Nora Prentiss (1947)

Nora Prentiss (1947) and starring Ann Sheridan may not make it on to the major league lists of the great film noirs, but it could still teach us more about the style than many other flicks.

As an object lesson in the behaviours of the femme fatale, Nora Prentiss is an elevated example of that great noir trope - the family man falling foul of the femme fatale. 

What we learn is maybe unintentionally revealed. But the classic figure of the femme fatale represents much more than the dangers of sex, or living loose on the rough side of the city. She represents female emancipation and this being Hollywood and the manners of middle America, that can only be a bad thing. 

Kent Smith plays the mild mannered and successful family man who has it all, and is about to find out the hard way, what it means to lose it, by falling for the wrong woman. That in essence is the straightforward moral and the quick plot summary here, but this is film noir, and the waters run deep.

First is the exciting opening of the movie, featuring a strange shrouded character who is being led to trial, and who will neither speak nor reveal their true identity.

The figure of San Francisco doctor Richard Talbot, played by Kent Smith, is a classic noir sap. He leads an unsatisfying and ordinary life with his wife and two children, and as film noir describes and twists the family set-up, this is a female-oriented film noir that fantasises about a man deciding to be led astray from his family man set up.

Classic film noir framing is at play from the off in Nora Prentiss (1947). It's how we know we are Noirsville, the fact of the framing. Nora Prentiss is one of many film noirs which start their story from the end, from the dead-end, from the collapsing denouement of the hero's life, in this case, on Death Row.

The trope concerns the 'how it all began story' and 'how it got this bad', and maybe because we know the end this wraps up the fantasy nicely. This is a fantasy and no mistaking it. Ann Sheridan's look from the surgery couch says it all.

What it takes - - Ann Sheridan in Nora Prentiss (1947)

Travelling back to 1947, we get an idea of what it takes, how much stocking and knee must be shown, to send an ordinarily content family man on the path to doom. And oh what doom! It is yet again a fantasy, and this film noir combines femme fatale elements with another piece of locally appropriate science - - that of the face transplant, or indeed facial surgery. 

Facial surgery is in fact a theme of several of the noirs of the era  - - whether it be Dark Passage (1947), from the very same year, or Stolen Face (1952) which messes with plastic faces and morality with total and fantastical abandon.

Kent Smith in Nora Prentiss (1947)

There are going to be spoilers in this article, so don't read on unless you have seen Nora Prentiss for yourself. All of Nora Prentiss is spoiler! And there's just too much too noir in this sucker to let it slide. 

A modest movie it may be, and perhaps one that not everybody has heard of; but there is more film noir here than in many more highly-esteemed examples of the style.

Contending with the characters of Nora Prentiss and mild-mannered sap doctor and family man Robert Talbot is not easy. The very delicious slice of film noir here is the possibility of opportunity, and the bad decisions we make when we feel we have a once in a lifetime chance. In this case, it is when a patient dies in his surgery, that nice gun Dr Talbot (played by Kent Smith) becomes a full on film noir anti-hero, careering downwards on the back of this great decision  - - to fake his own death.

Nora Prentiss herself is such an emancipated woman, making her own way in life, and without a man to support her. She lives the urban life, working in clubs after dark, and doing so fairly free of concern. She doesn't hang with the hoods in hats, like many of the other famous femmes, and she doesn't have a gangster boyfriend, highlighting her inner badness and corruption.

Death at one's elbow - - Nora Prentiss (1947)

Bad decision time for Kent Smith in Nora Prentiss (1947)

Leaving family life behind, Kent Smith in Nora Prentiss (1947)

Instead, Nora Prentiss has a job, the important thing being that it might not be the vocation of choice for the upwardly mobile middle class family. A family that is portrayed to perfection at the head of the movie, when we see the four of them at breakfast.

It must be one of the most nauseating portrayals of family living in the entire film noir cycle. This bunch of middle class carefrees are the very antithesis of noir - - they are well off, they are happy, and the entirety of their trim and goodness appears to be somehow held in focus by the amazing moustache of Kent Smith.

That moustache is not going to make it to the end of the picture, unfortunately, and its loss is deeply felt. The moustache of Kent Smith here in itself seems to represent something more than the tickly lip-hugger; it is stability and form, it is containment and restraint, it is everything that is about to give way to the dark side; straight and simple and rarely expressed better anywhere in the film noir cycle.

The true highlight of this story is not however the illicit love affair that leads to ruin, for there are plenty of those. The illicit and ruinous love affair is in fact just the framework into which is wound the truly fatal aspect of this classic noir; that being the fact of a person being charged with their own murder.

Doom in classic film noir - - family man Kent Smith in Nora Prentiss (1947)

This idea has to be the most noirish of conceits possible because the married middle class doctor should do more than know better. If there is a tendency to see the femme fatale throughout film noir as the agent of evil and the carrier of trouble, it is clarifying to see in Nora Prentiss that the fault-line runs through his soul, and not hers; that the error is in his way and not hers; and neither is society and its morals to blame. 

Nope you dope. The leading man himself is the agent of his own demise, while Ann Sheridan's femme fatale seems fairly passive at times, and at other times even resistant, aware of his foolish rush.

To wind its way to the necessary conclusion, the movie Nora Prentiss does run through some hoops. We have the disfiguring car accident, two of them in fact; and yet throughout this, the character of Nora Prentiss is not duplicitous, but instead just herself. She is nothing short of a decent female lead, in a era which is looked upon as side-lining women either to love interest, or more typically for film noir, presenting the female characters as some kind of virus, that infect the males and send them over the edge. 

And by the standards of its day, Nora Prentiss does not offer any sentimentality or respite, instead offering within its death row framing and final twists, a fateful film noir ride to the hard bottom, where the heels and saps who've fallen foul of fate, lie in the dead pools of their own poor decision making and choices.

Happiness at last? Facial fantasy in Nora Prentiss (1947)

The role of Nora Prentiss, as played by Ann Sheridan, is a triumph because it is not as straightforward as it seems; further, the studios and the industry itself were not exactly producing many such strong leading roles for women. 

From the off, she seems to exert control, even without much effort or involvement. There is an excellent moment when she first meets the hapless doctor, when he is acutely embarrassed at the sight of her knee. We know where that knee is going to take us, and its painful.

Fate catches up with your bad decisions - - Nora Prentiss (1947)

From that knee onwards, the slide continues. Eddie Muller in his introduction to the Noir Alley screening of Nora Prentiss says that Ann Sheridan was offered the title role in the 1945 movie Mildred Pierce, but turned it down. Mildred Pierce was a massive hit, and even brought an Oscar for Joan Crawford, and although the stories are not in any way similar, there is something common to both films.

Fate marks your face in Nora Prentiss (1947)

Both Nora Prentiss (1947) and Mildred Pierce (1945) are film noir dramas that deal with complex relationships and psychological themes. Both movies were directed by Michael Curtiz and feature strong women, a rarity enough in the culture.

Nora Prentiss follows the story of a respected doctor who has an affair with a nightclub singer, Nora Prentiss, leading to a web of deceit and betrayal. Similarly, Mildred Pierce explores the relationship between a hardworking single mother, Mildred Pierce, and her scheming daughter, Veda.

Both films feature nonlinear storytelling and use flashbacks to explore the characters' motivations and the events that led to their downfall. The two films also highlight the darker side of human nature and the consequences of making choices that ultimately lead to destruction.

Destruction! C'est noir.

Contend with Nora Prentiss (1947) at Wikipedia

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