Anthony Mann’s Strange Impersonation is a strange film noir indeed, but there is no denying its twisted impact. Although Mann would have preferred this 1946 “B” to be completely forgotten (he was not a fan of his early bread-and-butter genre assignments), the 68-minute low-budget Republic Pictures suspense drama is one of his most intriguing and unsettling. It also boasts in beautiful Brenda Marshall one of the more complex female roles to be found in any Mann production, noir or otherwise.
Pulp mystery author and radio writer Mindret Lord wrote the screenplay, and there is an immediate in-joke at the start of the film where the action unfolds at the Wilmott Institute of Chemical Research whose founder was one Mindret L. Wilmott.
In a smooth tracking shot, Dr. Nora Goodrich (Marshall) is shown standing in front of an art deco brick window unveiling her plans before an audience to partake in a bold experiment that would combine all the best features of present-day anesthetics. With an armless medical body model as her visual aid (image 1 below), Nora points to a section of the brain which will be injected with her special anesthesia and where reactions can be expected to occur “within seconds” for a period of one hour. Nora assures the crowd that her anesthesia is safe, although she soon confides in private that its aftereffects are unknown. For these reasons, she plans to test the drug on herself that evening.
This provides an opening for the calculating Arline (Arline Brooke), Nora’s jealous assistant who has designs on the former’s fiancé Stephen (William Gargan), a fellow doctor at the institute. Nora’s plan, unbeknownst to Stephen, is to conduct the experiment in her apartment that evening in order to avoid “all the red tape I’d have to go through” for a controlled laboratory setting. She asks that Arline assist her in the task, and the latter, having seen firsthand the flammable nature of the chemical, is only too willing to cooperate.
Strange Impersonation switches into serious noir mode when, preparing to leave for home, Nora accidentally backs her car into drunken pedestrian Jane Karaski (Ruth Ford). The woman is unharmed, but the conscientious Nora accompanies Jane to the dipsomaniac’s dark and dreary apartment, located above a bar and grill with a constantly flashing neon sign, and leaves Jane $25. Ambulance-chasing attorney Rinse (George Chandler), however, who followed the two women, assures Nora that Jane was “hurt pretty bad.” Nora Goodrich, of course, has not seen the last of Jane Karaski.
Back at her comfortable apartment, Nora proceeds with the experiment as a nervous Arline sits nearby taking notes. After giving herself an off-screen injection, Nora reclines on a sofa, the camera moving slowly in as she drifts off into sleep. After time (and a brief visual effects montage) has passed, Arline is unable to wake Nora and uses the opportunity to tamper with the chemicals used to create the serum. Once the chemicals begin smoking and boiling over, Arline attempts to make a hasty retreat, but Stephen, who left behind his briefcase from an earlier visit, appears, and Nora’s assistant pretends to be alarmed by the impending chemical disaster. At this point, a chemical measuring glass explodes, causing a fire that spreads to the couch where Nora sleeps.
Nora is hospitalized for burns but facially disfigured as a result (left image). Things only get worse for the woman doctor when she returns home from the hospital and receives a visit from Jane Karaski, who plans on shaking Nora down for money her lawyer says is due her from the car mishap. When Nora threatens to call the police, Jane pulls out a small automatic and insists, “You ain’t gonna call nobody.” A fight between the two women ensues after Jane steals Nora’s engagement ring. It culminates in Jane falling backwards off the patio into the street below where one brave witness observes, “Fell right on her face! They won’t be able to tell who it is!” But Jane is wearing Nora’s ring, which the apartment night clerk recognizes, and so the dead woman is identified as “Nora Goodrich.” It is at this point the real Nora decides to allow people to believe she has died and proceeds to reinvent herself as Jane Karaski – complete with cosmetic surgery.
This is merely the first 31 minutes of Strange Impersonation – and there are still 37 left to go!
As I mention in The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, this is not the type of crime picture where one expects to find logic or realism, but that does not make it any less entertaining. Making the most of his frugal Republic Pictures budget, Mann, as was customary for directors working under such financially constricted conditions, maximizes lengthy camera takes, most notably in two tense scenes between Nora and her female adversaries. The first occurs in the hospital room where Arline, having conspired to keep Stephen away from the hospital, visits the bandaged Nora and moves about the small room and its dramatic window shadows. The second is the first 93 seconds of Nora’s intense confrontation with the blackmailing Jane Karaski, which is reproduced on my channel, MrFilmScholar.
Strange Impersonation was not atypical of the Republic Pictures studio of Herbert J. Yates, which had a tendency to bring out or encourage the weirder aspects of film directors. Although unceremoniously dumped into the Fox Theatre in Pomona, California, in late March of 1946, where it supported the Universal Deanna Durbin musical Because of Him, Strange Impersonation avoided relegation to obscurity only by riding on the coattails of M-G-M’s Ziegfeld Follies during its subsequent Manhattan engagements.