the odd device of the domestic assistant Su Lin (played by Anna May Wong) overhearing what she thinks is a threat, when in fact it's a husband larking around with his wife.

The duplicitous wife in Impact (1949) is here writ heavy in the form of Helen Walker, who plays the Irene Williams, the lady behind the plot to kill. Like a good deal of solid noir, Impact is a marriage fantasy, the likes of which 1940s film noir specialised in. 

By this we demonstrate a wife who is so ill-suited that she is planning your murder, and a wannabe love that turns up out of nowhere, already embodying the American dream, and valuing love above cash - a perpetual dilemma. 

1940s America is on the surface a delightful place of clean boulevards and snazzy offices, domestic servants and happy couples. It was also a place of convoluted plots it appears, and none may be more convoluted than the murder attempted in Impact.

What is great about high period 1940s film noir, is its somewhat silly combination of fantasy, darkness and violence, and the way these are framed as one. The first twenty minutes of Impact do demonstrate rather forcefully that the monogrammed shirts which the killer and his victim wear are certainly going to be integral to the action.

Lugging the sap in Impact (1949)

As in the best of film noir, like in the best of movies overall, much of the important stuff is left to fate. Although Walter the industrialist is hit with a wrench, it is the following few sequences which save him: the random passing of some strangers, the fact that the would-be killer has a sudden issue with his car keys, and then the arrival of a furniture truck, which in turn leads to the collision (impact!) with a truck conveniently marked 'High Octane' creating some early special effects, as model cars are burned and hurled about the sound stage.

Nicknaming himself 'Softy' in his marriage and in the eyes of his wife, and believing his wife when she seems to come out with the most ridiculous lies, Brian Donlevy's character walls in the classic fashion of the film noir heel, directly to his fate. 

Softy is only saved in fact by luck, and the magic of this is expressed as it ever was in the cinema of the age, by the medium of a the Theremin.

One collision not to forget in Impact (1949)

Impactful driving and collision in classic film noir Impact (1949)

Leaving the scene of the impact, and perhaps not even realising that an attempt has been made on his life, Brian Donlevy wanders forth in a state of amnesia, about to rediscover himself. 

Amnesia, still beloved in the 21st Century of classic film noir storytelling forms the basis of the dramatic elements that raise this caper from the basics of drama to the film noir canon. Here, with no past, a person is dramatically able to rediscover themselves, and find what they really are.

The main character in a film noir with amnesia typically wakes up with no memory of who they are or how they got there. As the story progresses, they often discover that they were involved in some kind of criminal activity or other dangerous situation, and they must try to piece together their past in order to uncover the truth and clear their name.

In some cases, the main character's amnesia is caused by a traumatic event or injury, such as being hit on the head. In other cases, it may be the result of a deliberate attempt to erase their memory, such as by a criminal organization or a jealous lover.

Examples of film noir with amnesia include Spellbound (1945), in which a psychiatrist tries to help a man with amnesia recover his memories and clear his name of a murder charge; Somewhere in the Night (1946), in which a soldier with amnesia returns home from World War II and gets caught up in a web of deceit and danger; and Memento (2000), a neo-noir film in which a man with anterograde amnesia uses tattoos and Polaroid photos to try to solve his wife's murder.

Who am I now? Brian Donlevy in Impact (1949)

Despite the soul searching, there is plenty veritable fun and colour in Impact, down to the chicken sandwich and a Coke ordered in the diner en route to the murder. 

Maybe we all privately dream of a new start, the kind that only cinema can provide. Bear in mind that unlike the audiences, the characters in a movie start with nothing in terms of baggage and personality, and from the moment they encounter our observation are new creations, and impactful because they are blank slates on to which are drawn our companions for the short duration of the show.

Bum life - Brian Donlevy in Impact (1949)

The protagonist, Walter Williams, is a successful businessman who is unhappy with his life and decides to fake his own death in order to start a new life. After he assumes a new identity, he discovers that his former business partner and his wife have conspired to kill him and steal his wealth. The rest of the movie follows Walter's efforts to bring his conspirators to justice and reclaim his identity.

One of the key themes in the movie is the idea that identity is not fixed or stable, but rather something that can be easily manipulated or lost. Walter's decision to fake his own death and assume a new identity highlights this idea. The movie also explores the concept of how others can influence one's identity. Walter's wife, for example, is initially presented as a supportive and loving partner, but it is later revealed that she is involved in the plot to kill him. This discovery challenges Walter's perception of himself and his relationships.

Furthermore, the film also explores the idea of the legal and social implications of identity, such as the importance of identification documents, police investigations, and court procedures. This theme is reflected in the plot's focus on the detective work and legal proceedings that Walter undertakes to prove his innocence and establish his identity.

Ella Raines - - all kinds of fantasy in Impact (1949)

Although it's not urban, and although it's shot in the daylight a lot of the time, and although there are no hats and hoods and alleys and corners, and no gunsmoke and diners and no jazz bands and loose women, Impact is a true film noir, with its themes of amnesia and murder, and of course a past that is best left forgotten.

The romance that Brian Donlevy and Ella Raines share is also convincing as a love story, that most perfect of love stories in fact, which sees people starting out anew.

Ella Raines, all kinds of hair arrangements in Impact (1949)

The new life - amnesia and romance with Brian Donlevy and Ella Raines in
Impact (1949)

Walter's life as a bum with amnesia is also interesting in light of the depression era, really only a decade before Impact was made. This is not so much a fantasy but a recent memory and there has to be something drawn from this comparison between the massive and burgeoning success of corporate America, as displayed by the pre-amnesia and pre-impact Walter, and the bum-life Walter, who is so sad that he cries by the roadside at one point. For impact, just consider how often we saw men crying in the movies of the 1940s. This is one of the very few male tears in film noir moments, either way.

Brian Donlevy in Impact (1949)

Ella Raines in Impact (1949)

While not immediately recognisable as the black-hearted apotheosis of film noir, with its tales of weak-minded heels, dangerous dames, told by cameras posed at strange angles as the shadows loom, Impact is canonical. It's a wild idea that a husband will stay in hiding and in anonymity while he lets his wife be charged with his murder.

Film noir was never a consciously used term in its day and not at least by those who made film noir, but it is still our best psychological portal to the USA in the 1940s and 1950s.  

Classic film noir productions if watched closely, show the profoundest anxieties of America in the era.  Film noir at its best began around 1940 with films like The Maltese Falcon, Shadow of a Doubt, Laura, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Lost Weekend, Detour, Gilda, The Big Sleep, The Killers, Out of the Past and Force of Evil.

Film noir at its best, ended with the the detonation of a nuclear device on Malibu beach in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly.

However the wide-ranging canon of Film Noir finds us here in contemplation of these many faceted aspects of American cinema of the 1940s and 1950s and although complex, it is still possible to trace every aspect of this film noir movement, from its origins in the gangster movies of the 1920s and 1930s, through the effect of World War 2, to the increasing paranoia of the 1950s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee began its sordid and vile purging of the left wing in Hollywood.

All of this is contained within the remit of Best Film Noir, and it is a holy place for many, the beginning of a long cinematic decline that still rumbles on to this day, even though we are unaware of it, most of the time.

There may be a lot going on, but if you look across the otherwise frivolous screwball and musical, and family dramatical film landscape of the 1940s, you will always find an antidote to it, and a psychological reflection in the world we now call film noir.

Impact is available to watch today on YouTube

Hit Impact (1949) on Wikipedia


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