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Missing from Home Video: THE ACCUSED (1949)

There were a lot of Hollywood talents from the studio era whose names were associated with the “factory” aspects of that time:  making one film after another of varying quality, jumping from genre to genre, producing “good Hollywood fare.”  The output of these industry creatives tended to be lumped together, the good with the bad, the rushed with the meticulous, the lower budget offerings with the high-gloss epics.  The result was that their reputations were diminished, seldom praised because their names had never been associated with a cinema masterpiece or cult classic.

Two such Hollywood workhorses were the actress Loretta Young and director William Dieterle:  neither had a crowning Hollywood achievement (even the film for which Young won an Oscar was not a very memorable movie), yet each was synonymous with Hollywood and its Dream Factory.

Paramount’s 1949 THE ACCUSED displays how subtly deep their craft and artistry could be.  A serious look gives deep pleasures of discovery and aesthetic wonder.  Also, it’s a damned fine movie.  Period.

Just as an opera is made of a series of soaring and show-stopping arias, with recititive in between to push the plot along, this movie contains an exposition (a truly twisted boy-meets-girl plot), however it’s not that journey you remember:  its qualities are the periodic mini-episodes of tour-de-force performance and filmmaking planted throughout the film’s running time like landmines in a cease-fire zone.

These master sequences begin with with the first fade-in.  Thanks to a screenplay by future Pulitzer-winner Ketti Frings we’re brought into the core of the story in the first shot, as a woman flees from a parked car on a seaside cliff and hastily treks down the California coast highway, hiding from the views of oncoming cars.  When an approaching vehicle’s headlights take her by surprise, its white flash reveals we’re watching a shaken and panicked Loretta Young. 

A few minutes later, in flashback, we learn that Young’s character, a spinsterish university psychology professor named Wilma Tuttle, had just killed one of her students.  The opening shot had been Young leaving the scene of the crime.  The student she killed, Bill Perry, had attempted to rape her. 

Director Dieterle leaps into extreme close-up when the student asks his teacher to explain the psychology of a kiss.

The flashback shifts us to earlier that afternoon in Professor Tuttle’s classroom, where she’s administering a test.  While other students are hunched over test booklets, Perry (played by the rather-appropriately-named actor Douglas Dick) gazes at Professor Tuttle, mentally undressing her.  Director Dieterle then begins an intense cross-cutting sequence between the repressed and prim teacher and the sexually predatory student.  In the silent room as the students write their answers, the professor begins chewing on her pencil and twirling it in her mouth.  The student, picking up on its Freudian overtones, lasciviously stares her down while mimicking her actions.  Dieterle cuts back to an embarrassed professor, who drops the pencil and begins self-consciously fussing with her hair.  Cutting back, the student reclines in his desk, reveling in her actions as if she were primping only to please him.  The sequence continues until the camera lands in an extreme closeup of Perry’s face, as he asks the professor in his energetic, seductive manner to explain a test question on in-coming and out-going stimulation, and knowingly asks if a kiss is an appropriate answer.

Wanting to talk to her student about his behavior, she plans an after-class meeting but the smooth-talking Perry quickly turns the meeting into a drive up the coast for dinner and then a ride to a deserted cliff where he likes to dive for abalone.  While she takes in the view, behind Tuttle the student is taking off his clothes and slipping into swim trunks.  This begins another operatic sequence where Dick, casually yet in a studly manner, tries to induce Young to take a swim with him, an overture which quickly becomes a struggle and chase; all of this is captured in a lengthy single shot with Dieterle’s prowling camera following hunter and prey around the car with quick, broad strokes of the camera dolly.  The shot concludes as he pins her to the car door, grabbing her hair and kissing her, crooning, “Don’t pretend you don’t like it.”  (Young, in a brilliantly conflicted and layered performance, registers physical pain, erotic feelings and helpless terror simultaneously on her face.)  Pushing her onto the car seat, he says — more as an order than a request — “You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?”  The professor reaches out, grabs part of the diving gear from the backseat, and strikes the student on the head:  not a single strike, but — once the catharsis of violence begins — she strikes him repeatedly till he crumples to the ground.

