There’s a joke in here somewhere about Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother. William Wilder (W. Lee) is Billy (actually “Samuel”) Wilder’s not-so-smarter brother. Billy Wilder is know for such standards as “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Stalag 17,” “Sabrina,” The Seven Year Itch,” “Some Like it Hot,” and “The Apartment.”
W. Lee Wilder, on the other hand, is known (if he is known at all) for some low-budget sci-fi such as Killers from Space. (I’ve never seen a 3.2 rating for a movie at the generally over-inflated ratings at IMDB.com. That should tell you something.)
But don’t let that fool you. 1947’s The Pretender is an above-average Noir/thriller/crime drama. If you have Amazon Prime, go watch it. This may be the one and only Noir I’ve seen that combines scary-movie music (specifically: the Theremin) with regular Noir shtick.
Go watch it afresh. But I’ll give you a synopsis of the plot which I found to be interesting: Kenneth Holden (played by Albert Dekker) is the trustee for the very rich Clair Worthington. But some of his own personal investments have gone bad. He owes his broker $70,000 so he makes a “loan” to himself from Worthington’s account. He does this a couple times in the movie and it’s clear this is a regular practice.
He begins to worry about this state of affairs so he decides that in order to cover himself, he’s going to convince Claire to marry him. (Whether this would legally cover him or not in the real world, I have no idea.) Meanwhile, while sitting in a shady joint with a friend having a drink, he overhears an accusation by one of the club owner’s dames that he had her boyfriend run over by a car.
Claire rebuffs Holden’s offer of marriage. She’s in love with another man, a Dr. Leonard G. Koster (Charles Drake — Commodore Stocker from “The Deadly Years” ). But that engagement falls through when the doctor takes a last-minute phone call before going out for dinner with Claire and winds up in surgery. Claire sees the writing on the wall — she will always play second fiddle to his patients — and ends the engagement.
Meanwhile, desperate to find a way to complete a marriage to Claire to cover his theft of her money, Holden decides to hire the shady nightclub owner to run over Claire’s fiancé (or otherwise dispose of him in whatever fashion). It will cost him $20,000 in cash which, of course, he “borrows” from Claire’s trust fund.
The shady night club owner doesn’t do the actual murders himself. He hires out for that. He asks Holden how the fiancé can be identified if Holden has no description or picture to give me. Holden tells him to just keep his eyes on the society page of the newspaper. They’re bound to publish a photo of the fiancé.
Soured on the whole doctor-as-husband thing, the steady and pampering Holden now seems like a good catch to Claire and she and Holden get engaged. News of this private engagement leaks out (one of Claire’s friends is a reporter) and Holden and Claire’s photos are printed in the society page as their engagement is announced.
Holden now realizes his danger. He’s hired a man to kill Claire’s fiancé based upon whatever photo of a man appears in the society pages as her fiancé.
Meanwhile (lots of meanwhiles in this plot), the shady nightclub owner who took $20,000 from Holden to do the hit is killed by the same dame whose fiancé he had run over with a car out of jealousy. She figures the shady nightclub owner did it and that it was no accident. (She’s right.) She confronts him in his office and winds up putting a bullet in him.
Meanwhile Holden is desperately trying to cancel the deal he had with the shady nightclub owner. He finds out the shady nightclub owner has been shot and is in hospital. He barges into a doctor’s office demanding information on the shady nightclub owner. The doctor makes a phone call to the attending physician and learns that the shady nightclub owner is just died.
Uh oh. How does he cancel this deal now when the only man who knew of the deal (and who knew the person hired to do the hit) is dead? The man (“Fingers”) who takes over the club from his old boss knows nothing of the deal.
This puts Holden into a paranoid spin. Meanwhile Claire and Holden have gotten married and are living in her mansion. He suspects the butler that Claire hired to be the hit man. Holden fires him. She rehires another. Holden will eat none of the meals prepared by the cook, suspecting that she could be the hit man (hit woman). He won’t leave the house and spends most of the time in his room.
As you might guess, this all doesn’t end well for Holden and we get a bit of a tacked on bad-scary-movie ending. But it’s all in good fun.
Apparently some of the quality of this film comes from what one reviewer calls the “consummate skill and gusto of German cinematographer John Alton before his career with the terrific director Anthony Mann”. Certainly you can feel W. Lee Wilder pulling this to a low-budget thriller. But the movie doesn’t sink into the abyss of kitsch. There are some laughably dramatic stereotyped “scary lighting” shots and a few other low-budget devices. But the acting, as well the the robust plot line, keep the movie interesting and from ever giving in to its low budget pedigree.