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The Man Who Cheated Himself (1949): True Noir

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1949)

In San Francisco a middle-aged cop attempts to cover-up a murder committed by his rich girl-friend and being investigated by him and his rookie detective brother.

The only film ever produced by Jack M. Warner Productions, The Man Who Cheated Himself is a superbly crafted b-noir of 81 action-packed minutes. Under the tight control of director Felix E. Feist (The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Tomorrow Is Another Day, This Woman Is Dangerous ) even minor exposition scenes are focused on moving the compelling narrative forward. The film is shot both with economy and flair by Russell Harlan (Gun Crazy, The Thing from Another World, The Blackboard Jungle, King Creole, Rio Bravo). A solid script from Seton Miller (Dust Be My Destiny, Ministry of Fear, Convicted) deftly handles the tense sub-text.

The performances are solid all-round. The cop is played Lee J. Cobb, his girl-friend by Jane Wyatt, with  John Dall, of Gun Crazy fame,  in his last film role as Cobb’s brother. Cobb’s acting  is inspired as the hard-bitten cop who by his own admission has let a woman he can’t trust get “under his skin”. Wyatt impresses as the femme-noir, and Dall is convincing as the brother who suspects Cobb is hiding something.

Most of the film is shot on the streets of Frisco in deep focus and this gives the picture a gritty realist feel. The highlights are three brilliant scenes: one in the middle and two at the end of the movie.

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1949)

In the first, in a typically noir twist, the murder weapon, which had been thrown into the river, surfaces as the gun used to gun-down a store-keeper in a robbery. While serving as the catalyst for the brother’s suspicions, the scenes where the hood is trailed and caught is a bleak unsentimental vignette of a young man’s fall into criminality. The emotional power behind this sequence is left to the audience to develop.  The final interrogation scene is stunningly shot and lit from a low angle.

In the second, Cobb and Wyatt, holed-up in an  abandoned prison at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge, are hiding from Dall who is searching the long hallways and metal stairwells.  Cobb and Wyatt are concealed atop a guard tower out of Dall’s direct sight when the wind takes Wyatt’s scarf.  This McGuffin brilliantly deepens this already tense sequence as the scarf wraps itself against a pillar, and then taken again by the wind floats down into the prison’s central courtyard as Dall enters it.

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1949)

Lastly, the final scene in the picture in a court-house has to be one of the most brutally frank and downbeat endings in the noir canon. Played without words, the two pratoganists’ actions and expressions deliver an acid resolution totally devoid of pretence or sentiment, and marked only by Cobb’s weary bemusement as he ponders his fate, after seeing his distrust finally vindicated.

A fantastic movie and a great noir.

12 Comments

  1. Dcd

    Hi! Tony,
    hmmm… a very interesting review of a film that is being shown on my friend Gary’s website.And
    even though I have never watched this film…I think that I included this film in A.C’s. M.L :? …and after reading your review of this film, I can’t hardly wait to watch this film.
    Tks,
    Deedee

  2. Dcd

    Oops! It looks like Gary, has changed the feature on his website from “The Man Who Cheated Himself” to “The Big Combo.”

    Dcd :)

  3. L.W.

    I haven’t seen this movie but I think Lee J. Cobb is a great pick for gritty noir. He’s noir without the glam, maybe.

  4. Yes LW, Cobb had that gritty noir persona. Thanks for your post.

  5. Another celebrated noir I have yet to see! I’ve heard so much about this one, though, and you have certainly issued it singularly strong praise, Tony. As a Lee J. Cobb fan, I’m particularly saddened by my not having seen this one!

  6. Get hold of it Alexander! The more I see of Lee J Cobb, the more I admire him – he is great here.

  7. http://www.filmmonthly.com/film_noir/the_man_who_cheated_himself.html
    Lieutenant Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb) is a San Francisco homicide dick who is attracted to women like a moth to a blowtorch. His clandestine love affair with socialite Lois Frazier (Jane Wyatt) undergoes a major paradigm shift when she pumps two slugs in a soon-to-be-ex husband bent on mayhem. Cullen is Johnny-on-the spot and quickly orchestrates a coverup for his paramour. The confident and honest cop subsequently becomes engulfed in a quagmire as The Man Who Cheated Himself.

    This is a really great noir and the review by Alan Rode is right on target. Engulfing in a quagmire is the stuff noirs are made of. Quicksand which takes the
    cover up artist down but in a picemeal fashion when the cover up is “uncovered”. The appearance of a closed case is only in appearance and things are never what they seem in the dark world of noir. All crystallizes in the end despite the stone walling of Ed Cullen. Yes, the narrative is compelling and the streets of Frisco are gritty.

    Here is a classic paragraph from the review:

    Lee Cobb followed his portrayal of heavy Mike Figlia in Thieves Highway (1949) with another excellent performance as the star-crossed Ed Cullen. While not playing his usual Death of a Salesman or On the Waterfront type of character, Cobb added heft to an interesting role that was much more complex that the typical noir cop. While portraying the detective-lieutenant as an entrapped satyr, he gets to clip off some lively dialogue as well. “She’s no good, but she’s good for me” was his prophetically honest response to Andy’s inquiry about his latest, mysterious girl friend in the beginning of the film. When Jane Wyatt kills her husband, she becomes extremely rattled during the immediate aftermath and offers up that maybe they should just go to the authorities and tell the truth. “The truth will get you twenty years,” snaps Cobb while busily frisking the body.

  8. Thanks Edward for your as always enlivening comments. I deliberately did not go too deeply into the plot as I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, plus I don’t have the easy wit of a Rode or Muller who are steeped in the noir vernacular.

    We know Cobb is doomed as soon as he utters those lines quoted by Rode: “The truth will get you twenty years”.

    I described Lois as a femme-noir rather than a femme-fatale as the killing of the husband was not premeditated. It was all down to chance, and Cullen really courted his own disaster, as Lois was ready to call the cops before he went for the cover-up. She is bad because she let’s him take the fall, not because she led him into a trap. Here we have the dark noir motif of the protagonist’s erotic attachment being far stronger than his scruples…

  9. You mean I have actually seen a noir that Alexander has not seen?!? And it’s set in Frisco no less! A rare occurance for sure.

    And God, what a response there from Mr. Yablonsky!

    There’s is little doubt that Cobb,(going against type as Mr. Yablonsky notes in his reference) Wyatt and Dahl deliver accomplished performances, and that a master of cinematography, Russell Harlan has done yeoman work with this. The second scene you meticulously describe there is my personal favorite, but the ironic, wordless courtroom scene is exceptionally executed.

    I agree with Tony that Lee J. Cobb is always worth getting excited about, and this film is a small gem.

  10. Thanks Sam, yes Wyatt does very well cast against type, I have another Lee J. Cobb performance queued, which I am really excited about – keep watching!

  11. Walker

    Available for viewing through the website Internet Archive http://www.archive.org

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