Loosely based on The Black Path of Fear (1944) by Cornell Woolrich, a bit of the pulp poetry of Woolrich does find its way into this minor film noir, The Chase (1946).
An unemploiyed Navy vet, Chuck Scott (Bob Cummings), has been bumming around town very unluckily when he finds a wallet full of cash. He spends a tiny bit of it on a fabulous breakfast, then tracks down Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) to return the rest, not yet knowing Roman is a gangster. Roman's mansion is quite a wild set, beautifully lit & shadowed.
Roman is intrigued to meet an honest man & hires Scott to be his chauffeur, though his right hand henchman Gino (Peter Lorre) deplores the guy as "a law-abiding jerk."
Their car can go in excess of 110 mph & has override controls in the back seat. Roman likes to induce wild rides with the driver unable to control speed or breaking. When Scott remains unflappable (& Gino terrified) during a high speed race against a locomotive, the gangster takes an increased liking to his new driver.
We soon figure out Roman is no jolly gangster, though, as he is abusive to his manicurist, then uses his dog as a murder weapon against a man who refused to agree to a one-sided business proposition.
The gangster's wife Lorna (Michele Morgan) lives in terror of her husband who keeps her a virtual prisoner in the mansion. Scott becomes her driver. She reaches out to him for affection but he's not responsive until he realizes how deeply depressed she is, & his concern for her soon turns to love.
Lorna offers Scott a thousand dollars to help her escape to Havana, but by now he'd do anything for her even unbribed. He secretly buys passage to Cuba, but shortly after they arrive, Lorna is murdered.
The murder was arranged by Gino, in such a way that Scott becomes the primary suspect. Curiously, when cornered, Scott makes an unexpected confession as prelude to an escape from custody. He's assisted by a lovely Cuban girl in a tenament, for no better reason than her dislike of the police.
Scott sets out to prove his innocence & discover the real killer. A tourist photographer who accidentally snapped a picture of the killer (Jimmy Ames) is murdered, the evidence destroyed, & much else of frustration & mayhem keeps Scott in motion amidst an array of fine character actors.
The story takes a sudden change in direction, something of a cheat, when Chuck turns out not to be in his right mind, having been shell-shocked in the war. [SPOILER ALERT!] He awakens from a dream of having gone to Havana. His memory is completely rattled. He forgets his promise to Lorna & seeks out his commanding officer, leaving Lorna in a position of considerable risk for her near betrayal to a murderous gangster.
Chuck gets his marbles back in time to live up to his promise to help Lorna escape to Cuba. The rest of his dream cannot come true, however, because Roman takes over control of his fancy car while Gino is driving, rushing to catch Lorna & Chuck, & meets the locomotive instead. [END SPOILER ALERT]
It's not a great film & some of the plot devices are either too easy or too silly. But it has its moments of dark romanticism, as does everything with which Cornell Woolrich was associated. So many of his stories & scripts were adapted to films, radio plays, & early television anthologies, that he has with considerable justification been labeled "the father of film noir."
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