Street of Chance (1942)

Street of Chance (1942) is an early noir cycle amnesia noir that with Burgess Meredith and Claire Trevor which beautifully captures so many of the elements that would go on to make the full fat noir formula.

Burgess Meredith takes a little accident downtown and the fantasy world of Street of Chance has begun. You find a few full on readies in the early 1940s, where pretence to realism is only in the way, and every idea can be playful run.

Here is the hapless man who becomes film noir's solid centre stage staple. Here is a descent into an opposing world that this heel has experienced. He carries with him too a seeker female hero in Claire Trevor and it's going to be a helluva ride. There is domestic routine, without which any early noir would lose its bindings and be entirely wild.

But wild things happen. We don't know who we are and the delight of Street of Chance is finding out. It's all about paranoia and cruel fate, and uses familiar film noir funk, amnesia to premise the alienation.

The hero, injured by falling construction material, discovers a year-long lapse in his life and worse — he's suspected of murder and has a completely unremembered lover in addition to his puzzled wife. 

As the film progresses and Burgess Meredith's hapless heel hones in on the truth, the tale resolves into something closer to Gothic melodrama, with a redemptive view of human transgression and of course, film noir frailty.

Burgess Meredith's nightmare experience is startlingly real and for the first half of the film it feels like we are locked in with him. The strain forces him to extreme rationalism, and yet he manages to make his way out of the death trap of innocent ignorance surfacing from the hopeless darkness with plenty of stuff for movie afterhtoughts.

There are two films embedded. There is the amnesia crime film noir film, which has mystery overtones and even chases, and there is the spooky house drama, acted to completion with a grandma in a bed, only able to communicate by blinking played by Adeline De Walt Reynolds.

Louise Platt in Street of Chance (1942)

In its modesty Street of Chance (1942) carries so many of the seeds of classic film noir that it almost deserves that epithet. Although obscure and never on anybody's noir watchlist, Street of Chance is the first adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story, and it really does capture the ambience and deep noir sensibilities of the Woolrich universe.

Researching identity in Street of Chance (1942)

First up, there is a hapless and somewhat adrift individual on the wander through New York City, and with it a sense of doom and the unknown. The unknown element in Street of Chance turns out to be a baroque and fantastic mystery that eludes all expectation, yet contains conspiracy, weirdness and double crossing at a fundamental level.

The mysteriously absent past is so modern an idea that film noir specialised in, whether it be pure-bred amnesia noir like this, or the falsely accused man narrative. As it goes of course this amnesia noir carries strong in both categories.

Street Paranoia — Sheldon Leonard in Street of Chance (1942)

Sheldon Leonard 's mystery man epitomises the staring and nightmarish face in the crowd, a cop-criminal or a criminal cop? Or a cop or a criminal? It is impossible to say and his stare in the first half of the film is redolent of so much fear to come over the years.

It's an expression from vaudeville, oddly healing to the style of acting of the late 1920s, a style less suited to the cinema each year, as subtlety replaced large acting gestures and a more surface kind of what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of character.

In plotting, it is common in Cornell Woolrich stories to find an element of chance, or contrivance through coincidence, and even contradictions are not always permitted to get in the way of an otherwise sound and exciting plot twist. 

Burgess Meredith in Street of Chance (1942)

However these contrivances and often the very awful nature of coincidence are what drives a solid classic film noir Woolrich plot — amnesia being one of the more popular of 1940s film noir contrivances. Only in a chaotic and free-falling world, often psychologically derived from the film noir hero's own subjective point of view — only in such a wild world, as those depicted often in Woolrich stories — only in such a world is coincidence an authentically dooming action. 

Alienation, loneliness and loose ends on the Street of Chance (1942) 

Street of Chance (1942) as an early example of the burgeoning and fast-forming film noir style of the 1940s, does benefit from expressionistic lighting and camera work — straight offa the sound stages of Germany thanks to émigré cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl. 