Strong stuff, especially for Hollywood circa 1949.  And all this happens in the first twenty minutes of the film.

MORNING AFTER A MURDER:  Director William Dieterle directs Loretta Young in a single shot through an apartment that brilliantly choreographs both the camera and actor.

About three weeks before this movie began principal photography, Loretta Young stepped onstage at the Academy Awards and — despite heavy predictions that she’d lose — received her Best Actress Oscar.  Fresh from this praise and validation, she gave a fearless performance in THE ACCUSED, digging deep and unflinchingly into her character.  Emigré director William Dieterle, a graduate of expressionist theatre and silent films in pre-Nazi Germany, had mastered how to convey the psychology of a story via lighting and camera moves.  Their combined talents and knowledge accrued due to years of film experience (as a six-year-old, Young had a small part in Valentino’s THE SHEIK, while an ocean away Dieterle was working with legendary director F. W. Murnau) used the medium as only seasoned artists could, keeping the focus going in a film that wouldn’t have delivered in other screen teams’ hands.

The morning after the killing, the student’s legal guardian (Robert Cummings) knocks on Professor Tuttle’s apartment door and asks Young to meet him for breakfast to talk about his troubled ward (so begins the queasy story of Cummings and Young falling in love, yet he doesn’t know she killed his ward).  This is the cue for another sequence that again raises the story to operatic heights.  Through her locked apartment door, Cummings and Young agree to meet for breakfast down the street, then Young — in a ninety second take — tries to compose herself for the meeting.  Dieterle’s camera — in a single camera shot whose moves are as predatory as the dead student’s — follows Young through her apartment — from bed to work desk to bathroom sink and around again — as she picks last evening’s soiled clothes from the floor, searches for an aspirin, assesses herself in the mirror (as with most German directors of that era such as von Stroheim and Sirk, Dieterle’s cinema world includes a slightly fetishistic use of bric-a-brac, furniture and mirrors).  All the while Young’s interior monologue is in voice-over.  Her voice registers a range from high and breathy fear to a deep moan of self-disgust as, preparing to leave the house for the first time after the incident, she processes the madness of the night before and comprehends her present situation.

This breakfast meeting initiates the formerly calm and brainy psychology professor’s über-battle with Guilt.  For some viewers, this interior battle reaches its summit in a scene where Sam Jaffe as a forensic specialist for the police describes crime lab techniques:  Jaffe, looking like the archetypal mad scientist, shows Young the murder weapon and dips it into a cauldron to remove biological evidence from its surface.  Young explodes, calling him a ghoul.  But for me the movie reaches cine-dementia when her date takes her to a prize fight, where from her ringside seat, the blood, violence, flesh and male carnality (plus a noisy crowd yelling “Kill him!!”) drive her into hysteria.

The blood and flesh of a KO'd prizefighter remind Professor Tuttle (Loretta Young) of the virile student she killed.

Paramount was the perfect studio for this product:  as with many other of its Post-War psycho-noirs such as THE BLUE DAHLIA and SUNSET BOULEVARD, Southern California and specifically the greater L.A. area play a role in the film, with many exterior location shoots around the city (e.g., Westwood Village, Pacific Coast Highway), and an intense geo-specificity of time and place (e.g., when characters depart for Malibu after a 5:30 meeting, they actually depart in the direction of Malibu and arrive there with the sun as low on the horizon as it should be after an hour’s drive).  There are no actions in fictitious towns within unidentified states as is usual for films of that time.  This attention to geography would have been lost on Middle America; but somehow — by having a traditionally studio-bound cast and crew actually filming in and around their neighborhoods and re-creating them on the set — this method gave a naturalness and exactitude to the movie that one usually associates with more contemporary cinema.

As in many films of quality, Queen of the Extras Bess Flowers puts in a quick appearance.

