Sunday, February 08, 2009
A Val Lewton-style Nancy Davis (Reagan), M.D. in SHADOW ON THE WALL
Nancy Davis (pre-Reagan) is superbly understated as Dr. Canford, child psychologist, in SHADOW ON THE WALL (1950), a B-movie psychodrama with a progressive feminist center and a weird Edgar Ulmer / Val Lewton-style whispery coating.
The plot and mood keep you guessing whether WALL is one of those dreary post-code screwball-with-kids concoctions, a shadow-bestrewn film noir, or a minor-key divorce drama. Plot centers hinges on gun is brought into the house as a WW2 souvenir on the same day daddy finds out mom's been cheating on him with her sister's fiancee. The kid is the only witness of who really shot who, but it's buried deep in her subconscious. Enter cool-headed child psychiatrist Nancy Davis, who rules her roost (a children's hospital) absolutely and without losing any feminine charm in the process.
Whoa, Nancy! Right here in the middle of some half-forgotten MGM B-picture we've got a fascinating early example of a fully developed female mental health professional, one who isn't bogged down in cliche'd male attention. There's no smug, bitchy fellow doctor trying to smarm his captive co-worker into marital submission ala SPELLBOUND, no condescending pretty boy rogue or square-jawed intern who expects her to stop working once they're married.
Perhaps this unique character slipped by the censors because having an adult male doctor playing dolly games with a child would be creepy, but it's even rare today to see an unencumbered professional female character like this in a Hollywood film (compare her with, say, the insecure, sex-starved female shrinks in THE DEPARTED, TOP GUN, and BASIC INSTINCT) and Nancy Davis pulls it off very well: she's sexy and uninhibited without ever being unprofessional, nor does she say or do anything that's not somehow related to her sincere desire to help her patient. She's allowed to take over important medical duties from men without them squawking or belittling her, and she even educates older men lawyer friends of the family on the latest breaks in the developing field of child psychology, without the men having to 'put her in her place' with smug passive aggressive code-instilled put-downs. While it's great this film exists, it makes Hollywood's long history of sexist inequality that much more glaring by contrast.
But even chiller: the accidental Brechtianism in the drably painted cityscapes outside the windows of the children's hospital. In their closed-off theatricality they mirror the dollhouse maze in which Davis plays with her young patient. It would all be kind of rote in lesser hands, but director Pat Jackson has the right touch. He's in the moment, giving each scene it's own charge and mood --you never know where it's gonna go. It's off the rails in a quiet, whispering SEVENTH VICTIM sort of way.
The end is very satisfying with Dr. Canford waving good-bye and a "we'll be seeing this character again" vibe in the air as adult and daughter ride down into the elevator sunset. The children's hospital setting, with its endless playtime and flat city backgrounds has such a low rent yet comfortingly post-modern charm that you want to just lounge around there as a troubled child yourself and let Nancy run the country for awhile. While the character of Dr. Canford disappears back into the obsidian ooze of the collective unconsciousness, Nancy Davis the woman moves forward, inch by inch, through the patriarchal darkness, until it's far too late to just say no.