Film Noir Friday: A Life at Stake (1954)

a life at stake


Helmed by actor-turned-director Paul Guilfoyle, A Life at Stake is an interesting little noir that doesn’t receive a lot of attention. The 1954 movie is sometimes known as Key Man and features a screenplay by Russ Bender from a story idea by Hank McCune. It takes a somewhat angular approach and features the typical down-on-his-luck protagonist, with a familiar ode to cynicism tinging the proceedings with thick, reaching shadows.

There’s also paranoia to contend with. The protagonist has spent most of his life looking over his shoulder and rightly so. People really have been out to get him and he only seems to want to do right by others. He arrives as a man looking to pay off his debts and get clear of whatever haunted him in the past. He becomes a victim of circumstance, like many noir protagonists.

Said protagonist is Edward Shaw (Keith Andes), an architect whose recent business collapsed after his partner gambled all the money away. Shaw now owes a good chunk of change to “friends” and is clinging to a thousand dollar bill as motivation that he’ll get back on his feet again. Enter the Hillmans. Doris (Angela Lansbury) arranges a meeting with Shaw to discuss a business proposal.

She wants to spend her husband’s money and develop something to do with real estate, having been a broker before she was married. Her hubby Gus (Douglass Dumbrille) is willing to put up half a million smackers. Shaw takes the deal and falls in love with Doris, soon discovering that the Hillmans have other interests outside of the real estate industry.

The concept of “key man insurance” is somewhat integral to the plot because it’s what the Hillmans are interested in. When Doris’ younger sister Madge (Claudia Barrett) comes along, the complications snowball and Shaw becomes a man on the run. He wishes he never met the damned Hillmans and finds himself virtually afraid of his own shadow.

Andes plays Shaw well. We first meet him when he’s living in a shoddy apartment with a concerned landlady (Jane Darwell) who fields his calls and chastises him for sleeping during the day. “You really ought to sleep at night,” she says as she fusses over his bed. This isn’t the kind of life Shaw wants and Andes does well to illustrate a man maintaining his tough exterior while struggling internally.

Because of this character weakness, Shaw jumps at the chance with the Hillmans and makes more than a few errors. His affair with Doris is the obvious one, but he’s also too trusting only to double back on it later. Sometimes he protects his thousand dollar bill with vigour. Sometimes he accepts a cup of coffee he shouldn’t have.

It’s interesting to see Lansbury in a role of this sort. There’s a lot of kindness in her face and she doesn’t exactly smoulder on the screen the way one would hope, but there’s a layer of manipulation beneath that has the strength to take poor Edward by surprise. It’s that tiny sliver of menace that allows her to slip into the femme fatale archetype, even if it’s not an exact fit.

Cinematographer Ted Allan manages some interesting shots to keep things moving. One involves Madge looking through Shaw’s coat pockets while he smokes in the background. The framing is gorgeous and we can see her discovery in the foreground splashed against his obliviousness behind. Other highlights include Shaw’s frantic race through the alleyway with a disturbing man on his tail.

As with other films in the genre, the threat of death is around every corner. Guilfoyle ably ratchets up the tension to explore just how fearful Shaw is becoming. He desperately wants to trust others, but past experiences and present happenings are undermining that. A great scene finds him thoroughly checking his car for problems that could likely lead to his demise. Unfortunately, the mistake was already made.

With a complex and vulnerable lead character and an interesting plot involving the glorious world of “key man insurance,” A Life at Stake is an above average noir. It’s no classic, but there are delights to be found in Guilfoyle’s motion picture and it’s “interesting” to see Lansbury in her pool. Yeah, “interesting.” That’s the ticket.

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