Twentieth Century Fox, 81m 40s
After the conclusion of World War II, the divorce rate increased dramatically in the US. That trend was reflected in the noir films of the time, when characters who found happiness within the bond of the traditional marriage were few. The married couples that inhabit DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), CONFLICT (1945), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and POSSESSED (1947) do not combine for a strong case that there is a lifelong partner for everyone. The featured protagonists who kick married life to the curb typically meet some type of correction, yet it is understandable why they stray. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) from DOUBLE INDEMNITY might be noir's most destructive femme fatale, but her husband (Tom Powers) is a domineering jerk who does not deserve much better than the scheming blonde he married. And who could blame poor little Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) for wanting out of his hopelessly suffocating situation in SCARLET STREET?
Released toward the end of 1950, when divorces in the US had decreased significantly, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF reflects an emerging era of American marital stability. In recognition of old battle scars, though, the story opens with the horribly disrupted marriage of the Frazers. Howard (Harlan Warde) plans to kill his rich bitch of a wife Lois (Jane Wyatt), but she puts a pair of bullets in him before he can follow through on the idea. The killing puts an end to "three years of misery" as Lois depicts it. Immediately after the fatal shooting of her husband, Lois leans on her boyfriend Lieutenant Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb) to fix everything, which means getting rid of Howard's punctured corpse and making it look like a robbery gone wrong. Unlike numerous noir protagonists who hesitate before taking a moral detour, Ed shows no such conscience as he springs into action to protect his girlfriend from a probable prison stretch.
Unfortunately for Ed, his younger brother Andy (John Dall) recently has been promoted to the homicide division, where the two will work side by side. The rookie is eager to prove his worth, and what better way than to solve the strange case of a lifeless body discovered at the airport? As Andy gradually closes in on his shady sibling without realizing it, similar dynamics from classic film noirs are recalled, including the archetypal DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) and especially WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), which was released earlier in the same year as THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF. Other similar setups would follow in SCANDAL SHEET (1952) and SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954). Most Hollywood films endeavor to draw the viewer closer to the lead protagonist as the narrative progresses. But in the case of the film noir, especially the ones of the aforementioned ecosystem, the viewer must detach himself or herself from the lead character. The only satisfaction comes from knowing we are not in that person's lamentable position.
Andy differs from his brother Ed in more ways than his experience as a homicide investigator. Most importantly, the film's first act reveals Andy is about to be married, while Ed is characterized as a confirmed bachelor. The closer Andy becomes with Janet (Lisa Howard), the more he distances himself from his brother. Similarly, the prototypical housewife Janet is the antithesis of the femme fatale Lois, who is working on husband number three at the film's outset (the narrative wraps with Lois headed in still another direction). The wife/whore dichotomy reflects the heavy line drawn between the married man and the uncommitted single man.
Ed may be doomed from the very beginning based upon his choice for a girlfriend; a variety of film noirs make that general point. But on another, perhaps more meaningful level, the production team behind THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF emphasizes Ed's lack of commitment, which is what really seals his fate. Those who know him best regard him as a bit of a player. When Ed meets clandestinely with Lois on a park bench, he admits he has no plans to marry her, and (correctly) has no doubt she someday will leave him. The theme of the uncommitted man as condemned is integrated into the film's title, which nicely summarizes Ed's inflexible position on matrimony. Right after Andy catches his brother in a game-changing lie, the following segment shows Andy with his wife at home, where the contrast between the bachelor and the married guy finds emphasis. Moreover, it is the married woman Janet who inadvertently makes Ed aware he must fulfill some sort of obligation to Lois, which properly ignites the film's final act. Lois is a femme fatale alright, but like so many women of her ilk, she requires a deeply flawed male for her darkest qualities to rise. As long as there are men willing to play along—and for attractive women, there always are—it seems axiomatic to assume Lois never will change. Ed likely will not change either; almost exactly like Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Ed desires the wrong woman even after she betrays him!
THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF was the first independent production from Phoenix Films, the company run by Jack M. Warner, son of famous Warner Bros. boss Jack L. Warner. It was written for the screen by Seton I. Miller and Philip MacDonald, based on an original story by Miller. The son of MGM sales executive Felix F. Feist (1884-1936), director Felix E. Feist helmed two of the more riveting noirs of the late 1940s, THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947) and THE THREAT (1949), both released by RKO Radio Pictures. The year after THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF he directed TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951), one of the great couple-on-the-run noirs. Six-time Academy Award nominee Russell Harlan also handled the cinematography for the same year's GUN CRAZY, a top-3 film noir in my estimation. Amidst the San Francisco-based location footage, there is a rooftop chase sequence that anticipates the work of that city's most famous movie detective, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) of the venerable DIRTY HARRY (1971) series. In another location shot, camera work from the back seat of a vehicle announces kinship with GUN CRAZY. The suspenseful concluding sequence filmed at Fort Point is one of the most memorable settings in which any noir film winds down, thanks largely to Harlan's camerawork.
Jane Wyatt won three Emmys for her popular role as Margaret Anderson, the matriarch of the 1950s TV series FATHER KNOWS BEST. Her performance in this film has come to the consternation of some of film noir's dedicated fans. I agree her Lois is not among the most iconic of noir bad girls, but her performance does not bother me at all. It is always a treat to watch the work of Lee J. Cobb, who was just sensational as the despicable yet ultimately sympathetic Juror #3 in 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). John Dall always manages to add something to every production in which he appears, though he remains best remembered for his reluctant criminal in GUN CRAZY.
Flicker Alley's dual-layered Blu-ray/DVD combo release of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF marks the third collaboration between Flicker Alley and the Film Noir Foundation (the other two being TOO LATE FOR TEARS  and WOMAN ON THE RUN ). Framed at the correct theatrical scope of 1.37:1, the restoration is the result of the combined efforts of the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive. Though undoubtedly the best-looking version of the film on home video to date, the source material looks a bit washed out on occasion, as when Andy drives his new bride around San Fran.
Supplements include the featurette “The Man Who Cheated Himself: Revisited” (21m 44s), which brings together the thoughts of the director's son Raymond Feist, along with film historians Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller and Julie Kirgo. Feist explains his father often was handed material that was in some state of distress, and would have to make something out of next to nothing. In the case of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF, the filmmaker Feist was able to churn out a profitable film on a $300K budget. Kirgo adds that Feist had to complete all location footage in five days, an absurdly brief time period for such a task. Muller mentions the three leads all were playing against type to some degree. He also tells the sad story of supporting actress Lisa Howard, who was married to the film's director at the time of filming (it was their second marriage). Post-Hollywood, Howard would become an influential political and news journalist only to see her career flounder. She was just 39 when she chose to take her own life.
The brief segment “The Man Who Cheated Himself: The Movie Locations Then and Now” (6m 56s) presents a number of the filming locations as they appear today. For additional San Francisco locations from notable classic films, the viewer is encouraged to visit reelsf.com. The only other bonus feature is a restored theatrical trailer (2m 13s, vimeo.com/276516403).