Sparkuhl began his career as a projectionist in 1911 and trained as a newsreel cameraman at the German subsidiary of the French film production company Gaumont in 1912. During World War I he chronicled battles in the Middle East and in Russia and in 1916 he became a lighting director of feature films, working in the German film industry until 1928. He shot twelve films under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch, a collaboration that ended with Lubitsch's emigration to Hollywood in 1922.

From 1928 to 1930 Sparkuhl worked for British International Pictures in London and relocated to France in 1930, and worked on a number of films, including films directed by Jean Renoir and Marc Allégret. In December 1931 he and his family moved to Hollywood where he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, where he worked until 1945.

Sparkuhl's most famous films include Renoir's La Chienne (1931), the classic adventure film Beau Geste (1939) and the seminal film noir The Glass Key (1942)

The hightly distinctive low-key photography in the latter film and his two other early film noirs Among the Living (1941) and Street of Chance (1942) show a remarkable change from the traditional flat lighting of the typical Hollywood crime films of the 1930s (like the 1935 film version of The Glass Key). These three films alone made a significant contribution to the development of the archetypical classic full-on loved-by-all-humankind film noir style and do show a clear debt to both German Expressionism and French Poetic realism.

Burgess Meredith on the Street of Chance — film noir 1942

Aside from the normal aspects of the sound-staged street scenes, Street of Chance (1942) brings rooms with lowered ceilings, to impose a sense of enclosure, as well as forced perspectives, which gave a greater depth to the staging. 

Forced perspective in the name of film noir is a camera style which makes an object or actor appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it actually is. It is a slight manipulation of visual perception through the use of scaled objects and the correlation between them and the vantage point of the spectator or camera. 

Forced perspective was a feature of German silent films and Citizen Kane revived the practice, and helped bring it film noir.

Forced perspective can be made more believable when environmental conditions obscure the difference in perspective. For example, the final scene of the famous movie Casablanca (1942) takes place at an airport in the middle of a storm, although the entire scene was shot in a studio. This was managed by using a painted backdrop of an aircraft, which was being overseen by dwarfs standing next to the backdrop. A downpour was created in the studio and this draws the viewer's attention away from the backdrop and the extras, making the simulated perspective less noticeable.

Adeline de Walt Reynolds in Street of Chance (1942)

The creepy and the gothic are introduced gradually as Street of Chance progresses, culminating in the amazing figure of Grandma Diedrich, played by Adeline de Walt Reynolds. With her unique method of communication and propensity to look and act dead, Grandma Diedrich is great film noir character, expressive of both life and death, hope and failure, and above all the film's unexpected moral core.

Claire Trevor in Street of Chance (1942)

Ruth Dillon, played by Claire Trevor is a brilliant film noir composite of fatale female, moral failure and redemptive hero. Looking for answers to his amnesia in the neighborhood where he awoke on the street, Frank meets Ruth Dillon who knows him only as "Danny". Ruth takes Frank/Danny to the mansion of the wealthy Diedrich family, where she has been employed as a servant.

And it is there that the plot unravels in all its bizarreness — up until the death confession of the killer in the crime which innocent Burgess Meredith is implicated, frees everybody and rests the world.

Noir sensibility give Street of Chance (1942) all the charm it needs to survive its crazy story, for within film noir such stories — often of an innocent man on the run because if a crime he did not commit — or even better, as here as in many a classic film noir — a crime he does not know if he committed or not.

This sense of noir is at its most visible in the diagonal and vertical lines that break up the areas of white light, a look that became one of the greatest cinematic calling cards of the decade.

Film noir amnesia stories are never realistic but always compelling. Amnesia stories are always intriguing since loss of awareness of one's own identity is a sure fire metaphor for the existential condition. In fact, the true nature of identity is one of the deepest of all mysteries. Amnesia prompts noir because its sufferers are victims of circumstances, dealing with the unbalanced world in which they flounder.

Confession and redemption — Burgess Meredith and Claire Trevor in Street of Chance (1942)

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