Recently watched: The Price of Fear (1956). Tagline: “Hour by hour the net of terror tightens!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).
The direction is merely efficient. The acting is mostly stilted. The two stars are arguably past their prime. So why is this undistinguished film noir - an examination of cowardice, fatalism and the consequences of bad decisions - so diverting? Opening at a greyhound racing track at night, The Price of Fear concisely establishes a jittery, grubby ambiance. On the soundtrack, a narrator’s voice mansplains - I mean, sets the scene: “This dog track has nothing to do with the story. But without it there wouldn’t be any story. Because a racketeer’s desire to get control of it set forces in motion that caused a man and a woman who’d never met and were not likely ever to meet to converge on each other like an express train – and with the same result.”
The man is David Barrett (Lex Barker). “Half owner of the track. Honest. Altogether a decent guy.” His business partner Lou Belden, though, is less scrupulous – and is in cahoots with local gangster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), who’s keen to muscle in on their action. Unwisely, Barrett publicly threatens Belden (“So help me, if I ever lay eyes on you again, I’ll kill you!”) in a restaurant crowded with witnesses. (Conveniently, all conversation hushes just before he says this). When Belden gets murdered that same night, the innocent Barrett inevitably finds himself under suspicion and goes on the run. But things are about to get even worse!
The woman is Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon). “A lovely businesswoman. Desirable. Successful. Above reproach.” We see her glamorously departing a ritzy cocktail lounge in formal attire complete with one of those fox stoles with the heads still attached. “She has devoted her life to her work and the greatest success of her career is within her reach. And tonight, she is celebrating.” Celebrating? Jessica is frankly inebriated when she climbs into her convertible, and within no time she’s involved in a hit and run incident! Panicking, she speeds away from the scene before checking whether her victim – an elderly man walking his dog – is dead or alive.
Guilt-stricken, Jessica begins to anonymously report the accident by payphone. But while she’s in the phone booth, Barrrett jumps out of a taxicab and “borrows” her convertible to evade Edare’s henchmen on his tail. Seizing this stroke of luck, Jessica instead reports her car as stolen. So now in addition to being wanted for murder, Barrett looks like he killed the pedestrian, too. And Jessica’s story suddenly overlaps with the world of low-life organized crime. Now being blackmailed by opportunistic sleazebag Edare, the desperate Jessica initially tries to frame Barrett for the hit and run – but they end up falling in love! This can’t end well …
I have a perverse affection for the performances of the two leads, both then experiencing professional downturns. A cleft-chinned Adonis, popular fifties male starlet Lex Barker - veteran of five Tarzan films and former Mr Lana Turner - is a stolid, brawny presence as Barrett. Sure, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford had considerably greater “acting chops” than Merle Oberon and either could have convincingly played the part of Jessica in their sleep. And yet I’d argue Oberon - frosty and ill at ease throughout - is perfect as an elegant woman out of her depth and striving to maintain a patrician ladylike demeanor. (Plus - not possessing the hard veneer of a Crawford or Stanwyck - she brings greater fragility). Oberon herself seems tangibly uncomfortable onscreen appearing in this tawdry b-movie, which fits the character’s predicament: Jessica - with her posh accent and prim little white gloves - is tangibly uncomfortable in the milieu of violence, crime and gangsters. Oberon also adds to the film’s camp appeal. Jessica is a high-flying and affluent businesswoman. How do we know this? She snaps things like, “I know that merger is not going to happen! But the time to sell is just before it doesn’t happen!” on the telephone. Her office door is emblazoned “Jessica Warren: Investment Counselor”. And what an office! Absurdly swanky and chic, with sprays of flowers, exposed brick and a kidney-shaped desk. Is Jessica duplicitous? A victim? Either way, watching her suffer indignities is a blast.
In retrospect, The Price of Fear foreshadows multiple endings. The Hollywood careers of its two stars subsequently fell off a cliff. Decamping to Europe, the surprisingly durable Barker would triumphantly reinvent himself in Italian sword-and-sandal epics and Euro-spy films (and even appeared in Fellini’s 1960 arthouse masterpiece La Dolce Vita). Aged 45, Oberon retired from the screen after The Price of Fear for seven years to luxuriate as the jet-setting socialite trophy wife of an Italian millionaire before unexpectedly returning in the berserk 1963 melodrama Of Love and Desire. And by the mid-fifties, the entire film noir genre was grinding to a halt. Perhaps it was The Price of Fear that killed it for good?
Watch The Price of Fear below.