The title may seem unremarkable at first, but it soon becomes clear that Curtis Bernhardt’s Conflict is all about the internal skirmishes egomaniacs have with themselves. This 1945 film noir is based on The Pentacle by Alfred Neumann and Robert Siodmak and features a screenplay by Arthur T. Horman and Dwight Taylor.
Conflict is noted as one of Humphrey Bogart’s lesser pictures and to some extent that reputation is earned. While the underlying psychology makes things interesting, the plot is a touch overzealous in execution. Still, it’s fun to watch the protagonist’s paranoia and self-delusion mount – until a concluding revelation takes some of the shine off the apple.
Bogart stars as Richard Mason. He’s been married to Kathryn (Rose Hobart) for five years, but things aren’t going well. Kathryn suspects Richard of being in love with her younger sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith). She confronts him on the eve of their wedding anniversary and he admits his affection. She keeps it secret and states that she’ll never divorce Richard.
Tensions boil over to the extent that Richard breaks his leg in a car accident and puts together a plan to get rid of his awful wife once and for all. After the crime, he plays the role of worried husband and gets to spend more time with Evelyn. Meanwhile, psychologist Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet) is watching over the proceedings.
Bogart is excellent as Richard, a man who is little more than the product of his presumptions. He knows that he doesn’t stand a chance with the younger Evelyn and resigns himself to a milquetoast marriage. But he can’t shake the feelings churning inside and lashes out in the bloom of false belief. Evelyn will love him. Somehow.
Most of Conflict contends with Richard’s paranoia. There are reasons to believe that Kathryn may have survived his fatal attempt, for instance. Artifacts begin showing up in his home and he smells her fragrance. Her wedding ring is back inside the safe.
All the while, he attempts to draw closer to Evelyn. She has her eyes on a fledgling professor (Charles Drake), but Richard believes otherwise. He convinces himself that she’s spending time with him on account of her own thriving affection. It couldn’t be out of concern for her missing sister.
Greenstreet’s character supplies psychological context. His observations sing, like when he informs Richard that only an egoist would put his needs ahead of the life of another. This seems to sting Mason deep within, indicating further self-delusion. Hamilton cracks it open: Richard Mason thinks of himself as a good person.
This is the central crux of Conflict and its most captivating feature, even if some of the particulars are loose. The devices are ponderous and the plot unfolds in rather tortuous fashion, with a few more edges and turns than necessary to get the point across.
But Conflict still fascinates, with enough self-delusion to satisfy David Cronenberg. Bogart is sublime as the man fooling himself into oblivion and the greatest trap he falls into is the one he sets himself. And Merritt B. Gerstad’s cinematography sets the mood, poking out from the rain-soaked mountain pass for a glimpse inside the mind of a man overcome by his own narcissistic lust.