Monday Editor’s Pick: The Locket (1946)

by on August 8, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Aug 15 at 4:30, 6:50*, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with Elliott Stein and film archivist Howard Mandelbaum


Alt Screen would like to express a big, hearty “Welcome Back!” to former Voice critic Elliott Stein, who is returning to BAM for his superlatively curated Cinemachat series. This calendar’s pick shows Stein is still in fine form and ready to expose moviegoers to further forgotten curios, oddballs, and gems.


Guy Maddin for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2007):

I’ve often wondered how many flashbacks within flashbacks a feature film could contain before becoming incomprehensible. The Locket has four stories structured like concentric circles, each one a wildly spinning yarn concerning the tortured relationships between a quartet of men and a woman, who happens to be a compulsive liar-or so each man suspects. At the center of these stories is the root cause of all feminine deception: the tiny clam-like Pandora’s locket that lies at the core of every woman waiting to be opened by a man! The movie’s structure is a triumph, a perfect fit for its subject matter.


Laraine Day is the apparent succubus calmly balancing numerous scalded ex-lovers like so many whirling dinner plates. Her composure in the face of so much rattled masculinity is positively feline, and therefore all the more infuriating to her victims. The movie opens on her latest wedding day-she is to be married to Gene Raymond (future widower of Jeanette MacDonald!) but not before the groom is pulled aside and warned of her perniciousness by Brian Aherne, a man who claims to be the bride’s ex-husband and who, in turn, recounts the story of how Robert Mitchum once came a-warning in much the same way. The romance between the doomed, usually unflappable Mitchum and the seemingly ingenuous Day comprises the bulk of the narrative, but the way in which this noir-ish film navigates its way deep into the center of itself and then back out again with perfect melodramatic clarity and punch is truly ingenious.



William K. Everson, in his program notes (1980):

When it was released, The Locket was not only lost in the shuffle, but roundly criticized for its excess. There has been so many noir films, so many murky psychological thrillers, so many narratives told in flashback, that this seemed too much of a good thing. Few people had the insight or the perspective to realized that it was literally a “definitive” film noir. Today it can be seen to have a definitive noir director, cameraman, and victim/hero in Robert Mitchum.Even the form was classical: little sunlight, a fragmented screen full of distortions, shadows and hints of German expressionism, a first-person narration, foretelling doom from the beginning, and most of all the ultimate flashback devices – flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, so that we never really know where they are, but have the sense of time, memories, and foreboding crowding us from every corner.


Frank Miller with some background for TCM:

The Locket was written by Sheridan Gibney for producer Bert Granet, who had forged a strong bond with Laraine Day working on the comedy Those Endearing Young Charms (1945). When she learned about the project, which featured a strong female role in the tradition of such femmes fatales played by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), she asked her agent to put her up for the role. The character was a distinct change-of-pace for Day, who had built her career playing simple girl-next-door types like nurse Mary Lamont in MGM’s first Dr. Kildare films. But Granet loved the idea of casting her against type as a compulsive liar and kleptomaniac who lets a man go to the electric chair to cover up her evil deeds and drives another to suicide. Even when much bigger stars like Olivia de Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine, expressed interest, he fought to keep Day, no mean feat considering that Fontaine was then married to Bill Dozier, the head of RKO, where the film was to be made. But Granet persisted, giving Day what would become her favorite role and earning her the best reviews in her career.


Helping tremendously was director John Brahm. Working at 20th Century-Fox, Brahm had built his reputation on a string of stylish thrillers starting with the low-budget werewolf film The Undying Monster (1942) and peaking with the Jack the Ripper tale The Lodger (1944). Granet borrowed him from Fox and got his own studio, RKO, to assign their best film noir cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, 1942; The Spiral Staircase,1946) to shoot the film.



Wheeler Winston Dixon, re-published at Noir of the Week:

There are certainly any number of labyrinthianly complicated noirs, but nothing can quite prepare the viewer for the experience of watching John Brahm’s The Locket (1946), famous for its “flashback within a flashback within a flashback” structure, perhaps the most convoluted narrative in the history of noir. Director John Brahm keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, and effectively stages The Locket so that most of it happens at night, on claustrophobic studio sets. Mitchum, a rising star at the time, is oddly convincing as Norman Clyde, a Bohemian artist with attitude to spare, and Nicholas Musuraca’s moody lighting leaves the characters, and the viewer, in a state of continual confusion and suspense. Most intriguing, of course, is the triple-flashback structure of the film, which brings into question the reliability of the film’s narrative. When Dr. Blair bursts in on John Willis and begins his recital of Nancy’s crimes, Blair’s flashback contains Norman Clyde’s reminiscences, which in turn contain Nancy’s own memories of her childhood, as told to Norman, containing the incident of the locket.


