Old movie review: The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)

Movie: The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)

Why I watched it: I thought I was watching The Scar, aka Hallowed Ground, aka The Man Who Murdered Himself.

But I kept watching it? Yeah, it was pretty good.

You can see it where exactly? On YouTube, it’s public domain.

One of my favorite movies, both old timey and of all time, is The Scar, a perfect noir entry of ironic comeuppance for the “hero” of the film. I can watch it anytime, and after watching “Blonde Ice” last week I saw “The Man Who Cheated Himself” was on the same YouTube channel and mistook it for another title The Scar is known for. Oops.

I’m glad I stayed with it, especially after watching the Blonde Ice that (as discussed earlier) fell short of being an actual noir film, coming off as a weak crime drama. These movies couldn’t be more different despite that they’ll both be categorized as crime/noir, and both take place in San Francisco. Well, I had to remind myself in the 2nd viewing of Blonde Ice that it maybe takes place in the bay area, but I am still not sure. I don’t even recall any imagery of the city. Or any city. Just mansions, the newspaper office, the restaurant, the police station…oh yeah and at an airplane hangar. It was a movie where all the action took place indoors and maybe the locale was mentioned because of how Claire’s alibi was tested by the newspaper staff.

Why is this important? Because real noir movies depend, at least a little bit, on visuals. Part of what makes those visuals is having no money for lighting, and using that lack of lighting to your advantage. What better way to present stark elements of despair vs. hopeful protagonists doomed by poetic justice? A beautiful but harsh city as the background.

San Francisco wasn’t always a tourist trap, but I refuse to believe before the city decided to become a tourist destination and move all other industries to Oakland that it wasn’t still beautiful. It is the setting for a lot of Dashiell Hammett’s novels, which describe such criminal activity filling up a city where you would never imagine Midwesterners popping in for a chapter to ogle Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Man Who Cheated Himself provides plenty of shots of San Francisco, most of them great, and I’ll get to that soon. In the meantime, the plot: meet Andy and Ed, two brothers who…fight crime!

That’s the plot.

Andy is a cop who just got promoted to homicide detective. He’s a plucky and earnest and about to take on this new role, in HOMICIDE, with his brother, the hardened Ed. I heard the words but I could barely believe it: casting this movie must have been an afterthought, or at least focused on their attitudes, with actor John Dall being the stringbean, boyish (albeit towering), and cheerfully enthusiastic Andy, and side of raw beef Lee Cobb as the grim square-jawed Ed.

This seems like more of a comedic setup. Their appearance as no-way-these-guys-are-blood-relatives was maybe representative of their outlook on life, their approach to handling crime, and definitely their attitude toward women. Andy was about to get married and go on his honeymoon, like, that DAY or something. Ed? Never a man to settle down with a regular dame. Andy and his fiancé are ready to settle down, and advise Ed to do the same.

Ed HAS a girlfriend, Lois, but she’s married. This is actually how the movie starts, with Lois’ gold digging husband setting up a scenario to stage a break in to their home and use a placed gun to kill her, making it look like a botched robbery. It’s a great beginning to a Columbo episode, but Lois is very suspicious and calls Ed over when she finds the gun. When he arrives, so does her husband, and Lois freaks out and uses the gun on her husband.

Not fully convinced what she did would qualify as self defense, especially as a witness, and especially because he was the other man in this situation, Ed promises to help her cover it up. He takes the gun and the body and heads to the airport. He dumps the body by a building there but almost gets into an auto accident with a henpecked husband/iron battleship wife combo while fleeing the scene. He also tosses the gun over a bridge and into the bay.

Well, the body is of course found, and Andy is ready to take on his first homicide!

Do you see where this is going?

Don’t worry about the evidence or about interrogating the widow, I’ve got this. I’m visiting her at midnight and I’m bringing protection.

