Aww yeah, another Cornell Woolrich adaptation…The Chase is based on Woolrich’s 1944 “Black Path of Fear,” from his famous “Black” series, which includes Phantom Lady. The adaptation follows closely to the book (minus the opium dens), so viewers familiar with Woolrich won’t be surprised by the breakneck twist that occurs two thirds into this caper. The twist, however, is totally bonkers one and may turn some viewers off. The Chase, starring Robert Cummings, Steve Cochran, and the mighty Peter Lorre is a fantastic noir if you can stomach the twist. While some consider it ballsy, others may consider cheap.
Unemployed veteran Chuck Scott (Cummings) stumbles across a lost wallet belonging to gangster Eddie Roman (Cochran). There’s $81 bucks inside, but honest john that he is, Scott buys himself a humble breakfast, then hand delivers the wallet to Roman’s front door in Miami. Roman’s goon Gino (Lorre) thinks Scott’s a “stupid law-abiding jerk” for returning the wallet, but Roman sees someone he can trust, so he hires the grateful veteran as his chauffeur.
As a way to test Scott’s nerves, on their first drive Roman actually controls the accelerator and brakes from the backseat, while Scott just steers. He springs this driving test on Scott without warning, seeing how the veteran handles the car at 100mph toward a moving train. Scott doesn’t drive them off the road, so he passes. Gino is clearly stressed out over this casual stunt. It’s a great scene that initially displays Roman’s psychotic side.
When he’s not driving Roman to his “business meetings” where his rivals meet violent ends (he feeds one slob to his dog), Scott is tasked with chauffeuring Roman’s stunning wife, Lorna (Michele Morgan) around. She’s trapped in her loveless marriage – held prisoner as Roman’s trophy blonde. As she puts it, “something bought and paid for.” Often she has Scott take her down to the shore, where she stands and stares out towards Havana, dreaming of freedom. When she offers Scott $1000 to smuggle her to Havana, obliges.
He also picks up a ticket for himself. His motivations are kinda vague at first. There’s no declaration of love or speech about a life together on Havana’s sunny beaches – Scott just buys two tickets and anticipates their escape from Roman. It’s not like his nerves are shot after driving this gangster around too. It’s a sudden shift in story for sure, but hell, at least it cuts right to The Chase.
Fate catches up to them the first night in Havana, when Lorna winds up with a knife in her back on the dance floor. Scott finds himself on the run in the shadowy streets and alleys, the prime suspect in the murder of Lorna. Murder seems to follow him wherever he goes – everyone who could’ve helped him clear his name winds up dead.
But the real mystery doesn’t begin until Scott wakes up the next morning, and the whole plot starts all over again.
Okay, without revealing the twist, it does feel like parts of the movie were cut out. There’s a whole convoluted bit with a knife Scott purchased in Havana that turns up out of nowhere and his history of fever dreams also feels like a wacky left curve to make so into the film. Even if many elements seem outta nowhere, I dig the twists because they seem so absurd. That works for me sometimes as long as it wraps up in a way that makes sense, which The Chase certainly does. Also, Scott’s condition adds a post-war psychological element that’s commonly found in noir – making this film fit along nicely with films concerning recently discharged veterans (Dead Reckoning, Crossfire, Act of Violence).
The highs and lows of Havana are depicted – from the slums and dank alleys to the lavish nightclubs. Arthur Ripley utilizes a versatile camera, with sharp shadows cast against neons. Ain’t no sun-kissed beaches in this Havana. When I saw shadows, I mean deep, coating blackness too. Scott damn near disappears for a few minutes during some scenes (maybe it was just the print I was watching, there are a few versions available online).
The Chase is textbook noir – from the disillusioned veteran to the expressionistic style, this one packs a wallop of thick, palpable dread. Director Arthur Ripley’s name isn’t common among noir films, but he does a terrific job of capturing the genre’s fatalistic tendencies.
The Chase is part of the public domain and can be readily found on the Internet Archive and YouTube.