Crossroads (1942)

Crossroads (1942) is an amnesia mystery film noir starring William Powell, Hedy Lamarr, Claire Trevor and Basil Rathbone, and directed by Jack Conway. 

William Powell plays a diplomat whose amnesia about his past subjects him to back-to-back blackmail schemes, which threaten his reputation, job, marriage, and future. 

The film was based on the 1938 French film Crossroads which had also had a British remake called Dead Man's Shoes in 1940.

With shimmering cobblestones and foggy streetlamps, and deception, blackmail and a surprising if dubious mystery story, Crossroads (1942) is a prime example of 1940s amnesia noir.

While not film noir of the first water, Crossroads does rely on occasional noir motifs and tropes to keep its momentum up, most notably the confusion brought on by the amnesia of the protagonist, usually and as here treated as a simple plot device to allow confusions, capers, doubts and in this case blackmail.

Hedy Lamarr has a question in Crossroads (1942)

Amnesia as it is treated in this lighter form of noir is not a psychological device to be explored, and in fact is dismissed in the earlier courtroom scenes of Crossroads as something nobody understands — the same actually being said here of memory.

Hedy Lamarr and William Powell — pretend not to know each other in Crossroads (1942)

Because in fact no person can in fact understand or explain how memory operates and what it is, this audience is expected to adhere to the asseveration that nothing therefore can meaningfully be said about. 

Memory in the dock in Crossroads (1942)

If nothing can be meaningfully said about memory, then not only are noir scriptwriters free to make easy with the consequences of human action, but also nothing need be said about the possible psychological pains and ramifications.

William Powell takes the stand in Crossroads (1942)

Hedy Lamarr takes the stand in Crossroads (1942)

Claire Trevor takes the stand in Crossroads (1942)

Despite this a plenitude of talk does effect this mystery caper, as does the light touch which the director Jack Conway tends to favour instead of the darker sides of human affairs.

The opening of Crossroads (1942) rows out several scenes of the light touch in the flirtatious form of Hedy Lamarr who presents some pretty racy stuff — at least its racy if you don't know the real relationship between herself and lead stiff William Powell.

William Powell and Basil Rathbone in Crossroads (1942)

The opening scene presents extra-marital shenanigans which are actually horrific by the moral standards of the day — with Lamarr lying across Powell's lap in the rear of the man's chauffeured automobile.  

William Powell bridge-brooding in amnesia noir Crossroads (1942)

The next scene, which introduces the blackmail plot, sets up the mystery in the form of identity and there follows an extended court room scene in which we are introduced to a variety of characters — most notably vamp fatale Claire Trevor, a great film noir actress, who plays a nightclub chanteuse who is clearly wrapped up in something deep concerning the amnesiac mystery.

The mystery ridden out across the rest of the scenes in Crossroads depend upon the one question — is William Powell's character David Talbot who he says he is, or is engaged in a massive fraud, or simply a partial fraud as he has had a new identity foisted upon him. These are the joys of the fantastic aspects of amnesia noir — anybody can turn up and be anybody. 

Hedy Lamarr — Amnesia NoirCrossroads (1942)

Being blackmailed for crimes that he committed before he lost his memory is a fine trigger to shoot off some crazy tales, and the tension is supposedly increased by the fact that the man at the centre of it all is a massively important French diplomat. 

As a spivvish kind of bounder blackmailer, Basil Rathbone is well suited. And it turns out there is a small team of them, making a concerted effort to crack the William Powell nut. They have a few varied tactics up their sleeve, including a bribed old crone in the form of Margaret Wycherly —  well known for her immortal portrayal of Ma Jarrett in White Heat (1949) — who plays a part in creating the illusory blackmailers world which William Powell's stiff upper lipped hero is set adrift within.

The blackmailers are a good team, this cannot be denied. And they know what they want.

David Talbot: I'll give you 50,000 Francs and that'll be the end of it.

Michelle Allaine: 50,000? Oh, no, no, cheri. You're talking about cabbage. We want caviar.

Of all the great movies in the amnesia noir canon, Crossroads (1942) is far from being the deepest. It's closing lines are in fact almost embarrassing. As David leans in for a kiss with his wife in the police office where the crimes have all been wrapped up, Hedy Lamarr stops him gently and says:

Darling, please! Remember where we are.

To which David ( William Powell) replies:

Remember? Darling how can I? I have amnesia.

It is in fact just as well that discussion of any of the realties and indeed agonies of amnesia are written off early. This is in fact strictly a case of Hollywood Amnesia — a super selective ailment that mercifully causes no stress and although it may have its roots in a violent or painful accident — in this case a train wreck — it is simply a cleanly wiped slate upon which any fantastical story may be written, with no concern required for the sufferer.

If comparison need by made, then one should turn to John Payne's performance in The Crooked Way (1949) which takes on amnesia as a result of PTSD, and makes an effort to express the pain and dysfunction that would inevitably result from the trauma of such a difficult ailment.

The sinister overtones of the villainy in Crossroads (1942) are the underlying noir force which hold the movie together and give it its keep-ya-guessing vitality.

Basil Rathbone and Claire Trevor in Crossroads (1942)

The notion of the amnesiac is fundamental to the film-watching experience in and of itself, making the sub style of amnesia noir one of the most fascinating projects within the golden age classic film noir period. After all, each audience member begins each movie as a total amnesiac, never having met any of the characters and knowing nothing about them. One of the great delights of film watching is how quickly (or not) we can pick up information about the who, the what, the why and the where of any story.

The odd first scene between man and wife, Powell and Lamarr makes even more sense in light of this, with the couple pretending not to know each other, as if they had forgotten each other. The same game may be played on the audience as of course, nobody knows who anybody is — faking everything or not being able to remember for real? Which is it to be in this film noir?

The film noir assumed identity is a trope worthy of the style, and if it takes a hard crack on the head to cerate the amnesiac story line, then let the melodrama blow and the pineal fuzz bloom.

Crossroads (1942) at Wikipedia

Interesting world war caption card posted at the finale of Crossroads (1942)

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