The world of The Locket is one of absolute doom and betrayal. The relationship you thought would last forever is doomed. Your friends don’t believe you. The police don’t believe you. You can’t even trust yourself; indeed, you are your own worst enemy. Powerless before the forces of fate, which have once again capriciously decided to deal you a new, much more unpleasant future from the bottom of the deck, you simply have to take it on the chin and hope for the best. The world of The Locket is the domestic sphere in peril, in collapse, existing outside the normative values of postwar society, values that are themselves constantly in a state of flux. The family unit is constantly celebrated in the dominant media as the ideal state of social existence, but is it, when so much is at risk, and so much is unexplained? For Nancy in The Locket, the answer is a resounding no.


For those with different priorities, a few words on this early Robert Mitchum appearance, from the bio Baby I Don’t Care:

A stylish collection of suits, sports jackets, and tuxedo was created for Mitchum to wear in the film. They were clothes like nothing he ever had in his wardrobe and he decided to keep them. Someone frm the studio demanded he sent them back. Mitchum bristled at the humbling request. Other stars got to keep their wardrobe, why couldn’t he? With some consternation, the studio’s Jack Gross came back and told him they would do as they had done with Cary Grant and let him keep the wardrobe for the token payment of one dollar, for accounting purposes. Mitchum told him he wouldn’t pay it, “I stole the clothes. Tell that to the accountant.”




Dennis Grunes for his eponymous blog:

A profound film about American realities, and not merely the case study of a traumatized woman, which is how it is usually received, The Locket is the sort of work that separates auterist critics from the nons, cineastes from those who prefer popcorn to movies. My viewers, including those who admire The Locket (I have never met or heard of anyone who has seen it who doesn’t), misinterpret the film as a cautionary tale of a woman who isn’t what she appears to be. A “baby-faced wanton” is how a contemporary reviewer described Nancy, who is mistaken for being “the perfect girl” by at least two characters in the film, including, before he learns better, Norman Clyde. But is piercing Nancy’s “perfect” façade all there is to The Locket?


There is a music box in the luxurious Willis household, and it is key in two scenes, one when Nancy is a child, and again when Nancy is in her bridal white just before she is supposed to marry John. On both occasions the box tumbles open, releasing its tune. Mrs. Willis keeps cigarettes in the box—adult things; but the tune is a childish one that, in the second instance, harkens Nancy, horrifyingly, back to childhood, with all its traumatic sense that she isn’t good enough and doesn’t “belong.” It is a simple melody—a French folk song whose lyrics underscore the theme of Nancy’s feeling excluded, shut out, unaccepted. Translated into English, these are the principal lyrics:
I’m standing by the moonlight, my dear friend Pierrot./ Please give me a pencil, I need to write a note./ My candle is dying, soon it will be dark./ Open up your door, please, Pierrot, my friend./ I’m standing by the moonlight. Pierrot, answer me./ I haven’t got a pencil, I’m lying in my bed./ Go and ask the neighbor, I think she’s at home./ Someone’s in the kitchen, a flickering light is on.” This is the refrain: “Please open your door, little Pierre, my friend.



Grunes continues:

In context of The Locket, the unspoken lyrics—we hear only the tune—are very much to the thematic point. Moreover, the interruption of Nancy’s wedding day by the tune’s intrusion widens the reference of this import. In perhaps the most stunning shot in the entire Brahm œuvre, one in which Nancy herself appears stunned by hearing the tune from the music box for the first time since childhood, the camera takes in her face from underneath her wedding veil, the sheer white, filmy fabric widely opened to accommodate the upwardly tilted camera’s presence inside the veil. (She might be staring down at her childhood self, who is staring up at her—a collapse of the difference in time between them.) Could a more potent visual correlative to the idea of “lifting the veil” have been devised? It is not just the case that Nancy is back in the past; we sense the collapse of all the mental mechanisms and resources that have protected her since childhood from that gnawing childhood sense of being excluded, unaccepted, shut out. On automatic pilot, as it were, Nancy proceeds downstairs to marry John, at which point we hear on the soundtrack both the childish music box tune and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, in the Western canon perhaps the melody that most perfectly symbolizes the idea of acceptance of a sort, and we watch the upshot of the chaos that the collision of the two melodies has generated: Nancy’s complete collapse before reaching the altar. This is cinema!

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