Warner Bros., 111m 13s
A brief synopsis of NORA PRENTISS brings to mind a fairly standard film noir template that hails from the mid-to-late '40s: a man bound to routine becomes obsessed with a woman he meets through chance—or perhaps by fate. The chance encounter proves to be a waterfall event; like so many noirs of this period, NORA PRENTISS unleashes a contagion that has its origin in a flirtation. This type of narrative works under the reasonable assumption that the average man will do pretty much anything to get his hands on a great-looking woman. But in this case, the male protagonist must not only behave like a different person, he must become a different person.
The bulk of the story plays out via flashback as a condemned man sits behind bars. Cardiovascular specialist Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) lives in San Francisco with his wife Lucy (Rosemary DeCamp), who seems a bit domineering throughout the family exposition sequence. The couple has two children, Greg (Robert Arthur) and Bonita (Wanda Hendrix, RIDE THE PINK HORSE ). Richard is a creature of habit, much like Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) in the proto-noir THE BLUE ANGEL (Der blaue Engel, ). Also like Professor Rath, Dr. Talbot is vulnerable when confronted with an attractive, street-smart woman.
After Richard's rather ordinary lot in life is established, he deviates from his usual regimen and shows up at the office a little late, which in turn causes him to work later. Just as he is headed home, the pedestrian Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) is struck by a vehicle and requires medical attention. The two engage in conversation and the sexual tension is obvious. Any fan of film noir knows each would be wise to run the other way. What is fascinating about NORA PRENTISS is both halves of the couple are aware of it as well, though Nora understands the futility of the mutual attraction best. These things typically do not work out well for the other woman.
The film's characters prove to be multi-dimensional after cleverly being introduced as flat. To begin with the title character, Nora is introduced by way of numerous femme fatale warning signals. A nightclub singer (what else?), she is a tough talker who has a way of controlling conversations. She has grown tired of being kicked around and has learned to expect very little of the men in her life. She even points out that Richard brought them together when he altered his usual schedule. Eventually it becomes apparent that Nora is not one of those dangerous dames of noir. She's just a woman from the Midwest whose dreams of stardom never panned out. As her relationship with Richard evolves, the camera observes some of her private moments of emotion. Her feelings for Richard are real. But she also is a sensible person, and repeatedly recognizes that a future with Richard is an unlikely prospect. Richard's wife Lucy also is a different person than the all-day disciplinarian the viewer is led to believe initially. She is a pillar of household stability and her feelings and concern for Richard ring true. Then there is Dr. Joel Merriam (Bruce Bennett), who at first seems the carefree bachelor, yet strongly encourages Lucy to not give up on her straying husband easily. Joel is a little jealous of the married man, perhaps?
Despite the film's title, in actuality NORA PRENTISS is the tragic story of Richard Talbot. Kent Smith turned in an uninspired performance in the otherwise sublime CAT PEOPLE (1942), but he is in top form here as one of the more sympathetic protagonists on record in the "downward spiral" noir category. Richard's attraction to Nora is due in part to his identity crisis, brought about by the dissonance between indulgences (the single man) and abstentions (the married guy). His lack of a fulfilling identity causes a split, specifically manifested as "Robert Thompson" during his first night out with Nora, and later via his doppelgänger who unwittingly provides Richard with a turnkey alternate identity. The circumstances that lead to the final transition from Richard to Robert make for a wild third act, where the hopelessness of the situation is reflected darkly in ace cinematographer James Wong Howe's skillful but unpretentious coverage.
Per usual, the indifferent nature of the noir city contributes to human anonymity and deterioration. In fact, Richard's new identity is made possible by the noir city. Doomed heart patient Walter Bailey (John Ridgely) foreshadows this idea in the early stages of the film, "It's a big city and there's nobody to know whether you're alive or dead, and very few people who care." Richard later echoes this sentiment while getting to know Nora, "In a big city, you don't even know your next-door neighbor." That ultimate instance of existential recognition—a defining moment of most of the best film noirs—occurs following the courtroom sequence. Richard/Robert realizes the preservation of Richard's memory as a kind and decent man trumps whatever meaningless future he may have.
A solemn commentary about the stakes involved when it comes to extramarital affairs, NORA PRENTISS elicits a strong sense of empathy for its characters. By the end of the film, one must feel sorry for everyone involved. It is also a film noir just packed with ironies. Director Vincent Sherman (BACKFIRE , THE DAMNED DON'T CRY ) again teamed with Ann Sheridan for THE UNFAITHFUL (1947), released just months after NORA PRENTISS.
The NORA PRENTISS DVD version available through the Warner Archive is framed at 1.33:1 and presents soft contrast, with various scratches and artifacts visible from time to time. My disc is glitchy during the courtroom sequence. A theatrical trailer (2m 35s) works hard to appeal to fans of MILDRED PIERCE (1945), the more famous Warner Bros. production, for which Sheridan turned down the lead role.