But despite these fresh techniques, THE ACCUSED contains the ultimate epiphenomenon of the Studio System Days:  “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers.  The woman who was an extra in around 800 films from Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 A WOMAN OF PARIS through 1964’s THE CARPETBAGGERS and beyond, visible in movies as diverse as A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, ALL ABOUT EVE and VERTIGO, has lines and an almost close-up when she’s the courtroom matron keeping an eye on defendant Loretta Young in the last minutes of this film.  That’s the butter-creme frosting on this devil’s food cake.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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9 Comments to “Missing from Home Video: THE ACCUSED (1949)”

  1. Marilyn says:

    I see I have been missing a lot on your blog since I was forced to concentrate on moving my office. This is yet another brilliant piece on a film I sure would like to have access to. I’ve been a fan of Loretta Young’s for a long time (yes, I first met her in her ultra-feminine chiffon dresses on her TV show), and have been catching up with her film work whenever I’ve had the chance. The fact that Young, certainly one of the loveliest stars ever, plays an uptight teacher in this is an interesting commentary on how extremely beautiful women can be hounded simply for showing their faces. Her retreat into intellect is very believable. And your insights into Dieterle’s methods are a cinema course in themselves. Thanks, again, Doug, for a great post.

    • Doug says:

      I’m so glad to hear something said about Loretta from a feminist p.o.v. I felt like I was going out on a limb in praising her, since she seems to be considered less of a positive female screen archetype today than Stanwyck or Lupino. Actually, IMHO, I think she sublimely embodied independent, opinionated, good-humored, resourceful American womanhood in the wartime noir-comedy A NIGHT TO REMEMBER.

      • Doug says:

        hmmm…I keep processing why I would use a phrase as subliminally patriarchial as “American womanhood.” Although it sounds, to me, condescending, it seems appropriate to the Zeitgeist of the 1942 film A NIGHT TO REMEMBER in describing a Hollywood depiction of a self-possessed married woman.

        • Marilyn says:

          I’m not offended by the term. There is such a thing as American womanhood, just as there is such a thing as American womanhood. It’s how anyone tries to define womanhood that’s the problem, as though the general characteristics of a woman of a nationality could sum it all up.

          • Perhaps, if you’ll allow me a generational shibboleth, I might venture that the phrase “American womanhood” comes from Frank Zappa in WE’RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY singing “That’s you … American womanhood!” The song in question is, admittedly, *quite* sexist. It’s thematically pertinent, though, since both song and THE ACCUSED deal with female desire and men having problems with it.

            One name you omit, here, is producer Hal Wallis, who had something of a cottage industry from the mid-’40s through the early ’50s, creating melodramas around star actresses (cf. Stanwyck in MARTHA IVERS and FILE ON THELMA JORDAN) whose characters misbehave. Usually released by Paramount, with music by Victor Young, and Wendell Corey lurking somewhere on the premises.

            When last I saw Dieterle’s ACCUSED — as opposed to the Jonathan Kaplan one — I was struck by just how much a heroine in a Hal B. Wallis melo was able to get *away* with. She she suffers … but she’s glamorous and center-stage.

          • Doug says:

            The phrase ‘American Womanhood’ stuck in my mind decades ago when I found and read the phrase in an old copy of LIFE magazine, referring to the new B’way show SOUTH PACIFIC, and how Nellie Forbush in the “Wash That Man” number was independent and athletic, and therefore (to the photo caption editor) the embodiment of ‘American Womanhood.’ I liked how they were trying to be feminist in a pre-feminist era, so the phrase stuck with me.

  2. Oh, yes, and while we’re looking for auteurist traces … one might say that there’s not that much distance between Emmy in HOLD BACK THE DOWN (author of source material: Ketti Frings) and Professor Tuttle in THE ACCUSED.

    • Doug says:

      Right you are, Chris. There are lots of parallels in Frings’ character development. Ages ago, I performed in a community theatre production of THE SHRIKE (which was adapted for the screen by Ketti Frings), and so I’ve had a blind spot to the balance of her talents.

  3. (HOLD BACK THE *DAWN*, that is to say.)

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