I’ll spare you the details of their investigation. Andy is suspicious of Lois and is convinced the body of her late husband was moved, while Ed insists that the victim was murdered there. Andy’s gee-golly attitude darkens a bit by the idea of Lois killing her husband, but Andy’s fiancé cheerfully encourages him press on, even delaying their wedding plans. What a gal! If only Ed could find someone like that. Instead, Andy assumes that Ed is putting the moves on Lois, thinking that wowsers Ed sure moves in on an opportunity to get some, quick! Amiright, fellas?

Now, I have to tell you, if there was ever a time where I was suckered by an establishing shot of a city followed by what could’ve just been a room built on a soundstage to make me believe I was actually at a real wine store watching it be robbed, it was that very scene in this movie, where…I just told you. A wine store was robbed. Maybe because I’m making this personal connection to my trips to this city, standing on these hills and looking down, but I felt like I was right there as it was happening in this black & white movie. The next scene is a ballistics comparison, the bullet used to kill the shopkeeper was, somehow, from the same gun used to kill Lois’ husband.

What a development!

Andy leads the way to nab the robber, with his brother playing bad cop but sweating it out in the investigation because now Ed has to find a way to pin the murder of Lois’ husband on this suspect. And to top it off, the nebbish husband recognizes Ed’s car as the one he almost got into an accident, and congrats the brothers on finding the vehicle.

At this point, Ed knows that Andy is going to put it all together. So he grabs Lois and tells her to get ready to go on a long trip. Lois kind of breaks down, in the sense that she had led quite the pampered lifestyle and she might not be ready to rough it on the lam with MacGruff The Square Jawed CrimeDog. But they make a break for it until they realize that they’ll get recognized at the airport by the entire police force that is on to them, so they head to Fort Point.

If the plot of man going to criminal lengths to defend his dainty but murderous lady isn’t enough to make you watch this, the cinematography of the hide & seek game played by Ed and Andy in Fort Point should be. Fort Point looks like a prison on the inside (I imagine it’s been granted landmark status and has been cleaned up since). In this movie, from its courtyard, it’s a building with dozens of nooks and crannies. From the nooks and crannies perspective, it’s a place to watch your pursuers with no place to run. And it’s stunningly, beautifully shot.

Is it noir? Yup, in the sense that there’s not a happy ending for Ed and Lois, at least for their relationship, but then again other than their affair all we know about how they get along is that she probably wouldn’t do well once they made a break for it. But it’s not a total downer (compared to other movies of this ilk). As a matter of fact, I was expecting something a little harsher between Ed and Andy after that build up in Fort Point. But I think it turned out the way it did because the stakes are low for our doomed noir protagonists. What, really, did Ed do wrong in the grand scheme of dark movie plots? Witnessed his girlfriend kill her husband because she felt scared and overreacted, and because her husband was in fact setting up to kill her. Covering up a crime, maybe trying to nail some kid for it when that backfired. He didn’t kill Andy, he didn’t kill Andy’s new bride to prove a point, he didn’t kill the nebbish and annoying witnesses. What he did was for love, and really Andy showed more disappointment for his dramatically romantically wrongheaded big brother, a person he had looked up to all his life.

It’s worth seeing? Oh, for sure.

But there’s still a scene where Andy and Ed, grown men and homicide detectives,  share a bedroom with twin beds? Absolutely. Try not to laugh as you imagine Ed reading a bedtime to story to Andy, as adults, in that gruff voice of his.

Anything about the cast? You didn’t even try to place them this time, you actually focused on the plot and mood of this film. Both Lee Cobb and John Dall led the kind of lives of 50’s Hollywood actors that could make their own separate tragic movies.

One comment

  1. You wrote, “Their appearance as no-way-these-guys-are-blood-relatives,,,”. Well there’s no rule for blood relatives to look like relatives. My twin cousins test your comment. The older was a compact 5’9″, 150/60#. His younger brother was about six inches taller, and nearly 100# heavier when they achieved their full growth.


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