John Willis (Gene Raymond) is getting married, and to a lovely girl – Nancy (Laraine Day). Willis is from a moneyed background and his family are society folk. Nancy’s background is unclear but everyone agrees how lucky he is and his family adore her. Willis isn’t too pleased therefore when, on the day of his wedding, a man he doesn’t know arrives and tells him that Nancy is trouble; that she’s ruined the lives of at least three men before and that this is not her first marriage. The bringer of bad news is Dr Harry Blair (Brian Aherne) – a psychiatrist and Nancy’s ex-husband.
What happens next, and this is still very early in the film, is interesting. As Blair tells his story the film goes into flashback mode. It soon turns out that this isn’t the first time Blair’s had this conversation, but last time he was on the other side of it. Before he married Nancy, a man came to him to warn him, too. That man was artist Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), and his warning to Blair prompts another flashback back to Clyde’s relationship with Nancy.
Clyde met and fell in love with Nancy when she joined his art class as a student. She worked for a rich collector and helped bring Clyde to his attention. Clyde’s work won favour and he became a success. Nancy was a big part of making that happen. Everything’s perfect, but one day at a ritzy party a bracelet goes missing. That evening Clyde finds it in Nancy’s purse. He confronts her – eager to understand why she would steal. She’s confused, but then remembers an incident from her childhood which might be the explanation. The film goes into a flashback to that incident. This then is a film with a very unusual structure. Nancy’s flashback is embedded within Clyde’s flashback which in turn is nested within Blair’s flashback which is being recounted in Willis’s present. It’s film as Matryoshka doll.
It sounds complex and it’s a tribute to director John Brahm that it isn’t. It’s actually very easy to follow. The result is nested paranoia. Clyde becomes increasingly uneasy and when a murder occurs he suspects Nancy of being responsible – that she killed to conceal another theft. Nancy is adamant as to her innocence and so persuasive is Laraine Day in the part that I wasn’t sure myself what had really happened. After all, the entire flashback in which we see her act suspiciously is just Clyde’s version and the story she tells later during Blair’s flashback is quite different.
Nancy can’t live with Clyde’s mistrust. Coming forward in time the film returns to Blair’s flashback. He meets Nancy and falls in love, but when Clyde visits him it plants the seeds of suspicion in Blair. He too starts to wonder if Nancy could be a thief. Is she, or is this just infectious paranoia? I’ll leave it there on the plot.
What is good about this film is its structural cleverness and its cast. Laraine Day is excellent. Robert Mitchum is as good as ever and it’s a refreshing change to see him playing the good guy getting a raw deal rather than his usual hard man persona. Aherne plays nicely the move from absolute love and trust to increasing doubt, and while Raymond doesn’t get a huge amount to do as Willis he provides some nicely judged support.
What’s key here is the central question of Nancy herself. Is she a cunning liar and thief? If she is does she even know what she is herself? Was Clyde twisted by jealousy as Nancy maintains? Whatever the truth, Nancy certainly has brought ruin to a fair few men along the way and Clyde’s portrait of her as a blank-eyed Cassandra echoes through the film.
Where The Locket is less successful is in its eventual slide into melodrama and its occasionally heavy-handed psychological explanations (unfortunately made explicit rather than left implicit). For me those failings stopped it from achieving all it could have done. A less certain ending might well have made for a better film. That caveat aside this is a tautly constructed mix of claustrophobia and uncertainty. It’s not perfect, but it is ambitious and for any lover of film noir it’s well worth checking out.
Like many DVD releases of movies from this period The Locket is light on disc extras and this one comes only with some photographic stills taken from the movie.