I can’t place The Man Who Cheated Himself (a truly horrible title) in the pantheon of great film noir. The stars, Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt, are miscast. The plot requires you to take a great big leap into the extremely unlikely.
And yet, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. As happens so often in noir, the protagonist, lured by a woman, does something terribly illegal. He takes the bait. But something goes wrong and bit by bit, he’s slowly reeled in by the long fishing pole of the law. Yet another once-decent man ruined by his weaker instincts.
But before you can enjoy this movie, you must accept the ridiculous. A wealthy woman (Wyatt) kills her evil husband with the gun he bought to murder her. It’s arguably self-defense, and it’s certainly no worse than second degree murder. Remember that she’s filthy rich; an expensive lawyer could get her off with a clever speech.
But instead she turns to her police detective lover (Cobb) – who should have given the advice I suggested above. Instead, he dumps the body elsewhere to set the police on the wrong track.
And then there’s the leads. Cobb was an excellent actor, but the character is written as a ladies’ man. Cobb was no heartthrob; there were reasons he rarely got leading roles. Wyatt, who usually played wholesome types, seems to be enjoying a rare chance to play a femme fatale. Sometimes she overplays too much.
On the other hand, John Dall is just fine as Cobb’s kid brother, just promoted to detective, working under his brother on his very first case. And yes, it’s the case of the murdered husband. Their sibling relationship is the best thing in the movie. The elder cop is trying intentionally to set his kid brother in the wrong direction. But every time Dall’s character makes the right deduction, his big brother feels both frightened and proud.
The movie is set – and partially shot – in San Francisco. It uses recognizable landmarks throughout, and it’s fun seeing them circa 1950. Unfortunately, it’s jarring when the movie cuts from a real location to rear-projection.
How It Looks
For what it is – a 68-year-old, low-budget potboiler that no one cared to preserve – the movie looks exceptionally good, despite the occasional washed-out shots. The Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored the movie in the analog domain recently. (I saw it screened in 35mm at this year’s Noir City.)
The film is presented as it should be: in black-and-white, pillarboxed to 1.37×1, and displayed in 1080p.
How It Sounds
The uncompressed, mono 24bit LPCM soundtrack is just fine.
And the Extras
- Booklet: 18 pages. Something of a scrapbook with stills and a small amount of information. Much of the text is extremely tiny.
- DVD: This two-disc set contains a DVD as well as a Blu-ray. Both contain the same content.
- The Man Who Cheated Himself:
Revisited: 22 minutes. A pretty good doc. Tells some great stories about the cast and filmmakers.
- The Man Who Cheated Himself:
Locations Then and Now: 7 minutes. Fun, especially if you know San Francisco. Makes a case that this film inspired Vertigo’s location shooting.
- Restored Theatrical Trailer: 2 minutes.